El Morro National Monument (NM): Graffiti Memorialized?

As we drove east along Hwy 53 past Gallup toward El Malpais, the terrain was pretty unremarkable with little to pique our interest until a massive mesa came into view. Travelers in previous centuries surely would have been drawn to it. The area has been made into El Morro National Monument for reasons explained below.

It’s easy to assume that graffiti in modern urban settings is a contemporary form of expression or blight, depending on your point-of-view. But archaeologists have been quick to point out that defacing has been going on for a very long time, as early as ancient Egypt. “I wuz here” is expressed in many tongues—scribbled, gouged, etched or spray-painted on any flat surface. What is unusual is for a national monument to be created to preserve it. This is not entirely true, of course, because the real importance of El Morro rock to history is the deep pool of water at its base that weary travelers have used as a reliable source for drinking water through the centuries.

After a drink of water, apparently bewitched by a potion befitting a writer’s muse, the temptation must have been too great to memorialize oneself on the sheer, vertical sandstone wall in the middle of nowhere in Cibola County, New Mexico, with inscriptions scratched out by the hands of ancient Indians, Spanish conquistadores and American cavalry and settlers who passed through. There are a staggering 2,000 engravings, which is the reason the bluff is called Inscription Rock. Ah yes, INSCRIPTION, a euphemism for graffiti, if there ever was one. It’s ironic that no contemporary contributor is allowed to deface said wall (as of 1903 when the park was established), lest they raise the hackles of rangers for scrawling GRAFFITI on the Zuni sandstone monument. The Park Service nowadays does all it can to preserve these inscriptions for posterity, which would actually be quite funny if at least one of them had something untoward to say, like “your mother wears combat boots.” I’m being sarcastic, of course, blathering from an era that would write something like that in the first place.

The historical significance of these inscriptions is quite remarkable really. It’s as if all the souls who have passed through signed your yearbook so that you can at some point in the future look back and wonder who they were. The oldest ones are ancient Puebloan petroglyphs, notably one of a herd of bighorn sheep. Such artwork is found throughout the southwest.


The Spaniards who came afterward, in the 17th-19th centuries, they who conquered and subjugated the native peoples, simply recorded their names, dates of passage and occasionally, the purpose of their missions. The oldest was chiseled in 1605. Another, written by General de Vargas, simply states: “Here was the General Don Diego de Vargas, who conquered for our Holy Faith and for the Royal Crown all of New Mexico at his own expense, year of 1692.”

The American inscriptions are those of the cavalry and settlers in the nineteenth century, who simply left behind their names and passage dates, including some that were carved out in exquisite script. All these are to be found in a half-mile loop that begins at the visitor center.


No visitor, it seems, is particularly interested in the waterhole anymore.

El Morro waterhole

El Morro waterhole

Since we arrived in the late afternoon after having visited the Zuni pueblo, we only had time for the inscription trail before the park would close for the day. For that reason, we weren’t able to take the trail to the top of the mesa where Ancestral Puebloan ruins are to be found.

Zuni Pueblo (NM)

The town of Zuni is indistinguishable from any other small American town. The only difference is that it is inhabited by about 6,000 Zuni people. Like the Hopi, Zuni are thought to be descended from the Ancient Puebloans who famously and mysteriously abandoned their cliff dwellings centuries ago, but the languages of the two groups are meaningfully unrelated.

Many of the Pueblo Indians offer guided tours, the best way to get a sense of the culture and way of life. We took one to the Nuestra Señora de Guadalupe Church (no longer used as a Catholic church) where the guide talked about Zuni culture, which (again like the Hopi) is matrilineal for the purposes of primary clan affiliation and land ownership. However, it is the men who take part in all religious activities, which seems to consume a large portion of their waking hours. The women perform the more traditional roles, such as preparing food and keeping the home. The Zuni have highly complex social relationships and practice a complex religion that are unlike that of other Pueblo Indians.

A researcher has suggested that there is a genetic connection between the Zuni and Japanese. She speculates that 13th-century Japanese Buddhist wayfarers may have sailed across the Pacific and eventually discovered and mixed with the Zuni sometime during the thirteenth century. There are tantalizing connections, such as a serious kidney disease, many words that are similar for the same things (cognates), symbols (such as the chrysanthemum), cosmological beliefs and artistic motifs that are common to both. Zuni origin tales tell of an emergence from the underworld (Grand Canyon) and eventual migration to their current and final location. There is no tale of any ancestors having crossed an ocean, though the word is associated with certain mythological figures. The book was also translated into Japanese; for this reason, many Japanese visit the Zuni pueblo.

Corn maidenThe arts & crafts shops and proprietors were happy to educate us about Zuni artistry—their fine stone inlays in silver jewelry, stone fetishes, their pottery with cultural and religious motifs and kachina dolls, who like the Hopi consider them spirits from the San Francisco peaks that lie to the west.

Curiously, the Zuni allow you to take photos for a $10 fee, which makes you wonder to what extent the issue that one’s spirit being trapped in images is taken seriously by all native tribes in the area. The Hopi seemed genuinely concerned, but for a fee, it’s not an issue with the Zuni?

fried chickenWe had lunch at the Inn at Halona, where (during my research) a website highly recommended the fried chicken with chile sauce. The restaurant at the “inn” turned out to be a deli tucked away in a grocery store and the fried chicken just like what you’d find at any supermarket behind the fast food counter. The red chile sauce was served in a small plastic tub. Pretty disappointing.

Breakfast at Plaza Café (Gallup, NM)

We dreaded eating yet another motel continental breakfast (in this case, Red Roof Inn in Gallup). Although it’s economical to have something to eat included in the room rate, the stuff does get old after a while. Here we were on historic Route 66, so what better way to have breakfast than at a highly regarded diner, Plaza Café. With some anticipation, we looked forward to our first Southwestern meal on this road trip, and we were not disappointed.

Green salsa

We ordered today’s specials of chorizo and eggs and huevos rancheros, both of which were satisfying. What stood out though were the freshly made flour tortillas (there were brown griddle spots) and the green and red chile sauces. The sauces were surprisingly savory from the bits of ground pork in them and had enough heat to make them interesting. The red sauce was so good, in fact, that I ate it as a dip with a whole rolled-up tortilla.

Other Southwestern items on the breakfast menu included:

Omelets with green chile, green chile & cheese and chorizo & cheese
FBI – tortillas with hash browns and red or green chile
Burritos with egg, green chile & cheese; egg, chorizo & cheese (although any burrito can be topped with red/green chile)

It pays to be frugal when on vacation, especially on a long road trip, but you can’t live on bread (or motel continental breakfast) alone. Plaza Café was a welcome stop before continuing on to the Zuni Pueblo.

Huevos rancheros

Huevos rancheros

Chorizo and eggs

Chorizo and eggs

Plaza Cafe
1501 W Highway 66
Gallup, NM 87301