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.
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.