where people lived

Somewhere driving through the Santa Fe National Forest, while driving to Chaco Canyon, we drove through a tiny town named Coyote which seemed so remote, and so hard to get to, and so closed in by cliffs, that we realized there are places in this country that are truly far away from the rest of the world. Our drive took us through desert mesas, red cliffs and forests of Ponderosa pines.

This is a place we'd been talking about going to for awhile. And when the subject of "something fun for my birthday" came up...this was D's suggestion.

The Chaco Culture National Park, otherwise known as Chaco Canyon, is a shallow canyon 10 miles long  in the northwest corner of New Mexico, at least 50 miles from any town. You take the 550 highway up along the Navajo reservation, turn left at the Nageezi gas station, and spend 20 miles on a bumpy dirt road. Along the way it is flat, and wild ponies run and you pass by the occasional hogan or trailer, none of which look inhabited. And you think again about what it is like to live so far away from what you think the country is.

Chaco is considered to contain one of the most important collections of ancient ruins north of Mexico. The now-crumbling ruins were built between 900 and 1150 AD and it is believed to have been a major cultural center for the pre-Columbian peoples. Built by people we now call the Anasazi, it was likely used as a ceremonial center which people would travel to from hundreds of miles away. It isn't just one ruin, it is at least 15 "great" houses, only some of which has been excavated.

We arrived in the evening, with the wind picking up and a possible storm on the way. Our reserved camp site looked like the worst one there, but luckily, some other folks had left scared of the rain, so we got a much better site after all. From the camp site you can see La Fajada Butte, which excited both of us. We knew that beyond the Butte were the ruins, and that we'd have to wait til the next day to see them all.

La Fajada Butte towers above the canyon at 380 feet high. There are ruins of small structures on the Butte, showing that someone once lived up there. And astrological markings on the Butte show its important to the people in tracking the stars. The Navajo believe that a witch (la bruja) lived in the great house, called La Una Vida, nearest the Butte, and that she kept her prisoners trapped up high & on top.

Whether because of climate, lack of food or simply a revolt of neighboring peoples, Chaco was abandoned by its population. It now sits at the edge of the Navajo reservation ("Anasazi" is the Navajo world for "ancient enemy"), and the area is considered sacred by the Navajo, Hopi and Pueblo peoples.

Whoever built these "great" houses did so with full knowledge of how to build them in alignment with solar and lunar cycles. They understood the sun, the moon and the eclipses. Faint outlines of the North and South roads which led from Chaco to the outside world, for hundreds of miles, still exist. We could see them while standing on the mesa above the canyon. It is said you can even see them from space.

We started the morning with the hike up the mesa to the Pueblo Alto (High House), which seems to have been built with a view to the north, sort of a watch-out house for the population in the canyon below. What continually astounded us was how much you can still see. The roads which they had built, still cutting through on the south & north sides. How evident it was that this was all so designed, and built with purpose. 

One thing about the Chaco ruins that has piqued so much interest, is that the buildings were created from rock, mortar and even wood. Pueblo peoples build with adobe mud bricks, and have for the past 1,000 years, but the Chaco people, built in stone. They meant to last forever. 

Once we climbed back down (had a picnic lunch in the truck, and put on our rain jackets), we began the walks around Chetro Ketl, Pueblo del Arroyo and Pueblo Bonito. The Pueblo Bonito house is the largest, it is estimated over 1,000 people lived in the Bonito spot alone. Apartments were built three-stories high.

Most believe that  Chaco was built for ceremony, probably a combination of religion & government. A place of pilgrimage for thousands, over hundreds of years. The people that lived here all year-round were the caretakers of the buildings, the kivas, priests & leaders. The number of Kivas at Chaco is a prime reason for this belief. The "great" houses themselves were likely more than houses, they were temples and palaces. 

I'm reading a book called "The House of Rain" which is an exploration of the ancient civilizations of the Southwest. In it the author, Craig Childs, writes that the structures  of Chaco were "ceremonial buildings that once stood out like cathedrals in the  desert."

a kiva


Chaco is for explorers. It is for those who relish in the mystery & stories of history. We of course are two of those people. 

We spent most of our trip in awe. Awe of the canyon, of the ruins, the trails and the petroglyphs. The magic, the ceremony, the religion and the faith that once resided here must have been powerful, because you can still feel something as you walk in the shadows of the walls that remain standing. As the author, Craig Childs writes, "something colossal happened here."

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