Chaco Canyon Bound
The first time I visited Chaco Canyon, I was arrested for trespassing. Hidden under a smudge of thick black eyeliner and the smoldering remains of a blistering adolescence, I looked more like a girl out for trouble, not a hike around 900 year-old Native American ruins. I’d been on my own since I was 16, and I’d had to cultivate some rather roguish qualities in order to survive, but I wasn’t really trouble. I just wasn’t completely tame, either. For Chaco Canyon, I was just another errant bohemian who got snagged while traveling through.
Strewn with the great ruins of an ancient civilization, and grounded in the sandy sagebrush and Pinyon Pine country of Northwestern New Mexico, Chaco Canyon has an unmistakable allure and a long history of drawing mavericks, rogues and rascals to its brushy bottom. Apparently it used to be Vegas. According to an old Navajo legend, the great rock “houses” scattered throughout the canyon were actually built a millenia ago at the behest of a divine reprobate known as, Nohoilpi. Renegade son to Tsohanoai, the sun god, Nohoilpi was an unscrupulous gambler who lured local tribesmen into games only he could win. One by one they lost their freedom and were set to work constructing the great houses whose ruins now dominate this canyon. Or so one legend has it.
After nearly a thousand years, many of these structures remain untouched, a fact owed, probably in no small part, to local tribal taboo of entering a dwelling where someone may have died and their spirits may still be milling about. With the stony skeletons of these ancient ruins standing against the cliffs with their dark, empty windows and doors gaping, Chaco Canyon feels riddled with ghosts. Just below the surface of the loamy soil, more structures still lay buried under tons of sand, some of them several stories deep, and as of yet, completely unexplored.
Aside from lingering spirits, we also owe these unspoiled ruins to yet another rogueish character, the often vilified Richard Wetherill. Wetherill was a self-educated archaeologist, cowboy and businessman…or treasure hunter, grave robber and cattle rustler, depending on who you ask. He followed a rumor into the desert, stumbling upon the ruins in 1895. While opinions quibble over his ethics, no one disputes that he had a clear set of them where the excavation of Chaco Canyon was concerned. After a brutal campaign waged by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and an angry mob of historians, who declared he was destroying the site and the people who lived around them, site inspections revealed that not only did Wetherill excavate according to code, he exceeded them. As to whether he cheated or corrupted the locals? Hard to say when it turned out most of his accusers owed him money. Maybe, like me, he was judged more rascally than he was, though, my story with Chaco Canyon is quite a bit different.
At the time, I had only recently transitioned from the role of adrift, troubled teen, who graduated high school with the unseemly gpa of 1.7, to that of first-generation college student on the Dean’s List—the good one. Before then, I had been a homeless teen who had plummeted through the system’s cracks, and I did what any girl my age with nothing to lose would have done: I packed my few worldly possessions into a ’69 Volkswagen Beetle and left my hometown of Memphis, Tennessee for the widely acclaimed wild, wild West. Let me tell you, being a kid alone on the road with a really old car and hardly any money is just the right combination for some truly character-building situations; Situations like getting caught trespassing on a World Heritage site.
It was mid November, during the “government shutdown” of ’96. I was on a first “date” about to go horribly wrong. It was one of those cold, gray days that make you hunch your shoulders forward and tighten your eyes, like enduring the day through the gauze of a hangover. I’d just been driven four hours in a truck with no heat, by a shaggy, would-be suitor whom we’ll call “Scott.” A barely-affording-college student from Tennessee, I didn’t have the right clothing for the cold winters of Northern New Mexico. While I huddled in the passenger seat, shivering in my second-hand army surplus jacket, my oblivious “date” prattled on, (from the comfy encasement of his down coat, wool cap and mittens), about Chaco’s ruins being built by crystal-wielding-Aliens from another solar system.
I stared out the window at a sea of sage brush blurring by, punctuated by the occasional sandstone formations that rose like great golden ships on a sea. Scott blathered on. I ached to blurt out, “Could you please stop talking?” But we were in the middle of nowhere and I didn’t want to risk being ejected from the truck. Instead, I went with exaggerated eye rolling, which was more amusing anyway because, so full of himself was this guy, that he didn’t even notice. Annoyance aside, I found myself marveling at that desertscape and how unaccountably beautiful I found it. It was so stark and barren with its short, scrubby brown brush interspersed with hyper-defensive cacti. Combined with the stories of rattlesnakes and mountain lions Scott shared, it would seem to be most unwelcoming, yet I longed to walk deliberately into it.
At the Highway turn-off, we passed a sign suggesting we tune to AM 1610 for Chaco Canyon park information. Hoping for a distraction from the cold, and a pause to Scott's monologue, I tuned us in. I remember being pleasantly surprised to hear the Spanish-flecked voice of Ricardo Montalbahn, one-time steward of the mythical “Fantasy Island,” extolling the virtues and mysteries of Chaco Canyon. Nobody can say “mystery” like Ricardo. The story sparked my interest in the adventure, even if I was less than excited about my date. As I remember it years later, according to Ricardo, somewhere ahead of us in this wide expanse of desert, was a great gash in the earth known as Chaco Canyon. There stand the ruins of a grand civilization that dawned almost a thousand years ago, thrived for two and a half centuries and then was abandoned--for reasons unknown (photo).
Seventeen great house ruins, some consisting of more than 700 rooms and rising four stories high, are scattered throughout the Canyon and were designed and constructed by highly skilled engineers, architects, builders, and, apparently, astronomers. Evidence suggests the ancient Chacoans had an intimate relationship with the night sky, using astronomical orientation in the alignment of several pueblos and kivas and using special rock formations and pictographs to mark the path of the sun and moon, not only throughout the year, but, in the case of the lunar standstill, which takes 18 years for full traverse, over the course of decades. These masterminds engineered and constructed over 200 miles of roads connecting them to 150 outlying communities, leaving evidence of a powerful influence that reached across 25,000 square miles, yet left no evidence of a written language or history except a few strategically placed petroglyphs (photo); Far fewer than might be expected for such a venerable civilization that built with such purposeful grandeur.
Scientists have been studying the remains for over 100 years and still have few conclusive answers about who lived here and why. Was this a place of worship or refuge? Utopia Or fiefdom? Storage building or apartment complex? Today (and it would help if you could imagine the voice of Ricardo for the rest of this passage), the place remains shrouded in mystery. Who were the architects of this civilization? Why did they choose such a dry, desolate location for their great cities? Where did they go and why? Scott’s UFO tales and New Age theories aside, and there are plenty to this very day, this sounded worth making the trip and I found myself leaning forward in my seat, anxious to catch the first distant glimpse of an Ancestral Puebloan Great House ruin.
Leaning forward in my seat became distinctly uncomfortable, however, as the last twenty two miles of the journey was at considerably reduced speed over a potholed, wash-boarded, gravel road. If you’ve never experienced a road with wash boards, imagine driving over a deeply louvered surface in a car with no shocks to absorb the perpetual bumps. Naturally, the shocks on Scott’s truck had long since lost their spring. There was a good side to that, though: Every bump was so jarring it was better if we didn’t talk lest our tongue be trampled by our teeth.
We bumped and tossed about on this road for over an hour, all the while Ricardo’s enticing voice assured us Chaco Canyon was the experience of a lifetime. He shared many fascinating theories and facts that fired our imaginations . He spoke of parrot feathers and other treasures still buried in the sand and hidden in clever rock caches (photos from park service). He invited us to wonder what might have caused the exodus of such an accomplished world.
But not once did he mention the park being closed because of a congressional squabble. “Scott” and I stood with mouths indignantly agape as we read the 8 X 10 sign taped to the closed entrance gate, advising us of the closure and threatening hefty fines and jail time for trespassers and treasure hunters.
“Well, that would have been a good sign to post back at the highway,” “Scott” said.
I was thinking that making sure they were open might have been a detail to confirm before asking a date to drive four hours in a car with no heat on a cold November day, but I’m Southern and apparently other norms apply here.
Three freezing highway hours, an hour on that bone-jarring road, Ricardo’s grand presentation promising the experience of a lifetime and our fresh-out-of-high-school, newly-adulted sense of morality and justice…well, the combination practically mandated we explore the park in defiance of said closure. After all, if there were no staff left to post a decent sign or update the radio info, then there probably wasn’t staff to ensure compliance. With hundreds of unproven Chaco Canyon theories waiting decades for resolution, this one was both formed and proven false in less than half an hour. (Continued)