Friday, May 19, 2017

Chaco Canyon Bound (Part III)

Chaco Canyon Bound (Part III) 
Once into the canyon, there’s a sharp turn and then an abrupt transformation in the road.  Here at the tail end of 13 miles of hellishly ragged road the gravel disappears into smooth pavement.  The landscape changes.  Where once we were ringed by an unbroken sagebrush horizon in every direction, now four-hundred-foot sandstone cliffs rise from the desert floor on either side of the road, and extend as far as the eye can see, with only the park visitor center betraying the century.  While my husband purchased our permits, I perused the book collection. 

I casually picked up a book on the history of Chaco that featured a photo of a grizzled cowboy on the cover and I stood absently turning the pages.  Fifteen minutes later, my husband came over with our daughter to find me plopped down on the floor scribbling madly in my journal, with several books open in front of me. In those books, I'd found an incredible history, part real-life cowboy adventure, part wild mystery. Chaco Canyon just swallowed me whole.

Later that day, I hiked on top of the sandstone cliffs with my daughter in the pack on my back.  Through a bad hand of rock-paper-scissors, my husband had dibs on the first solo hike of the weekend, but I was still heading out.  I was just bringing my sweet little side-kick with me. 

It had taken some doing to gather everything I might need for a hike with a two year-old.  I put the diapers, wet wipes and change of clothes on the front seat where’d I’d be sure to grab them before I left, then grabbed water, snacks, travel toys, warm jackets, hats, sunscreen, and, of course, my journal and camera.  All of this was done while she had a fairly intense meltdown.  I considered bailing on the idea and just waiting for my turn to go out alone tomorrow, but who knew if the weather would hold, or what else might happen.  This could be my window not only for this weekend, but for God knew how long.  

So I pushed through and now we stood overlooking the considerable ruins of the ancient city of Pueblo Bonito, arguably one of the most impressive of 17 “Great house” ruins in Chaco Canyon. Nila happily pressed her pink lips together, blowing raspberries into my ear and giggled.  As the wind blew my hair away from my face, she laid her little head against my back, sighed contentedly and fell asleep.  Ah Bliss.

Well, almost.  I still wanted more.  I loved my daughter, loved being here with her.  But I longed to move over the land unencumbered; to scramble over the desert like a wild lioness, or spend all day in the park library if that be my druther. I was still pining for my former life.  Somehow I hadn’t grasped the scope and permanence when we started talking about this parenthood thing.  I didn’t know that parenthood was going to take everything but the crumbs of my former life.

But I was here now, so there was a day to be seized.  I admired the engineering marvel below me.  Thick walls of varying sizes of stones, perfectly stacked so that the walls were remarkably stable and windproof, to say nothing of their beauty. A mosaic of varying hues of roses and suedes(photo), the walls appear intended as much for art as function, though, once constructed, the walls were covered with a protective mud veneer, completely obscuring the beauty within. Many of the buildings had several floors supported by thick timbers that were hand carried from mountains over 80 miles away. I was staring into the remnants of an ancient society that not only overcame obstacles, but transcended them. 

For a moment my eyes moved to the sky to tell you-know-who he/she was right.  I know.  I’m being a bit of a baby. There are far harsher environments.  I was looking at one.

Agriculturally, it’s a nightmare. For most crops to survive there usually needs to be a minimum of 110-130 frost-free days, but the annual average of frost-free nights in Chaco Canyon is less than 100 days.  At night, it can frost in July if the right circumstances develop. Temperatures can fluctuate over 60 degrees in a single day with highs soaring to 118 F and lows dropping to -38 F.  And it’s dry. It’s very, very dry. Average annual precipitation is 8.5 inches and the wind blows the topsoil all the way to Colorado.  It’s been this way for thousands of years, no offense to Mr. Diamond, so no one was lured here for the abundant milk and honey. Then why?

On an earlier tour, our guide had shared an emergence myth of how the Pueblo people had come to this place, actually onto the surface of the Earth, escaping from an underground existence through a crack in the earth’s crust.  The story goes like this:  When the Pueblo emerged from the underworld, they found the earth dark and empty.  They saw only a giant sitting beside a fire.  The giant was Skeleton Man, the Holy Person in charge of death.  Skeleton man’s face was ghastly, but his manner was kind, so the people asked if he had any objections to their living in his territory.  “No,” Skeleton Man said.  He told them they were welcome and he would be glad to have neighbors but they should understand that this land offered little food and water.  If they sought material benefit, they should seek elsewhere.  Looking into the sky they were awestruck by the dazzling, endless canopy of stars.  They chose to stay and so the West is said to have been peopled.

 I was captivated by this heroic idea of choosing such a challenge, with no promise of reward other than to live free and bask in rugged beauty under the open sky.  Standing on my cliffside perch, I thought of how resourceful one would need to be to exist in this sun-scorched, crackling environment.   It almost seemed a curse for providence to place anyone here to play out the roles of father-son-mother-daughter. But to purposely choose such an existence? 

I looked across to the other side of the canyon where a gap in the cliffs once allowed the ebb and flow of a primeval inland sea to shape the land. Down to my genes I could somehow feel it, sense it, like something I remembered from my own long distant past. I could hear an illusory sea, almost smell the salty air despite the great lack of water now an inherent part of this area.  At my feet, the remnants of ancient sea-beds confirmed these sensations with the fossilized remains of prehistoric sea animals and clam shell beds (photo); evidence of a world that can repeatedly undergo dramatic change and yet endure. For such a barren place, there was so much here! (Continued)

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