Adventures in Chaco Canyon

I began my trip to Chaco Canyon in the fall of 1986 while working as an illustrator for an oilfield company. I drove my white 1984 Jeep Laredo from Houston to Amarillo, then along Route 66 to Albuquerque. Just before Gallup on Hwy 40 I headed north on Road 371, a partially paved road of about 65 miles. The scenery was a dry desert of canyons and cattle guards. As I slowed down to drive over the rumbling guards, I was reminded of how these cows could live in this hostile country in the first place! Its dry, hot, rocky, and sandy road was a slow-goer with a lot of potholes.

The primitive site I was driving to has the same mystic lore as Stonehenge in England, Mexico's Teotihuacan, or Peru's Machu Picchu. In northwest New Mexico, the canyon ruins were once a valley of pine trees in the year 850AD. Now the trees are all gone and nothing green growing can be seen here. At its peak population of a thousand Pueblo Anasazi, they lived in an adobe D shaped structure consisting of rock-walled living areas and large ceremonial Kivas. It was the center of trade and rituals in its day. According to the canyon cliff's petroglyphs and Pueblo Bonito itself, the people worshiped the solar and lunar cycles. In 1987, UNESCO proclaimed Chaco Canyon as a World Heritage site for International Dark Sky Park preservation. There are no city lights for hundreds of square miles and it is a night photographer's and astronomer's paradise. You can experience the night sky as you have never seen it before. 

If you arrive, just as the solar solstice is at its peak, you can view the sun rays filtering through a rock crack onto a petroglyph spiral known as a sundagger. (I saw the spiral but was not there during the solstice.) The Anasazi studied the stars and planets so this site attracted ancient astronomers and star worshipers from far off places. Not only did they trade textiles, precious stones, and pottery, they passed on information to Mesa Verde and to other historic sites. During that time the land was fertile and had plenty of water but it became depleted so the people left. Today it is dry with no irrigation.

After a nearly two hour drive, I eventually arrived to the parking lot near Pueblo Bonito. The going was slow and the scenery wasn't much to look at until I finally saw the cliffs that protect the pueblo city of yesteryear. After a brief lunch of a prepared sandwich, I was in awe and couldn't wait to walk around this ancient place. I took a solo walking tour of the many rooms and sat among Kivas in almost a meditation-like mood. I was thinking how it must have been for these people to store grains, prepare food, and to communicate with their neighbors in this commune-like atmosphere and could still see the blackened walls where cooking stoves were located. I spent several hours in and around Pueblo Bonito and experienced an ancient education. I then walked back to my Jeep to get my backpack with food and camping gear.

In 1986, Pueblo Bonito did not have a visitor's center but the front Chaco Canyon entrance gate was locked at dusk (miles away). So I camped where I wanted without the park rangers knowing of my whereabouts. I headed past Pueblo Bonito and followed a walking trail where I saw others go earlier. I reached a point where I could climb timeworn cliff steps then blazed my own trail. The cliff rose to about 80 feet high and ran along the side of the pueblo's walls and chambers. (In recent times that cliff's precarious leaning rock wall caved in and destroyed some of the back walls and rooms. The park cleaned up the mess and they found many artifacts that were hidden and now reside at the Smithsonian in Washington D.C.)

About halfway up, I took a tobacco break on a ledge. I was probably the last person in the park and could see my Jeep sitting by itself in the parking lot. I was in heaven! I experienced that ancient site like an old medicine man! The smoke was working and I felt like Indiana Jones in the Temple of the Anasazi. As I looked around me, my senses were very keen and I saw something very strange poking out of the sandstone cliff. I got up and bent down for a better look. It was a molcajete still embedded in its hiding place for centuries!! I couldn't believe my luck on finding this artifact. I got a knife out of my backpack and slowly chiseled it out of its hold in the cliff. I slowly removed the find and cleaned it up. The bowl still had an ear of corn marking on the grinding surface where a woman used it to make her masa. (Was there an ear of corn left to embed its shape through wind, sun, and time?) I also found the grinding stone. I was so excited and searched all over for other treasures but didn't find anything else. I then wrapped a towel around my find and placed it in my backpack.

I finally made it to the cliff top as the sun went down then walked to a place almost directly above Pueblo Bonito. I sat on a large ceremonial rock at the cliff's edge and made my camp nearby. After pitching my tent and making a small fire, I ate dinner then took off all my clothes. I proceeded to smoke and mediate on that rock where generations of medicine men and Anasazi people must have sat before me. For hours, I danced around my campfire and communed with ancient spirits. It was such a sacred place to glance down to the valley below and to the bright stars above. I was high on life! This was such an incredible experience and one I hold so dear to my heart. New Mexico is definitely a land of enchantment. I eventually wound down and crawled into my tent.

The next morning, I drove to the other side of Pueblo Bonito canyon and saw petroglyphs and other ruins, but none of that mattered to me anymore since I had already experienced something precious I would never witness again. I left Chaco Canyon and now in 2017, I want to return and show my beloved Eileen the awesome park and look up into the black starry sky! Pueblo Bonito should be on your bucket list and maybe, just maybe, you can find an artifact like mine. Today you would need to report a find like that and you will never be able to take it home. I was lucky and couldn't resist. I proudly displayed that molcajete for years with my other odd curios, but someone stole it from my home. I was upset for years but got over it.

Please stay tuned for other stories of a lifetime of wonderful experiences.

Peace friend.

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