There has been much talk over recent years on paving the dirt road that leads up to Chaco Cultural National Historic Park. I, for one, am glad that the talk has just remained talk because its relative inaccessibility is precisely what makes a visit to Chaco Canyon so memorable. Unlike many of America’s other national parks and monuments, Chaco Canyon does not suffer from the usual throngs of tourists that inevitably turn the most sacred landmarks into giddy amusement parks. Needless to say, driving into Chaco Canyon requires patience, and a love for the rugged wilderness of remote New Mexico.
And so it was on that weekday morning when Armand and I drove into the remoteness ahead of us, leaving massive dust clouds in our trail. Be warned, the stretch of dirt road leading into the canyon contains no gas stations, no food, no water or accommodation and the park itself has very limited camping facilities, and so a good plan when visiting the park might be to spend the night in Farmington and drive up to the park on a full tank with food and water early in the morning as we did. All around lies stark desert country, occasionally dotted with goats and American Indian children from the nearby reservation squatting by the side of the road, happily waving to us as we pass by.
Two hours into our bumpy ride along the dirt road, we catch our first glimpse of Chaco. Out of the horizon ahead of us juts a tall red butte – this is the Fajada Butte, perhaps the most famous site within the Chaco Canyon. Famous because of the three slabs of stones that sit atop the southern end of the butte. For the longest time, the presence of these stones was believed to be entirely incidental – they were believed to be simply the work of nature.
It was only about thirty years ago that the lost secret of these stones finally came to light. An anthropologist working in the canyon on the exact day of the summer solstice observed a single shaft of light penetrating through the slabs of stone and perfectly bisecting a spiral petroglyph atop the butte. This same “sun dagger” was later observed bisecting several other petroglyphs at the start of the winter, spring and fall equinoxes. The discovery of this “sun dagger” site and many other sites within the canyon that showed perfect alignment to the movements of the sun, moon and other planets revealed that the Chacoan people who had once lived here were keen observers of the skies.
The Fajada Butte and the sun dagger site atop the butte are off limits to the public, but the aura of mystery surrounding the butte continues to fascinate visitors to the canyon. Did they rely on planetary movements for farming? Were these planetary movements of religious significance to them? A lot of mysteries still shroud Chaco, and a lot of secrets still remain buried, but one thing is clear – this place has always held sacred connections to the Native American people that have lived around the region.
It is believed that Chaco Canyon was once a place of pilgrimage, and in many ways our journey here today is a sort of pilgrimage too – an attempt to leave our busy lives behind us and to connect with what truly matters to us. The past months for me have been a blur of incredible stress at work, and this journey into a rugged rural landscape removed from the unnecessary complexities of my life is just what my soul needed to regain its perspective of life.
We started the journey into the Canyon from the Visitor Center. We picked up a map to the canyon and started off by walking through the Una Vida site located behind the Visitor Center. The 30 minute trail around the site gave us a glimpse into what an unexcavated great house looked like to the early explorers when Chaco Canyon was rediscovered in 1849.
From the Visitor Center, we decided to take a drive along the Canyon Loop, a 9 mile drive around the canyon that provides stunning views of the surrounding rugged landscape and allows for the opportunity to see excavated ruins of the “great houses” up close. The first in line is the Pueblo Bonito.
Taking a simple glimpse into the vastness of the ruins that lies ahead of us, it is easy to see why the Pueblo Bonito is considered one of the largest prehistoric Southwest Native American dwelling ever excavated. Ahead of us lies an intricate maze of large rooms and subterranean ceremonial chambers called “kivas”. The entire site covers almost two acres of land, and contains within it more than six hundred rooms. For the Hopi and the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico, this site is an important part of their history – it is a special place where clans stopped and lived during their sacred migrations. For the Navajo Indians, this place was once the home of the Great Gambler, a half-man, half-goat spirit that came from the south and enslaved the Pueblo people forcing them to create many of the great buildings seen around the canyon. It is no wonder then, given the rich legends and cultural history that surround both the Pueblo Bonito and the Chaco Canyon itself that Chaco has been named among one of the world’s heritage sites.
Walking through its endless doorways, Peublo Bonito feels less and less like a great house and more and more like a grand village. Its multistoried construction and intricate architecture amazes me. Chacoan architecture features a unique core-and-veneer construction, with rough stones and debris forming the core to the brown sandstone outer veneer. The trail ahead of us snakes and spirals through small rooms and big kivas. Peering through its characteristic T-shaped doorways and windows, I try to get a glimpse into the lives that once existed within these empty walls. I wonder what ceremonies were once conducted in these great big rooms. Rare treasures such as turquoise and macaw feathers were discovered within the ruins. Were these part of a sacred ritual? Or were they just trade items that exchanged hands of a diverse group of people? What attracted them to this region? What drew them here? All sorts of questions swarm through my head as I wander through the ruins.
The rooms that once bustled with the activity of perhaps women grinding corn or children playing games today lie abandoned and deserted. The wind that once carried the laughter and voices from long ago today carries the sounds of the handful of visitors that have made the pilgrimage here today. I close my eyes and try to picture the life that once existed here. I try to get a glimpse of the history that lies contained in here. For me, these ruins were clearly the highlight of my visit to Chaco and no journey into Chaco can ever be complete without exploring the grandness of the Pueblo Bonito.
The drive through Canyon Loop features many other ruins – the Chetro Ketl, the Pueblo Alto (which offers stunning views of the entire Pueblo Bonito), the Pueblo del Arroyo, Casa Rinconada among many others. Exploring through each of these ruins, I am more and more amazed by the tenacity and the resilience of the people that once lived here and attempted to create a life amidst this arid environment.
Other than the ruins themselves, Chaco Canyon offers some incredible opportunities for backcountry hiking through its rugged desert country. If you want to truly experience the wilderness of the canyon, do not limit yourself to the major attractions featured on the visitors map. Purchase a permit from the Visitor Center and hike through its backcountry trails. Be sure however to wear a cap and carry lots of water with you – even in July, when we visited, temperatures soared through above a hundred fahrenheight.
For the Chacoan people who journeyed and lived here, this place was a place of reflection, a place of spiritual connections, a place where they gained new meanings to their life through their exploration of the movement of the skies and the seasons. For me, my spirituality has always been defined by my need to travel, explore and connect with new places and new people. It is what my soul looks to when it needs direction. It is what brings my life fulfillment. And nowhere has this feeling felt more pronounced than right here, exploring through the ruins within Chaco Canyon. Perhaps there truly is something sacred about this very land that I stand on. Perhaps it really does hold some sacred connections.