I have finally made it to Chaco Canyon. This is one of those places I’ve been intrigued with for a long long time. In fact, as I approached the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) site in northwestern New Mexico, on the long and torturous washboard road, I reminded myself not to expect too much. It is far too easy, I learned a while back in my traveling days, to hype a place up in your mind, and to have inflated expectations as a result. I did not want to be disappointed because of my own biases.
The approach, however, gives a definite impression of a dry, dusty and rather inhospitable place. Once you are here, and in the canyon proper, it is a little nicer. But it is dry, especially now, in the midst of a rainless late summer/fall. No monsoon moisture has seeped up from the Gulf of Mexico in quite awhile in these parts, and the forecast shows nothing but sun sun sun. There is an El Nino developing in the Pacific right now, and once that is in place, winter should be somewhat wetter than normal throughout the desert southwest. If you live here, you pray for that. But it also requires extreme caution around the arroyos, which can send a flash flood down upon you in…well, a flash.
Chaco Canyon was the center of the Ancestral Puebloans world, and it was a world not much wetter than it is now. I’ve heard it described as their New York City. But Chicago might be a better analogy, a Chicago during its glory days as a center for agricultural and livestock trade. Chaco was where the ancient ones built their grandest structures. Everything is aligned on N-S and E-W axes, and there are features of the buildings that make it obvious that these people were very much aware of the movements of the sun, stars, moon and planets.
One thing you’ll notice is that these sights are mutually visible, by line of sight. In fact, the Chacoans built signaling towers for communication throughout the canyon and beyond. They used fires (the classic American Indian smoke signal), and also “reflective rock”, which I’m guessing would have been mica. This enabled them to relay signals for tens of miles at the least, and very likely throughout their territory.
A constant feature of these ancient pueblos is the kiva. Similar to finding a church in even the smallest mountain settlement or ghost town, a kiva is found even in the smallest clan-sized dwelling. Kivas are round stone structures built mostly below ground and roofed with cribbed wooden beams. Like churches, mosques and synagogues, kivas were used for religious ceremonies.
And yet, they were multi-purpose living spaces as well. At Chaco Canyon, there are few to no fireplace hearths found in the rooms of the great houses, but every kiva had one. Also, the first archaeologists found pottery, grinding stones, and other artifacts that indicate kivas were very much lived in.
Today’s Puebloans continue to use them in a similar way as their ancestors, but they are more strictly relegated to ceremonies, not so much living rooms. The degree of preservation amongst the ancient kivas varies greatly. Mesa Verde has some nicely preserved examples. At one site, Spruce Tree House, you can descend into a fully enclosed kiva. And at Aztec Ruins, north of Chaco, the great kiva is fully restored. At Chaco, though the kivas are numerous and some very large, you cannot enter any of the well preserved ones.
I descended into the kiva at Mesa Verde’s Spruce Tree House. There is a certain feeling you get doing this, sort of creepy and magical at the same time. If there were American Indians inside chanting, with a fire going, I think my body would literally buzz off the hook with chills. A possible goal for the future I think, to be invited into a functioning kiva. It’s really the living, breathing American Indian that I most enjoy on a physical-emotional level. These ancient sites are interesting on a scientific level, and they are certainly sited in spectacular locales, but the lack of native guides at places like Mesa Verde does take something away from the experience. At Chaco, you see more native peoples, working as (I guess) seasonal park staff.
My next post will go into more detail about my visit, and what to see and do at Chaco Canyon.