Archive for the ‘Anasazi’ Tag

Rural America ~ Desert SW Road-Trips: Four Corners   5 comments

Sunrise at Lone Rock Beach on Lake Powell.

Here’s a sad story:  Imagine driving through a typical developed section of the United States.  You drive by a continuous series of shopping complexes, fast-food joints, theaters, condo developments and all the rest.  It’s just the way it is, right?

Now imagine a long-time local in the car with you.  Inevitably he or she would be able to point and tell you that not long ago this was all farmland (or forest, or grass meadows, or swampland, or tidal marshes).  I’ve heard this told of many areas across the country, and I could tell the story for numerous places that I’m personally familiar with.

America has experienced continuous growth and development for quite some time now, and the effects are many.  This blog series is about one of them, the swallowing up of rural farm- and ranch-lands as the suburbs have pushed outward.  We’ve lost much of the on-the-land character here, and visitors from other countries, along with younger residents, simply do not know what the country was once like.

When you come upon a rare round barn in rural America, you stop and take a picture: east Oregon desert.

Thankfully rural America does still exist in places.  But in order to see it, you must be willing to get away from the popular routes and sights.  It’s one of those things that is easy to say but much harder to put into effect during a trip.  The internet tends to push us into narrow tourist-trails, perhaps more so than travel books and magazines once did.  But the internet can also give you ideas for getting off those beaten trails to explore just a little bit of the original character of the country and its people.  It’s that rural character that made this country great in the first place.

The last few posts have been exploring the Desert Southwest with some of my favorite road-trips.  This post continues with that theme, moving east and south to explore the Four Corners region, especially the native tribal lands of southern Utah, northern Arizona and western New Mexico.  It’s part of a big loop starting and ending in Page, Arizona.  Next time we’ll cover the southern leg of the loop.  If you are flying in and renting a vehicle, your trip could start in Arizona from either Phoenix or Flagstaff.  Or you could fly into Albuquerque or Santa Fe, New Mexico and start the loop on the eastern end.

The famous Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River near Page, Arizona.

Page to Cortez

Page, Arizona is a little town on the shores of Lake Powell.  It’s popular with snowbirds and retirees, but is probably best known as a minor tourist town.  It’s the base town for house boat trips on the lake and also for desert tours.  The town is set in ridiculously scenic desert, so it’s popular with photographers.  There is a balloon fest the first weekend of November (image below).

If you love slot canyons and can’t resist an over-photographed location, visit nearby Antelope Canyon.  It’s on Navajo land and a guided tour costs anywhere between $20 and $40, not including the $6 tribal fee.  The cheaper option is for the lower canyon while the upper costs more.  Both are stunning visually.  Another superb but over-shot location is Horseshoe Bend just south of town (image above).  The whole area is like candy for landscape shooting.  I recommend a sunrise at Lone Rock Beach (image at top).  You can camp right there on the beach.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

If you have extra time a great side-trip from Page travels Hwy. 89A past Marble Canyon on the Colorado River and up to Jacob Lake.  Turn south on 67 and enjoy the cool pine forests on a short jaunt to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  Our trip will take us east into very different country.  This is vast, unpeopled desert, dotted with small communities that are a mix of American Indian, white ranchers and more recent immigrants.  Many towns are dominated by native tribal people.

Looking east over the upper Grand Canyon from the North Rim.

Drive to Kayenta, AZ and turn north toward Monument Valley on the Utah border.  As you near this iconic place of the west, the terrain begins to look like an old John Ford movie.  There is a fee to enter the tribal park, and it is 100% worth it.  Make sure and stop for some Navajo fry bread at road-side and chat up the friendly locals.  I’ve camped out in the desert here and had locals roll up in their pickup trucks to check me out.  Instead of running me off their reservation they’ve been friendly once they know I’m just after a good night’s sleep.

A young Navajo pony is curious about the white stranger in Monument Valley.

Continue north, making sure to stop and look behind you for the view from the movie Forrest Gump.  Mexican Hat on the San Juan River is a tiny town typical of this part of the country.  Stop for lunch and learn something from a local or two.  Continue up the San Juan to Bluff, another interesting little place.  There are spectacular rock art panels along the river just west of Bluff.

Pictographs: southern Utah.

A side-trip north toward Blanding, Utah takes you into the recently designated Bear’s Ears National Monument.  You can stop along the roadside in this area and walk cross-country, exploring randomly, and come upon ancient Ancestral Puebloan (Anasazi) ruins and rock art.  It’s that rich with prehistoric treasures.  A hiking trip into Grand Gulch will take you into the heart of this amazing piece of America.  This place has become a political hot-button issue, as the Utah state government attempts to convince the current president (who is sympathetic) to undo its protective Monument status.

Bear paw petroglyph: Bear’s Ears Natl. Monument, Utah.

Ancestral Puebloan granaries set in a cliff overhang: Bear’s Ears, Utah.

Continue east on Hwy. 162 to the Four Corners area.  This is where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona come together, the only place in the country where four states meet.  But let’s take a little detour to see some unique native ruins and drive an out-of-the-way little valley lined with pretty ranches and farms.  You can turn north on Hwy. 262 or the road a few miles to the east.  Or in Bluff just set your GPS to find Hovenweep National Monument.

Square Tower under winter stars, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

You’ll come to the main ruins of Hovenweep, where the visitor center and a nice campground are located.  A short loop hike takes you around Little Ruin Canyon, where the Ancient Ones built towers of the local stone.  Driving the dirt roads north from here will lead you to short hikes that visit other towers (directions at the visitor ctr.).  I recommend doing this for the strong feelings you’ll get with nobody else around.  The ghosts of a past long before this was called America haunt this lonely region of shallow sandstone canyons.

The towers of Little Ruin Canyon, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.

Retrace your steps back south and find Ismay Trading Post Road (ask a ranger for directions or study the map).  Take this straight east into Colorado.  It’s a beautiful way to enter the state.  You can stop and take a short hike into the public lands of Canyons of the Ancients National Monument on the north side of the road.  Too soon you’ll reenter the modern world at Cortez, where you can gas up and stock up.

Cortez is jumping-off point for Mesa Verde National Monument.  Learn about the Ancestral Puebloans whose ruins and rock art you’ve already been seeing, and visit their truly amazing cliff dwellings.  I recommend not stopping with seeing Cliff Palace but also doing the ranger-guided hike to Balcony House.

Rock art of the Fremont people, who came after the Ancestral Puebloans: Colorado.

Spruce Tree House on a beautiful October morning at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado.

Cortez to Santa Fe

From Cortez head south on Hwy. 491 into New Mexico. You will reach the Navajo town of Shiprock.  You are now in the nation’s largest American Indian reservation, in both area and population.  Navajo Nation covers nearly 30,000 square miles!  Nearby sits the “ship of the desert”, Ship Rock.  Approach it on undeveloped roads and tracks.  But remember you are not technically in the U.S. here.  It is Navajo land and you must abide by their rules.  On the plus side they are generally very chill and willing to let a person just be.

From Shiprock drive east to Farmington where you have a choice.  You can head south on Hwy. 371.  then, after about 35 miles, turn left on road 7297.  Drive a few miles on the sandy road to parking for Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness.  After hiking through this geological wonderland, continue on the unpaved roads to reach U.S. Hwy. 550.  Or you can continue east of Farmington to Hwy. 550 and head south.

The Bisti/De Na Zin Wilderness, New Mexico.

Either way I recommend taking the turn off Hwy. 550 for Chaco Canyon.  The recognized center of Ancestral Puebloan culture, Chaco is home to a complex of dwellings, rock art and spectacular kivas (excavated places of spiritual practice).  The hike out to Penyasco Blanco ruin offers sweeping views of the canyon and passes the famous Supernova pictograph.

Continue southeast on Hwy. 550 to the oddly named town of Cuba, where a turn east on route 126 takes you up into the mountains.  The Desert SW is not all desert, especially in New Mexico’s high country.  Here you’ll find forest and grassy mountain meadows.  In some places ranches are still running cattle according to season as they have done for centuries.  In others the land has been protected to preserve its unique plants and animals.

A wind-powered pump at a ranch in remote northwestern New Mexico.

The road ends at Hwy. 4, where you’ll turn left and continue east through Valles Caldera Preserve, a lovely ancient caldera now covered with grass and pine trees.  You will finally leave forest and mountain behind when you reach Los Alamos.  Still an active research complex, this is where America developed the world’s first atomic weapon.

Continue east until you pass over the Rio Grande at Santa Clara Pueblo.  Here you can either turn south and go on into Santa Fe, or turn north on Hwy. 68.  The northern detour takes you alongside the beautiful Rio Grande River to the adobe-covered town of Taos, where you can visit the home of Jesse James on a self-guided walking tour of the charming town.  Taos Pueblo, a village adjacent to the main town, is a native community that you might consider visiting on a guided tour (click the link).

A frosty autumn morning along the Rio Grande River, New Mexico.

This leg of our loop ends in Santa Fe, a smallish city with many layers.  On the surface it might seem a little too slick with its modern adobe architecture.  But this place figures in the history of the Southwest from the very beginning and hosts a diverse population.  In North America you simply do not find places with this many layers of history.  At the least enjoy a good meal at one of its many restaurants and do a walking tour of downtown’s historic buildings.

Thanks for staying with this series.  I’m really getting a kick out of sharing some of my best road-trips through rural America.  Have a great weekend and happy shooting!

Monument Valley at dusk.

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Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!

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VISIT THE MUSEUM

If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at miriam_watson@nps.gov.  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.

ANCIENT TRAVELERS

The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

BASKET-WEAVERS & ANCESTRAL PUEBLOANS

There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.

PAROWAN FREMONT

These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.

VIRGIN ANASAZI

Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.

ARCHAEOLOGY TRAIL

There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

RETURN OF THE WANDERING LIFESTYLE

The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The Ancient Ones IV: Hovenweep   2 comments

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

A clan symbol etched into a wall at Painted Hand Pueblo in SW Colorado is of a figure bearing a torch.

This is getting to be quite the series of posts, and it’s because the ancients and their remnants in the Four Corners is just so darn cool!  There is a large swath of empty country along the SW Colorado/SE Utah border called Canyons of the Ancients.  It is a high plateau incised by shallow sandstone canyons, and is mostly preserved as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, along with Hovenweep N.M.  Definitely you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center near Cortez, CO to plan your visit.  They were very helpful.

One of my pioneer heroes, the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson, came here in 1874.  It was he who first used the name Hovenweep, which is a Ute word meaning deserted valley.  And that is what the main site at Hovenweep is, though it is more a canyon than a valley.  Little Ruin Canyon, as it’s called, is compact and scenic.  It is crowded with the stone towers for which the place is famous.  There is a strong atmosphere of desertion, a ghost-like feel.  All of the structures date from the 13th century, and all are well preserved in the desert air.  There is a 2-mile loop trail encircling the canyon, and it starts just in back of the visitor center.

I drove from the east down the beautiful McElmo Canyon, arriving at Hovenweep just after dark.  Since there was a moon and since I had slept until 10 a.m. next to Ship Rock (late night photography there), I was wide awake after dinner.  So I decided on a whim to hike the loop trail in the moonlight.  It was a magical time, and since nobody else was around I was able to get some interesting angles on the structures.  Way cool.  I almost expected to see the faint glow of a torch in the top of a tower, as a lone brave kept watch throughout the night.

This area has been inhabited by people since the ice age, but as with other evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Four Corners Region, the 1100s and 1200s saw the population increase greatly.  At the same time, they built their elaborate stone pueblos.  At Hovenweep and in the adjacent Canyons of the Ancients, the people built a variety of towers as part of their pueblos.

The towers that make this place unique are mostly circular.  But there are also square, oval and D-shaped examples.  They are mostly built near springs, and many have a commanding view of the canyon approaches.  They also have line of sight communication with each other, at least when you consider smoke signals rising from them.  Whether they were used as lookouts (for enemies and/or prey animals), for communication, were ceremonial, or all of the above, we just don’t know for sure.  It’s hard not to be reminded of castles, however, when one sees them for the first time.  In fact, a few are named as such.  Hovenweep Castle, Cutthroat Castle, and a few others really did make me think of the tower-house castles of Europe, though on a much smaller scale of course.

Although there is not much evidence of warfare between clans in this area, it’s known that the area was, in the late 13th century, growing dry and getting crowded both.  Water, in the form of canyon-bottom springs, was a very precious resource, and worth protecting.  Although I have no doubt the towers were used for more than one thing, I think their spectacular locations (on canyon rims, on top of huge boulders, etc.) was certainly in part defensive.

The iconic towers of Hovenweep Castle, an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.

Another interesting nugget I picked up, from a Hopi source no less, was that hawks and falcons were kept in the tops of the towers.  Now I had no idea that American Indians practiced falconry, currently or in ancient times.  So this is definitely an interesting avenue to explore.

After an awesome moonlight photo walk at Little Ruin Canyon, I left the visitor center area for an area that promised to be more peaceful come morning.  Though it was past midnight, I drove up County Road 10 and camped on the rim of a canyon near the Painted Hand Pueblo.  I was in the larger Canyons of the Ancients N.M. now.  At sunrise I hiked down the jeep track to the Cutthroat Site, which is at the head of a small canyon near a spring.

Along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a petroglyph panel over 100 feet long contains many drawings from a thousand years ago or more.

Being there alone, as the morning light rapidly grew in intensity, with only a curious rock wren for company, gave rise to some interesting feelings.  It was a bit sad, reflecting that these people had taken such care to build their secure homes, only to have to abandon them after only 2-3 generations.  I thought about the turkeys running around the place, the sound of kids playing, elders sitting in the shade, unable to travel much beyond home in this rugged country.

After coffee, I strolled down to Painted Hand.  Here there are several pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (chiseled).  One symbol, the figure of a person with upraised arms, struck me as the emblem of a clan.  Later I learned this was so.  It really reminded me of  medieval coats of arms.  Again back to the castle analogy.  This is fascinating stuff!  As I traveled westward, away from Hovenweep, I followed the beautiful San Juan River into country in which it is much harder to find evidence of the Ancient Ones.  But even as I enter Navajo country, where it is modern American Indian culture you encounter, I will continue to search for their ancient art and their dwellings.

Hovenweep Castle in the Four Corners region of the U.S. stands silent under the stars. Jupiter is at lower right.

Ancient Ones III: Chaco Canyon Sites   2 comments

Penyasco Blanco and the sky, at sunset in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Chaco Canyon fires the imagination of many, but you might also want to know what there is to do there.  It’s worth learning a bit about the Ancestral Puebloan culture before you arrive.  But don’t get crazy about that.  You want, first and foremost, an open mind.  I’ve noticed there are many people who have definite ideas and interpretations regarding the Ancient Ones.  That’s really not my style.  I’d rather arrive at a place with a fairly blank mind, and let the questions naturally evolve.  That said, here is a brief summary.

The architecture at Chaco Canyon dates from about  800 A.D., but evidence of ancestral peoples here goes back more than 10,000 years, when people were fully nomadic.  You will notice earthen mounds throughout the canyon.  Many of these lie unexcavated, similar to the Mayan sites of Central America.  It’s estimated that up to 99% of the ancient remains here are still hidden beneath the sand.  Also, archaeologists have reburied many sites in order to best protect them from the elements.

The kivas and plazas of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest ancient structure yet found in the Four Corners region.  Begun around the year 800, it continued to be expanded according to a master plan, all the way up to the late 1200s.  It’s a large D-shaped structure, originally 5 stories high, and which held perhaps 800 rooms.  Much of its interior space is taken up by a grand plaza, along with no less than 33 kivas.  The way this was built, over many generations, invites comparison to how the great cathedrals in Europe were built.

Let me take this opportunity to plug a book I read years ago, called Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.  If you haven’t read it, you should.  There is also a miniseries that was based on the book, and that wasn’t too bad either.  The story spans generations of the people involved in the construction of a cathedral that still pierces the sky in rural England.  This long-term commitment to a vision is precisely how Pueblo Bonito, and really the whole Chacoan culture, seems to have been built up.

A pair of ravens welcome the rising sun at Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

Detail of the back curved wall of Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Canyon. Note the ponderosa pine log.

Given the size of Pueblo Bonito, there were not many people who lived here.  This is judging from the general lack of human burial remains.  Possibly it only housed the elite, or the religious leaders.  But it is clear that many thousands came here for gatherings, an ancient version of the rendezvous, if you will.  The plazas, great kivas, the layout of the place, all suggest both ceremony and fun.  If you were young you might have looked for love here, or showed off to peers your athletic prowess.  The purpose of it being so overbuilt may have simply been to wow those arriving from outlying villages.

There are other great houses throughout Chaco Canyon, and there were roads connecting outlying villages and great houses as well.  One of the most distant outliers is Chimney Rock, in SW Colorado some 100 miles away.  The great houses, kivas, reservoirs and other structures indicate these people were  master masons, cutting and shaping the local sandstone very precisely.

They used massive ponderosa pine trees too (e.g. to roof the kivas), which were cut from the nearest forest about 60 miles away.  A lucky thing this was for archaeologists.  In the early 20th century dendrochronology (tree-ring dating), was developed.  It was a boon for southwest archaeology, allowing accurate dating of the Ancient Ones’ remnants.  This is a good time to mention the silliness regarding the “A” word when it comes to southwest archaeology.  A stands for aliens.

Using the example of the trees, the idea is that there is no evidence that the trees were dragged or rolled, thus since they were transported so far, the people must have had extraterrestrial help.  I don’t know about you, but camps of young, strong bucks strung out along the route, between which they shuttled the tree trunks from camp to camp, is an obvious solution.  When I was in my late teens/early twenties, I know I could have helped carry heavy trees over several miles.  Not alone, or over the entire 60 miles, but as an organized team.

As at other ancient sites (e.g. the Nazca Plain in Peru), the alignment of structures and roads, along with irrigation ditches and other features, is interpreted by the faithful in aluminum foil hats as only making sense when seen from the air.  Well, maybe that’s true.  But it sure doesn’t mean they had alien help, or were trying to impress aliens instead of their gods.

I took the tour of Pueblo Bonito, which is led every day by a ranger at 2 p.m.  It is well worthwhile.  I also hiked up the canyon late in the day, ending near sunset at the ruins of Penyasco Blanco.  This is about 3.5 miles one way, and you’ll pass a fascinating pictograph called “supernova”.  You can see why from the image (below).  On the way, I flushed a small herd of elk.  The light was very nice at Penyasco Blanco up on the canyon rim, but it put me back at the van right at dark (as usual).

A ranger was there when I arrived, and he was the wannabe cop, officious type.  The loop road that visits Chaco’s main sites closes at sunset, so I was technically about 15-20 minutes late getting out.  Most rangers would see the fact that I had no flashlight, had been jogging back to the trailhead, did not have pockets bulging with artifacts or fossils, and just let me know they are strict about the sunset thing, and that I shouldn’t do it again.  But this character saw fit to write me a $125 ticket.  I’ll just warn everybody out there.  The N.P.S. is chock full of these A-holes.  You never know when you’ll be dealing with one, so keep clear and don’t be like me and push it.  Of course, that’ll mean you won’t get pictures of the things I get, in the light I get them.  But that’s how the N.P.S. rolls.  I’ll never contribute money to their foundation or advocate increased funding to that agency until they improve in this regard (even as I accept the consequences of trying to bend their rules).

The fascinating supernova pictograph in Chaco Canyon is painted on an inaccessible overhang.

I spent the night in the treeless, rather dusty campground.  On the bright side, it is spacious and cheap ($10).  It also is tucked up against one of the canyon walls, which helps.  In the morning I did some sunrise photography at Pueblo Bonito, and then hiked up to Tsin Kletzin, another great house up on South Mesa.  This hike of just a few miles passes Casa Rinconada, with its enormous kiva.  This is one of the largest kivas ever found, and is a can’t miss sight at Chaco.

A cow elk in the arroyo at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

I had no company on this hike, just like the previous day.  Being alone in Chaco is the only good way to experience the strange power of Chaco Canyon, and it helps to leave the road and hike to accomplish this.  That’s my opinion of course.

As I dropped through the steep South Gap, and walked down the beautiful box canyon (rinconada), I felt the attraction, the Chaco’s power if you will.  A place where your first impression is of drought and dust can become, if you spend some time, a place you might imagine traveling to for gatherings a thousand years ago.  The power of Chaco Canyon is only partially hidden by the sands that cover many of the Ancient Ones’ dwellings here.  It’s worth making the trek out here to see and experience this special magic.

A view from Pueblo Bonito’s grand plaza includes the great kiva’s curved wall. Note the niches, which originally contained precious artifacts, and the stone bench.

The Ancient Ones II: Chaco Canyon Intro.   2 comments

The ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan Greathouse, Penyasco Blanco sits on the rim of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

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 Animas River of northern New Mexico flows peacefully through the town of Aztec as the sun goes down.

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.

KIVAS

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.

The waxing half-moon illuminates the evening sky at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

 

My next post will go into more detail about my visit, and what to see and do at Chaco Canyon.

The Ancient Ones I: Mesa Verde   Leave a comment

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde is the largest such site in the National Park.

You can’t visit the Four Corners region of the southwestern U.S. without your attention being drawn to the area’s American Indian history.  This history goes back over 10,000 years, but possibly the most fascinating chapter took place between about 700 and 1300 A.D.  The people who lived during this time period were farmers and builders, hunters and astronomers, travelers and artists.  They are the ancestors of today’s Hopi, Zuni and a few other small tribes, and so are called Ancestral Puebloans.

The interior of an ancient Puebloan cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

 

Their more common name is Anasazi, which does have a nice ring to it.  But this is a Navajo word loosely translated as ancient foreigner, or enemy.  The Navajo, when they migrated into this area from the north about 1500 A.D., found the abandoned pueblos but did not loot or even much disturb them.  They were cautious about entering the realm of dead spirits.  Also, the modern-day Puebloans and Navajo do not generally get along, it’s sad to say.  So the name Anasazi is inappropriate for both of the above reasons.

The Mesa Verde cliff dwelling Spruce Tree House basks in October sunshine.

I had been seeing the rock art of Fremont people to the north, but my first real archaeological destination on this trip was Mesa Verde.  A national park in southwestern Colorado between the towns of Cortez and Durango,  Mesa Verde is a high, forested plateau cut by rugged sandstone canyons.  It is here where some of the most well-preserved of the ancient ones’ pueblos are found.  The most spectacular sites are the cliff dwellings. but these are not the only sites at Mesa Verde.  They first lived atop the plateau, close to where they grew their crops of corn, beans and squash.  I visited a couple of these sites first, and I’m glad I did.

 

Take the Far View Sites, for example, just off the road near its highest point.  Since people come here to see the cliff dwellings, you will find few other visitors.  Here you’ll be able to closely examine the ancient pueblos at your leisure.  They used stone axes and other (non-metal) tools to precisely shape sandstone blocks.  Then, using a sandy mortar, these skilled masons built multi-room, multi-story houses, cylindrical (watch or signaling) towers, kivas and even a reservoir.  I’ll explain kivas in detail in the next post, but for now just think of them as sacred gathering places, maybe similar to churches.

 

By the 13th century, the people started moving their dwellings into the canyons.  Many are perched along improbable cliff faces.  Definitely visit Balcony House while you’re here.  Like Cliff Palace, it requires taking a ranger-led tour (stop at the visitor center to buy the $3 tickets).  You will certainly gain a respect for their mountain goat-like agility as you climb a 40-foot ladder up to the human aerie that was part home, part community center for these amazing people.

The Ancestral Puebloans’ construction of the easily defended cliff dwellings marked the beginning of the end, at least for their lives in the Four Corners region.  For reasons that are still uncertain, the Ancestral Puebloans migrated south towards the Rio Grande, fragmenting into the several tribes that make up the modern Puebloan people of New Mexico and Arizona.  Some of the dwellings were abandoned on short notice, with pots, tools, even precious works of art, were left strewn about the stone rooms.

One of the bigger factors contributing to their leaving was overuse of resources such as timber, soil and water.  Drought, a changing society, and other unknown pressures were likely causes as well.  But their overuse of environmental resources surely sticks out as a precautionary tale for our supposedly more advanced time.

In the Pacific Northwest, while leading science-oriented educational camps for native kids, I was lucky enough to share campfires with local tribal folks, drumming and singing under the stars.  Very special it certainly was.  But with respect to the dwellings and sacred places of the Ancient Ones in the Four Corners region, I am torn between the desire to respect them (i.e. leave them alone) and to experience them on a more intimate level.  To be in the company of a Hopi or Zuni elder, descending into an ancient but smoking kiva, undergoing purification, learning of these things from the source; that would get me going.  So, although I can’t recommend that you skip these archaeological treasures, I think coming into honest contact with the modern Puebloans, at any level, would beat a conventional trip to Mesa Verde National Park any day.

A forked horn buck mule deer wanders the forest atop MesaVerde in Colorado.

In 2010 my uncle and I visited Canyon de Chelly, traveling through the canyon on horseback and camping for two nights in the canyon.  We were accompanied by a young Navajo guide.  This, of course, was very cool (especially when we galloped after a wild stallion!).  One of the things that has stuck with me since then: I promised the young Navajo that someday I would visit Chaco Canyon (he insisted that I do so in fact).  So my next post will be about keeping that promise.

On Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado, a recent fire has left huge areas of burned trees.

 

 

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