farmington to chaco to grants, part 1

Farmington to Chaco Canyon

We headed out of Farmington early, with food and ice in our little styrofoam cooler and lots of water. We knew we had to be self-sufficient heading into Chaco, and that we wouldn't be near any stores or restaurants until night.

We started out on the same road that took us to Bisti, then realized we had mis-remembered or mis-calculated or something, and we wouldn't pass access to Chaco from that road. The site itself is remote, and access to it is very limited. All the options on the main roads seemed pretty grim - hours and hours of driving just to get to a road where Chaco was still hours away. But according to our map, there seemed to be a way to cross the desert area between the major highways. This would mean dirt roads, sometimes unmarked, but we have a good map, and it seemed do-able... so we did it.

I was driving and Allan was navigating. Sometimes the road was completely rutted, and I bumped along at 15 mph, but sometimes it was hard-packed dirt, and I could get up to a whopping 35 mph. The road was undulating hills, and signs cautioned you not to cross an incline if water was present at the bottom. There were storm clouds in the distance, but our road was completely dry.

As far as we could see on every side was desert - brown earth and short, scrubby sagebrush. The sky was enormous all around us all sides. Sometimes there were small rock formations, wind-eroded into weird shapes. We passed a lot of cattle, scattered around an area, eating. This has been interesting, as often there doesn't seem to be a ranch anywhere in sight, so these cows must have a very wide range. As we were landing in Albuquerque, I caught a hideous glimpse of a feed lot. It was vile, a glimpse of torture. To see these cows out on the range, eating desert grasses, made me feel good.

As we made our way across, we came to an area that was much greener - still desert, not irrigated, but the grasses and brush were much denser, almost lush in desert terms. The air was aromatic with sage! With the windows down, driving through, the aroma filled the whole car. We stopped for a few pictures - Allan saw a snake (I could tell from his face and his sudden backwards motion that it had to be a snake) - and I pulled off a few sage needles and crushed them between my fingers. The scent was so rich and delicious. (I don't know if the bits of plant I pulled off are called leaves or needles or something else. They're dry and hard, and resemble pine needles. Someone reading will know.)

I slowly inched the car along, and Allan continued to match up our location to the map. Each time another dirt road intersected ours when we thought it would, we cheered. After an hour or so, we came to the main highway, the one we had taken up to Farmington the previous day. We were all kinds of proud of ourselves!

After that it was a short drive down to the access point to Chaco, then 25 miles or so of rough, bumpy, dirt roads to the visitors centre. It's a long, winding desert road, and as you drive, the land becomes more austere - more dry, less green - and the scenery becomes more dramatic. By the time you reach Chaco - a long way in - you are dwarfed by enormous walls of red and blond sandstone - huge cliffs that rise up from the desert floor. It is an awesome sight.

At the entrance to Chaco Culture National Historic Park, there is an enormous butte, standing on its own like a sentinel. This is called the Fajada Butte, and it's a sacred site. We later learned that people used to climb it regularly, and in the late 1970s, it was discovered to be a solstice marker. (It took the white folks a few centuries to figure it out.) After that, visiting increased so much that rocks were shifting and sacred markers were being eroded. The Park Service and Native representatives had to decide whether or not to reconstruct the damaged areas, and eventually decided to stabilize it, but not move any stones.

Now, thankfully, access is limited to researchers and native people only. On the top of the butte is a carved spiral, flanked by the image of a dagger - repeated four times. The position of the dagger shows where the sun lands on the butte for winter solstice, summer solstice, vernal equinox and autumnal equinox.

This is what greets you as you enter Chaco Canyon. It's intense.

* * * *

The visitors' centre has interpretative information about the people who built Chaco, who we call the Anasazi, which means Ancient Ones in the Navajo language. Many different native peoples trace their ancestry to the Anasazi, especially the Hopi. The relationship between the Navajo and the Anasazi is unclear, but the Navajo also revere this site and their oral tradition connects them to the Anasazi.

The Anasazi had already abandoned this site by the time the Spanish came through. The land has since been invaded by subsequent waves of settlers, "explorers," grave-robbers, adventurers, researchers, scientists, and combinations thereof. It's now a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The visitors' centre was well done and very respectful, as all National Parks are now. We bought a little souvenir for ourselves and a gift for our dogsitter. I also bought a bunch of postcards. At the various wedding festivities, we told people we were going to Chaco, to great enthusiasm from our nieces and nephews, who are very spiritual. The mother of the bride also gave us great directions and hints on getting there. So we thought everyone might like to see that we made it.

Also in the visitors' centre, you pay a small admission fee - $8 per vehicle, and it's good for 4 days! An amazing bargain.

From there, you set out on a nine-mile loop of paved road that takes you through the canyon. Access to each ruin site is marked, there's a parking area and a portable loo, and interpretative guides.

When you first see the Anasazi ruins in front of the giant sandstone cliffs, it is breathtaking. I mean that quite literally - I gasped.

The buildings were "great houses," giant centres for ceremony, community meetings, trade, government and even some residential areas. These centres were built on human-made platforms, raised up 20 feet from the desert floor. They had hundreds of rooms, many with two and three storeys! Some had second-story balconies, which were still intact in the early 1900s. (Modern people scavenging for timber destroyed the beams.)

The intact masonry is incredible - flat rocks and mortar, often laid out in symmetrical, repeating patterns. Some sites have been restored from the original stone, others are left as they were found.

One of the most interesting parts of the ruins are the kivas, a modern Indian term for a spiritual centre. The kivas at Chaco are round subterranean areas, built deep into the ground, with a bench built into the round wall. In the centre of the circle are huge pits, used for fires and ceremony. These ancient kivas were originally roofed with enormous vaulted ceilings.

As you hike around and up and down the sites, the giant rock cliffs are always towering above you. One thing that makes Chaco so special is the combination of natural wonder and human-made wonder. The setting itself is awe-inspiring, and walking among these treasures of the ancient world is also awesome, and the combination is thrilling.

To be continued.

Some of our photos of Chaco Canyon are here.
Some petroglyph photos from Chaco are here.

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