Chaco Canyon to Grants
Two of the best sites on the canyon loop road are next to each other, connected by a trail along the rock face where dozens of petroglyphs are visible. We spent a long time at the first "pueblo" - the modern name for these sites - walking up and down and around the ruins, reading about what the areas were used for, and looking for the details the interpretative information points out.
The sites were occupied from roughly 800 to 1200 AD. The Anasazi continued to add on and develop the sites over those hundreds of years, so like the great cathedrals of Europe or the Egyptian pyramids these great houses were continual works-in-progress. The Anasazi collected rainwater during the brief, intense summer rains, stored it and used it in irrigation systems for fields. They built scaffolding and ladders onto the giant rock faces, and used the cliffs as a sturdy fourth wall for buildings. They built two and three storeys high - they built a giant raised platform on which to build their great centre. They did all this without the benefit of metal tools or the wheel, but with stone tools and their great human brains.
After seeing one side of these adjoining sites, we went back to the car for some food and water, and to reapply sunblock. When we got to the visitors' centre there was some cloud cover, and we thought we might luck out with a cloudy day. But once at the sites themselves, the clouds had burned away. They sky was brilliant blue, and the sun was baking down on us. "It's a dry heat," as the cliche goes, so I find it way more tolerable than being out on a thickly humid day. Compared to our recent walk in Boston, where we were both absolutely drenched in perspiration, we were completely dry. But hot. Very, very hot.
After a break, we walked on the petroglyph trail. If you've been reading this blog for a while, you know I love petroglyphs. I find it absolutely thrilling to see these communications from the ancient world. On this one wall, there are supposedly thousands of glyphs, although in various states of erosion and visibility. we saw maybe 20 or so, plus some graffiti from the last 200 years.
At the other large site, the sun was becoming too much for me. Anytime I saw a tiny spot of shade created by the shadow of a wall, I would wedge myself into it to get some relief. Also, this was the third great house site we had seen, and it is a bit redundant. After a while I just couldn't tolerate the heat any more. Allan kept exploring while I trudged back to the car and tried to cool down. He walked down steep steps and through a series of low doorways, room after room of some subterranean store house, once filled with thousands of piece of pottery, turquoise, carvings and other art and artifacts.
After a while, we continued down the canyon loop. The first three sites on the road are the most impressive. The rest are smaller sites, worth noting but without as much to see. At one stop, the interpretative info directs your sight to the very top of the huge cliff, where you see stone steps. This is so high up, it is simply mind-boggling to think people built a staircase in the nearly vertical rock race. The Anasazi had an elaborate system of roads that connected their different great houses. They liked the roads to be as straight as possible. If there was a cliff in the path, they didn't go around it, they went over and down it.
Apart from the nine-mile loop, the rest of Chaco Canyon is accessible by hiking trails and deep backcountry exploring. Hiking and camping in this area must be only for the very experienced - it's such a forbidding environment. It also must be incredibly gratifying. Not something I ever could or would have done, but amazing to contemplate.
After we finished the loop, sitting in the visitors centre' parking lot, I was curious about one site we skipped. Right off the parking lot is a trail head that takes you to a ruin purposefully left as-is, not reconstructed at all, and past that, a trail to a wall with petroglyphs. Having rested in the car, out of the sun, longer than Allan, and after washing up in the washroom, I felt ready for another short hike. It was only one mile (1.6 kms) round trip, and the chance to see more glyphs pulled me in.
I took the camera and walked out on the trail, while Allan went to the visitors centre to ask about a creative driving plan out of the site.
From that trail, the view of the Fajada Butte was spectacular; the walk was worth it for that alone. I stopped only briefly at the ruins site, then continued on to the petroglyphs. The trail became very rocky and farily steep, steeper than I might normally do on my own. It was very hot. I took it slow, and picked my way upwards. There was no one else around. Eventually I saw the little upwards arrow indicating there were petroglyphs. I couldn't immediately find them...I was looking, looking...and then ah-ha!. A wall covered in symbols, the most spectacular petroglyphs I've seen in their original setting. It was thrilling. I stood soaking them in.
As I descended, I kept stopping to look back. Had I known where the petroglyphs were, I could have seen them through most of the climb up. I kept turning around to see from how far away they were visible. The walk back was hot but pretty quick, and I passed several people going in the other direction. I was so lucky to be there by myself.
Back at the visitors' centre, Allan was surprised to see me so soon. He had collected more information about the site, especially about the Fajada Butte. He also had a productive conversation with the Park Ranger at the desk about the best route on the dirt roads to our next town. The Ranger told Allan he was envious of our drive, that he encourages people to take the dirt roads and experience the view and the terrain. The only danger (so Allan learned) is thunderstorms and flash floods. When we come to a ravine where water is present, you are supposed to stop the car and walk into the water. Often it's much deeper than it looks. By walking in, you can judge whether or not to drive through or to wait while it recedes. Either way you'll be waiting - but one way you'll be waiting with your car under water.
We took off on the dirt road, this time confidently bumping away. It was after 5:00 at this point, and we were grateful to have our cooler of food and whatever water we had left. We passed a lot of cattle, a few ranch buildings (mostly long tin pre-fab structures), and only a few other vehicles (mostly small trucks). The land was undulating and covered in sage brush, occasionally punctuated by sandstone hoo-doos.
In the distance, there were enormous mesas - flat-topped mountains. Mesa is Spanish for "table" and the tops of these mountains are as flat as tables. But huge - they dominate the horizon. The sky was dramatic, deep blue with huge puffy white clouds. The bottoms of the clouds appear completely flat, like they are sitting on an invisible plain. So the tops of the mesas and the bottoms of the clouds appear parallel to each other.
At the intersection to another dirt road, we saw a big wooden table with a sign "self service". We've seen corn and tomatoes sold this way, in front of a farm, with a jar for your money - but this was jewelry. Simple bead necklaces and bracelets, with a mason jar in the middle, a hand-written note inside saying CASH REGISTER. On the wooden table, someone had written "Please Do Not Steal". We took a few pictures and left a dollar.
We drove for about two hours on dirt and semi-paved roads, and when we met the big highway we were only a few miles from the town we wanted, Grants. Had we taken the highways, it would have been 5 hours or more, and not nearly as memorable.
In Grants we found a room, took looong hot showers, and drove down the street for a New Mexican meal. El Cafecito ("little cafe") is a local joint, with a tiny, inexpensive menu and very friendly people. The food is delicious, but really too spicy for us. We each ordered a combination plate of enchilada, chimichango and taco, which comes with rice and beans and sopapillas (yummy puffy fried dough) for about $8, the most expensive plate on the menu.
The server asked "red or green chile?". Green is the hotter of the two, so we ask for red, but it's ladled on your food with a heavy hand. Even the red chile requires a lot of rice, sopapillas and water to get through it, and we couldn't eat the enchilada at all, it made my eyes water. If we get one more New Mexican meal before we leave, we're going to try asking for no chile, meaning no sauce. It might be like trying to get a well-done steak in Paris.
On the road between El Cafecito and the motel there were a few local hangouts. Allan and I used to love to stop into local bars for a beer wherever we traveled, but now we just laugh at the thought. After a long, hot day of hikes and drives, a shower and dinner, the only thing I could think of was sleep. Allan was hoping to catch some Red Sox on the laptop, but he forgot about the time difference, and the game was over by the time we got back. But we won, hallelujah, because the Rangers did, too.
Some of our photos of Chaco Canyon are here.