Hearing the echoes of tens of thousands of ancient trail trekkers and home seekers, we returned, after 20 years, to a point of light that became a supernova in the culture of the Southwest.
The road to our destination opened on Highway 550—formerly the ominous 666, the “Devil’s Road”—one of the most infamous corridors in North America. This highway overflows with tales of grisly deaths, mysterious hitchhikers that vanish in the night, eerie lights, skinwalkers, “Satan’s sedan” that speeds up on your bumper during night driving, time loss, and the Hounds of Hell that some say cause numerous accidents, ripping into tires with their razor sharp teeth. This four-lane road rolls along as if teeter-tottering through troughs of ocean waves. Momentarily, your view of the way ahead is blocked by an endless series of hogback hills. You must trust blindly in the skills of oncoming drivers, and that trust drops in proportion to the rollercoaster rise to the highway’s pinnacle: then you catch your breath in the revealing streak of oncoming traffic.
We keep a wary eye out for the ubiquitous brown highway sign informing us of the turn to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and embark onto a devil’s highway of the very real kind. Now begins a series of road quality diminishments from two miles of narrow 45-mph asphalt, to eight miles of 20-mph rough gravel, then the bone-jarring final seven miles at slower than walking speed, over washboard rough as the frozen tops of the ocean. Stray vehicle parts compete with road perimeter tire tracks of drivers who futilely sought to avoid shaking their cars to pieces.
At times, we can almost reach out our windows to scratch the chins of wandering cows, standing in the road, mindlessly chewing. Suddenly a road mirage appears before our rig: a half-foot-high chasm separates the rocky red scree of our travails from the smooth asphalt entrance into the National Park Service official—flawlessly paved—road. Our four sets of wheels ease up onto it, and we feel the wind fill our sails. Arriving at the campground, we assess the damage. Our inspection reveals ripped-out door latches, loose screws, and objects transported across the floor like those mysterious sliding rocks in the desert. Our microwave, apparently longing to escape its cabinet confines, sits half-balanced on the precipice of the shelf, contemplating a jump to freedom.
Chaco isn’t an easy place to camp in this harsh, barren, and remote region. Potable water is available only in the visitors center, a mile or so away from the campground. RV parking is limited but rarely full, as there are no electrical hookups—but honestly, it’s the road in: it just sucks! There is a dump station; restrooms have flush toilets. Ice is nice in the 100+-degree heat, and can be had at the visitors center for $5—for a bag the size of a small Chihuahua. In daytime, flies and gnats masterfully and relentlessly avoid our swatting hands, seeking the moisture of our eyes, and bite into our skin, accessing fresh blood. At night, the onslaught creeps to a halt. But as the sun descends behind the mesa tops and pleasant breezes cool the earth, night wraps her cloak around the land and a new wave of night crawling creatures seeks out passages through our hair, up our legs, and into our clothing.
I awoke one night to the sound of Ruth’s incessant sneezing. It seemed to pass, and I fell asleep again. But the next morning, she was in her chair, still sneezing and blowing her nose. Suddenly, she looked at the tissue she’d just pulled away from her face and blanched. Are you squeamish? You might want to skip the rest of this paragraph. Several hard nose blows revealed a long black object. Upon closer inspection, we identified it as the carcass of an insect with multiple grasping legs seeking out a moist dark home to . . . you fill in the blank! This was Ruth’s Chaco freakout moment (and, I admit, my own as well). Flashlight inspection appeared to find no further evidence of body parts or reproduction. We proceeded to perform a military-style inspection of our entire living space, and eliminated close to a dozen similar interlopers. Could the thought of sleep be entertained after this event?! [Note from Ruth: I slept—if you can call it that—with tissues stuffed in my nose and earplugs for several nights.]
So where’s the gem in this story?
Chaco Canyon sits in the northwest corner of New Mexico in high desert, 6,200 feet on the edge of what was once a vast inland sea that rose and fell over the millennia—picture the American continent split into two separate halves.
Evidence of that ocean exists today as you hike up on the mesa tops above the vast settlement of Chaco Canyon. Fossilized ocean sea shells litter the sedimentation layers and iron stains the tubes of ancient sea worms that once lived in the primordial ooze.
Ice ages came and went, water entered and receded. Oxygen levels rose and fell. Our continent drifted north from near the equator, and land masses lifted. The Appalachian mountains once stood as tall as the Himalayas. In this unique terrain in the center of the continent, the most ancient rock foundations of North America are found. The earliest known humans that migrated into this region found a special sense of place rooted in the depths of time. There is a confluence of life force here through the synergy of evolution. Dinosaur bones are layered in proximity with areas of geologic distinctiveness;
above and around them are ancestral Puebloan habitations, their sacred kivas, and concentrations of extraordinary social intercourse. The ancient ones seemed to understand the feng shui, or harmony, of environment and capitalized on developing this in the spread of their settlements, building extended roads of communication in all directions.
Approximately 1,200 years ago, a spark of synergy brought people to this place. Human creativity and engineering exploded a rapidly-evolving community to life. Huge living complexes were built, grinding stone upon stone. Detailed brickwork elevated these multi-story buildings with hundreds of rooms along the canyon mesa top and bottom, extending for miles.
News of these creations spread like wildfire throughout the region, luring seekers like moths to flame. These immigrants brought gifts to bestow, as well, upon the genius of this creation: the upwelling of cultural evolution. Macaws from deep in Mesoamerica adorned the growing clan gatherings in color and texture, huge collections of mined turquoise, competing and eclectic pottery designs, copper bells, shells from the Pacific—all contributed to the accelerated blending of clan traditions and social organization.
We climbed up a narrow crack in the wall of the canyon, up 300 feet inside an escarpment just wide enough for a human to squeeze through, over rocks and boulders to the mesa top, in the footsteps of countless Chacoan people before us.
Beneath us a spectacular view of the Great Houses below and the beginning of a 5–6 mile, 4-hour hike in near 100-degree heat.
Soon we trod upon excavated sections of the Chacoan Road, the remains of which stretch due north hundreds of miles into distant trade communities. The workers carved steps into the sandstone rock faces to facilitate the movement of goods and people. Along our hike, evidence of stone ceremony circles
and signaling stations appeared, as well as pecked-out circular cairns for collecting water and grinding corn.
The Chacoan elite were very aware of the movements of the sun, moon, and stars, and this often amazes our modern sensibilities, though if you think about it for just a minute, it shouldn’t: without artificial light, these people lived in close connection with the sky in all its moods. Every year during summer solstice, the sunlight splits through a crack in the rock on the top of the distant Fajada Butte, beaming a light, called the Sun Dagger, onto a petroglyph spiral pecked into the cliff face of giant slabs of rock.
Other such examples exist in other regions around Chaco depicting other major solar events. These people understood perfectly, as so many other ancient societies demonstrated, the movements of the cosmos. Much of the building in this region centers around cosmological placement. Recently excavated sky viewing stations have been discovered throughout the region. How did this technology arise? Many excavations in Mesoamerica postdating Chaco by a hundred years remarkably resemble, if not directly copy, its architectural design and construction, including construction along astronomical ley lines.
I set out on a long, hot hike to a remote Great House at the far end of the Chaco Canyon wash from the primary building complex, to find pictographic evidence of an astronomical event. (Pictographs are created by spreading pigment onto the rock, as opposed to petroglyphs, which are pecked into the rock.) Tucked in the ceiling below an overhang, protected from the elements, are paintings believed to depict the supernova in the Crab Nebula that occurred in CE 1054, and was observed and recorded around the world.
This event was bright enough to be visible in daytime for a month and dominated the night sky, enthralling wondering observers. Hopi oral traditions state that this event precipitated a convergence of clans at Chaco, hence the presence of the hand in the pictograph. In further travels, I encountered another pictograph of four hands at the Betatakin cliff dwelling in Arizona, and was informed by my Native American guide that it represented the departure of the four Hopi clans from that sanctuary.
Ruth and I spent glorious nights recuperating from our daily explorations, sitting outside staring up at the wonders above us. A more perfect star gazing environment could not exist. The Milky Way revealed itself above us in a serape of billions of lights. The moon came up full, the following night rising a half hour later, and a half hour later again the ensuing nights. Patterns of stars and planets commanded our attention and moved across the sky as time passed. As the moon waned, its time of rising soon matched that of the sunrise and was quickly overtaken. We noted that the sun’s daily track across the sky in summer was high enough to not require raising our solar panels. What would the ancient ones think to see us pull into our campsite, reach for a strange rectangular tablet, and open up a compass app to delineate East–West for solar panel alignment and maximum power production? If we, in just 3–4 days could observe simple changes in the heavenly bodies, how much could a people so in tune with their physical world to navigate, operate, design, and build by its presence, learn, comprehend, and plot the signs of the seasons?!
With the assistance of 21st century technology, and the reality that most of our life on the road is outdoors, we recognized that greater awareness of our surroundings was demanding our attention. The Chaco visitors center, deducing the answer to the questions asked by countless others like us—many who had never seen the heavens like this before—provided the solution. The excellent Field Guide to the Constellations, by Jonathan Poppele, provides a comprehensive means of recognizing planets, stars, and constellations, and their seasonal movements. This invaluable resource helps us join our ancient forebears in taming the beast of questioning wonder.
Research into the history of the Puebloan people of the Southwest always brings up their mysterious disappearance around the end of the 1200s and 1300s. They developed a stunning civilization, built great structures that embraced the advancement and elevation of progress, and then they all just walked away? Struggling for answers, some ill-informed folks claimed that these tribal cultures left us in alien ships. But archaeologists, studying the changing weather patterns, noticed a period of sustained draught. Probably the development and over population simply outgrew the resources of the region.
Archaeological evidence shows that the Puebloan people had been migrating for centuries. We observe this in the vast amount of pottery left behind when their dwellings are excavated, and in the evolution of how their pottery designs morphed as they transferred in trading from one tribe to the next. A new artistic vision expressed on ceramic ware spread like wildfire through the regions much like it does today: think Impressionism, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Pop Art, to name a few. It has been said that we see history as a static frame, missing the moving pictures around it. In the case of Chaco, the people didn’t just walk away. Excepting for alien abduction, elements of the aforementioned theories hold truths. The transformation back from an agrarian to a hunter-gatherer existence in deep canyons and cliff dwellings indicates that warfare was rampant, and this, coupled with the changing environment, led people to seek safety elsewhere.
The populace had been here before, and now returned to build anew on top of old structures, or simply tore down and rebuilt with newer technologies. In reality, it was a pattern of migration seeking optimal conditions that stimulated human migration across the world, and the Americas in particular. Ancestral Puebloans followed the path of least resistance across the landscape of the Southwest and northern Mexico, leaving traces of their villages and culture to be discovered in time.
The eventual border between America and Mexico created an artificial and political boundary that resisted broad archaeological exploration into the vast cross-tribal trade. Huge areas of northern Mexico remain unexplored and cataloged. Mesoamerican native culture, carrying the vestiges of ancient Aztec and Mayan civilizations, migrated north, mixing with the southerly movement of Puebloan peoples along the Sierra Madre mountains in Mexico. This movement created pockets of amalgamated dwellings. The largest of these settlements was centered in the Chihuahuan region of Mexico, called Paquimé, or Casas Grandes, which survived until the mid-1500s. It was said that war scattered its inhabitants into smaller communities throughout the region. The populace sought asylum in remote sheltered and camouflaged geographic regions. It was rediscovered by Spanish explorers around one hundred years later during the time of the new world Spanish exploration and “conquest.”
Again we return to the question of the disappearance of the pinnacles of population throughout the Southwest. The Spanish conquerors, and the Jesuit priests that followed them seeking to convert the so-called heathens, brought with them a devastating horror unknowingly wrapped in the garb of advancement and civilization: disease. This would be the unexpected contribution of the Old World to thriving New World communities, where populations of one hundred people were reduced to a few lone survivors. The plague of western civilization’s diseases, from which westerners had immunity, devastated the native population, perhaps providing clarity to the mystery of the great disappearance.
A question kept popping up in my mind as we traveled and studied the history and civilization in this amazing region of America. What was the state of technology in the Eurasian and Puebloan cultures around the time of Spanish exploration? Was there disparity? If so, why?
The sight of the Spanish explorers snaking north along the mountainous terrain of northern Mexico must have been an astonishing sight to the local population, who had no knowledge of horses. Strange hairy man-beasts clad in armor and leather, glittering with lances and swords in the sunlight. Remarkable four-legged beasts carrying the loads of three men shook the ground and sweating support contingents, clad in clinking chain mail, snaked out along the trail into the endless expanse of the twisted canyon walls.
It was an imposing sight. The native population was perceived in equal respect by the trooping soldiers, witnessing power structures centered upon chiefs adorned in turquoise and colored feathers, being carried in palanquins. The Spanish passed through hundreds, if not thousands, of highly organized villages throughout the region, actively engaging in elaborate trade centering in grand marketplaces; and slave markets, buying and selling. Despite their imposing countenances, however, they were hugely outnumbered in the tens of thousands by organized armies. But for the mighty force of the musket, powerful crossbow, and armor, the Spanish invaders might have been turned away.
The Puebloans were no strangers to warfare, and soon realized the vulnerabilities of these new interlopers: unlike gods, they bled like humans. Why the disparity in technology?
Let’s look at a sampling of the state of technology in Eurasia around the period from 800 to 1200 CE.
- Construction of many of the great cathedrals in Europe such as Durham in England and Chartres in Paris
- The movement of goods, inventions, and ideas along the Silk Road from China to Europe
- Invention of gunpowder
- Intercontinental navigation, the compass
- Development and production of iron, blast furnaces, the plow
- Development of weaponry and armor
- Invention of paper-codifying ideas and technology
- Clocks, cranks-the wheel
- Algebra, discovered by the Muslims
When the Spanish explorers arrived in North America, they introduced horses, cows, sheep, goats, and pigs. The native population had only dogs, turkeys, and chickens. The author, Jared Diamond, who wrote the book Guns, Germs, and Steel: The fates of human societies, postulates that:
- Farming and domesticating animals provide social stability that is lacking in hunter-gatherer societies. Labor specialization enables certain groups to develop weapons.
- Major portions of Eurasia had a natural advantage in developing agriculture and domesticating animals because of geography and the presence of plants and animals that could be easily domesticated.
- The landmass of Eurasia, laid out on an east-west axis, allowed for the sharing of crops, animals, and ideas. The Americas, stretched out on a north-south axis, traverse climate zones and geographic boundaries that discourage trade.
- The diversity and density of Eurasian populations created an immunity to germs and pathogens, such as the plague, that would later wipe out the more isolated populations of the Americas.
Diamond also postulates, and I strongly agree, that the power of the written word plays a major role in the development and spread of technology. The Puebloan people shared a petro-pictographic communication system that may have been lost in translation across regions, as well as speaking multiple dialects that inhibited cross-tribal sharing of ideas. Cultural and historical retention depends upon storytelling and oral traditions.
Visiting and exploring Chaco Canyon has opened multiple doors into the richness of this region we travel in: geography, geology, culture, astronomy, rock art, the history of pottery in the Americas, the development of technology in the post-classical period. We’ve traveled a long road since our first visit years ago. That beam of sunlight, our Sun Dagger, crosses our spiral of time once again, revealing answers, posing more, and rekindling the wanderlust of living and exploring on the road.
That is a very nice write-up on an incredible place. Thanks!
I grew up in El Paso, TX, and after moving up here to Salt Lake City, I traveled to El Paso at least once or twice a year to see my folks. Traveled the old US 666 two-laner more times than I can count. Then with the nicer 4 lane (in sections) 55O the journey went a little quicker. I have seen the “tail-gating” lights, but never had a problem.
In Jan 2004, my Dad passed, and I took it hard. I decided to make a trip down to Chaco Canyon in February as my Dad so loved the ancient sites and archeology. In my home hang 6 photos from my holes that winter.
The road in sucked then, but I just camped in my tent. But the whole place has an incredible and eery energy. Hiking long trails in February in absolute solitude was incredible. I will never forget that trip, nor will I ever forget the feelings that I had while hiking to there. I got on some remote trails to find some cool shots. And many times I felt definite and nearly undescribable presence. I was not alone even though I saw. O one else on those trails. The ancients were still there somehow. The place is really special and really spiritual, especially when the crowds are gone. It is truly an exceptional treasure. I need to go back, but that road…
Excellent write-up, as usual. That lizard photo is too cool.
Check out the “largest nuclear disaster” in US history that occurred not too far from Chaco…United Nuclear Mine spillage into a tributary of the Little Colorado River.
fear of Spontanious Cumbustion
nice, Ben. a favorite …
What a great read. History, geology, culture, all wrapped together. I have driven by the road to Chaco twice before without turning in. Never again. Thanks for the inspiration.