Sunday, November 04, 2007

Sunday morning. We are back in the land of cell phone and internet connections after camping in Chaco Canyon (last night a mere 28 degrees), an unforgettable experience. Our tent backed up against massive boulders; when the sun came up, the temperature immediately jumped 20 degrees. Canyon Towhees hopped around camp as if we would feed them, but all is protected here, ruins, animals, even the ground we walk upon. In fact, Chaco Canyon is a sacred place, made nearly inaccessible by the heavily washboarded gravel road of 16 miles (rangers want the road to stay as is as they live in Chaco Canyon or drive government cars; workers prefer a paved road, given their experience of rattle-me-bones rides and break-downs in private cars).

Chaco Canyon resonates in the imagination. We continued our study of Puebloan peoples, hiked along Petroglyph Trail and the challenging Pueblo Alto canyon rim trail to the Pueblo Alto complex (4.5 miles). Imagine a stone trail straight up. Ancient Puebloans climbed to the tops of the mesa using toe and hand holds. We clambered over large stones, slowly, at every step thanking any spirit who listened for our walking sticks. No one can explain with any certainty what motivated these peoples, why they came and why about 1100-1200, they simply left. Over 150 great houses were built here, complete with many circular underground rooms (kivas), used primarily (archaeologists say) for ceremony, prayer and community meetings. Most of the hundreds of rooms in the great houses do not show evidence they were lived in, though hundreds of thousands of hours of work went into building these massive stone building complexes, perhaps somewhat like our urban areas, where people live in one place and work and pray in others.

The researchers know quite a bit about what materials were used, when buildings were built, and they are beginning to understand how the buildings were connected in some larger patterns. Astroarcheologists discovered three great stones at the very top of Fajada Butte (see picture at top of this entry) that cast sunlight onto a stone circle carved on the cliff face in such a way as to predict the winter and summer solstice accurately. Fajada Butte is now closed, though, as the added weight of people visiting this site (primarily researchers) compacted the soil, leading to erosion. The three great stones settled, throwing off how that splinter of light that crossed the stone circle, after so many hundreds of years, no longer a predictor of the solstices.

Hiking along the Pueblo Alto Canyon Rim trail, we were able to see Pueblo Bonito from above, its half circle architecture setting a pattern for all of the great houses in the canyon and beyond. This is the oldest great house (850 to 1150), oriented to the sun, the moon, the sacred mountains and mesas, and to other shrines and great houses throughout this region. The photo I took doesn't do justice to the scale of this Great House, comprised of over 100 ground-floor and upper-story rooms with between 3-5 kivas in its first phase of construction (850-950). Even the ways the walls were constructed is fascinating, finely shaped bricks chipped from stone, arranged in beautiful patterns at times, covered with a mud plaster veneer and painted, though the paint and designs are long washed away. What remains are the bricks. Any wall is made of two outer walls of carefully shaped stones; inside the two walls is a "fill" of mud and sandstone rocks roughly shaped into bricks. And the great plaza all encircled with protective walls.

Also along the Pueblo Alto rim trail, we saw the famous hand and toe holds ancient Puebloans used to climb to the mesa top, and a very old stone circle high on the mesa top overlooking the canyon floor, about 20 feet in diameter, used for ceremony. Offerings of turquoise were sometimes left in small hand-sized round polished holes cut out of the sandstone. And then we saw petroglyphs which have only partial descriptions in guidebooks. Our favorite petroglyph, 35 feet high above the Petroglyph trail, and thankfully free of conemporary graffiti, shows a human/supernatural figure, a mountain goat and a Katsina mask.

Which brings me to muggles. We saw muggles in Chaco Canyon. Despite clear signs posted everywhere that these sites should be treated as sacred, people touched or sat on kiva walls, spoke loudly, and hiked off trail. The worst muggles we saw let dogs loose in Casa Rinconada. The first we knew, three large dogs were chasing a rabbit right through this Great House site and up the side of the mesa wall, despite signs that said no pets. Even the earliest researchers were unwittingly muggles as they burned kiva ladders for firewood in the cold mesa back in the 1900s. So I have sympathy for the rangers who advocate keeping that gravel road as a deterrent to too many visitors and those who insist on covering up these ruins to protect them. No excavations are planned; today, researchers use a kind of technology that allows them to analyze the contents under the soil without digging.

The films about Chaco Canyon were useful; one summarized archaeological finds, the other focused on the Native American view of Chaco. A good first introduction to Chaco could be People of Chaco by Kendrick Frazier. Chaco Canyon can be romanticized, but what remains for me is a sense of the beauty of this place; it marks history, philosophy, architecture, and rich spiritual beliefs (even if we cannot decipher them) of an ancient people. The site is still revered as being the ancestors of many native peoples in the Southwest, starting with the Navajo. And so it should be.

Today we head for Four Corners and then to Monument Valley. May the week be a good one for you. Beth

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