Although threatened by fracking and more and more visited, the prehistoric site remains to some extent unexplained, in spite of many scholarly efforts. Tourists are to some degree limited by the exceedingly rough dirt road, eighteen miles long, that leads from the highway to the site. After a rain, this road becomes an impassable adobe quagmire. Several years back, when I visited Chaco with my friend Bill, there was a sudden rain storm; my little Ford Ranger was stuck on the road until Bill decided that the only way out was to back—eighteen miles—to the paved highway. And it worked.
Besides, there are no amenities at Chaco; one public restroom actually has a tap for hot water, toilets but no showers, and there is nowhere to spend the night unless you are willing to camp. Bloomfield, thirty or so miles west on the highway, offers the standard chain motel with sheets and blankets made out of fabrics that seem at least partly cardboard and one café that features canned peas.
So this is not a destination for most of us, who have become accustomed to comfort, even luxury—and comfort or luxury have become our priority.
But I loved the baldness of my visit last weekend to Chaco; sleeping on the ground, during two nights in May when the temperature dropped into the thirties, was an ordeal of amazing benefits, in terms not only my sore back and knees but my renewed realization that bodily comfort matters less to me than I’d assumed—although dragging myself, naked, out of my sleeping bag to walk five hundred yards to the toilet in the middle of the night did test my mettle.
The moon was full during our two-day visit, which was sponsored and organized by Earthwalks, surely the best run and most pleasing expedition I’ve ever been a part of. The group of twenty of so people was chosen through the exercise of serendipity, but the serendipity our leader, Doug Conwell, is extraordinary.As was slowly revealed during our two days and nights together, all of us are spiritual seekers of no particular brand or type: Quakers, agnostics, members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Budhists of many stripes, pantheists (the group into which I fit more easily) or simply souls on the road.
As our spiritual and practical guides, we had a family from the Pueblo of Tesuque, who fixed our food, told us some of their stories, and even played an improvised song, perhaps for the Basket Dance, on a dish drainer scraped with a plastic ladle.
We left the campground several times, as a group, to walk through the central ruin, Pueblo Bonito, a vast assemblage of reconstructed stone walls that formed a multitude of storage rooms and kivas. Chaco was never lived in by more than a handful of people—there is no midden here and only two graves of exceptionally tall people who may have been priests—but it was a center for spiritual ceremony, with roads thirty feet wide radiating out to distant outposts to the north, and down to Mexico. Connections with prehistoric civilizations in Mexico is shown by the Pacific ocean shells, parrot and macaw cages that were the fruit of abundant trade.
The huge rocks and mighty tree trunks that went into the construction of these temples had to be hauled from a mountain range at least fifty miles away, and the Chacoans had no wheels or beasts of burden.
The complex—there are many other large buildings in this desert canyon—was built by what must have been an enormous crowd of native workers between the 9th and the 12th century. By 1150, the place was deserted.There is much speculation about what happened: drought? Failure of leadership? Prophesy? Whatever the cause, an orderly dispersal carried everyone who had once used Chaco as a spiritual and trading center south and east to found new villages in the Rio Grande Valley. These are the pueblos that survive and flourish today.
But really, everything about Chaco remains a mystery, with startling revelations cropping up from time to time and causing controversy: were these people cannibals, as a recent book called “Man Corn” claims, or as in “Chaco Meridian,” only one of three vast centers that controlled the political and social development of the South West and Central America?
The central site at Chaco is an enormous mound of stone and dirt called “La Bahada”, or “belted,” due to the black band of stone that circles it. On the top of this butte, a group of stones was pierced with an aperture through which the rays of the rising sun struck on the solstice. Called The Sundagger, this phenomenon proved the astronomical expertise of the Chacoans.
But tourists who climbed up over the years to witness the event caused the stones to shift, and now the site is off limits. Anna Sofaer’s documentary, The Sundagger, is the only way to view the astronomical miracle on La Bahada.
Now that some of us are beginning to accept the connection between just about everything, it occurred to me when we were talking about the abandonment of Chaco that the mid-1150’s was close to the start of the great cathedral building period in Europe. Was Chartre the universe’s answer to the collapse of Chaco?
Astonishing, and mysterious, as Pueblo Bonito is, the people in our group struck me as even more astonishing, although perhaps a little less mysterious. We are hoping not to lose track of each other; one woman is saying she’ll hold a potluck this summer, and another expedition is being planned, a rafting trip on the Chama River.
As a final dollop of pleasure, three of us drove home through the tiny mountain town of Jemez and soaked in the Zen Center’s hot springs. In another proof of faith in the innate goodness of our fellow human beings, the Center is open to everyone with no gate, no supervisor, and only the request for a donation to help to cover operating expenses. And, added to the pleasure of the hot mineral water soak was the equally great pleasure of silence—until a rock band at the neighboring café struck up. But I had to relent and like that experience, too, because we were served a delicious lunch there by a nearly-toothless woman who in spite of being on her feet all day was an exemplar of sweetness and light.
So there are miracles…
[A demonstration of The Sundagger is available online: The Sundagger Explorer.
Chaco has been on my mind for years. I started a play about Willa Cather’s trip to the southwest, based on a fragment from a biography; since I was not being literal, I spelled her name with one ‘l’. The unfinished play is now available on this site.]