Camping Trip to Chaco Culture, New Mexico
May, 2004

Click on the small pictures to see larger ones.


The park's layout

The view went on forever

Hungo-Pavi ruins
Mom and Dad drove from Dallas and met Ronna, Mark, and me at the Albuquerque airport on Thursday morning. We had lunch, picked up some Doubleshots, and drove to Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Chaco is also a World Heritage Site, which offers it much more protection and funding. The road into the park is not paved and we all had fun helping Ronna navigate the washboard dirt. We were in a but of a hurry because you cannot reserve campsites in the campground there and it's not a very big campground in the first place. But we arrived in plenty of time and secured a fantastic spot near the back of a box canyon, with high rock walls all around us.

Chaco is a fascinating place, with ruins dating back to 800 A.D. It was apparently a large cultural and trading center for the ancient peoples of South and North America. The Chaco road stretches south to Mexico's Casas Grandes sites and north as far as Utah, with spokes reaching in all directions. There are many ruins of big buildings commonly referred to as "great houses" in the area, some of which had 800+ rooms spanning 5 stories! The masonry of these buildings is truly awe-inspiring, with razor-sharp 90-degree corners and tightly fitted rock walls needing very little mortar to keep them standing.
Chaco's history is mostly lost, despite oral traditions of the Pueblo tribes. In most cases, and despite excavation, it's not even known why the great-houses were constructed. The theory that this was a trading center is supported by the findings in the rooms, but there are still mysteries everywhere. Some of the rooms appear uninhabtable, without fresh air or even a door into them! They were apparently built to be empty! Why? The question plagued me during my visit to Chaco. I just couldn't reconcile the intense work that went into these sites with the fact that they fell into disuse around 1100 A.D. Why work so hard to build something so precise and sturdy only to walk away from it? It boggled my mind. And why is there no cultural "memory" or record of these compounds that took hundreds of years to assemble? Surely each of the Pueblo tribes in America today must have ancestors traced back to this time period. And since there are native stories that date back farther than 800 A.D., why is there such "radio silence" regarding this region?
Did people live here? Or were these just prehistoric bed-and-breakfasts? Why all the kivas? They're mostly the same, just of varying sizes. Were different clans assigned to different kivas? What, exactly, went on in there that the roofs were all deliberately ruined when the site was vacated? I think that many of these questions actually have answers among the living Natives today; but for some reason they choose to remain quiet. If it's sacred, then silence is their religious perogative, but that doesn't cure me of my intense curiosity! If you go there, be sure to watch the hour-long video tape that plays at the Visitor's Center in the auditorium. This tape discusses and illustrates the different astronomical cues by which the various great-houses were constructed. It's very impressive and inspiring. It's also frustrating as it asks more questions than it answers.
I have so many pictures to share - click on the images below to see them all

Our campsite

The hike up to Pueblo Alto

The hike to Penasco Blanco

In addition to the ruins that tourists are permitted to visit, there is an astronomical and archeological site on top of Fajada Butte, a distinctive square rock jutting from the canyon floor. On a vertical rock face near the top, there are two spiral petroglyphs and several very large slabs of granite that are leaned against them. At pivotal times of the year (two weeks prior to noon on the solstices and equinoxes), the slabs cast very precise shadows against the spiral petroglyphs so that it looks like arrows are piercing them. Hikers and sightseers have caused the earth beneath the slabs to erode, though, and the slabs have shifted so that the effect has been ruined. The Park Service worked with the region's Natives to decide whether to reposition the slabs or not; the decision was made to leave them as is. Thus one of the most accurate solar calendar clocks ever known has been broken. What a shame that this functioned perfectly for over a thousand years only to be ruined in less than thirty (the workings were discovered in 1974 by accident). I was not able to climb up and see this for myself but here are a few links to websites that illustrate how the clock worked:
  • Study funded by the National Park Service in 1992. This study contains wonderful descriptions of the various functions of Fajada Butte and has pictures of sites that we are not permitted to see today. The study was conducted with the assistance of many of the Pueblo tribes and contains much of their lore regarding Chaco.

  • The Solstice Project. This is the project founded by the woman who discovered the Fajada Butte solar calender in the 1970's. This site has great pictures of the Sun Dagger piercing the petroglyph spirals, a sight which we will never see again.

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