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Chaco Canyon

Originally Published in MotorHome Magazine

Visiting the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in the northwestern quadrant of New
Mexico is like traveling through a time warp. It’s a step back to a window of time between
850 and 1250, when the Pueblo people created a unique world, unlike anything before or
since. Seen in the mid-1800s for the first time through the eyes of non-Native Americans
who were exploring what appeared to be a vast and empty expanse, these massive high-rise
structures have awed visitors ever since. Excavation began about 1900, but the efforts
during the 1920s that put Chaco Canyon on the map were the joint excavations by the
Smithsonian Institution and the National Geographic Society. This moribund civilization was
sophisticated in its understanding of celestial bodies. These people developed mechanisms
that marked the exact dates of the winter and summer solstices and the spring and autumnal
equinoxes, information that helped them to set their ceremonial calendar and to work in
concert with the seasons and the environment in the planting and harvesting of crops
(predominately corn). The plethora of “great-houses,” as they have come to be called, were
large, complex, multilevel structures — up to five stories in height — with hundreds of
rooms and many giant subterranean ceremonial chambers called kivas, plus massive plazas.
The complexes formed the heart of the Chacoan world. The current thinking is that these
great-houses were where the Chacoans from outlying villages would come at prescribed times
to participate in religious ceremonies, store surplus foodstuffs or obtain food, and
conduct trade. There is evidence that the Chaco Canyon people traded with the people of
Mexico. Plumage from parrots and macaws, as well as seashells, have been excavated from
these sites — items that could only have come from their neighbors to the south. The most
impressive great-house is Pueblo Bonito, a high-rise structure that at its peak included
800 rooms, 40-plus kivas and several plazas. The construction of Pueblo Bonito began in 850
and lasted until 1250. Renderings at the visitor center show how Pueblo Bonito looked in
its heyday, and they show why it was the cultural and trade center of the Chacoan world.
That world included areas that now are part of Colorado, Utah and Arizona. The age-dating
of the structures built during the various periods has been achieved by a process called
tree-ring dating. Cores or samples of the timbers found in the walls have been drilled out
and measured against tree-ring scales at the University of Tucson. Another way of dating
the building of the great-houses is by the type of masonry used. Masonry during the Chacoan
civilization evolved through four distinct stages, all featuring a common denominator
called core-and-veneer. This consisted of using stones on the face of the interior and
exterior of the walls, with a core of mud mortar mixed with pieces of rock to fill the area
between the interior and exterior surfaces. The walls were then faced with mud, which was
an easy way to prevent rainwater from seeping in and destroying the integrity of the mortar
that held the facing or stones of the veneer together. One of the things that point to the
fact that long-range planning and complex engineering went into massive projects like
Pueblo Bonito is the foundations of the great-houses. Rock-rubble and clay-mortar
foundations were laid before the building of walls began. If additions were made to the
layout of a great-house during construction, new foundations were added. To be able to
coordinate the building of great-houses like Pueblo Bonito, Pueblo Arroyo and Chetro Ketl,
the Chacoans must have had good organizational and management skills, as well as surplus
labor. This, along with the emphasis on religion and the ceremonial practices that are now
thought to have been the main purpose of the great-houses, are all key indicators of an
advanced civilization. Other indications of the advanced status of the Chacoans is their
system of well-maintained roads that connected Chaco Canyon to other great-houses (and
there were many) that were miles away. Aerial photographs show that these roads went for
hundreds of miles in an absolutely straight-arrow fashion. The Chacoans also built systems
to control and collect floodwater for use in irrigation. In the 1200s, probably over the
course of several decades, the Chacoan people migrated to new areas where cultural centers
emerged as Aztec, Zuni and Hopi. Three hundred years would pass before the pastoral Navajo
moved into this region. After finding these ruined great-houses towering high into the sky,
the Navajo gave the people who had once lived here the name Anasazi, or Ancient Ones. Among
the canyon’s most fascinating features are the spiral petroglyphs carved into the face of
the rock near the top of Fajada Butte, the most prominent geological feature in the canyon.
Along with these spiral ‘glyphs are three vertically aligned slabs of stone that cast a
line of light at precise locations across the spiral ‘glyphs, depending upon whether it is
the winter or summer solstice, or an equinox. It has even been suggested that the 19-year
cycle of the moon was also factored into the position of the slabs and the spiral ‘glyphs.
That’s how sophisticated these people were. So why did they leave Chaco Canyon? Historians
think that a long period of drought, lasting perhaps many decades, may have forced the
Chacoans to give up farming and move elsewhere. Through the tribal history of Native
Americans, which has been passed down through generations, it is now thought that the 19
pueblos (Taos, Acoma, Zuni, Hopi, etc.) are descendants of the Chaco Canyon people. What
really happened here no one knows for sure. It is quite possible that whatever occurred
here will never be fully understood. Before You Go Getting to Chaco Canyon
is half the adventure. It’s truly off the beaten path. The roads in from the south are not
recommended. The road from the north turns off U.S. 550 onto CR 7900 (paved for the first
five miles), then onto CR 7950, where it turns to graded dirt, so take your time. If it’s
raining, portions of the road can turn into a slick soup; go at your own risk. The dirt
portion of the road is 16 miles long, but the road inside the park is paved. Take all the
provisions you will need, including fuel and firewood for the fire rings at the campground.
When you arrive, claim your campsite first (preferably in the morning) because the
availability of RV sites is limited and they’re on a first-come, first-served basis. You
can pay for your site ($10) at the campground. There is a dump station and rest rooms, but
no hookups. The peak season is late spring to early fall; weekends and holidays are the
busiest. Drinking water is available at the visitor center, where campers pay the $8
entrance fee. The center is excellent, with a knowledgeable staff, informative films and
museum presentations. Located within a few minutes of the center, near Una Vida, are
petroglyphs that are well worth the short stroll it takes to see them, although the last
few steps are steep. Day-hiking permits can be obtained at the visitor center for four
backcountry trails that require them. A nine-mile paved loop road will take you to most of
the great-houses. At these stops, permits are not required.

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