I woke up just after 6, New Mexico time. I figure I slept about 9 hours. The Sun was not quite up yet. I took a hot shower. It was 56 degrees out Thursday, September 6th. I had to figure out where I was going to sleep that night. I had two choices: I could spend the day at Chaco Canyon, and try to spend the night there, or visit the canyon and then find someplace to crash closer to home. There was a number to call for road conditions to the canyon, but all I got was a recording that there was “construction ongoing” in the park. I decided to go for it.
Out of what cash I'd started out with, I had just over 1/6th left. Satori's oil level was good. I policed the room, loaded up the car, and filled my water bottles. The motel was on a tricky intersection. I took no chances and circled around until I could head east safely. I needed to follow Highway 64 to Bloomfield, then turn south on Highway 550. 
I stopped for gas at a station across the street from the Wonderful Buffet. A sign at one fast food place declared “The peach shake is back!” The slogan at the Taco Boy restaurant was “Taco ‘bout good!” There was a chill in the air as I got $20 worth of gas. I almost got out the hoodie. It was nine miles to Bloomfield, where I almost missed the turn south. It was a nice 4-lane with wide shoulders. I passed a bunch of much fancier motels and an RV park that seemed to be right on the banks of the San Juan River. There were some high clouds, but I figured they’d burn off as the day wore on. Traffic was pretty steady; there were lots of pickups and trucks, almost no cars. I passed the Blanco Trading Post right before 9; it looked closed. The ground alongside the highway was all dug up for a pipeline. The Nageezi Trading Post also looked closed. The turnoff was three miles away.
When I made the turn, a sign said the visitor center was 21 miles away. There were lots of colorful rock outcroppings that reminded me of the Painted Desert. Wildflowers lined the road. The landscape was sage and tenacious scrub brush. Life kept a stubborn grip on the land. It was just a narrow asphalt road, but four miles in lines appeared in the middle of the road. A couple of little farm houses were scattered here and there, sometimes with a traditional Navajo hogon. 
Eight miles from the highway, the pavement ended and turned into a dirt road. Only, it wasn’t just dirt: it was a hard-packed, washboarded, craters of the Moon bumpy road. I had to slow way down to almost 10 MPH just to keep the van from shaking apart. I wasn’t in any hurry. A local pickup started coming down the road towards me just as I noticed a black SUV behind me. This place sure got crowded all of a sudden, I thought. When the SUV with Texas plates rolled past me, I thought maybe the road wasn’t as bad as I thought, but the road proved me wrong when I tried to speed up. Five miles down the dirt road, a sign said the speed limit was 35. Ha! I was in open range, and a couple of cows looked at me with disinterest as I bounced past. I kept thinking, I must really want to get to this place.
Around a curve, I passed a New Mexico DOT truck parked alongside the road. Finally, the gate to the park appeared, and I was back on smooth pavement again. It took me 54 minutes to go 13 miles of dirt road. It was 2 ½ miles to the visitor center. On the way, I passed the campground, which had its own ruin. Majestic Fajada Butte came into view, and I pulled into the visitor center parking lot. Bathrooms were my first priority.
When I walked inside, I had my camera over my shoulder. Someone said, “There’s somebody ready for Chaco Canyon!” I paid my fee, and the nice ranger lady gave me tips on exploring the canyon. I mentioned spending the night in the campground, and she said there were sites still available. There was even a planned lecture at sunset. It was something to ponder. Right behind the center was a trail over to Una Vida, an unexcavated “great house” that was at least two stories tall and had 124 rooms—they think, because Una Vida remains much as it was when it was first discovered: half-buried. The park leaves it the way it is to show what an unexplored ruin looks like.
The remains of dozens of great houses are all over Chaco Canyon, and roads lead from them to more than 150 smaller houses in the area.  The Una Vida wall that was exposed was bulging out, and looked dangerously unstable. Signs tell everybody to not climb on the walls, and probably not because they're being proactive. Finger-size lizards skittered out of the way, and I passed ant hills a yard wide.
The mile-long trail takes you past Una Vita and up to the stone cliffs overlooking the great house, where there are petroglyphs. I was sucking air as I climbed to the base of the cliffs, and suddenly, there they were, about 15 feet up on the cliff face. One set of pictures had a precarious ledge the artist could have maybe balanced on, but that was it. There was some nice shade up near the cliffs, but I knew it wouldn’t last. The hike down was a lot easier. 
I got in the van and started driving road around the canyon. Off to the right, I could see the ruins of Kin Nahasbas, built in the 9th or 10th Century, which was not open to the public. There was a bike rack in the little parking lot when I stopped at Hungo Pavi. The park encourages people to explore the canyon on bikes, just not on the trails.
The trail at Hungo Pavi led right into rooms and around the back wall. The cliffs behind the great house are very close. As I drove to the next ruin, I noticed a steep, narrow gulch running the length of the canyon. It did not look easy to cross on foot. It served to explain why most of the buildings were on the north side.

I stopped at the next parking lot and took the trail up to Chetro Ketl. Many cars were already parked there. Brochures were available for borrowing, so I read as I went. Some kind of animal scurried into the brush as I climbed the trail. Part of the house was left unexcavated. Pieces of wall material lay scattered everywhere. Some of the wall was red, and the brochure said that happens when the stones are burned. They didn’t know why. Originally it had about 140 rooms and covered three acres. Part of it is elevated, in that tons of rock were hauled in to build it higher. One south wall had a row of windows that looked like they had been bricked up.

The great kiva was huge, and there were other, smaller kivas. I was impressed with some round windows that reminded me of medieval loopholes, and what looked like an figure-8-shaped kiva. Supports have been added to help hold the walls together. Between the cliff walls and Chetro Ketl is a smaller group of buildings called the Talus Unit. It reminded me of servant’s quarters, or maybe a spare house where the in-laws lived.
There was a trail that ran long the canyon wall from Chetro Ketl to Pueblo Bonito. Along the way, there were petroglyphs carved into the stone. A fence keeps tourists from getting too close. 

Along the way, I was impressed with a huge honking rock slab, as big as a house, balanced on its edge next to the cliff face. I wondered if anyone worried about it falling over… because it wouldn’t be the first time. 

There used to be a rock just like it –called, appropriately, Threatening Rock—right behind the biggest of Chaco Canyon’s great houses, Pueblo Bonito. In 1941, the rock did indeed fall over, crushing about 60 rooms. The petroglyph trail takes you right up to where Threatening Rock fell, and gives you and overview of the massive structure. 

Pueblo Bonito had about 650 rooms, and maybe as many as 800, each of them at least as big as the smallest apartment I ever lived in. There were several other tourists walking among the ruins. I came across an old man sitting in the shade of an ancient wall; he moved along with he saw me. Most of my visit, it looked like I was the only one there, my footsteps the only sound.

The whole place just went on and on. Walking around the smaller kivas, I tried to imagine thousands of people living here, going about their daily chores, cooking and cleaning and tending stock. Thick, wooden beams shore up vulnerable walls. I stood on the edge of the great kiva, and wondered about the wedge-shaped spaced around the kiva walls. What were those little rooms used for?

The trail took me down into the rooms themselves. The doorways were only waist-high in some places. Inside, I looked up at what would have been three floors of apartments above me. The place had hundreds of rooms like that. Some rooms had windows into other rooms; I imagined families using them to share food and to just sit and talk. Outside was a guy with a camera and tripod. He was already there when I arrived. I asked, “Get any good ones?” “Hope so!” he said.

The road branched off and took me over to Pueblo Del Arroyo. There was some climbing to get into the ruins, but once inside it took me all around and through the rooms. There is a good view of the South Gap between West Mesa and South Mesa. Some guys from Texas, I think, were touring the ruins. “This was condo living a thousand years ago,” one commented. I looked at what the brochure called the unique “tri-wall” structure of the kiva. The concentric circles reminded me of the spiral patterns so often seen in Native American petroglyphs. Was there a connection?
Back in the parking lot, a couple from Missouri remarked at the dust still all over Satori. “Looks like you’ve been down the same kind of roads we have,” they said. I crossed a small bridge and stopped at Casa Rinconada, one of the few ruins on the south side of the canyon. That was also the trailhead for a path leading up to Tsin Kletsin, the 81-room house on top of the South Mesa. For that you need a backcountry permit, but the permits are free, and the park provides permits for you to fill out right at the parking lot. I had not planned on hiking the loop trail, since it takes up to three hours, so I just explored Casa Rinconada. There were several buildings, all leading up to a great kiva that sits elevated on a little hill. The 63-foot diameter kiva is almost perfectly round, and on the summer solstice the Sun shines into one particular niche in the wall. In addition, there is a 39-foot long tunnel dug out of the sandstone running under the kiva, its purpose unknown. I stood outside the kiva and looked north to Pueblo Bonito. It was less than a mile away, the features very distinct. If the people who lived here knew what window to look at, they could have easily waved to their friends.
What was it like to live in Chaco Canyon, at the center of commerce for a native culture? Chaco Canyon used to be a big player in pre-Columbian America. Today, it's not near anything. A major highway doesn't even come near it. It's a humbling lesson in just how tenuous and fragile "a major center of commerce" could be. I listened to my footsteps on the gravel trail as I made my way back to Satori. I stopped, and marveled at the silence… but then, it wasn’t completely silent. I listened closely, and heard the buzzing of a bug, the skitter of a lizard, the soft rustle of the breeze through the scattered trees. It was the absence of human-made sounds—the rumble of an engine, the hum of an air conditioner—that made me associate it with silence.

I wondered about the people who lived here, and how it must have broken their hearts to leave. I wondered what did the last Chacoan think as he looked over his shoulder at the home of his fathers as it faded into the distance... As it turns out, however, that's not how it happened. Ancient peoples were not married to the land like modern people are, and when it got too hard to live in Chaco Canyon, the people moved away-- but not in a mass exodus, but slowly, groups and families at a time. There are Native American families all across the Southwest with oral histories that trace ancestors back to Chaco Canyon.

The clouds were amazing all day, like big, fluffy white puppies playing on a blue carpet. I drove back to the visitor’s center. Inside, there were only a couple more names in the guest book after mine. The gift shop was very happy to see me as I got gifts for people back home. I decided I’d seen all I wanted to see that day. I didn’t see everything in Chaco Canyon, and that didn’t bother me at all; it just gave me something to look forward to next time, for I knew I would someday return.
Outside, I heard a loud noise, and a big raven, as big as my forearm, stood on a nearby picnic table. An arriving park ranger said that if I waited long enough, I’d see him attacking the trash cans. “They’ve figured out how to open them,” she said. Other tourists were gathering in the parking lot, preparing to leave. I held back and let them go on ahead. It was just after 2 PM when I left the visitor’s center. 

Past the campground, I noticed some cows moving along the ridge… and a lone cow following along on top of the ridge. Somehow, she’d gotten separated from the herd back where the ridge merged at ground level, and was trying to keep up, but every step just took her further into danger. I hoped she'd be all right. 

I hit the dirt road again, and slowed down for a bumpy ride again. I remembered some smooth parts of the road, where I could speed up to, whoa, 35 MPH, but then I’d hit a rough spot and have to slow down again. I didn’t want a blown tire. The slow-going at least let me admire the landscape. The DOT truck was right where I passed it that morning. Several vehicles passed me coming and going, even a car from Oklahoma, and I figured I’d better get my shock absorbers checked once I got home. It took about an hour to get back to pavement, and the dirt road was like riding in a washing machine right up to the last foot. Once I got to asphalt, everything was smooth sailing. I got back to Highway 550, and passed a Red Man Express gas station as I turned south.

Rocky, colorful hills lined the way. Twelve miles down the road, I topped a 7,000-foot summit at mile marker 102, and Satori did very well. There were several more summits for the next half hour until I crossed the Continental Divide just after 4 PM. I looked for a gas station when I got to Cuba, and settled on a Circle K store. That’s where I got $20 worth of gas. The smartphone reported “no phone network” so I couldn’t call home just yet. It was 63 miles to Bernalillo. Just outside of town, Satori clicked over 277,000 miles.

It looked like rain ahead. There were some clouds forming over a pair of buttes off to the west. I found a Mexican station on the radio. The sky darkened, and gusty winds really started to blow. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I was pretty hungry by then, but particularly I’d been hungry for a Wendy’s hamburger. As I pulled into Bernalillo, I was passing the Enchanted Hills Shopping Center when I saw a Wendy’s up ahead—but, it was situated on a corner where I couldn’t get to it. Location fail.

I got on Interstate 25 and headed south. It was 39 miles to Albuquerque. Minutes later, I got some sprinkles, that came and went the whole journey down I-25. The wind picked up even more. I turned onto Interstate 40, and found myself stopped in a big traffic jam. There was an accident in the inside lane up ahead, and traffic was having to be funneled around it. I took a wrong turn and ended up on Coors Avenue. I was looking for a way to turn around when.. there was a Wendy’s! When I tried to change lanes, I was almost sideswiped by a guy in a pickup more interested in his Ipod than driving, but I managed to get off the road and get my cheeseburger. Halfway through my meal, I realized I was in a much better mood. It was the first real food I’d had all day.

I picked up some beer at the drug store across the street and headed back to the interstate. I exited about 10 miles down the road and pulled in at the High Desert RV Park. The lowest rate I’d seen was $17 a night, but since I was “dry camping” with no hookups, they only charged me $10 to camp. They put me in spot 203, right in front of the office. I took a hot shower and called home. I only drove 252 miles that day; it seemed a lot longer. I uploaded a picture to Facebook just in time, because the local network connection went away after dark. It was very windy, and lightning flashed in the distance. Above, an American flag flapped straight out from the flagpole. The office had a nice lounge to sit and write, but it closed after dark, too. I had a beer in the back of the van and listened to my MP3 player, which I found in my first aid kit, of all places. I bundled up in the back and had no trouble falling asleep.

Prologue  Aug. 22  Aug. 23  Aug. 24  Aug. 25 
Sunday  Monday  Tuesday  Wednesday  Thursday  Friday  Saturday  Sunday  Monday 
Sept. 4  Sept. 5  Sept. 6  Sept. 7 & Epilogue
Original material (c)opyright 2012 by Tim Frayser
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LINKS: Chaco Culture National Historical Park 
Last updated: September, 2012