Mesa Verde and the Road to Chaco Canyon

Mesa Verde and the Road to Chaco Canyon

We left Moab in the morning, heading southeast. We found ourselves caught in that situation where there was so much we wanted to see, and not really enough time to see it all. In Washington we had this same experience, and so we crossed a number of places off our list and spent three weeks exploring the Olympic Peninsula. It gave as an intimate and intensive exploration of the varied beauty of that area, and in itself could have lasted many more days, weeks. But leaving Moab, I couldn’t make that same choice. I wanted to see it all. I felt the clock ticking. I felt winter moving in. I felt Christmas nearing and that also meant our flight home. This area around the Four Corners is so extensively rich with cultural and natural history that we already felt there were so much we were missing, and I didn’t want to cross off any more.

So we left Moab early, and we headed to Colorado for lunch. The road was scarcely populated. Snow clung to the shadows, and tall grasses waved in the wind. We were crossing the Colorado plateau. We passed small towns, derelict, they looked like they had been inhabited for as long as Europeans had been on these lands, and had only changed in the ways that the outside world had imposed on them.

We came at last to Mesa Verde, following advice from the ranger and heading straight to the end of the road, whipping past enticing new views to a place where people had abandoned their homes on the flat tops of mesas and taken to fortresses in the cliffs.

Mesa Verde is an enchanting snapshot of history where cliff dwellings became a way of life. The land encompassed by the park exhibits the development of culture over hundreds of years, and it teases the visitor with the stories it starts and questions it leaves unanswered.

Excavated from the earth-moving progress of time, we stood looking at layers of life, where villages had burned and been rebuilt, where ritual and ceremony had taken place, where fires had been kept and food had possibly been stored. The pieces of ruin suggested generations and generations of development and cultural growth, culminating at last in a decision to abandon the plateaus and move into the cliffs. But why? The question still lingers in my mind.

The cliff dwellings held me enchanted too. I stared for long minutes at them, clouds changing shape in the sky and the sun creeping past lunch and towards its bed in the west. I watched history play back in my mind, as best as my mind could recreate it. I saw people scale the cliff walls and climb up into their homes. I observed the patterns that life weaved there in the canyon, the movements of the village and ceremony. The stories they told around fires. I looked for hints at how they kept warm in the winters, and then inevitably, moved on with another question hanging heavily in the air – why did they abandon the cliff dwellings and leave this area?

I suppose there are answers somewhere, theories and hypotheses, stories and old understandings, but I haven’t looked for them. With more time I’d have sat longer, perused book shelves and stories. But we left that same day and headed into the dusk, the sun setting off to our right. We were on our way to Chaco Canyon.

Chaco is a place of magic and imagination so enticing that it has held a special place in my mind for many years since I first learned of it while at university. We came at night. The sun had long since set before we came to the road that would take us to Chaco Canyon. We knew there was a campground at the end of the road, but we also knew we were required to pass a dirt road before we reached camp that warned of being impassable after heavy rain. It had been some days since heavy rain, so we took it on.

In the dark of northwest New Mexico, hours from a town or city, we started down a gravel road. It was a very well maintained gravel road. We passed at a cautious speed, the occasional piece of rock flicking up and making a cracking sound in the bottom of our car. Little passed by in the headlights, just fences along the side, and some grass. I wondered about the landscape we were driving through. And then the gravel road ended and the dirt road began.

Out here, there is a section of road that is not claimed by federal, state, or tribal law. It is a political stalemate, and in that, is not maintained by anyone, as far as we could tell. Thinking of it now, the only thing I can liken it to is leaving Breaksea Sound in the Department of Conversation vessel Southern Winds on a stormy day. When the tide is heading out and the swell coming in, they cross over each other and form great waves, reaching as high as 7m and still being navigable in our vessel when they aren’t breaking. It’s a wild and exciting roller coast ride in the safety of the Southern Winds with one of our immensely experienced skippers at the helm, rolling up and crashing down the waves, rocking and pitching and yawing.

Not so on the dirt road to Chaco Canyon. In the dark our headlights cast long shadows behind the towering waves of solid dirt and made them look intimidatingly large to our small ’96 Toyota Tercel. Great ruts in the road caught our wheels and pulled us further into bad situations. The white caps of this solid dirt ocean scraped menacingly on the bottom of our little car, and still we carried on. The car rocking and pitching, whining and creaking. We didn’t have alternatives for camping, short of driving many hours back the direction we had come. We were hungry and there was nowhere to buy food, so we were going to set up our camp stove somewhere.

And still we carried on, and amazingly, we were passed by more than one vehicle in the isolated and lonely black of night, all large 4WDs bumping comfortably across the expanse of tumultuous broken dirt. I watched their headlights illuminate the black around us and then disappear again as they grew small in the darkness down the road. They were the Southern Winds. Compared to them, we were leaving Breaksea Sound on a stormy day in a dinghy.

At about the point when we decided we had to turn around and go back for fear of wrecking our vehicle, the dirt road finally gave way to a perfectly paved surface. We were back on ‘federal lands’ entering the national monument, and we were stunned into silence at the impeccable maintenance of that paved road, bothered through our own intimate understanding of government and stakeholder standoffs that no-one would extend their helping hand to the section of dirt road.

We reached the campground and chose a site. It was cold. Very cold. We made dinner there as quickly as we could under the magnificent stars, and before diving into the tent to sleep, I stood there in the frozen night with all lights of our camp extinguished, and looked up at the sky. I thought, even if we saw nothing else, this is enough. Even if we hadn’t made it down the dirt road and had never come to Chaco, just stopping and seeing these stars would have been enough, because all of culture and time is told in these stars. This moment I am holding right now, this same moment has played out in time again and again and again and again all throughout history. I am standing here staring at the same sky that the native people of this land of thousands of years ago stopped and stared at too. And I wondered then what they made of the sky and the stars and the movement of the planets. And I knew too that they made a lot of it given the intimate understanding they are theorised to have held and recreated in the celestial design of the Chaco Canyon cities. But I wondered, what did they really make of it? Looking up at this sky? What thoughts went through their minds then? What animals did they share that moment with, creeping in the shadow of night all around this isolated desert landscape? And I thought too of the changes that have come to our skies, because as I looked up there were multiple satellites skirting across the stars in different directions reflecting the light. There would be planes too, at times. And I felt then that even the sky wasn’t the same sky that they looked at. And so, I went to bed. We would see Chaco Canyon in any case I thought, this place I have dreamed about for so many years now. We made it down the dirt road. I didn’t realise that yet another obstacle was still to come the following day. And so, I fell asleep.

See Mesa Verde and Canyonlands (another beautiful park near Arches)

Read about Chaco Canyon

Jump back in time to Arches


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