Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon

When I felt the sun rising early the next morning, I knew I wouldn’t sleep any longer. Our relationship with the patterns of that great life-giving star had become so intimate that it governed our patterns of waking and sleeping. The growing light urged me gently awake and encouraged me to start my day. It held a welcome vibrance. It filled the spaces of the tent with the quiet energy and soft inspiration of morning. I had come to love being awoken by the sun.

I felt the sun rising, and my eyes fluttered open. I was filled with tired groggy excitement for daylight, because we hadn’t yet seen our surroundings. This is perhaps the only benefit of arriving somewhere after nightfall. I sat up and looked out the window, the little section at the head of our tent where the fly is held out by a pole and can be zipped open to give us a view. The sun was going to rise directly out our window over a long low mesa that made up the edge of a small canyon that we were camped in. And it was beautiful. So beautiful. Every morning was beautiful waking up like this. Ice clung on all sides inside the tent, and started to catch the light and reflect little sparkles. As the sun crept above the mesa and sent long ribbons of yellow down into and across the canyon to us, we crawled out of our tent, and started the day.

There were cliff dwellings here in the campground, and petroglyphs. After breakfast we found these, but we only had a couple of hours to see Chaco Canyon before we headed to  Santa Fe, and so we packed up and moved on. It was Thanksgiving Day, which felt perfect to us because it meant there would be less people at the National Heritage Site. We had our national pass, and so with the entrance fee already sorted for Chaco Canyon, we looked forward to driving on along the 9 mile loop road that would lead us to the ruins.

The gate was locked. We stopped at the visitor and stared at the sign in shock. Chaco Canyon was closed. Closed?! I couldn’t comprehend this. You can close Chaco Canyon? No other national site we’d visited had been closed on public holidays. Closed?! We had driven down that extremely shitty dirt road, for which there was not enough warning on the website, risked damaging the car and driven hours out of our way to find it closed? The website hadn’t warned us of this either. Closed?

Another couple had pulled up in their camper van with mountain bikes mounted on the back, and it took them only moments to decide to remove their bikes and head past the gate. We walked a short 1 mile loop to some close ruins and petroglyphs, trying to accept the situation. We could get to Santa Fe early, relax, make a big thanksgiving dinner… By the time we’d arrived back at the car we had made a choice about Chaco. With conviction and rising excitement, we pulled on walking shoes and walked briskly past the closed gate.

Nine miles. We had hoped to get to Santa Fe before dark, but the importance of that faded against the prospect of missing Chaco Canyon, and so we walked. The wind was ice cold, and the sun was hot. The road was hard under our feet and hurt compared to the soft tracks of national parks that we were used to. But still we walked. Eager to reach Pueblo Bonito, we walked past multiple sites of inhabitation, agreeing that we’d visit them on our way back if there were time.

We saw Pueblo Bonito before we reached it, and watched it grow closer and larger in our field of vision. And when we reached Pueblo Bonito… time held still for a moment then. We were grateful for the emptiness of the canyon. Grateful that we could enjoy the space and silence of the park being closed. The reconstructed walls captured my imagination. The immensity of inhabitations throughout the canyon stunned me. Thousands of people live here. Thousands. And more people came along trade routes and roads to meet with the people of Chaco Canyon.

Pueblo Bonito was a place of ritual and ceremony, and I listened for hints of drumming and dance still hanging in the air. The wind whispered past and around us. I longed to hear its stories. I longed to hear the stories of the Puebloan people. Petroglyphs decorated the walls of the canyon behind Pueblo Bonito, and all around the canyon, mounds of dirt hinted at cities still buried under the passage of time.

I was moved by this area, and I also longed for more knowledge. Without the information I craved, we instead took our time to absorb the shapes and feelings of the landscape. We walked the rooms and observed the kivas of the Great House. I etched the lines of the walls into my mind and wished for someone to reconstruct the celestial design of Pueblo Bonito into my knowledge. As we made our way back to the car, I couldn’t help but think of the thousands of inhabitants that called this place home, of their ancestors and the history that played out for them after they left Chaco Canyon. There was of course that heavy question still lingering in the air. Why abandon Chaco? I thought about drought, but as an answer it felt too easy and incomplete. I wanted stories. I wanted to know the people, their experiences, their thoughts and feelings as they left.

We left too, after arriving back to our car we moved on and braved the dirt road again. It felt less threatening in day light, and we made it back to the gravel and to the highway, eventually finding our way to Santa Fe. Our trip was open-ended at this point. We knew of a million places we wanted to visit and we knew there wasn’t time for it all. We knew that it was cold at the high elevations of the desert, but we were still to find out just how cold it could become.

Santa Fe was our resting point before we carried on the second half of our southwest journey, and it was beautiful. Alive with culture, art, jewellery, and rising Christmas festivity. It holds a special place in my heart…

See Chaco Canyon

Read the next part of the story

Jump back in time to Mesa Verde and the road to Chaco Canyon

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