Bloomfield New Mexico (North west corner of New Mexico)
Chaco Cultural National Historical Park
Campground: River View Rv. Right on the San Juan river. Full hookups. $125 for 7 days. No cable tv and only 2 off the air stations available. About a dozen campsites, mostly local residences living in older campers. Owner, Joyce is really helpful and friendly.
From Cochiti Reservoir campground outside of Santa Fe I backtracked a bit to get to hwy 550 on my way to Bloomfield NM. I stopped in Cuba NM to check out a couple of National Forest campgrounds sites, but the gal behind the desk at the Forest Center was so, how shall we say it, dense, that I didn’t get any information what-so-ever. So I decided to head onto Bloomfield.
My excitement in getting to Chaco Canyon has been building, but first I had to set up and check out my new surroundings. After setting up, I discovered my a/c was on the fritz. A relay switch was stuck and wouldn’t turn the compressor off. After a number of phone calls, I found a very qualified generator/a/c mechanic to work on the a/c.
I had been in the area 4 years ago and new my way around a bit. So while the camper was waiting to be fixed, I decided to head out to Farmington, a bit larger town west of Bloomfield. I drove around a bit, had lunch, went to their Mall, window shopped and bought a couple more books on sale and went to their new 10 plex with stadium seating movie theatre right there in the mall. I figured with the a/c on the fritz, there was no rush getting back to the camper. Saw the new Indiana Jones movie. Predictable fun movie.
Well today’s the day. I’m finally heading out to the Chaco Cultural National Historical Park.
Remember when it used to be called Chaco Canyon. The new title encompasses a culture that goes way beyond the canyon itself and is reflected in the new discoveries found in the past 20 years. It’s also a World Heritage site.
I had to head back down hwy 550 for about 30 miles through high desert. Where lonely weather worn homes sit on huge ranches covered in sage brush. Dotted occasionally with oil wells painted a sandy tan to match the surroundings. Reaching the top of a gradual hill, the vistas seem to roll on for hundreds of miles. The vast landscape and sky are immense.
I finally reach the turn-off to Chaco. It’s paved for a couple more miles, then a right turn at the sign and dirt road. 24 miles of dirt road. Ok, I’m prepared this time. You know, 4 years ago I was going to get to Chaco, but my back went out after going to Tent Rocks. The washboard road did me in back then. But I’ve been taking my vitamin D supplement and my back is in great shape now.
So down the dusty dirt road I go. 35 miles an hour, dust flying up behind me as I concentrate on the road and rugged scenery. Cows grazing amongst the sage brush and along the open range road. The first leg of the journey isn’t going too badly. My truck has found the right speed and the road, though bumpy doesn’t seem too bad.
After about 10 miles down the dirt road and a few good curves, the road turns to gravel, then red sand and back to dusty tan. Almost instantly the washboard becomes more pronounced. It’s going to be rough. 13 more miles to go, will it be like this the rest of the way. The truck is rattling and creaking. Things are flying up and around me and it sounds like the truck is about to fall apart. I hear groans and metal clanking all around me. I’m being bounced out of my seat. The seatbelt is the only thing holding me in place. I slow down. Doesn’t help. I speed up, worse. I swerve back and forth across the wretched road trying to find the sweet spot, where it might be smoother.
Nothing helps, mile upon mile of rough road. Finally I reach the entrance to Chaco Culture NP. A welcoming sign and paved roads! In the middle of a forbidding canyon, a paved road. I’ve made it.
I head to the welcome center, just past the campground. By the way, I would NEVER bring my camper down that washboard road. Besides, the campground has no facilities and in the hot desert, this would not be the place to camp. Though it does cool off in the evening. Later on my way out, I see a big motor home coming towards the park…. What are they thinking?
The visitors center gives me all the maps and directions to the various sites of interest. They are all along a nine mile loop through the canyon. So I start, right behind the visitors center to see the first of many Pueblo Great Houses, the Una Vida. It’s a short walk up a gradual incline to see a portion of this great house. It’s only been partially excavated, but one still is able to get a little sense of the size of this Pueblo. The first thing I’m impressed with is the stone work. It’s a fine close knit pattern of stone work, as flat and even as a modern day stone mason would create. This is one of over 150 great houses that were created over a 300 year period. It sits up close to the canyon wall, where I climb a slightly steeper hill to view some Petroglyphs. It’s either the elevation or I’m really out of shape. Whew. Ok, so here I am looking out over the canyon, I’m up against this huge sandstone wall and two distinctive sets of Petroglyphs are high above me. A duck in is one of the Petroglyphs as they were cherished for their feathers. Deer and other animals are also etched into the sandstone.
Ok, climbing down off the side of the canyon and back to the parking lot to really begin my tour. I have plenty of water and gator-aide and trail mix. My good buddy, Dave B. taught me that. Be prepared for the heat and sun. Oh and my big straw hat and a good pair of hiking boots as well.
But first I get to enjoy the a/c in the truck as I drive the single lane, did I say paved road (thank God). The next stop is Hungo Pavi another of the great houses shaped like a big D, a standard design for all the Great Houses. Built between 850 and 1150.
Then it’s on down the road to the mega great house, Pueblo Bonito. It was built over a period of 300 years and unlike many pueblo’s it had been designed from the start, not just adding another room on as needed. Consisting of over 600 rooms and 40 kivas. It stood over 4 stories high and was larger than 4 football fields. Most of the great houses in Chaco are now believed to have been built as public architecture and were not lived in but utilized during special times of the year for ceremonies and events. They know this because very few rooms in the great houses had any rooms for cooking or preparing food. Nor were there any large middens or piles of garbage one would fine with extended live in an area.
I stayed in the area for a guided tour of Pueblo Bonito. Lasted a good hour and a half, but I get so much more out of a site when there’s a knowledgeable guild there. Oh and I met the crew from the Travel Channel. They’re here as well starting a new series called “Secret Places” which should air this coming fall. And this place is filled with secrets. How could we know so little about a culture that was flourishing over a thousand years ago?
Now a couple facts that I found interesting. It’s now believed that only a couple hundred people stayed in the area to maintain the buildings when everyone left the area. Thousands would come into the area from many different tribes perhaps to trade goods, share ideas, religious ceremonies, many as far away as Mexico. It’s hard to tell, as these various tribes of Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Laguna, and Zia in the Chaco Culture did not have a written language.
Although the stone work is very impressive, it would have been covered up with a plaster and possibly white washed. This plaster covering would have also preserved the chinking or mortar between the stone work. Less and less mortar was used as the masons became more sophisticated in cutting and trimming the stone work.
Over 250,000 trees were cut down to create the floors and ceiling of the Great Houses. They were cut down many miles away, dried and carried back to Chaco Canyon.
Great roads were created between other Pueblo great houses throughout the 4 corners area stretching way beyond the boarders of Chaco Canyon. These roads were 30 feet wide and were perfectly straight, climbing up and over the canon walls. There is even evidence of grand steps up and over the mountains. Check out the pictures. What an awesome feat. This was the center of their world. The main roads were perfectly aligned with the north/south axes and east/west axes.
Oh, and the main great houses in Chaco were aligned with the sun and moon and appeared to have line of sight connections between each great house. This was a very well planned community, but yet was also designed to be used only during certain periods of time. Because of the alignment of the building and other astronomical indications, it is believed they were definitely here for the spring, summer, fall and winter equinox. Even today, many in the area converge on Chaco for the summer solstice. I missed it by a couple of days.
I’m awed by the construction and wish they were doing more excavations. But today’s culture now dictates that no more excavations be made. Personally I hope they will in the future. For now, because of the local ancestral Indians, descendants of these great builders, it is considered bad to excavate a site that may contain burial sites. Though very few burial sites have been discovered in the area. So for now, new techniques of using x-rays, inferred rays and stuff like that are used to view what is under all that dirt and sand. The guide pointed out to many hills that were in fact buried pueblos and great houses. Hidden, waiting to be discovered again. I wanted to get out there and start digging myself.
To see the overall scope of the construction that took place in one of the most inhospitable places in the world begs so many questions. Why here? Why such grand buildings that were apparently not lived in year round? Since they had contact with Indians from Mexico, why hadn’t they learned how to write? Indications are that ideas were exchanged. Including some of the building techniques. Who were they? Indications are that they were native American Indians from many different tribes. Coming together. Becoming more of a nation or unified group.
Truly a World Heritage Site that anyone living in the U.S. should visit. One wonders if the schools are teaching anything about The Chaco Culture. Especially since it was such a highly developed culture, even as Europe was coming out of the dark ages. It is after all an important chapter in America’s history. One that lasted longer than the United States has been in existence.
Their buildings are still visible 1,000 years later and so many answers are still buried beneath the shifting sands of this desert and rock canyon.
Needless to say, I was blown away. Awesome is the only word that fits. Other sites, such as Salmon Ruins in Bloomfield and the Aztec Ruins in Aztec are associated with the Chaco culture and the roads leading north to these sites is indication of that.
I’ll chill out for a couple of days before heading onto the next site, my summer location, Pagosa Springs Colorado.