A trip around 'Ancestral Circle'

Aztec Ruins National Monument, Chaco Culture National Historical Park and the big empty in between

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To visit the densest settlements in North America of a thousand years ago, you have to travel through some of the most sparsely populated areas in New Mexico today. At least, that was the impression reporter Jesse Moya and I got from making a weekend trip that amounted to an "Ancestral Pueblo" ruin circle - a journey from Taos to Aztec Ruins National Monument to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, then back. And this circle has a much wider circumference than the "Enchanted Circle" of Taos, Angel Fire, Eagle Nest, Red River and Questa.

First, taking U.S. 64, we traversed the Río Grande Gorge Bridge. That felt like a momentous separation from Taos, the sense that we were now leaving the town far behind, Earth's great rupture and its demure river artery the dividing line between a major township and quirky settlements. Hence the Earthships that soon emerged from the prairie hilltops, with their whimsical shapes and Coke bottle walls, reassuring us that we have indeed entered a different place - an environmentally conscious version of J.R.R. Tolkien's "the Shire," anyone?

Then, soon after U.S. 64 crossed Tres Piedras, we began ascending into evergreen-forested territories; these were winding, misty hilltops, with the occasional herd of cows standing dangerously close to the roadway. There was hardly anything here except for quiet ranches and campgrounds.

As we traveled west, the mesas started to come into full view. The landscape slowly became more arid. It was hard to tell exactly where the dividing line was, but the transformation was evident. "Welcome to the desert," the road seemed to say. Ironically, a thousand years ago, this region was one of the great human centers of the world.

Aztec is a small town located just north of Bloomfield. We stayed at the Microtel (which paradoxically held many rooms), located between a Pepsi bottling plant and the Aztec Speedway, which hosts dirt-track stock and sprint car races sanctioned by the United States Racing Association.

Aztec is the home of Aztec Ruins National Monument. The ruins are not actually of Aztec origin; early European settlers got it wrong. They were built and inhabited by the Ancestral Pueblo people (otherwise known as Anasazi, but since that name is the Navajo word for "ancient enemy," the term is no longer politically correct to their descendants).

Despite the misnomer, the ruins are impressive - and so are the national monument's facilities. The monument has a small museum, a short documentary video that overemphasizes the abilities of time-lapse photography, a self-guided walking tour and, along with the ruins, for which the back wall aligns with the path of the sun on solstice dates, there is a giant reconstructed kiva. Bats lurk in the rafters.

Within the kiva is a hole in the ground, a sipapu, representing the creation story of the Ancestral Puebloans, that they crawled out of the ground and populated the planet. It has been speculated that light from the windows could shine in on significant astrological dates and hit a "moonstone," a sort of crystal, which could then concentrate a beam of light on a priest.

The whole site is in close proximity to the Animas River, which, if you remember, became flooded in mustard-yellow mineral muck in 2015 after Environmental Protection Agency workers accidentally let the poisoned waters loose. The river's water runs pretty clear nowadays.

At the gift shop, we spoke with a park ranger. My reporting partner quipped that he was showing me around since I, as a non-New Mexican, was a "foreigner." The park ranger then asked me if I was from Europe. Oh, the places you'll go.

There are few restaurants in Aztec. We chose Rubia's, the hopping Mexican spot whose taproom sported an eclectic collection of signs - Budweiser sleds and Bud Lite surfboards were juxtaposed with several Spanish crosses. The meal sufficed, but I found myself looking out the window at Aztec's classic main street, where turn-of-the-19th-century classic facades could be seen. One antique store on the ground floor sold pastel-colored toilets and another had a sign hanging down that depicted horn-rimmed glasses, which seemed to me reminiscent of the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleburg in "The Great Gatsby." After dinner, we drove to a charming drive-thru ice cream establishment called Vanilla Moose, where soft serve can be had for $1.35. It was not so much bang for your buck, but it was directly proportional for your buck.

The next day, we headed to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the large settlement of the Ancestral Pueblo people. It is very far away from anything. We drove for an hour on State Road 550 South, then turned onto a side road for another 45-minute journey. At first, the road was paved. Then, it was gravel, running through a dry arroyo. Finally, the gravel disappeared, and we were stuck with a washboard road, then a road of red dust. Our whole car trembled. Soon, the stone walls of the canyon appeared and a paved road re-emerged; we had made it to the national park. An imposing mesa watched over all; the canyon extended into the distance. A small hamlet, presumably for National Park Service employees, was wedged into the canyon walls. The national park gift shop sold its Chaco-themed state quarter for about $3. Then we took a one-way road into the canyon, stopping at the Ancestral Pueblo ruins along the way. Petroglyph trails between the ruins of Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito reveal images of spirals and human figures carved into the canyon wall, most recently parodied in an episode of "Game of Thrones."

The greatest of the ruins was Pueblo Bonito, which possibly housed 2,000 people at its height. Part of Pueblo Bonito was crushed in 1941 at the hands of "Threatening Rock," an aptly named slab of sandstone that had stood alongside the pueblo ruin as part of the canyon wall. Pueblo Bonito's ancient occupants built a retaining wall to keep the boulder at bay, and the walls definitely helped for their purposes. Still, the rock finally fell on an afternoon in 1941, obliterating one of the best-preserved sections of the site. A tour guide informed us that the photographer covering the looming event missed the fall; he was out in town buying more film when the collapse happened.

Pueblo Bonito and its neighboring ruins were abandoned in 1250 A.D. No one knows exactly why, but a 50-year drought starting in 1130 A.D. may have contributed to the decision. "Guns, Germs, and Steel" author Jared Diamond theorized in "Collapse," his 2005 book, that deforestation of the region by Chaco's inhabitants helped accelerate catastrophic climate change. A 2014 study published by University of New Mexico anthropologists disputed that assessment, arguing there was no evidence of deforestation at Chaco. Whatever the reason, the Chaco Canyon people left behind a maze-like complex of ruins that you can still walk through today, ducking under low doors through anonymous room after room, charting your own "Tomb Raider"-like path.

With more time, we would have included Bandelier National Monument and Mesa Verde in the Ancestral Pueblo ruins tour.

Now came the hard part - getting back to Taos. We could return the way we came, but we decided to take a southern route that cut through national forest land and passed by Abiquiú, where the dazzling red mesas contrasted with green shrubbery like a Christmastime Coca-Cola advertisement. Every few miles, post offices were often the only markers of civilization - besides abandoned ranch homes. The iconic flattened peak of Cerro Pedernal, perhaps Georgia O'Keeffe's favorite mountain, watches over this whole territory.

We were soon back on the road to Taos, just north of Española. We were headed on the road that led us to the place of red willows, to the pueblo that, unlike that of Aztec or Chaco, has never fallen out of use. Now that's quite special indeed.

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