Chaco Canyon: Reckoning with water through time

Story and Photos by Cody Hooks
Posted 11/25/16

Solitary is one of the few good ways to describe Chaco in November.

Two years ago, I made my first trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It was autumn then, too, and just as empty then as it was during a recent visit, when the …

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Chaco Canyon: Reckoning with water through time


Solitary is one of the few good ways to describe Chaco in November.

Two years ago, I made my first trip to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. It was autumn then, too, and just as empty then as it was during a recent visit, when the temperature plummeted to nearly 10 degrees throughout the night.

I was more or less alone when the sun set over Fajada Butte, a singular column of rock in the heart of the canyon. Jupiter, the brightest orb in the sky, soon followed. Then went Mars. As the Milky Way, dense and bright with millions of stars and solar phenomena, came into view, so did the isolation of winter camping in that sacred landscape of history.

Chaco Canyon was the epicenter of civilization for the Ancestral Puebloan people of the Southwest from about 800 to 1250 CE. Trade routes carried macaws from Mexico, shells from the ocean and turquoise across the arid landscape. The people of Chaco built huge, distinctive stone buildings — the “great houses” of the greater Chacoan world.

The prevailing theory among archaeologists is that the Chaco people were driven out of the immediate area by drought.

It’s a comforting thought that if a drought — severe, vast and sustained — were to hit us, the rest of our modern systems might be resilient enough to keep us in place. But that thought is probably more comforting than it is true.

The relationship between water and humans in the Southwest is precarious, variable and never to be taken for granted.

It’s a truth that is as obvious looking at back at history as it is looking at the modern landscape around Chaco.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, (first established as a national monument in 1907), preserves the heart of the archeological record. But outside the boundaries of the park itself are hundreds of smaller outlier communities, shrines and roadways. Outside the boundaries are also the testaments to a modern relationship with the land: oil and gas development.

Driving from Taos to Chaco, the signs are obvious. Old-school wells bob up and down like mechanical birds. New pads, replete with industrial fans and security cameras, are in various stages of construction.

Chaco, that arid, ancestral metropolis, is a place worth really seeing and appreciating — for what it was, what it is and what it will someday be.

Pueblo Bonito

It’s hard to overstate just how important Chaco is.

Chaco was a sprawling empire. Its architecture — the most obvious of remnants — is the biggest draw for most people. Thin sandstone slabs were hewn into bricks and pieced together over decades and centuries into the “great houses” we see now.

Pueblo Bonito is the crown jewel of this architecture.

A semicircle of multiple stories and several kivas tucked against the gigantic cliffs, Pueblo Bonito was the center of the Chacoan world.

Of all the great houses in the park (and over 200 outlier communities in “Greater Chaco”), Pueblo Bonito is the most excavated and sticks out for the amount and diversity of objects found there.

Over 7,000 pieces of shell and over 50,000 pieces of turquoise, along with copper bells and macaw skeletons, collectively paint a picture of the cultural and commercial mecca Chaco was.

But Chaco is important beyond what historians and “the public” have to learn about this place. For Pueblo and Navajo communities today, Chaco is a sacred homeland.

As with any sacred site or archeological artifacts, practice “leave no trace” — take only pictures, leave only footprints. Pueblo Bonito is a short, five minute walk from the parking lot. Pueblo Bonito closes at sunset, but try to catch it just before it does — the play of light off of the walls and surrounding cliffs is nothing short of spectacular.

Backcountry to Peñasco Blanco

I don’t know about you, but I always prefer a more solo approach to things.

Whereas Pueblo Bonito is the heart of it all — both in times past for the Chacoan people and in the present day for the infamous RV-driving national park visitor — Peñasco Blanco is as backcountry as it gets.

Peñasco Blanco is the most unexcavated of the great houses, perched atop a mesa at the confluence of the Chaco and Escavado washes and just barely visible from Pueblo Bonito. From the trailhead, it’s more than a seven mile roundtrip hike.

The hike to Peñasco Blanco is awesomely solitary. I did not pass a single person in the six hours of walking that trail. Most of the time I followed two sets of human tracks, though for the last mile, my boots were alone in marking the sand.

The trail traces the eastern stone cliffs of Chaco Canyon. It’s on these rocks one can see dozens of Pueblo, Navajo and European-American petroglyphs and rock carvings.

The trail crosses the Chaco Wash, a wide riverbed and riparian area that is the lifeline of the valley. Like a lot of the New Mexico landscape, it was forever altered by sheep and cattle grazing, though a more original cross-section of plant life is making its way back.

Right after the crossing, on the underside of a small overhang on the cliff wall, is a pictograph in red paint of a left hand, crescent moon and whirling star with 10 points.

The National Park Service believes the pictograph was painted 962 years ago — when for a whole month in 1054 CE the supernova that created the Crab Nebula lit up brighter than any star both night and day.

The last mile of the trail goes past the supernova glyph and up the badland cliffs, past swaths of hollowed-out rock where honeycomb cutaways in sandstone and hoodoos are everywhere.

Peñasco Blanco is the western entrance to Chaco Canyon and the westernmost terminus of a grand axis of great houses, with Pueblo Bonito at its center and Una Vida to the east. Of all the great houses, it’s the closest to dust and rubble, to how it’s been for the last 1,000 years. And it is quiet in its isolation. Vehicle windows just barely glitter in the distance. Otherwise, it’s a landscape of humbling proportions.

It ought to go without saying, but don’t take or destroy anything. Again, these sites should command the upmost respect. The best method of preserving Peñasco Blanco is to let it sit, covered in dust. Stay on designated trails and don’t climb the walls.

And a note of caution — this is a long hike that can be extremely sunny and windy, so be prepared with lots of water (a spigot is available at the visitor’s center) and sun protection. Also, bring layers — the temperature can swing between high and low extremes.

Night skies

As much as there is to love about Chaco in the daylight hours, there’s just as much to love at night.

Chaco is a place built on an astronomical understanding far more nuanced and complete than most Americans have today.

In 1978, observers finally realized that the solstices and equinoxes are precisely marked with the now-famed Sun Dagger on Fajada Butte. On those days, the sun passes through an opening between enormous slabs of rock to create a thin “dagger” of sunlight, which tracks across a spiral petroglyph.

But astronomy wasn’t restricted to the solitary butte. The principles of the moving sky were built into the very design of the architecture at Chaco, where tilts and angles let sunlight pass through the buildings in particular ways on particular days.

The night I stayed up watching the stars, Chaco’s designation as one of the darkest places in North America did not disappoint. It got down to 13 degrees that night, which, as unbearable as it sounds and actually felt at the time, offered an unparallelled glimpse into a sky lathered with stars.

During the summer, the park offers interpretive astronomy programs. But there’s nothing like star watching in the winter.

Oil and gas

Chaco is more than what can be walked around within the boundaries of the park. The Chaco landscape contains more than 200 recorded outlier communities, each with dozens of archeological sites associated with them. Then there are roads linking these places. It’s a vast network.

The integrity of the night skies, like the integrity of that Greater Chaco landscape, is threatened by modern oil and gas development.

The northwest corner of New Mexico has been developed for oil and gas for the better half of a century. In recent years, fracking (hydraulic fracturing) has upped the number of pads and machinery present across the landscape.

The industry is producing enough oil that in 2014, the crude oil Piñon Pipeline was proposed by a company out of Durango. It would include a 50 mile-long gathering system that would collect oil from around Nageezi and Conselor (the nearest towns to Chaco), store it to Lybrook and transport it about 130 miles.

Academics, citizens and organizers (like those with the environmental group San Juan Citizens Alliance) have called out the industry for the threats it poses to the darkness of the night sky, the completeness of the archeological record and the health of the water that feeds life into the arid Four Corners region.

Yet at the same time, oil and gas, especially in this part of New Mexico, feeds the state economy.

Along with the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Farmington field office of the Bureau of Land Management is now reviewing its overall management plan — the area’s guiding document for energy development — for the first time in a decade. The public has until Dec. 20 to comment on that plan.

The story of Chaco — of its people and the water beneath them — is far from over. It’s also a story worth listening to and walking through, mindful of what one can see as much as what one cannot.

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