NM - 2003/10/01 to 2003/10/04 - Canyon de Chelly, El Morro and Chaco Canyon



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El Morro, Chaco Canyon and Canyon de Chelly provide insight into the lives of the native peoples of the Southwest Desert. Spending some time at each gives one an appreciation of the difficulty and beauty of life in the desert.







On the return car trip from a month long kayak paddle in Lake Powell, I visited three of our great national monuments and parks in New Mexico. Starting in Page Arizona after checking out of the Motel 6, I drove across the open high desert of northern Arizona and into New Mexico. During my 29 days on Lake Powell I had been blessed with almost flawless weather. However, the forecast was a little dicey for the next several days and this day looked as if I would not completely escape the showers that I could see falling from the low clouds over the pinion pine hills. As I crossed the Navajo reservation, past the small plots of traditionally farmed maize, the clouds grew thicker over the mesa and lightning could been seen striking the mesa top. Soon my car was enveloped in a heavy downpour and I could see but a few tens of yards in front of the car. Small hail was now coming down heavily and I hoped that it would not get any larger as there was no shelter out here on the open desert. Already down to 20 miles an hour, if the hail got any bigger I would have to stop entirely to keep from damaging my boat strapped to the top of the vehicle.

The hail ended abruptly and soon after the rain had passed as well. Sheets of water ran across the hard desert surface creating silver swatches on the dark red desert soil. Soon the arroyos were a raging torrent of brown muddy water. If the road had crossed one of them I would have had to pull over to wait for the dangerous crossing to empty. Fortunately this stretch of highway was well up on a high ridge. By the time it dipped back down into the valley, I was 10 miles from where the rain had been falling and the ground and the creek beds were dry. In a land so starved for moisture, it is a shame that so much water runs off so quickly, leaving the native plants with only a brief taste of the life sustaining liquid.




I have been wanting to see Canyon de Chelly since my first trip to New Mexico in 1975. It always seemed that things conspired to keep me away. But this trip I would finally see it. The canyon floor is owned and farmed by several Navajo families who were essentially born and raised within the deep steep sided canyon. There are several impressive ruins along the lengths of the two branched canyon. It took a little practice to be able to pick out the piles of rock from the partially destoryed buildings that made up the ancient native enclaves. Even though the visitor displays pointed them out with pipes that one could look through to spot the sites, it took some care to see the small objects nestled in the overhangs and crevices of the massive walls on the other side of the canyon.

I drove along the roads along the top of the two branches of the canyon and took some of the short walks along the canyon rim to view points over the canyon. The clouds had rolled in; the skies were all grey. The light levels in the canyon were subdued and my pictures were not coming out very well. I was disappointed in the types of shots I was getting. I had seen many fine photos of the canyon taken in fall featuring the contrast with the yellow aspen leaves. But this day, there were no aspen trees that had turned color yet and the massive scale and distances across the canyon made photography problematic. I was very disappointed. Even the massive spire of Spider Rock at the end of the park road failed to provide an great photo.

I followed the road to the second branch of the canyon system, Canyon del Muerto, and read the story of the massacre of nearly the entire Navajo population by Spanish conquistadors. At Ledge Ruin overlook the sun finally came out allowing a decent picture of the sheer sided canyon. I visited each of the pull outs along the drives, but I think I would have enjoyed the Canyon much more if I had been able to spend more time here and gone down into the canyon. To travel inside the canyon requires a four-wheel drive car and a native guide. Perhaps on another trip when the weather was better.

Leaving the park, I headed out across the open desert once more. The clouds grew thick again and the rain closed in, making visibility very poor. I pulled into town in another heavy downpour, water streaming across the streets and puddling in the parking lot.

The next day I headed out to Taos pueblo and briefly toured the small town. It was a rough scrabble town of small homes with many traditional mud ovens for mesquite cooking in the small ocotillo lined yards. There was a street festival scheduled for the next day and vendors were setting up tables full of the usual tourist trinkets of silver earrings, belt buckles, painted rocks and cheap kochino dolls. I soon left town.




As I headed to El Morro, I traveled along straight stretches of two lane paved with crushed local stone. The pavement was a deep red in color, fitting in well with the local landscape. The broad open valleys were filled with mesquite. each dark clump well separated from its neighbor allowing the deep roots of the moisture conserving plant to collect water from a large surface area. Clumps of yellow flowered sage and silver winter fat contrasted against the deep blue sky. No sign of the previous days downpours was visible. Only a single cloud hung over the mesa.
El Morro, "the nose", was a landmark for early European travelers in the region. Of course, native peoples knew and utilized its waters for many centuries. But on the wagon trails and pack trains that used this route in the early European exploration and settlement of this land, El Morro provided the only reliable source of water for many days. Although not really a spring, since the water is gathered in a natural catchment at the foot of the cliff from rain run off from the hard rock above it, the constant water supply was vital in the otherwise dry and inhospitable surroundings. Early explorers and settlers stopped here to rest, replenish and leave the carved names in the soft sandstone of the escarpment. Unfortunately, modern day visitors of considerably less note have felt compelled to leave a reminder of their pitiful existence and complete lack of judgement or respect by scratching their names into the stone, sometimes obscuring or defacing the more worthy signatures from much earlier times. One of the most interesting signatures there was that of E. B Long from Baltimore. His prominent and stylish signature was no doubt well practiced as a silversmith in the prominent silver trade that flourished in Baltimore at that time.




There is a small pathway that follows the signatures along the face of the 200 foot high sandstone cliff. eventually winding its way around the end of the reef and to the back side. There it climbs steeply up the side of the escarpment, passing the gnarled trunks and bark of the aptly named alligator pines. On top of the convoluted mesa there are partly reconstructed ruins of early native peoples, including a kiva. Elsewhere mounds of rock from long crumbled buildings lie in almost unrecognizable testament to the thriving community that once occupied this high and isolated location. I very much enjoyed the morning that I spent here.
I continued on east through a riot of roadside flowers (poppies and asters) to El Mal Pais where I walked the circular path through the lava fields and part way into some lava tubes. The Continental Divide Trail passes through the monument. Perhaps I will get to walk it some day. After the short walk. it was back ito the car and off to Chaco Canyon.

I followed the small atlas map that I had used for the trip out. Soon I saw the brown National Park signs directling me to the park. But there was a choice of routes. The first, an immediate left, was on a dirt road. The other direction was still the main paved highway. Although the other was some 20 miles longer, it would be quicker to stay on the surfaced road. I drove 30 miles north and then came to the second turn off. It was dirt, and still as far as the first turn off I had decided to pas by. On top of that, the bridge was out. While I was pondering this, several nice people in a car stopped to ask what I was looking for. They said they would show me how to detour around the bridge problem as they were going out that way. I followed their pickup truck in my minivan. They headed back down the dirt road, turned on another dirt road and then forded a stream. I followed in my road car, bumping and scraping along, hoping I would not stop in the soft sand at the bottom of the wash. Swallowing hard, I came out of the other side and pursued the rapidly disappearing ball of dust hurling down the road. I followed as best I could for what seemed like an age, my Toyota shaking on the washboard road, I stuffed a rag on top of the coins in the ashtray. I thought perhaps they might shake their way right out.

At a desolate junction, the nice native family waited, pointed up another road and said, "Follow the signs." I did for another 10 miles and then came to a most disaapointing sign that said "Campground Full". Oh crap. Well I was way out here now and how can you rely on a sign way out here to be accurate? Even if it was the weekend, how could they campground be full way out here this far down a dirt road. It didn't seem likely, so I drove on.

After lots more washboard dirt driving, I reached Chaco Canyon. Sure enough the campground was full. It is a small campground, and on weekends frequently fills in mid summer. This late in the season there are usually enough spaces, but this weekend there was a special astronomy presentation going on and it was full up.




For the time being I ignored this possible crisis and toured the visitor center. There were several displays and films on the astronomy practised by the ancient peoples. After the films, I visited the super nova petroglyph and took a walk out through the desert to Una Vida. Further up the canyon wall were more petroglyphs and a grand view across the valley to Fajada Butte. The butte lines up with the solstice when you stand in the right marked position on this cliff.
I returned to the visitors center and as night fell, I attended the astronomy lecture given by the rangers. A short talk and slide show was followed by an opportunity to use a number of different telescopes, a combination of refractors and reflectors, some of impressive size set up by amateur astronomers who had come for this special event. The rangers also displayed and demonstrated the large CCD telescope that is at the Chaco Cnyon site. Donated by a rich private individual, the telescope has captured magnificent pictures of nebula and galaxies, all displayed on the high resolution video monitors. Chaco Canyon is one of the darkest areas in the southwest.

By the time the astronomy lectures were over, it was quite dark and fairly late. As the other visitors left to go back to their campsites, I headed out of the park on the road that I had eschewed on the way in. Once past the gates of the park, I pulled off of the road and went to sleep on the cot in the back of my car. When I next awoke, it was dawn. No one and nothing had come by all night, at least as far as I knew. I headed back into the park, using the outside rest-room facilities at the still closed visitor center.




I walked out to Una Vida again and looked at the impressive mortarless wall that was over one thousand years old. The moon was hanging in the western sky and the golden brown wall contrasted with the stark blue sky. Across the valley Fajada Butte stood like a lonely sentinel, guarding the entrance to the canyon.
Then I was off to Hungo Pavi where there was a three story wall still standing. Some of the masonry was destroyed by pot hunters as they greedily dug for valuable antiquities. The site was impressive, but still small compared to the large open courtyard of nearby Pueblo Bonita. It was marvelous that anything was standing at all after nearly a thousand years.




Not only were many of the stones of the mortarless walls still in place in the standing walls, but there were floor beams and wooden floor and ceiling supports still in the walls. This lumber has been carbon dated at 997 years old. Amazing that even this dry air could so perfectly preserve the wood for such a long time.

On a corner of the pueblo, a special window aligned to the summer solstice mutely testified to the importance of the seasons in the religious observanances. Only if the peolple had been good would the sun return once more to warm the land.

On the plaza the open remains of the Great Kiva whispered of the importance of this place in the society of these early people. Once covered by support beams and stones, this ceremonial room was the center of the great pueblo.




The next pueblo in the canyon was Chetro Kettle. Not as big as Pueblo Bonito, it was filled with many small rooms. Only the foundation of the once great wall remained. A line of flowers clnging to the small shade and slightly increased moisture next to the wall remants looked as if it had been intentionally planted. Some of the walls at Chetro Kettle were remarkably well preserved or partially reconstructed. Several different patterns of stone construction were evident within a single wall section.





The last pueblo I visited was Case Riconado on the opposite side of the canyon. This was by far the largest kiva in the canyon and the biggest one I have ever seen. One could imagine at least hundreds if not thousands of participants gathered in the greated dome structure. Hundreds of niches thought to have held religious items lined the outside wall. A T-shaped ceremonial entrance stair was located on each side of the kiva. The kiva seemd to be the primary structure of this pueblo, although there were many mounds of unexcavated or reconstructed structures on the site.


I had finished my visit to Chaco Canyon. The trial of getting to the place had been amply rewarded by the magnificent structures of this remote National Park. I was glad I had come and the difficulty made a good story. Now all that was left was to drive safely back to Maryland and start to think about the next adventure.......


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