Farmington, New Mexico. May 20
Utah gets all of the love and attention about its great scenery and national parks. However, our drive today up US 550 from Bernalillo to Farmington New Mexico was a dramatic expanse of mountains, rock formations, and high desert vegetation. The scenery was not our goal, but since the ride was four hours with a picnic lunch, beautiful scenery made the drive so much more pleasant.
The route generally runs up and down between 6,000 feet above sea level and 7,000 feet above sea level. A few small towns, a few Native American casinos, but plenty of views. Most of the human habitation was less than dramatic. The economy seems to run on oil and gas mining and cattle ranching. Farmington, our host community for the next two nights, has a population of 45,000 and is the major shopping and services center for the Four Corners (where Arizona, Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado join) region.
We had packed a lunch and sought out a pleasant site to have it. Aztec NM seemed a likely spot. The Animas River flows through town and Google Maps showed a large park along the river downtown. Jude reminded us though that the Animas River was the location of that major EPA mine reclamation spill last August. The spill occurred during mine reclamation when 3 million gallons of toxic waste were dumped into the Animas and San Juan rivers. The rivers turned orange.
Local news here still debates how well the Animas River has recovered and the long term impact of the spill. Water for irrigating Navajo nation farms has not yet been turned on. Last year their crops were a total loss. Local communities have not been fully reimbursed for their costs to try to control and mitigate the spill effects. In a sad commentary, other newspaper articles today reported that the bankruptcy of major coal companies threatens mine reclamation projects. States like NM have allowed coal companies to fund reclamation projects out of current cash rather than advance funding of the projected reclamation costs. Bankruptcies threaten the future ability to control environmental damage and restore the land.
I had talked with a park ranger at Salinas Pueblo the other day who discussed how lucky NM, a poor state, was to have mining and oil/gas companies paying royalties to keep taxes down. I wonder how excited she will be when the minerals are gone, the school kids are not educated, and the landscape is destroyed. (New Mexico high school graduation rates for 2012-13, as quoted by Governing magazine, were the second lowest state rate in the country.) If you give away your mineral riches without using them to educate your young, what kind of crime is that to your descendants?
But we still had lunch along the river. The water was brownish but I did not know if that is its normal hue. We saw several people fishing in a pond that seemed to be a backwater of the river. I guess the issue is beyond us. The picnic table was sheltered, clean flush bathrooms were nearby, and the setting peaceful.
Our major reason for coming this way is to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park. We will do that tomorrow. Today we visited Aztec Ruins National Monument. Hopefully you are saying: “But the Aztecs were nowhere near northern New Mexico.” You are correct, the Aztecs never came this way. Early Anglo settlers made the mistake, knowing only popular stories about the Aztecs and thinking they built the structures here, they called the area Aztec. The name has remained.
The buildings here were the work of ancestral Puebloan people, constructed between the late 1000s and late 1200s. By the late 1200s, the people had moved on. Again, we do not know the reason. They left behind a well-preserved planned community of great houses, kivas, roads, small residential pueblos, etc. Great detail and organization was necessary to complete this community. The largest of the houses had at least 500 rooms rising to three stories. They hand carried special logs at least 30 miles for the great roof beams. Some of the roofs are still intact after 900 years. The north wall of the West Ruin lines up precisely with the sunrise of the summer solstice and sunset of the winter solstice.
The ruins were re-discovered by Europeans (Native Americans never considered them “lost”) in 1859. The West Ruin was in a fair shape of preservation with some walls 25 feet tall and many rooms undisturbed. Luckily the first Europeans here recorded what they saw as Anglo settlers looted the area for building material over the next forty years. Under private ownership starting in 1889, the site began to be preserved. In 1916 the New York American Museum of Natural History began excavations. Most of the buildings we see were simply excavated and stabilized, The Great Kiva was reconstructed. In 1923, Aztec Ruins was designated a National Monument.
After watching the introductory video, we explored the site, amazed at the size, complexity, and preservation. Our exploration included walking through two foot wide doorways that are less than four feet high. We escaped without hitting our heads or scraping our backs. All in all, it was an enriching experience, a great way to prepare us for the larger Chaco Culture site we visit tomorrow.