2016 Trip Four, Southwest Discoveries, May 21

Farmington, NM. May 21

Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon rises 300 feet from canyon floor-used to mark equinoxes and solstices

Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon rises 300 feet from canyon floor-used to mark equinoxes and solstices

Another rocky road with washboard type ruts was the reason we are spending two nights at the TownePlace Suites in Farmington (which has been a great place to stay). When we planned this visit to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, all of the literature and advice mentioned the 13 miles of dirt road leading into the park. Travel time from Santa Fe to this park would be 3.5 hours one way. If we were going to enjoy the park, an overnight stay of at least one night would be necessary. As you know now, we decided to spend two nights in Farmington.

Viewing the dirt road portion of our trip

Viewing the dirt road portion of our trip

The drive from Farmington to the park turnoff is only 50 miles along US 550. Easy. After the turnoff is about 8 miles of paved county road. Not bad. Then comes the 13 miles of rutted dirt road which took us 42 minutes to drive; no stops along the way. Average driving sped was thus less than 20 mph. Jude was driving her Subaru which we hope will not need an alignment or suspension work after the trip in and then out. Road pictures do not show the washboard effect very well; the road did not have huge holes or rocks threatening the undercarriage but the washboard effect made the ride a real jarring experience. Once you get inside the park boundaries, the roads are all paved. Overall, the 24 miles from the turnoff takes another hour.

Drawing attempting to show Pueblo Bonito as it would have been around 1100

Drawing attempting to show Pueblo Bonito as it would have been around 1100

Chaco was the epicenter of this area as the native people here constructed roads, great houses, kivas, etc. of monumental proportions to support their far-reaching commerce and social organizations. Do we know why it started or why it ended? No. Archaeology and oral traditions only go so far in answering the myriad of questions raised when one views these excavated ruins (more are underground and unexcavated). The great houses, like Pueblo Bonito, began rising in the mid-800s and were emptied by the late 1100s.

Panoramic view of Chaco Canyon

Panoramic view of Chaco Canyon

Oral tradition says that Chaco represents a place where various Indian clans stopped and lived during their sacred migrations. Migration patterns seem to be a continuing theme; that the Pueblo people are on a continual migration and the “abandonment” of various locales is just part of their life journey. Archaeologists do know that Chaco was an important center for a collection of great houses in this part of New Mexico. Trade to the Pacific and Mexico seemed to be centered here as well-constructed roads and paths lead out into all directions. For over 300 years, Chaco seemed to unify and attract numerous diverse peoples.

Detail of wall construction with windows and openings where roof beam had been

Detail of wall construction with windows and openings where roof beam had been

The architecture of the buildings shows that a central plan was created and followed for decades to complete the community. Pueblo Bonito was four stories high and had 600 rooms. The walls we observed were three feet thick with varying pieces of sandstone laid in a mud mortar; then finished with carefully selected and shaped stones. Evidently, plaster was applied as a finish coat but this layer has eroded away over time. Still, looking at these ruins makes one appreciate the great efforts at planning and control that would have been necessary to construct them.

View looking down into a plaza area of Peublo Bonito; huge rock in foreground collapsed from the canyon wall in 1941, destroying 30 rooms.

View looking down into a plaza area of Peublo Bonito; huge rock in foreground collapsed from the canyon wall in 1941, destroying 30 rooms.

The food supply for this vast area was little discussed. It is obviously arid but native tribes had success in low water agriculture. It seems doubtful that enough food could be grown in the neighboring area for the many people who lived here and food must have been imported.

Stairs carved into canyon walls to facilitate foot traffic

Stairs carved into canyon walls to facilitate foot traffic

Current theories are that these great houses and numerous kivas were built to support the large number of visitors for trading and ceremonial activities; that the actual number of year round residents was much less than the number of rooms would indicate. Food storage and importation would have been necessary to feed the visitors. From oral traditions, it appears that visitors to Chaco came from Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, Zia, Laguna and other Rio Grande pueblos, as well as interaction with Navajo peoples.

Elk herd living in the canyon

Elk herd living in the canyon

As noted at Aztec Ruins, wood beams used for roof construction came from forests 40 to 60 miles away. It is estimated that as many as 225,000 trees were cut for the buildings in Chaco Canyon. They must have cut them there, peeled off the bark, and allowed them to dry to make them easier to carry all the way back to Chaco Canyon. What social structure was in place to organize this and get cooperation from people to erect these massive buildings over hundreds of years??

Chaco is now, and must have been at an earlier time, considered a sacred place where various tribes could come together peacefully to trade, pray, and interact.

Jude's dog Lacey

Jude’s dog Lacey

I will admit we hiked less than usual. We could have climbed to the top of cliffs and looked down on the ruins but did not. I think the time to get here did dampen our enthusiasm to undertake longer, steeper hikes. In any event, we came away better informed and deeply impressed.

Ed and Chris

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