Chaco Canyon, New Mexico
Seeking the Miracle of Water Near Kin Klizhin Ruin
The Colorado Plateau Province is a physiographic region roughly centered on the Four Corner States. On its southeastern periphery lies what we call Chaco Canyon, New Mexico. In May 2011, I visited the Kin Klizhin Ruin at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Kin Klizhin is the southernmost outlier of Chacoan Culture, and some say the ancient welcome center for Chaco Canyon itself.
It has been a millennium since the Great Disappearance, or demise of Pre-Puebloan culture on the Colorado Plateau. In the two years since my last visit, I wondered, had anything changed? As I soon discovered, the landscape had changed. In my brief absence, the sands of time had begun their march. The wheel ruts along the access road were a bit deeper, as were the sand drifts at their edges. Some might believe that this is natural evolution here on Earth. Others might see blowing sand as a significant threat to our environment.
If there is one defining physical feature on the Colorado Plateau, it is sand. During a visit to the Four Corners, one might see loose sand, quicksand, blowing sand, sand dunes, sandstone and tar sand. Human activities such as road building, motorized sports, cattle grazing and sheep herding all contribute to soil erosion. As frequent regional dust storms stir further soil erosion, we experience a drier, sandier High Southwest. In the two years since my last visit, the approach to Kin Klizhin was scoured of soil in some places and sandier than ever in others. Either way, the sands of the Colorado Plateau were moving once again.
Although I did not feel any rain the afternoon of my visit, a large thunderstorm was sweeping majestically away to the northeast. There was a breathtaking contrast between bright sunshine on the land and dark clouds in the sky. Turning from that spectacle, I saw yet another wonder of nature. It was the Chaco Canyon elk herd, or at least seven members of its southern contingent.
During my 2008 visit, I had startled an elk herd near Kin Klizhin. At the time, I had taken a picture of five bucks running at top speed. If there was a bull among the 2011 herd, it showed no antlers at all. This led me to believe that there may be more than one Chaco Canyon elk herd. Some visitors have heard their bellows from Gallo Campground, fourteen miles away. Could their voices carry that far, or were there two separate herds? Perhaps there is a greater Chaco Canyon elk herd, with a smaller group at Kin Klizhin. The extent and range of Chaco Canyon elk herds would be a good subject for zoological study.
During my previous visit, I had surprised the herd near an open water source, which was on the east side of the double-track. The 2011 herd, however, was on the west side of the road, standing below an old windmill, and its cast iron water tank. After photographing the elk, I drove slowly along the road. At several points, I stopped again to take pictures of the small herd. Wary of both my vehicle and me, they tightened their ranks and then slowly walked away. As long as I could still see them, they continued to look back and observe me, as well.
During my 2008 Kin Klizhin tour, I had visited Windmill Hill. At the time, the old Aermotor windmill was ragged and derelict, with barely enough structure remaining to suggest the water pump it once had been. Over the past eighty or more years, it had done its job all too well, sucking dry the aquifer over which it stood. The dry and rusty cast-iron tank, with its poorly patched leak holes told a story of profligate water use in earlier and wetter times. For much of the twentieth century, the Aermotor windmill ran continuously from atop this windy hill. Before seizing up, it pumped the last drop of ancient water from the Kin Klizhin aquifer. In my 2008 story, the old windmill symbolized the drying and disappearance of two cultures at Kin Klizhin.
In about 1100 CE, those who had tended the irrigation dam and milpas at Kin Klizhin departed, never to return. The Pre-Puebloan Chaco people had diverted surface runoff, sequestering it behind their hand-built dam. The large amount of ancient water that soaked into the sandy soil later became a target for twentieth century extraction technologies. After centuries of accumulation and a millennium of rest below the surface, that irreplaceable aquifer disappeared in less than a century. Although leakage from the water tank was extensive, the primary usage was even more wasteful. In the high and dry desert, ranchers piped the water to cattle troughs at the site. Exemplifying a lesson of unsustainability, when the well went dry, the ranchers and cattle herds of Chaco Canyon experienced their own Great Disappearance.
As I drove west up the short road to Windmill Hill, sunlight on the Kin Klizhin windmill reflected into my eyes. As if it were a heliostat standing in focused light, the object appeared even brighter than the sun. Before the advent of new energy, all reflected light was weaker than its source. Since the Quantum Leap in energy, reflected light may shine with greater intensity than its light source. Some may pass this phenomenon off as a simple lensing effect. It is, I believe, a local confirmation of Einstein’s larger curved-space theory.
With few intact blades, how could the windmill shine with such brilliance? To my amazement, I son discovered a shiny new windmill atop the old steel tower. Its many galvanized steel blades acted like a Fourth Order Fresnel Lens, refracting and concentrating the light. In Miguel Cervantes book, “Don Quixote of La Mancha”, the inept hero does battle with a windmill that he mistakes for an unfriendly giant. Unfriendly or not, Don Quixote’s windmill at least served a literal purpose.
Was the new Kin Klizhin windmill a flight of fancy or did someone actually think that there was water down there yet to be pumped? Either way, individuals that are more rational had banked the new windmill, so it could not spin to destruction in the wind. In the future, if anyone sees this windmill pumping water, please let me know. I would consider that a miracle of the desert.
Email James McGillis