Chaco Canyon 2008 - Camping at a Place of Sand and Rain
On Wednesday, May 21, 2008, I hooked up my travel trailer and drove from Homolovi Ruins near Winslow, Arizona to Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, via Interstate I-40 and Gallup, New Mexico. During my transit, a cold front swept over the High Southwest deserts of Arizona and New Mexico, providing a forty mile per hour tailwind to my highway travels. Although I ate dust and sand every time I got out of my truck, the good news was that I got excellent gas mileage. As I approached my destination, the temperature dropped from 100 degrees f. to 65 degrees f.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park, my destination, is located over thirty miles off the nearest paved highway, regardless of which road you travel to get there. If you are seeking an “off the grid” experience, with no mobile telephone, broadcast TV or electrical services, Chaco might be the place for you. Gallup, New Mexico is the nearest city, almost 60 miles to the south, so the night sky is as dark as what I experienced camping at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
Besides the allure of peace, quiet and solitude away from our over-amped contemporary culture, Chaco Canyon, lies at the nexus of an ancient and long vanished Pre-Puebloan culture, popularly known as the Anasazi.
Having visited Chaco Canyon the previous autumn, I wanted to see and experience its stark beauty again, this time in the spring.
Winter and summer are the long seasons in the high deserts of New Mexico, with spring and fall often last only a few weeks. As I blew in to Chaco, along with the dust of a desert sandstorm, spring appeared to be over. Shriveled spring flowers along the roadside foretold of the coming dry season. Or so I thought at the time. Before I could set up camp, the weather had changed to colder and wetter.
From the west and south, clouds quickly began to build. Soon I saw virga, hanging like a veil in the sky, with rain clouds following not far behind. By the time I unhooked, leveled and secured my coach, the rains started in earnest. The sound of rain on the roof of my coach did not let up that evening, and lasting well into the night. If you plan to camp at Chaco Canyon, be sure to add good rain gear to your list.
As I made my way to the visitors’ center the next morning, it was a cold and breezy 43f degrees. After paying my user fees, I sought a recommendation for a short hike. I did not wear foul weather gear, so in the event of a downpour, I wanted easy access to my truck. The friendly volunteer in the old visitors center suggested the Una Vida ruins hike. Its trail started from the parking lot where my truck already stood.
Taking the volunteer's advice, I shared the short path to the ruins with a friendly couple, but saw no one else in the area until my return, an hour later. Looking back down from above, a north-facing masonry wall at Una Vida intrigued me. It appeared to have a face on it, as created by its symmetrical windows and door. To me, it looked like the face of the world's largest Hopi Indian kachina (or katsina) doll.
Above the Una Vida ruin (Una Vida means “one life” in Spanish), sheltered by a stone overhang, was a collection of well-preserved Indian petroglyphs. They stood out well for my camera in the morning light. Similar enigmatic rock etchings abound throughout the High Southwest. Because of their protected location, few acts of defacement or vandalism were evident here.
Upon returning to my campsite, I walked among the ruins of an ancient farmhouse, which lay beneath the overhang of a cliff, less than fifty yards away. Simply by readjusting my gaze to look for telltale signs, there too, I found ancient Indian rock art.
To my surprise, I came upon what appeared to be a face staring out at me from the canyon wall. This little character had sorrowful, yet knowing eyes. Splashed with ancient red ochre, Cracks and crevices above and around his eyes evidenced a large cranium made no sound and never moved. Still, his eyes followed me wherever I moved throughout his rocky domain.
Having traveled as much as I have in the southwestern US, I have learned to keep an eye out for the spirits that dwell in these canyons. Like the Egyptian carvings of the Pharaonic Period, were these silent sentinels formerly human? Or are they representations of non-physical spirits trying desperately to gain the attention of those humans who pass by their yearning, yet immobile countenances?
Such is this place, Chaco Canyon, where people are rare, ancestral Puebloan spirits abound and history lays enigmatically all around, even within the public campground.
From Chaco Canyon to Moab, Utah would entail two hundred sixty-one miles of driving, and it was time to go.