The Center of the Anasazi World

Anasazi Pictographs at Chaco Canyon

I remember writing in yesterday’s post that I spent three consecutive vacations in New Mexico, where I just happened to fall in love with Hatch chiles. But what did I go to New Mexico to see? The answer could be expressed in two words: Chaco Canyon.

Insofar as I am concerned, the most incredible archaeological site in the United States could be found in Northwest New Mexico at the Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. At one point—between AD 900 and 1150—Chaco Canyon was like the Rome and the Vatican City of the Anasazi world. Within the park, there are literally hundreds of ruins, pictographs, and ceremonial roads within a relatively small area. One could approach it from U.S. 550 between Espanola and Farmington by turning onto a washboarded dirt road around the site of the former Nagheezi Trading Post, or via New Mexico 371 from Thoreau to Crownpoint, and then on New Mexico 9, once again getting on a washboarded dirt road.

The Largest and Most Spectacular Ruin: Pueblo Bonito

For three consecutive years, I camped at Gallo Wash with a large ice chest full of Hatch chiles and other edibles, getting my water from the only source in the park: The National Park Service Visitor Center.

There are other Anasazi ruins in the Southwest: I have been to Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, Navajo National Monument (Betatakin), Aztec, Salmon, Bandelier, and Canyon de Chelly. But it was only at Chaco that there seemed to be a large population, with multiple ruins in easy walking distance of one another. I even climbed the butte above Pueblo Bonito, running into a coiled rattlesnake that was a little discomfited at encountering me. Trust me, the discomfiture was mutual, but both of us managed to avoid harm.

Fajada Butte, Location of the Famed Sun Dagger

Entering the park from the Nagheezi Road, one encounters Fajada Butte (shown above), atop which there is a rock meant to project a downward-pointing dagger at sunrise during the Spring Equinox. I did not venture to climb the butte, as it is probably forbidden anyhow (and dangerous). Nearby to the right is Gallo Wash, where I camped.

If there is one place in the Southwest that I can recommend to tourists interested in archaeology, it would have to be Chaco Canyon.

 

The Anasazi Moment

Doorway in Aztec Ruins

The ruins don’t have anything to do with the Aztecs. It was a common 19th century misconception, like the one about the Egyptians building the Mayan pyramids because, somehow, the Mayans weren’t smart enough to build piles of rubble and put a smooth face on them. No, the ruins at Aztec, New Mexico, are one of the settlements of the Anasazi Indians, as they made their way through the Four Corners region some nine hundred years ago.

Chaco Canyon holds the most spectacular ruins, but there are numerous outliers, such as the ruins at Aztec, Salmon, Chimney Rock, Pueblo Pintado, and elsewhere. It looks as if the area went through a period of protracted drought, sending the Anasazi southeast to the valley of the Rio Grande River, to the Hopi Mesas in Arizona, and to Zuñi. There they became the twenty-odd Pueblo Indian tribes, which still exist today.

They entered history abruptly in 1680, when they forcibly expelled the Spanish from New Mexico under a leader called Popé—the only North American peoples to successfully revolt—though they were reconquered some twelve years later. After that, when the United States marched in, they became more docile and did not require any army forts to keep them in line.

The ruins at Aztec are quite spectacular. A large kiva has been restored and even today looks very church-like in a Protestant sort of way. The Pueblo tribes still visit the ruins as they think of the paths their various peoples took to find a place where they could thrive.

Restored Kiva at Aztec Ruins National Monument

Some day I would like to return to New Mexico and spend more time at Chaco Canyon, which at one time supported a large population before the waters dried up. In the meantime, it was interesting to see Aztec Ruins National Monument and nearby Salmon Ruins just outside of Bloomfield.

Devil’s Highway

They Were Bound to Change the Name

When Martine and I have finished taking the Durango & Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad connecting Durango with Silverton, we will head down to Gallup, NM, perhaps stopping for a few hours at Window Rock, AZ, the capital of the Navajo Nation.The road connecting Farmington, NM with Gallup used to be called U.S. 666, aka “The Devil’s Highway.” A few years back, the highway changed its number to the less apocalyptic U.S. 491.

Even 491 has a curious Biblical resonance. When Peter asked Jesus how many times shall he forgive his brother who sins against him. According to Matthew 18:22, Jesus answered him, “ I say not unto thee, Until seven times: but, Until seventy times seven.” Let’s see, that multiplies out to 490. In the 1960s, Vilgot Sjoman came out with a Swedish film entitled 491, presumably referring to the end of someone’s patience at being excessively sinned against.

Highway 491 with Ship Rock in the Distance

When we take Highway 491 née 666, we will pass Ship Rock, sacred to the Navajos (see above photo). I’ve always wanted to take this route from Farmington to Gallup, but I usually traveled in the past via the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, which is my favorite destination in New Mexico. However, like many of the best places in New Mexico, I would not venture to take a rental car down the washboarded access road. That also goes for the Bisti Badlands and the De-Na-Zin Wilderness, all in the same general area.

Had I but world enough and time, however, ….