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.

 

Down the Hatch!

Chiles from Around Hatch, New Mexico

Today I had two meals that featured Hatch chiles. For breakfast, I scrambled three eggs with onion, garlic, and one green Hatch chile. At dinner time, I prepared a vegetarian chick pea curry with potatoes, spinach, sweet red pepper, and one Hatch chile turning from green to red. (You can get the recipe by clicking here.)

There was a time in the late 1980s when I had three consecutive vacations in New Mexico. Not only did I learn about Hatch chiles, but whenever I tent camped I would prepare a meal with rice, onions, and a Hatch chile. It was simple and always delicious.

What is so special about Hatch chiles? For one thing, they come from the area around Hatch, New Mexico, along the Rio Grande, roughly between Arrey to the north and Tonuco Mountain to the south. There’s something about the soil of this region which produces chile peppers that may or may not be spicy hot, but which always taste good.

In the late summer or early autumn, my local Ralphs Super Market carries the chiles either loose or bagged; and I always buy more than I end up using. (Martine does not tolerate spicy foods well.) The loose Hatch chiles are not always hot: I chopped one up with scrambled eggs last week that was no hotter than a regular green pepper, but even then was more flavorful.

I am always saddened when the fresh Hatch chiles are gone. If I were fanatical enough, I could order them frozen from a chile pepper supplier in New Mexico; but I will probably just go back to serranos, jalapeños, and California chiles. I actually like being surprised by the range of hotness in my fresh Hatch chiles. It is something worth looking forward to.

 

“We Are Of This Place”

Courtyard of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center

One of the very best places to visit in Albuquerque is the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, just a mile or so north of Old Town. I have seen various Indian tribal centers before, but not one in which the overwhelming theme is not what separates them, but what unites them. It was founded and is run by the nineteen Pueblos of New Mexico, not all of which even speak the same language. In fact there are five separate languages among the Pueblos: Tiwa, Tewa, Keres, Towa, and Zuñi.

But then, this unity is what makes the nineteen Pueblos strong—ever since they joined to throw the Spanish out of New Mexico in 1680. Sure, they were reconquered twelve years later, but they continued to act as a tribal family. And when the United States took over the territory during the Mexican War of 1846-1848, they settled down and managed to avoid the suffering felt by the more nomadic Navajo and Apaches. There were no Pueblo leaders who were forced to live in swamps of Florida: They pretty much remained in place for the next three hundred years or so.

Fortunately, the Americans were not quite so insistent about converting the Pueblos. As Dr. Joe S. Sando of Jemez Plueblo wrote:

The Spanish pressured the Pueblo People to limit our ceremonial dances and participation in religious activities. Instead we were forced to attend the Spanish house of worship. How could we relinquish a religion which was not a weekly exercise? Our belief system was interwoven into every part of our daily lives. It was this religion that helped to maintain our peaceful attitudes and balance in our daily lives.

Even so, the 19th century Americans had Pueblo and other Native children to be sent to distant boarding schools back East, where an attempt was made to, in effect, de-racinate them.

The overall impact of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is a positive one. There are even dances at certain times, and there is an excellent restaurant called the Pueblo Harvest Café which is one of the best places to eat in the whole city.

 

Pioneer Life in the Old West

Figure on Three Hours of Fun

One of our favorite types of museums is the outdoor museum concentrating on life as it was lived in former times. In Bishop, California, there is the Laws Railroad Museum and Historical Village. In Dearborn, Michigan, there is the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village, which I saw as a kid with my parents. And it’s not just an American phenomenon: Martine and I loved Enkhuizen in the Netherlands, and in Iceland I enjoyed visiting Reykjavík’s Arbær Open Air Museum. Finally, last month, Martine and I spent an enjoyable afternoon touring the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village in Aztec, New Mexico.

After visiting the Anasazi ruins at Aztec Ruins National Monument, we drove down the street and checked out the Aztec Museum. The more we looked, the more we were drawn into the vortex of pioneer life in northwestern New Mexico. There were toys, costumes, minerals, three barber chairs, agricultural implements, and, in the back, a whole pioneer village consisting of small-sized schools, stores, doctor’s office, pharmacy, blacksmith—you name it.

One of the strangest exhibits was the Pecos West Cyclorama, a labor of love by Valenty Zaharek which “features over 100 hand carved woodcarvings of people, animals, plants, buildings, vehicles and the high mesas and mountains of the desert Southwest. The cyclorama measures eighteen feet in diameter and slowly rotates as old west cowboy music plays in the background.” I spent over half an hour admiring the attempt to summarize the Old West in a rotating wooden display, with music no less.

Aztec Pioneer Schoolhouse

Martine and I also went into the Pioneer Village outbuiildings, which are built to approximately half scale. Above is a photo of the little one-room schoolhouse, complete with teacher’s and students’ desks, blackboard, and typical textbooks and wall displays. The same attention to detail appears in all the other buildings as well.

Originally we didn’t plan on coming to Aztec. Instead, we were going to go on to Durango, Colorado. When we were in Chama taking the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad, however, Martine was showing signs of discomfort from the altitude, so we changed our plans and went to Aztec instead. We had no reason to regret our decision.

 

A Fort from the Apache Wars

Porch at Fort Stanton, New Mexico

Not far from Lincoln, New Mexico, which saw the Lincoln County War in which Billy the Kid was involved, lies a U.S. Cavalry fort from the days of the Apache Wars. In fact, it also played a role in the Lincoln County War—on the side of the Dolan/Murphy cabal. Most U.S. Cavalry forts in the Old West were constructed of adobe and so were eroded to nothingness by the rains. Fort Stanton, on the other hand, was built of stone and faced with whitewashed stucco, and so has come down to us more or less intact.

In fact, after the Indian Wars, the fort was used for various other purposes, such as a tuberculosis hospital and a prison camp for Nazi POWs. It is now in the New Mexico State Park system and has a museum and a number of outbuildings which are open to visitors.

Cavalry Tunics in the Fort Stanton Museum

Martine and I saw Fort Stanton the same day we visited the town of Lincoln, which is only about a quarter of an hour away. The museum and outbuildings can be visited in about two hours is one is thorough, and an hour if one just wants a quick look at the museum. It’s an unusually pleasant place, with the Rio Bonito running through the grounds, and a helpful docent managing the welcome desk.

Kilroy Was Here

El Morro National Monument in Ramah, NM

One place I have visited several times in my travels through New Mexico is El Morro National Monument, known for bearing “graffiti” from the Anasazi, the Spanish Conquistadores with Oñate and Coronado, and American scouting parties of the 1850s. There they all are, along the east bluff of the butte. And if that’s not enough, you could climb to the top (only a couple hundred feet) to see the ruins of Atsinna, the ruins of a well defended Anasazi pueblo with long views in every direction.

The day we went, there was an interesting ranger presentation on the United States Camel Corps, which came into existence at the behest of Secretary of War Jefferson Davis in 1853. Many of the names signed on the wall of El Morro was from members of this short-lived army unit. Eventually, the idea was abandoned; and many of the camels were sold into zoos, and some even ended up at Fort Tejon on the Grapevine between Los Angeles and Bakersfield.

Anasazi Petroglyphs at El Morro

El Morro is just one of the many attractions along New Mexico Highway 53, which runs through the Zuñi Reservation, near Ramah’s Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary, El Morro, and El Malpais National Monument ending up at Grants and I-40. If you are traveling between Gallup and Grants, it is far better to go out of your way and spend some time along this fascinating route.

 

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.

Riding the Cumbres & Toltec RR

Our Train Going Over a Trestle

There are two narrow gauge steam trains relatively close to each other, both once part of the Denver & Rio Grande Western. One runs in Colorado between Durango and Silverton and is, in fact, called the Durango & Silverton. The other runs between Chama, New Mexico, and Antonito, Colorado. That is the Cumbres & Toltec—named after Cumbres Pass and the Toltec Gorge, two of the scenic highlights along the route.

Martine and I went on the Cumbres & Toltec, and had planned on also taking the Durango & Silverton. Unfortunately, Martine came down with a headache from the high altitude and was afraid of aggravating it by taking both trains. In addition, the pinched nerve in her back was irritated by the constant lurching of the cars as the train went downhill. So, after our ride on the Cumbres & Toltec, we sought lower ground, even if it was to put us back in the middle of the desert heat we were hoping to avoid.

So it goes.

Martine on the Cumbres & Toltec Narrow Gauge Railroad

The Cumbres & Toltec ascended to the snow level at around 10,000 feet at its highest point, before going back down 2,000 feet to Antonito. At Antonito, we took a bus back to Chama. The ride took only one hour, whereas the train, on a parallel route, took five hours.

At Osier, Colorado, we were unloaded from the train to have a substantial free buffet lunch before continuing to the end.

Hopefully, some day I may yet take the Durango & Silverton, though without Martine who is puzzled by my love of trains. That love goes way back to my scouting days, when we took the Erie Railroad to Ashtabula, Ohio. Then, in college, I road the New York Central from Cleveland to Albany, New York, from where I took the Vermont Transit bus to Rutland, Vermont, and the White River Coach bus to Hanover, New Hampshire.

I love trains so much that I even enjoy taking the light rail to downtown Los Angeles.

 

Getting Sick While Traveling

The Acoma Cañoncito Laguna Service Unit of the Indian Health Service

Not for the first time, I came down sick on my travels. In 2006, I broke my right shoulder in Tierra del Fuego and received care for it at a clinic in Ushuaia. In 2015, I got food poisoning and had simultaneous diarrhea and vomiting: That time, I cured myself by taking extra Prednisone and managing to keep it down. On this trip, I got food poisoning in Acoma at the tribal Sky City Casino. It was the same diarrhea and vomiting with the addition of chills (though unaccompanied by fever). I wasn’t going to mess around this time. I asked Martine to drive me to the nearest hospital.

The front desk of the Cassino hotel directed us to the Acoma Cañoncito Laguna Service Unit of the Indian Health Service, which, luckily, was just down the street. I was very fortunate that the doctors who interviewed me listened to me and put me on an IV with Solu-Cortef and sulfur (to relieve the nausea). Within two or three hours, I was as good as new. Martine, however, was worried as she sat in the waiting room.

My guess is that I was seriously dehydrated, and that brought on an Addisonian Crisis. As I have no pituitary gland, I had to have an infusion of ACTH with the IV. Once that happened, recovery was quick. The ACL Service Unit did not have any beds, but offered to have me driven to one of the big Albuquerque hospitals an hour east. I thanked them, but refused their offer. Once they get me in a hospital, doctors like to prod and poke me for several days because of my interesting mix of endocrinological issues. I did not want to give them the opportunity, perhaps coming down with a super infection in the process.

The Indian Health Service personnel were very competent, which made me feel good that the Indians—together with one stray traveler—were getting good care.

Home of the Atomic Bomb

Albuquerque’s National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

The atomic bomb was born in the State of New Mexico. It was created by the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos in the northern part of the state and tested at the Trinity Site in the Jornada del Muerto Desert 35 mile southeast of Socorro. To commemorate the state’s role in our country’s nuclear history, there is a superb museum near Kirtland Air Force Base detailing that history and discussing both the wartime and peacetime uses of the atom.

We had visited the same museum in 2003, when it was located in Albuquerque’s Old Town, near the present site of the city’s Natural History Museum. Now it is even larger and deals with many more ancillary subjects, such as nuclear medicine and nano technology.

Replica of the “Fat Man” A-Bomb That Leveled Nagasaki

Probably what interested me the most was a demonstration of the different kinds of radiation (electromagnetic, particle, acoustic, and gravitational) and how much shielding is required for each. We also had the opportunity to see Trinitite, which was formed by the A-Test at the Trinity Site when the sand was formed into a radioactive green glass-like mineral.

The last time we were in New Mexico, we also visited Los Alamos and its world-class Bradbury Science Museum. We were appalled at the time to see the destruction of so many thousands of trees surrounding it by a wicked pine bark beetle infestation.