Horned Larks scattered as we made our way along NM 46 and later County Road 7050 on our way into Chaco Canyon. Before long the pavement ended abruptly and we prepared ourselves for what we thought would be 20 miles of bouncing. We were pleasantly surprised to find the road had been graded level, and despite recent rains, there was no evidence of ruts.
It had been five years since I visited Chaco Culture National Historical Park on a University of New Mexico Continuing Education Story of New Mexico trip. I had been fascinated by the information presented by a long-time park ranger on the area’s history as we toured Pueblo Bonito. In addition, I had been amazed by the area’s natural history and was frustrated by the limited amount of time we had to explore the area. Staying in the campground and waking up in this mystical place became a future goal.
“October should be the perfect time,” my friend Donna stated early in the summer when we discovered our mutual desire to camp at Chaco.
We pulled into the Gallo Campground shortly before noon. It was a Monday and few spaces were occupied. We picked a spot that backed up to a small ruin – and close to the restroom. The restroom was being upgraded; two pink and two blue portable restrooms stood nearby – along with a portable sink.
We spent the afternoon walking out to the Wiiji Pueblo ruins. The trail, like a dirt road, meandered along the base of a sandstone mesa. A pair of ravens seemed to dance in the air as they flew acrobatic maneuvers over our head. We could hear the sound of their wing beats as they spiraled around each other.
Unlike some of the other pueblos, Wiiji is thought to have been built all at once and has a uniform style of masonry. “I could never lay rock that straight,” Donna commented.
The timbers used for roof beams and door frames came from mountains over 50 miles away and were carried by man-power, rather than carts or animals. Carbon dating of these timbers has helped archaeologists establish the time periods of construction. What might appear like vent holes, also served as calendars – the rays of the sun coming through them marked the passage of time.
A short ways beyond the pueblo was a cliff with both petroglyphs (etched into the sandstone) and pictographs (painted pictures).
“Oh, look,” I called to Donna. “This rock beside the trail has a fossilized shell embedded on the top.”
The sun was getting low when we returned to the campground from the 3.5 mile walk. There was still time to explore the various small ruins tucked under the cliff behind the camp sites. The air was turning chilly. As I stood under the rock overhang to stay out of the wind, warmth radiated off the rocks.
“The Chacoans that built here, knew what they were doing,” Donna commented. The cliffs across the canyon seemed to glow in the fading sun.
As we fixed dinner snug in the camper, I peeked behind the insulated window covering to see if there was going to be a sunset.
“Will you watch the dinner while I go out and take some photos?” I asked.
A few campsites away, a couple was huddled around a campfire. It looked as though they were going to sleep in the back of their truck. Beyond them, the cliff was a black silhouette against the scarlet sky.
As we were about ready to get ready to make up our beds, the camper lights began to falter, and then the CO2 alarm started beeping.
“Oh, oh,” Donna gasped. “I think the camper battery is going.” We had just turned on the heater to take the chill of the increasingly cold night. “I am so sorry, but this is the end of our lights and heat.”
“Since my sleeping bag is rated for 32 degrees, I should be OK,” I replied, remembering that the campground host alerted us that the temperature was supposed to drop to freezing that night.
I felt snuggly warm once I slid into my sleeping bag and pulled my fleece hat down over my ears. My comfort was short-lived. Every time I thought I had the bag tucked around my shoulders, it would gape a little and I would start to feel a chill.
I slept – or dozed – rather lightly, waking up often when my shoulders got cold. I kept thinking about the two ravens Donna had spotted in a cleft near our campsite. They were nestled up next to the rock cliff to take advantage of the warmth. Even with the radiant heat from the cliff and the ability to fluff up their feathers to form a protective layer, it had to be a cold night for them. I longed to lean against something that would emanate warmth.
I had to make my first trip to the pink potty around 1 a.m. “Did you look up at the stars?” Donna asked when we returned.
“No, I just trudged along,” I grumbled.
By 5 a.m. when nature called again, I had slept very little. While I headed out again, Donna unearthed a mummy bag and stuffed it inside my sleeping bag. This time I attempted to look up at the stars, but the steam from my exhalation in the near-freezing air clouded my view.
Back in my double bags, I was finally warm and able to sleep for what remained of the night.
We were awakened in the morning by the pitter patter of a Canyon Towhee as it trotted across the roof of the camper. Light clouds covered the sky, hinting of the winter storm that was expected that night. I discovered ice in the top of my water bottle I had left in the cab of the truck.
After breaking camp we headed out to explore a different part of the park. Our first stop was the Fahada Butte Overlook. The Chacoans recognized the significance of this geological anomaly that is oriented in an almost perfect north-south, east-west axis, and used it as a sun shrine, a place of worship, and astronomical observatory.
We hoped to hike the Pueblo Alto Trail that heads up the cliff behind Pueblo del Arroyo to the northern mesa. “It passes through a cleft in the rock face,” the ranger at the Visitor Center told us.
As we approached the bottom of the trail, we spotted two people heading down. After watching their descent, I began to have my doubts about whether I could scramble over the rocks, but didn’t want to give up without trying.
“Coming down is the worst. I can tell as I head up whether it will be too steep for the return trip. Let’s try and see how far we can get,” I stated.
The trail immediately involved maneuvering over big boulders; however, even larger rocks on either side of the trail provided leverage. I slowly picked my way up the trail – Donna in front of me in case I decided I needed a hand. All went well until we got to a point where the ‘trail’ went across an almost vertical rock-face with nothing to hold onto. It would mean descending on my rear end, but there would be nothing for me to use to ease myself onto the rock.
“This is as far as I can go.” I stated.
Donna went a short ways further so she could see where the trail passed through the cleft.
Even though I didn’t make it to the top, it felt like a major victory to have scrambled that far.
We walked further down the main trail past Kin Kletso and finally turned around at Casa Chiquita.
As we drove back along the loop that follows the South Mesa, we stopped to look at one of the 20 foot-wide Chacoan stairways that provided a way for travelers from the south to descend into the canyon.
We headed out of the canyon pondering the mysteries of the site that had been the center of Pueblo culture between 850 and 1250 AD – and then seemed to have been abandoned.