(Note: Although Sean’s and my odyssey is focused on the now sixty-three National Parks proper, some of the units protected by the Park Service are so important or tell a story of such magnitude that they are part of an unofficial 63+ list for us. They are units that, but for the accidents of history or the vagaries of politics, certainly deserve to be celebrated as part of the core function of the whole national project of setting aside places of immense value. Dinosaur National Monument is one such place. Chaco Culture National Historical Park certainly is another. Just as with Dinosaur, I’m treating our trip to Chaco as if it were one of the sixty-three.)
The thing to understand about Chaco is that it was a city. But it was a very special kind of city. For three hundred years it was the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world, a place of ceremony, religion, culture, and trade with influence that spread across geography and time. A collection of magnificent Great Houses in an arid canyon at the center of the San Juan basin near the southeastern edge of the Colorado Plateau in what is now northwestern New Mexico, Chaco was likely an administrative center where ritual bound together a far-flung Ancestral Puebloan homeland.
Chaco held such prominence in all my reading about the Ancestral Puebloan world since our visit to Mesa Verde National Park that I had prioritized seeing it for ourselves.
On Wednesday, May 18 , we began our journey to Chaco and a return to one of my favorite landscapes: Northern New Mexico. In addition to seeing Chaco, I also wanted Sean to experience the very special AirBnB I’d stayed in outside Taos the previous November. And I was excited to see the exhibition New Beginnings: An American Story of Romantics and Modernists in the West at the Harwood Museum of Art in Taos. It turned out that late May 2022 was the best option for an overlap between the AirBnB being available and the run of the exhibition. So off we went.
It was cloudy that morning on our way to O’Hare. But check-in and security were a breeze, and we had plenty of time for breakfast before our flight.
We grabbed our customary favorite, Tortas Frontera. Sean ordered a breakfast bowl and then added a glow-up: two McDonalds hash browns broken up on top.
Afterward, Sean impulse-purchased aviator sunglasses from The Sunglass Hut kiosk. He was hugely enjoying listening to Padma Lakshmi’s autobiography and hoped to rock the aviators like her.
Once airborne, I noticed that our plane’s engine seemed to be held together with duct tape?
It was only mid-May, but the West was already burning. In particular, New Mexico was in flames that spring. We’d been keeping our eye on the Calf Canyon and Hermit’s Peak Fires, which were burning in the southern Sangre de Cristo Mountains, unnervingly close to Santa Fe.
As we approached northern New Mexico, we flew above, around, and through the huge plumes of smoke.
The plane banked left and we flew south, tracing the spine of the Sangre de Cristos. We could see Taos splayed out between the foothills and the Rio Grande Gorge.
And as we made our final descent into Albuquerque, we flew right over the Petroglyph National Monument Visitor Center.
We gathered our luggage while Sean played airport Pokémon Go. Then we picked up our rental—a Jeep Cherokee, nice!—and started the drive to Taos. Sean DJed.
We did, though, make a brief stop in Santa Fe for lunch at Cafe Pasqual’s on a recommendation from a Land Trust Alliance colleague. It was great. And Sean realized that he’d eaten there before long ago when he’d been in Santa Fe to support a deposition.
After lunch, we hit some of our favorite shops near the Plaza, Standard & Strange and Collected Works Bookstore. We also went over to the gift shop of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native American Art. I wanted to pick up a hand screen-printed coyote tote bag for Patrick for part of his Christmas gift.
Then it was on to Taos. As we drove through the lower portion of the dramatic Rio Grande Gorge, we listened to Code Switch and The Memory Palace. Explorations of race and national memory seemed appropriate for a return to this landscape.
We headed directly to the AirBnB, “House 101,” and unloaded under dramatic clouds. The whole atmosphere felt churned up by clouds, wind, and fire, and it would feel that way our whole time in New Mexico. To really underscore the feeling, not far to the north, over the border in Colorado but still cradled by the Sangre de Cristos, Great Sand Dunes National Park caught on fire, caused by a lightning strike, around 3pm that afternoon.
After we unpacked, we drove into town to get groceries at Cid’s and beverages at the Wine Cellar.
For dinner, on the recommendation of our AirBnB hosts, we tried Medley, which was nearby. Dinner was fantastic: ahi tuna tostadas, prawns, duck, tres leches cake for dessert. Our server, Kalie, originally from Grand Rapids, Michigan, recommended a few things for us to try in the area, including the Ojo Caliente mineral spa.
Next day, Thursday, May 19, was a properly lazy day of relaxation (with only a little work here and there). We spent much of the day enjoying the quiet of the AirBnB.
We did occasionally check the fire news. Some felt unnervingly close even if Santa Fe and Taos were never in any serious danger that year.
After lying in hammocks reading and napping in the afternoon, we ran over to Cid’s to get some nice things to grill for dinner and some snacks for the Park the next day.
After dinner we watched the atmosphere thick with higher altitude smoke.
We caught up on Top Chef before bed.
Next morning, Friday, May 20, I woke up just before my 5am alarm. We had left the windows cracked, and a desert chill had crept in. I laid under the wam covers until 5:15. Then I got up, started some coffee, put in my contacts, opened a yogurt, and nudged Sean, who was asleep on the living room sectional under a pile of pillows.
While Sean groggily got himself together and warmed up some breakfast burritos for the car ride, I loaded the car. The sun had not yet overtopped the Sangres to the east.
We started out on the long drive to Chaco Canyon. The 197-mile drive took us about three and three-quarters hours. Hence our rising and setting out so early.
We went up and over the Jemez Mountains, crossing the Continental Divide at 7,300 feet.
West beyond the Jemez Mountains we were out on the Colorado Plateau south of the San Juan River.
Near Nageezi, New Mexico, we turned off US-550 for the final twenty miles to Chaco. Fourteen of those miles were on rough road. The final four miles were on really rough road.
Heavy spring winds were causing a dust storm that day. Even though we were well west of the fire smoke, the atmosphere was hazy, filled with dust. It felt strange and apocalyptic throughout our time at Chaco. Which in a way was appropriate.
We arrived at the Park at almost exactly 10am.
At the entrance to the Park, we immediately crossed from the ridiculously poor gravel road onto a well-paved road, indicating the difference between Bureau of Land Management administered lands and National Park Service protected lands. For fuck’s sake, BLM, fix grade the road.
On the other hand, maybe it’s for the best that getting to Chaco takes determination. It’s not a Park easily buzzed to off an interstate.
We drove past what looked like a very hot and dusty campground and arrived at the Visitor Center.
Chaco was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1987. It is one of only a dozen cultural World Heritage Sites in the United States.
Sean was not feeling himself after a poor night’s sleep and a long drive.
Inside the Visitor Center, we used the restroom, stamped our Passports to Our National Parks, and bought some books. The woman in front of me in line at the information desk had lots of questions, which worked out well because the ranger basically gave a little talk to all of us in line about how to approach Chaco Canyon.
We drove through the dust along the loop drive on the canyon floor to the parking area for Pueblo Bonito (or “Beautiful Town” in Spanish), the premiere Great House in “Downtown Chaco.”
Pueblo Bonito was the primary focus of archaeological research—from amateurs, to universities, to the National Geographic Society, to the National Park Service—throughout the twentieth century.
The National Park Service does not mince words about Pueblo Bonito, clearly and (literally) boldly stating on the website: “This is the most important site in the canyon and a must for all visitors.”
Why is Pueblo Bonito so important?
It is the largest Great House at Chaco. At its zenith, it likely boasted over 600 rooms over four stories. For comparison, Cliff Palace, the largest cliff dwelling at Mesa Verde, had 150 rooms.
Pueblo Bonito is also noteworthy in terms of timespan. Its construction had begun by 850 CE, making it the earliest monumental Great House at Chaco and in the broader Ancestral Puebloan world. It would be expanded in several major periods of construction until almost 1150. Over those centuries, Pueblo Bonito would be joined at Chaco by a dozen other Great Houses.
For longer than the United States has existed, this structure was a profoundly important place of culture and ceremony.
Pueblo Bonito is situated immediately adjacent to the sheer north wall of Chaco Canyon.
It is so close to the cliff that in 1941 a massive piece of the cliff—some 30,000 tons of sandstone—collapsed and obliterated thirty rooms of Pueblo Bonito. Long known as Threatening Rock, the Ancestral Puebloans were well aware of the danger of that particular section of the cliff face. During Chaco’s centuries of use, Threatening Rock had been bolstered by a manmade supporting structure.
Pueblo Bonito is shaped in a distinctive D, with the flat side facing south across the canyon and the curve facing north against the canyon wall. The cardinal directions were paramount for the Chacoans, and most of Chaco’s features are oriented on north-south, east-west axes.
Anglo Americans first became aware of Chaco in 1849 during a military incursion against the Navajo, some of whom lived near the canyon. During the second half of the nineteenth century, archaeologists debated the implications of Chaco and other Ancestral Puebloan sites. These debates often had racist and settler colonial overtones.
One faction argued that the sites were clearly related to the monumental cities of Mesoamerica—Teotihuacán, which preceded Chaco, and Tenochtitlan, which followed it. They argued that Ancestral Puebloan sites must have been built by the Toltecs or the early Aztecs. Hence the name Aztec Ruins bestowed on a Chacoan site north of the canyon. While obviously wrong, at least this faction took the sites seriously, rightly regarding them as cities built by sophisticated societies.
The other faction argued that the structures were built by uncivilized tribes who could not have had connections to the great civilizations to the south. This attitude was deeply tied to the larger settler colonial project of Manifest Destiny, which needed to reduce or deny the sovereignty, agency, and sophistication of Native Nations and promote the genocidal myth of a vanishing, lesser race destined to give way to Anglo American progress.
What neither side admitted was that there could be any substantive connection between the Great Houses of Chaco or the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and the living Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi people. Instead, archaeologists latched onto an absurd myth of the vanished civilization of the Anasazi—a term based on the Navajo word for “ancient enemy”—and the tantalizing question, “Where did they go?”
They went to the Pueblos of the Rio Grande, Hopi, Zuni, etc., is where they went.
The whole thing was even more absurd when we consider that Taos Pueblo, oldest of the Pueblos along the Rio Grande, was contemporary to Chaco. The final construction projects on Pueblo Bonito and the earliest on Taos Pueblo overlapped.
The nonsense of “the Anasazi” would, over the course of the twentieth century, soften from a “vanished race” to being considered the name for a previous period of development of the peoples who would become the Pueblo, Zuni, and Hopi.
But it wasn’t until the 1990s that the Park Service and others—at the specific request of Pueblo people—switched to Ancestral Puebloan rather than Anasazi. And it would be another decade before Anasazi fell out of wider use.
Sean and I continued along the curving back of Pueblo Bonito.
The the footpath led us inside the structure.
Pueblo Bonito is a Great House among Great Houses. The expanse of the structure was particularly clear from the plazas.
Chaco was a phenomenon, a prodigy, a rare bird. Or maybe it was an abnormality, a grotesque, a sport of nature…The idea behind Great Houses began, I think, in oversized pit structures at sites like Shabik’eschee as early as Basketmaker III [c. 500-750CE]. Basketmaker Big Houses presumably housed elite families…The specific form of Chaco Great Houses, however, originated in the northern San Juan region, in the 700s and 800s, as U-shaped room blocks surrounding elaborate, oversized pit houses. These “proto-Great Houses” were short-lived—typically built, used, and abandoned in no more than a few decades, a generation or two.
Great Houses at Chaco in the mid to late ninth century were monumentally scaled-up versions of unit pueblos. Recall that a unit pueblo was six rooms and a kiva—the cookie-cutter house of the Anasazi. Great Houses looked like really big unit pueblos. Most of a unit pueblo—the home of the common people—could fit in a single room at Pueblo Bonito—the home of the uncommon people. Great Houses were geometrically more formal, massively constructed, and quite costly in labor—extravagantly so, compared with unit pueblos. But the basic from of early Great Houses was clearly domestic: Great Houses. They began as trophy homes; they became palaces.– Stephen H. Lekson, A History of the Ancient Southwest, School for Advanced Research Press, Santa Fe, 2008.
Pueblo Bonito boasts over thirty kivas, with the largest situated between the Great House’s two large plazas.
With over thirty kivas, but few rooms with clear indicators of being inhabited (like hearths), the consensus is that Pueblo Bonito—and the other Great Houses at Chaco—were ceremonial structures. Perhaps the Chaco Great Houses were populated seasonally as a place of pilgrimage like Mecca. Or maybe they were populated by a city of spiritual leaders like the Vatican.
Like the Vatican, Chaco was a center of wealth with accumulations of rare objects from as far away as the Pacific Ocean, the Sea of Cortez, and southern Mexico and Central America. Thousands of pieces of turquoise were found in Pueblo Bonito, along with macaw feathers, conch trumpets, flutes, and ceremonial objects.
There was nothing else on the scale of Chaco in the Ancestral Puebloan world. The light dust storm we were experiencing during our visit really underscored the oddity of the place. It was not near ready natural resources like Aztec Ruins, which would come later. It was not particularly defensible like Mesa Verde. Even the trees used in the construction of the massive structures had to be carried, by hand, from the Chuska Mountains, fifty miles to the west.
But here was the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world.
Why here? Why build your Vatican City or National Mall here?
Then we went inside the rooms.
The National Park Service’s established path through Pueblo Bonito strategically winds around the exterior and then through the plazas before welcoming visitors inside some of the best-preserved rooms of the complex.
As at Mesa Verde and Bandelier, the wood here is remnant from the construction of the building around one thousand years ago. The beams projecting from the walls would originally have created the roof of one story and the floor of the next. The wood is also fundamental to dating Pueblo Bonito and other Ancestral Puebloan structures. Tree rings in the timber used in the structures matches up to a vast dataset of tree rings recording a pattern of wetter and drier years. Using the data, researchers can pinpoint the year a tree was felled to be used in the construction of Pueblo Bonito.
In these rooms, the stature and craftsmanship of the construction were obvious. For me, the magnitude of Chaco was even more palpable in these rooms than in gazing at the structure from outside.
One small interior room still retained its wood ceiling beams intact, as well as the plaster that would have covered the entire structure.
Our visit to Chaco would have counted as spectacular had we just seen Pueblo Bonito. But it was only a quarter past eleven, and there was much more to see.
Next we were off in search of a supernova.