Visit Me

Please Visit The Rest of My Work At

Monday, July 28, 2014

Beyond The Barrier Part 3: And Then?

Over my visits to this land, I’ve started to understand the Chaco phenomenon and hope I that my people are starting to do the same. There is more to see, but we must go. The day has been full. Our skin is showing the effects of bright western sun, walking at a six-thousand-foot elevation, and silty gusts. But Chaco is a moody land, often allowing access, but always on its own terms. The trip out is just as challenging as the one in—even more so when the conditions shift. 

I’ve tried the road when it was slimy wet, lining the wheel wells with caked clay.  And I’ve had a flat tire as evening and a likely rainstorm approached, when I spent an hour crawling in the dust and dirt to work bolts and watch the concerned faces of my passengers. Getting stuck in the San Juan Basin can be dangerous: cold, hot, slick. Snakes and other prickly things can threaten. Time to drive. Isn’t it ironic that this place that took hundreds of years to so carefully build keeps visits so short? Chaco preserves it own mystery.  

Similarly, the Chacoan people had to leave at some point, and they seemed to have done so quickly.The boom times gave us the Great Houses, but after their peak, Chaco rapidly fell into disuse. What happened?  After taking the time to painstakingly build this greatness, why was it abruptly left? Why did the stories change?

We know that regional factors were at play at the end of Chaco’s dominance. Resource depletion likely occurred. Populations in the latter Chacoan days had increased, putting more pressure on the web of life. An extreme drought, lasting for fifty years, starting in 1130 AD, likely played havoc with the vulnerable parts of the Chaco web. This could have increased instabilities and weakened the Pax Chaco. While Chaco populations were decreasing, those in other areas were increasing. People were migrating to new places. A perfect storm was blowing and the Chacoan ship of state was coming apart.

Hopi Gambler Katsina
The regional factors were external. There are also legends, told still today among the native peoples, about the end time for Chacoan dominance. It is a kind of morality play that speak against the concentration of power and the degradations that it can produce. It seems that there was a strong figure, a gambler, who appeared on the scene, possibly occupying Pueblo Alto, and quickly managed to enslave the people. To the Hopi, he was Hasoqata, a wicked, merciless, magical figure who targeted women. To the Navajo, it was Noquoilpi, He-Who-Wins-You-Over. He took their property, their wealth, and their children. He likely turned neighbor against neighbor. Eventually it is said he caused the collapse of Chaco.

What lessons were learned? Listen to the words of two modern descendants, first a man from Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico: 

"In our history we talk of things that occurred a long time ago, of people who had enormous amounts of power: spiritual power and power over people. 
I think that those kinds of people lived here in Chaco...Here at Chaco there were very powerful people who had a lot of spiritual power, and these people probably used their power in ways that caused things to change and that may have been one of the reasons why the migrations were set to start again, was because these people were causing changes that were never meant to occur...There are some things in our migration histories that we don't understand, but I think that some of those things were never meant to be understood. They served a purpose when they were needed and now that purpose is, or that need is no longer there. It's no longer necessary to repeat that portion of the story." (Lekson, Stephen H. A History of the Ancient Southwest, 199)

A woman from Santa Clara Pueblo, also in New Mexico, adds to the subject:

"[Chaco was] full of energy, a different energy that before or after...a hierarchical structure: it was the idea of Pueblo society that we know today, where everybody is equal...a different ideology." (Lekson, Stephen H. A History of the Ancient Southwest, 199)

Pueblo people today don’t build palaces and they resist elites. They have been at the living of their lives for over a thousand years, and they’ve learned about what is important to them. Shared governance is to them much better than establishing elites. They’ve learned what has and what has not worked. To these folks, Chaco was an important campsite on their migratory path. Then there were problems and it was time to move on, learning and seeking new remedies which were perhaps actually old remedies. It was time for them to follow the clouds to new places, to rethink their solutions, and to build new ways. Pueblo people don’t shun Chaco. They embrace it, and they have learned from it.

Now I’m back in Gallup, my folks freed to their enjoyments. I sit on my motel bed drinking road coffee and thinking about the day. Once again, Chaco enlightens and challenges. 

I started my Chaco times by driving to an isolated set of ruins in a desolate place, having no idea how special it was. I’ve learned that the structures, what many call ruins are rare great houses, carefully built, and I feel honored that they’ve been shared with me. 

Chaco was a response to the needs of the time. Its fate was something that has happened to many other societies, and continues to happen. Combining economic, political, military and ritual power too closely is a dangerous practice, easily becoming a toxic witch’s brew. I will never be Puebloan, but I can understand the lessons they learned as they migrated their chosen paths. So Chaco really lives on for all of us, as a monument of achievement and of caution.

This is Part 3 of a 3 part post. Please enjoy these words and look at the other posts:

Welcome To The Gallery

Beyond The Barrier Part 1: Finding Our Way

Ten of us, nine intrepid visitors and me, their driver and guide, are venturing along in a nondescript white van. There is another such group in another such van just in front of us. We’ve been working to understand something more of the Southwest and it native peoples and this is our last day on the road.

America’s relationship with these folks has always been ambivalent. They are just like us, people trying to find their way in their world. But we’ve often not known how to understand them, regarding them as rescuer, enemy, threat, buffoon, artisan or savior, depending on our agenda. Today all that is set aside; they are mentors. What we’ve seen so far on this journey are people who are part of long, proud traditions, dating back a thousand years; —people eager to share those proud traditions.

We’ll be driving into the world of their ancestors, seeing their past, and better understanding their, and perhaps our, present. We woke up in Gallup, New Mexico, and are headed toward the center of the remote San Juan Basin. We are going to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. My people have come from busy lives, some have studied the suggested resources and all have sat through the presentations. This trip has been a working vacation for them; they are tired but know that this will be the highlight of the trip. 

My situation is different. They are paying for the trip. I am being paid to be involved. Lucky for me, I’m in the right place at the right time with the right interests. I’ve found road trips to be enlivening; escapes from Monday mornings. The Colorado Plateau, the locale of my responsibilities, is a marvelous escape place. It motivates me to grow and to learn. History? Geology? Paleontology? Archaeology? Ethnology? Art? Check on all accounts. Talented, creative people? You bet. All this has entered into my bones and now permeate my being. So going on trips like this is like taking a practicum in eating wonderful foods. I can feast on the best. I spend plenty of time the ordinary, so thank God I have these times to soar. 

We’ve crossed the Continental Divide twice. We've had a fleeting glimpse of a Chaco “outlier” (a structure influenced by Chaco culture but not in the immediate bounds of Chaco), Kin Ya’a
(Navajo for “Tall House”). 
Kin Ya'a

We’ve stopped for coffee and donuts, universal road food, in Crownpoint and are about to reach the intersection of New Mexico 57 and Indian Route 9, the southern start of the mythologized “Chaco Road” when we see the brown NPS sign that greets visitors.

"Rough Road
May Be Impassable
Travel At Your Own Risk"

My front seat navigator asks, “How far and how long?”

I say, “eighteen miles, thirty-five minutes, of adventure”.  What I don’t say is that the eighteen (dry today, thank God!) consist of dirt, rocks, ruts, slips, craggy cattle guards, sand, blind hills and bends, maybe cattle, maybe antelope, and maybe snakes, always the dust of the lead van, and a numbing cacophony of rattles and rumbles—a witch’s brew for the timid.

Not far in, someone else asks, “How much longer?” I start calling out the miles. Of course the people in the back can’t really hear me. Later I point and say, much louder, “There, see that? That’s Fajada Butte”.  Some of my passengers, the readers, know that’s good news. Below that landmark lies the Chaco visitor center. 

I say: “18 miles, 35 minutes of adventure”.  What I don’t say is that the 18 dry (thank God!) miles consist of dirt, rocks, ruts, slips, craggy cattle guards, sand, blind hills and bends, maybe cattle, maybe antelope, and maybe snakes, always the dust of the lead van, and an numbing cacophony of rattles and rumbles, a witches brew for the timid. Not far in, someone else asks, “How Much Longer?”; I start calling out the miles. Of course the people back past the middle can’t really hear me. Later I point and say, much louder, “there, see that? That’s Fajada Butte”.  Some of my passengers, the readers, know that is good news. Below that landmark lies the Chaco Visitor Center and the promise of smooth pavement. My throat is dry, my neck is stiff, my hands tingly and my knees need straightening; they must feel the same. 

A Witches Brew
My throat is dry, my neck is stiff, my hands tingly and my knees are cramped; my passengers must feel the same challenges. As we reach the National Park Service pavement, the noise and tumult dissipate and the van collectively heaves a sigh of relief. We’ve made it; we’ve crossed the desert. The Chaco road isn’t the worst road we could face, but it surely tests our desire to have come to this desert capital, the remote center of the Chaco world.

Yet people have come, crossing the desert to see the ancient capital mostly buried by invading seas of sand and silt. Puebloan folks have used it for ancestral re-enactments. Spanish settlers from Mexico and Navajo have used it for building materials and grazing. It has been on the American map for a century and a half, since James Simpson led an expedition and Richard Kern sketched what they saw. His sketch of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco’s largest structure, showed magnificence that could only be imagined at the time. The trader Richard Wetherill opened a trading post at its heart in the late nineteenth century, began its excavation, and even tried to gain title to parts of it.

Richard Kern: What Must Be Here

Now important parts of it have been excavated and eighty thousand people visit per year, most in and out in one day, fascinated by these this ancient people and their legacy. Identity can be a fickle companion, so maybe slipping into a mythical one, like “Chacoan”, can be easier, and maybe putting our bootprints next to their much older sandal prints can help us join in their sense of being centered. Although I’ve been to Chaco before, most of my people are first-timers. I can sense their anticipation and I know we all feel a mystical connection with this place.

Driving into Chaco, I don’t see any grand earthen shapes— no dramatic layers; no reds, creams, yellows, purples, and whites formed into thrones, domes, reefs, needles, temples, and nipples; no grand romantic vistas like those found in the postcard parks of Utah and Arizona. I see a flat valley running mostly east-west. The road drops down and crosses over Chaco Wash, a deeply incised arroyo that starts to the east and ends to the west, at the Chaco River, six miles away. Both are dry except for snowmelt or flash flood water. Above the valley, I see cliffs rising to the tops of mesas, dull cream-colored sandstone similar to that in Mesa Verde, topped with courser sandstone sheets. 

This valley is in a hard land, stark, with little vegetation and little evidence of water (except for the water tank on the cliff above the upcoming visitor center). The elevation is high, six thousand feet, the climate is extreme, even for this corner of New Mexico, ranging from -38°F cold to 120°F hot. The average rainfall is but eight inches. I’m tempted to roll down the window, but I know the breeze is dry and carries clouds of silt lifted from the clay soil, clouds that make even the distance look hazy. It seems to suck moisture from me. Early American visitors found that even the Navajo refused to enter this valley during the hard seasons, hot and cold, refusing to cross what was called the “the desert barrier”. 

Yet ancestral puebloan peoples managed to break through that barrier. They combined knowledge of the land and the weather with human ingenuity, creating magnificent structures that became a capital—a place we can admire and respect; a library lined with resources of knowledge, wisdom, and caution. They set the stage for modern Pueblo peoples and our visit today.

And then we arrive at the visitor center. I open the doors and put the step stool into place. My people exit into the big sky country of Chaco and head for the visitor facilities. We have come a ways back, but we are just beginning, really. 

This is Part 1 of a 3 part post. Please enjoy these words and look at the other posts:

Welcome To The Gallery

(Note: This post was generated based on working with the Road Scholar Program at Northern Arizona University, a great bunch of leaders and guests intent on lifelong learning)

Saturday, July 26, 2014

Beyond The Barrier Part 2: At The Center

The visitor center is small yet still provides a helpful staff, books and other learning materials, comfortable chairs, water, and isolation from the outside wind. As I walk about the exhibits, I find new stories, adding them to what I’ve learned on prior visits. They come alive as I look out the windows to the wider park paths.

Against a section of north wall is a relief map, showing many of the sites within the park boundaries. It provides a raven’s eye view that is helpful for orientation but tends to reduce the scale of what was built at Chaco, the amount of activity and time required to build it, and the influence that these buildings had throughout the region. 

Ancestral Puebloan peoples built small communal villages at Chaco two thousand years ago. Larger building projects started around 500 AD. and reached a crescendo from 850 AD to 1150 AD, a three hundred year span, and then fell rapidly into disuse. What they built during the boom times, the great houses, were crucial to the those ancestral peoples and they still reverberate in our time. They are what defines the “Chaco Phenomenon” and are what my folks and I have come to see. 

Now it is time to see the real Chaco and listen to what it has to say to us. Before I usher the visitors out of the visitor center, though, I think on how understanding names can start to unlock the nature of a place. Consider, for example, Point Sublime in the Grand Canyon. What  did geologist Clarence Dutton see when he stood there the first time? He must have been thrilled, given the value of that word during his time. 

Knowing that Chaco has been an attraction for many years, it seem logical the the name would similarly mean great things. Unfortunately no,  the name actually comes to us from a path now veiled. We know that the Hopi call it  yupköyvi, “the place beyond the horizon”, the Acoma call it W’aasfba shak’a, “the place of greasewood” and other Pueblo peoples have their own names. Modern Navajo have a name meaning “the meeting place.”  The name we’ve chosen to use, Chaco, could have been shortened from the Acoma name or derived from a Spanish translation of the Navajo word Tskoh, meaning “rock-cut” or  “canyon” or Tzak aih, meaning “white string of rocks.” In general, the word, chaco, is used in the Americas to describe flat, dry, treeless plains. We’ve no idea what the original Chacoans called their home place.

The question of naming is further confused as we head for Pueblo Bonito, a Spanish name. I find it ironic that an iconic locale, Chaco, for an iconic people, Ancestral Puebloan, is now described using languages foreign to Chaco’s original time and place. The site names found in the park are Spanish (Chaco, Pueblo Bonito), Navajo (Kin Kletso), mangled Hopi (Hungo Pavi), and English (Chaco Culture National Historical Park). Even the label “Pueblo” is Spanish. Today the Chacoan descendants, the peoples of the Pueblo cultures, speak six different languages in four different language families, and there’s no reason to believe that the Chacoan situation was any simpler. Yet we don’t use any of these people’s languages to describe this iconic place. 

We’re back in the van and driving toward Pueblo Bonito, the best known and most studied of Chaco’s “Great Houses”, so named because of their scale. On the way, we’ll pass three more of them, Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, and Chetro Ketl, in a short distance. There are six on this side of the wash and on the other side is Casa Rinconada, a great kiva, a large version of the round structure used the ancestral puebloan world to host key religious and civil functions. In all there are more than thirty recognized sites within the park. We are in “downtown Chaco”, the center of all the sites, the center of the center.

Pueblo Bonito can tell the story for all of these sites. So my passengers and I exit the vans and start along the short trail to visit it.  The structure grows in size as I walk toward the southeast side, the wall getting taller with each stride. If I’d been moving through here a hundred years ago, I would have seen a few short walls rising in front of me. The rest of what is seen now would have been buried in pools of sand and silt. Little of its story would have been visually evident. Since then much of the pool has been drained and its contents risen again. As the invading land was moved out, high walls rose around a single large outline.  Researchers have collected stories and artifacts. From them numbered viewpoints have been established and explained in a readily available trail pamphlet.

Walls & Windows
The trail continues on the east side along a wall with empty roof timber holes. Then it climbs up and over blocks of cliff sandstone that broke free from the cliff wall  in 1941 and rolled into the back side of the structure, it’s masonry under attack from the rock of the cliff from whence it had come. I follow the trail past the tall remnant of the back wall, still standing after nine hundred years, and then into one of the plazas. I stop in this plaza for a bit, listening. The wind blows earth around, short shrubs sway, a stray paper bounces into a wall and stops. None of this produces much sound, but it seems to fill the open space.

Chacoans lived and worked here—not to build someplace for us to visit but to make their lives better. They no longer remain to hang out, selling handiwork, and they can’t pass out guidebooks. But they have left clues, pieces of their lives, to tease us with snippets of their story. 

Pueblo Bonito gradually awakens in me a sense of ongoing life.  I see doors and wonder if someone might emerge at any moment or if residents may be watching me, wondering what I want, ready to challenge me. I sense the sounds and maybe the smells of former lives—of religious leaders chanting, drumming, and dancing in kivas and plazas, clad in shells, parrot feathers, and turquoise, working to hasten the appearance of life-giving rain in this arid land; of pots clattering, corn being ground; of children running; of trading stalls and negotiations carried out in multiple languages; of ravens sneaking goodies, of construction for walls, roofs, pits, earthworks, and canals; of people who left a part of themselves behind to keep their campsite alive. 

I have a similar sense when I return to my childhood home. Seeing the house brings back memories of events that still seem real: playing catch in the front yard, washing my father’s red work pickup after a camping trip to the desert, growing vegetables in the back yard, eating a Sunday meal outside on the driveway, driving along the street on the day that John Kennedy was shot, and many more. These sensations are real. But they are generational. The sense that I get from Chaco is much more expansive and powerful, a bit of the eternal kept alive.

As I turn around, I hear real drums, rattles, and monotone voices off in the distance, calling out a ritual story. Zuni people have returned to their sacred site to celebrate their Buffalo Dance. The dancers are likely descendants of Chaco. On another day, they could also be from Acoma, Hopi or other Pueblo peoples come to tell of their ancestors’ migrations, of campsites in both Chaco and then Mesa Verde, important places that preceded their modern village sites. They tell stories at the heart of their Pueblo life.  They don’t tell us all; the mystery remains. 

Some understandings are sensitive and can’t be told. But there is still much to be learned, if we are sensitive and patient. I’m told that an archaeologist was struggling to understand a kiva configuration: why are there two halves? Finally, he went to a leader of one of the Pueblos and asked for help. The leader simply said, that one side is for summer people and the other for winter people, a sharing of governance still maintained in these cultures. 

Stories are told because they help people make sense of the world. They relate truth and stick to us like cockleburs. Truth doesn’t have to be scientifically rigourous; but it must be life-giving.

Of course, there are stories from folks who have studied Chaco from a scientific standpoint. These are the folks who’ve mapped, dug, sifted, categorized, and synthesized the results for over one hundred years and especially since the 1970s. Like so many other southwestern Native American sites, Chaco has been extensively raided over the years, artifacts pilfered and structures destroyed. The roof beams have been used to construct new buildings or just burned for firewood. The pots have been sent to the collections of individuals or museums, or just put on a local shelf. Against the odds, archaeologists have still managed to synthesize stories and theories. Large amounts of research money has been spent and and significant professional conflicts have resulted. Now we have more stories, some generally accepted, others not so much. 

So Chaco can and does give us stories, if we are quiet and listen. When we hear them, we must remember to treat them in the context of all that we know. Sometimes stories turn out to have been insightful and other times they turn out to have been outrageous. There isn’t always an abundance of evidence and at times it seems to conflict with other evidence. Humility, caution and a willingness to say “I don’t know” are the best approach.

Pueblo Bonito’s stories also arise from its physicality. It is a place of staggering scale, especially by ancestral standards. It reminds me how big the world is and how small I am in it. As I walk up the trail toward it I can see its expanse along the wash and toward the cliff rising above it. It is a single structure occupying two and a half acres, one hundred and nine thousand square feet. And don’t forget that this was one of several such structures.

Its shape regularly changed, over at least five generations. Houses today do get remodeled but few would be occupied for as long as Pueblo Bonito, or their space so dramatically increased in height and complexity. Yet that is what happened at Pueblo Bonito. There are five versions within its current walls, each larger than its predecessor. Its plan must have been carefully thought out, because as it grew in size between 900 and 1115 AD, it maintained its same D-shape, rose five stories, and ended up with over five hundred rooms. Its walls changed significantly in structure to accommodate the new space, growing from a thickness of single stones carefully stacked to thick cores(nearly three feet) of rubble with thin veneers of facing stones. This dynamism resulted in five unique masonry styles. 

As I spin around looking at the expanse in front of me, I find myself counting— and quickly giving up— how many stones must be included in just Pueblo Bonito. They were likely removed from the surrounding cliffs and then painstakingly chipped to size and carried to the building site. I then I find myself remembering that there are six great houses just on the north side of Chaco Wash. That would have required millions of stones for walls, walkways and site preparation.

And the masonry of these structures isn’t the only amazing part of their scale. Roofs were also crucial. They had to have many of them, between floors, on the top floors, and over kivas. Since Pueblo Bonito alone had at least five hundred rooms, try to imagine how many roofs needed covering. More than two hundred thousand roof beams were used (over twenty-five thousand in Pueblo Bonito alone) and at least sixty thousand of them had to be the size of large ponderosa pines. I don’t see a good candidate anywhere in my sight. At best there are some junipers, not nearly tall enough to provide good roofs. And they would be quickly used up. The majority of the beams came from the Chuska Mountains in eastern Arizona, sixty miles away. Additional sites likely included Mount Taylor(sixty-five miles away), and the Naciemento Mountains (eighty miles away). Each of these beams likely weighed six hundred pounds. Chacoans didn’t have beasts of burden or even the wheel. Given their likely stature, maybe five feet tall, I wonder how they could have downed, prepared, and transported so many beams so far?

So who chipped rocks, built walls, prepared building sites, and carried tree trunks, not to mention grew food and maintained buildings and families? The only reasonable answer is: lots and lots and lots of ordinary people, at least four hundred thousand person-hours of labor. Where did they live and how did they survive? They likely came from far and from near, making pilgrimages and then returning home. Were they conscripts? Not likely. They were participants in a vast network that was the Chaco world. Archaeologists tell us that these people didn’t live in the great houses and must have lived in traditional unit pueblos consisting of  six rooms and a kiva. Ninety percent of the structures in Chaco are these pueblos or are pit houses. After seeing the scale of structures around me, I can only gaze in wonder. 

I’ve walked Chaco paths and I’ve looked at the vegetation. There is little to eat here, from my perspective. So what did these anonymous people eat in this land of apparent scarcity? They relied on their traditions and found native plants: Indian rice grass, globe mallow, wild buckwheat, cactus fruits, yucca pods, piñon nuts (before they cut all the trees), purslane, tansy mustard, amaranth, goosefoot, bee plant, blazing star, sunflower, and four-wing saltbush (its ashes are still used with corn to improve the niacin content and reduce protein deficiency), to name but a few options. And like their compatriots through what is now the Four Corners region, they were adept at finding ways to grow crops, especially corn. 

On the short drive to Pueblo Bonito we passed a canyon with an earthen dam. What we didn’t see was the network of stone channels emanating from that dam. Rain falling on the hard surfaces of the northern mesa would likely flood into the canyon, down to Chaco Wash. The ancient people attempted to capture it for use on fields below. The south mesas are different, having more soil. There, little individual fields were developed, like those found in modern Pueblo lands. Farming was tough, but so were the people, tough enough to last awhile.

If the farmers and builders didn’t live in these large houses, though, who did? Looking up the five stories, I can see the remains of rooms, stacked on top of each other. Could they all be residential rooms? Doubtful. Many have no vents, not even places for cooking or heating fires. Could I live in completely bounded spaces without vents for cooking and heating fires or even visibility of the world around them? No. They appear more like storage spaces than living spaces. I’ve gone between rooms, squeezing my six-foot-plus body through doors two-thirds that size. These people weren’t tall, maybe five ft on average, and they would have had to crawl through the tiny doors in order to live in the rooms or just manage the contents.

These great houses were all likely lordly dwellings, perhaps palaces, housing maybe a few thousand people at most, some kind of elites, possibly priests, meant to visually enforce the power and importance of Chaco.  They likely had large living spaces for these leaders. Many of the other rooms were probably for the storage of their regal treasures, especially large amounts piles of turquoise. 

I’m told that if you stand at Pueblo Alto, on the cliffs above Pueblo Bonito, you have a better view of the Chaco world. It was large, maybe ten thousand square miles. More than two hundred sites, “outliers”, across this Chaco world show signs of Chacoan influence, from Colorado to Utah to Arizona and nearly to the Mexican border. The big three great houses seem to have been Pueblo Bonito, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Alto, the heart of downtown Chaco.  The first was the oldest, the second the largest, but the third one, Pueblo Alto—according to later tribal accounts—was the center of power, where the supreme rulers lived and swayed. Other houses lined the north side of the wash, but they were more princely than lordly.

There are notably no cherry blossoms, but make no mistake, this was a capital. It was a place meant to humble and reinforce a belief in the necessity of power and its accoutrements. It was a place to embody the wide sway of the elites that it housed.

Why did Chaco elites need this sway? Perhaps survival. People needed food, the ability to trade goods, safety, communication, and an enabling ritual story. Chaco provided all of them. It was likely a large food bank meant to help folks ride out the storms of scarcity caused by weather, conflict, and bad luck. It was also a place of trading. Merchants from Mexico to Colorado, California to Texas likely congregated multilingually at Chaco to provide both commoners and elites with what they needed to maintain their place in the Chaco cosmos. It was also a place of security. As threats impinged from east, north, west, and south, the “Pax Chaco”—like the “Pax Romana” of the Roman empire— kept the Chaco world humming along. To do all this required a communication system. Roads, signal sites, and runners were needed. 

All these needs likely also required a ritualistic foundation. Walking in the great houses, one would likely have smelled incense and heard chanting and drumming arising from the kivas, great and modest. “God is with us, keep the faith,” they might have been saying.  

Great houses were monumental, new things. They were not, as had been normal building practice of ancestors,  glue-on extensions over time. They were purposefully designed, engineered and implemented by people who had a purpose in mind the whole time, people who weren’t going anywhere, people who were building a new center for a Chaco world, people building a capital for monumental purposes, people building a center to hold the Chaco world together.

Ancestral Pueblo traditions centered around a story of emergence up into this world from another earlier world, followed by migrations and returns of from large distances, from Central America and even the tip of South America. As agriculture moved north from central America, they became less migratory. Farming required the allocation and maintenance of static land, the collection and generation of seeds for future crops and to carry folks over through lean times. As populations increased, villages became larger and more permanent. Yet climate patterns were still uncertain and resource overuse still a problem, so migrations occurred even among these more sedentary folks, sometimes after only a generation or two.

There is still the belief among modern Pueblo peoples that migration was central to their heritage. Villages are to be seen as more campsites than destinations. Looking back these peoples believe even Chaco was such a place. They know that their people moved on to other sites before arriving at their current locations. As grand as Chaco was, it was also changing.
This is Part 2 of a 3 part post. Please enjoy these words and look at the other posts:

Welcome To The Gallery

Friday, May 2, 2014

Up Top and Down Deep

The Grand Canyon must be seen to be believed. To most, that is an "oh, my God" moment. It isn't the longest, deepest or wildest canyon, coming in at #4 on some lists, but it's size, complexity and grandeur justify its name. It likely dates from about 5 million years ago, old by human standards, but barely a tick on the scale of the earth's history. During that tick our Colorado River has made it a slice 277 river miles long, from one quarter to 18 miles wide. It has 167 named rapids and about 225 side canyons. Its southern rim is about 1373 miles long and its northern rim is about 1384 miles long. It cuts into seven named plateaus or platforms. Its maximum depth is 6,000 ft. It's river drops 2,000 ft in elevation as it flows through it. Harvey Butchart found 12,000 miles of hikeable paths in it between Lee's Ferry and Pearce Ferry. Its layer cake structure shows scores of landscapes, dunes, rivers, oceans, settled into a low interior basin over 1.8 billion years and then raised over 7,000 ft to its current elevation. It has been land on the move. Its river has carved deep and wide, producing many textures and colors, angles, towers, slopes, canyons and platforms. It is a place of magnificent overload.

Native peoples were the first to see, feel and hear it, to stand on its edge and to walk its center, starting some 13,000 years ago. It was Piapaxa 'uipi (Big River Canyon) to the southern Paiute, Öngtupka (Salt Canyon) to the Hopi, Chic-a-mi-mi Hackataia to the Havasupai, Tsékooh Hatsoh (Big Space Canyon) to the Navajo, or the work of Pack-i-tha-a-wi to the Hualapai, long before it was a "barrier which nature had fixed" to the Spanish Garces (1776), the Big Cañon of the Colorado to Ives or the Great Unknown to Powell (1895).

Ancestral Puebloans, Southern Paiutes, Hualapai and Havasupai lived, farmed, collected plants, hunted and still recognize culturally human artifacts and natural elements along the banks of the Colorado River. The Hopi people connect their origin story to the Sipapuni, where they climbed up a reed into the fourth world near the confluence of the Colorado and the Little Colorado Rivers. The Zuni people arose from Chimik'yana'kya, near Ribbon Falls. The Canyon and its river have remained sacred to these peoples and their descendants, drawing them back  to celebrate their origins.

My experience with the canyon dates from my youth, 1958. A family vacation put us on the south rim, my brother and I sitting near the edge and father pointing his new Voigtländer camera  (a unit that I still use) into the depths. ñon. This story and the images I share are a part of the legacy.
On The Road

Way Down
I've found ways to continue this family legacy, on the rims, on the interior trails, and on the plateaus that bound the Canyon. This story and the images I share are a part of this legacy.

Clarence Dutton, an early geological explorer of the Colorado Plateau and the father of "The Grand Staircase", described the Canyon this way:

"Whenever we reach the Grand Cañon in the Kaibab it bursts upon the vision in a moment. Seldom is any warning given that we are near the brink. At the Toroweap it is quite otherwise. There we are notified that we are near it a day before we reach it. As the final march to that portion of the chasm is made the scene gradually develops, growing by insensible degrees more grand until at last we stand upon the brink of the inner gorge, where all is before us. In the Kaibab the forest reaches to the sharp edge of the cliff and the pine trees shed their cones into the fathomless depths below." (Clarence Dutton, 1882)

Let's go to the Canyon. First, join me as we drive along East Rim Drive, on Dutton's "Kaibab". We will park along an unpaved fire road, load up our gear and walk to a trailhead, about a half-mile away along the paved road, surrounded by forest. The trailhead is unmarked, recognizable mostly to acolytes actively seeking it. Heading slightly down through low pines and oak, we step down over rock steps, around corners, on red dirt. We can see patches of sky above us through the trees. Then the sky appears ahead of us, down to  a rock edge some distance away. The trees stop. We are looking down into the chasm that is Grand, the Grand Canyon.
The edge has arrived suddenly, as Dutton predicted it would.

Now join me as we drive a 61 mile dirt road toward the North Rim's Toroweap. It is lined with sharp rocks, washboardy and dusty. There are a few trees, mainly accents, but mostly low shrubs that spread across dark volcanic bluffs. In the distance we can see peaks, cliffs and some narrow mesas. The land is open and the sky is big. As the end of the road we reach a broad platform with shallow indentations, water pockets. Out there is another part of the Canyon, its chasm beckoning us to approach.

Regardless of how I have approached it, I've been stunned by the seemingly infinite space and bounding earth of the Canyon, two pieces, one whole, like standing on the edge between ocean and earth.

"I gazing at the boundaries of granite and spray,
                    the established sea-marks,
            felt behind me
Mountain and plain, the immense breadth of the continent,
                    before me the
            mass and doubled stretch of water"
(Robinson Jeffers, Continents End)

See The River?
Tipping off from the Kaibab, our way down will be the New Hance Trail, an unmarked, unmaintained route seemingly straight down. The guidebooks are cautious about it and seem to say "use it if you must". It's a trail for those in a hurry to get down. It the quickest drop of all the south rim trails, dropping 4,500 ft in just under 7 miles.   On the way our feet and lands touch ancient lands and their relics of life, smooth, rough, strong or crumbly. It's a individual struggle to prove yourself by surviving all the way to the bottom.
The trail was intended for mules, built by "Captain" John Hance to work his asbestos mine on the side of the river and later to take tourists to the bottom. It takes our boots down through boulders and crumbled shale, across steep faces with ball-bearing pebbles under foot and then forces us to slide down limestone faces into the aptly named Red Canyon before boulder-hopping to respite in the dunes of Hance Rapids.

Looking back up to the start, I sink into my own reverie. It seems like I've been in a fight. After hours of slipping, sliding and stumbling, the end feels, finally, like something magic has happened: I made it. It feels like I finally landed one good punch, maybe a perfect right cross. The soft dunes and the roar of the river across Hance Rapids are rewards for the challenges endured. They refresh before we move on, toward a return to the rest of what's dear.

Above The Deep River
At Toroweap the rewards are different, the result of having successfully negotiated the long, challenging dirt entrance path.
The bottom, the river, is 3,000 ft below us, not directly accessible. If we're lucky, we'll see a boat or two bobbing down the river, after 175 miles of transit. We are on top, imagining their lengthy ride, and wondering if they can see us, the mighty rim ants, as we stare down at them. We can only imagine the fight they've enjoyed to get to this point in their journey.

The Canyon is best known for space, steepness and struggle. But it isn't just about big and deep. It is also about adjacencies, lands filled with little victories, with tall trees, with scrubby plants and tough critters hanging tenaciously to hard rocks in hard climates and wandering through ancient forests, and with little pockets of water retained as long as possible. It is about fires and wind that sweep through and clear the way for new life. It is about people returning to their sacred roots, about people trying to scratch out a living from the hardscrabble earth, about colorful folks telling tales that bemuse visitors and about buildings sculpted from the earth on which they sit, looking down stunning side canyons. It is a place big enough for everyone to find their remembrances and their own reasons to return.

I admit to feeling presumptuous for this brief piece and the images that follow. There are many vantages from which to appreciate the Grand Canyon, not all precipitous. I am sharing some of them in gallery below. There are more that I haven't seen or have seen and haven't adequately recorded. There are many people who know more, have seen more and have captured more in images, words and traditions. I heartily recommend that you visit them if you want to see a more complete story. Their vision has created footsteps for us to follow.

Please enjoy these words and images as a first offering:

Please enjoy this place and these images. Come back and read the rest. You'll like it.

Welcome To The Gallery

Starting places:
Pyne, How The Canyon Became Grand
Abbott & Cook, Hiking the Grand Canyon's Geology
Adkison, Hiking Grand Canyon National Park
Banks & Childs, Grand Canyon Stories: Then and Now
Butchart, Grand Canyon Treks: 12,000 Miles Through the Grand Canyon
Coder, An Introduction to Grand Canyon Prehistory
Crumbo, A River Runner's Guide to the History of the Grand Canyon
Ladd & Childs, Grand Canyon: Time Below the Rim
McGarry, Bruce Aiken's Grand Canyon
McNamee, Grand Canyon Place Names
Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons
Ranney, Carving Grand Canyon
Trimble, Lasting Light: 125 Years of Grand Canyon Photography

Monday, February 24, 2014

A Giant Land of Old Life on New Earth

For three hours we've been in this small tube with its quiet mechanical sounds. Out the window, glimpses of the Pacific Ocean at the edge of North America, surely lapping against it. The edge is green with dense forests and this green leads up toward rugged peaks, peaks barren but for snow that melts and flows down toward the ocean in creeks, streams and rivers, starting a new cycle. The features, largely indistinguishable. I know that there are landmarks, Misty Fiords National Monument, Ketchikan, Glacier Bay, Kahliak River, but I can't make them out. The ground seems to be static, but is different when I look again. If only I could be down there with boots on the ground, I could get a sense of what I'm seeing. I can't wait to escape these
Way Up North
confines and get in touch with that earth. We're headed north to see kids and grandkids, north to Alaska, North to the Future(the official motto), The Last Frontier, the 50th state, Land of the Midnight Sun, the rush is on and I will chase after it, with notebook and camera in hand. I'll share what I discover about the land I see and its history. I'll drive 1,000 of the 4,900 miles of paved highways, along the Parks, Richardson, Glenn and Seward sections. I can't see it all, but I will see its heart. The images will mostly be "roadkill" (semi-technical term for drive-quick stop-drive) and I'll be grateful for them. I'm eager to share them with you. This is a long post, I'll let you peek at the images here and then include the link at the bottom as well.

Please enjoy this place and these images. Come back and read the rest. You'll like it.

Welcome To The Gallery

Across the road I see another airfield that includes a lake with float planes spread around its perimeter, Merrill Field, an general use airport to support private aircraft, wheeled, ski- and float-equipped. These
facilities paint a picture about Alaska. It is the largest state, 20% the size of the lower 48, combined, with more coastline than all 48, combined. It's statewide population would fit into Seattle, WA, and 43% do fit into the largest cities, Anchorage and Fairbanks. 82% of its communities are not connected to the road system, relying entirely on air service, and only 2% of its land is accessible by roads (local saying: where the road ends, the real Alaska begins). No wonder it has eight times more airplane boardings per capita than any other state and needs airports. This is wild country, not Disneyland.

Clouds and rain shadow the road north, to Denali and its National Park. There are hills and trees and, on my left, the mighty Alaska Range, its peaks, and its glaciers. The trees are mostly spruce, black and white, pointed up like an ascending rocket. The road passes over and along rivers and creeks. Narrow lakes appear occasionally. Alaska has over 12,000 rivers, creeks and streams, 9,700 of which are officially named. It has more than 3 million lakes. It has 100,000 glaciers. It has 17 of the the 20 highest peaks in the US, five of which are on Denali, to our left. It's a shock for someone from the southwest. The visual scale will soon start to match the geographical scale.

Denali NP covers almost 12,000 sq mi in south central Alaska. Within it is a 3,400 sq mi wilderness. 400,000 people (60% of the Alaskan population) visit the park annually. Many hike and backpack in the back country, but many more see it in a hosted bus along the narrow ribbon of dirt road from the Parks Highway deep into the country, six hours(each way) to the Kantishna camp and four hours(each way) to the Eielson Visitor Center.

The Denali Road reveals a land that both old and new. It is old from a biologic perspective. On my trip, I saw Dall Sheep, Grizzly Bears, Caribou, a campground fox and other smaller critters (of the park's 223 species). The bus had to stop at one point and add bikers wisely stopped because of a grizzly near the road. Another trip reported seeing 72 Dall Sheet, 14 Moose, 30 Caribous, 2 foxes, 4 squirrels, and 1 Grizzly. These sightings are exciting.They can remind us of a much longer time frame. Humans arrived here about 15,000 years ago, across the Bering Land Bridge. The resident animals and plants are part of a much longer story. A swedish spruce, similar to the trees found in Denali, has been dated back nearly 10,000 years. Polar bears date back at least 100,000 years, evolving from the even-earlier grizzly bear. The moose, really a large deer, dates back at least 1 million years. There are records of dinosaurs, at least 65 million years old, when Denali was starting to rise. Simple life forms are even older. The future here starts from an old past.

The humans who arrived 15,000 years ago have much learned much about this land. There are still 20 native languages among their descendants, most belonging either to the Eskimo-Aleut or Athabascan-Eyak-Tlingit language families (go to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage to hear them and see the wonderful handwork produced). These people developed ways of life to successfully survive in the harsh climate of Alaska. They hunted, fished, and used available materials to build lives and communities. Along the way they told stories that named important landmarks, like Alaska, Alyeska (Aleut for "mainland" or "the object toward which the action of the sea is directed") and Denali(Koyukon for "the high one"), the frozen wave where the second humans appeared. This is a working landscape full of meaning.

The land looks empty to us, people of the congested world, because of its scale and sparsity of apparent habitation, so it's designation as a "frontier" seems understandable. Some of this is blatant boosterism, meant more to sell than to inform. But some of it is also a modern need to escape complications. Unlike our Puritan fore-bearers who saw wilderness as a place of chaos and threat, we tend to see it as place for personal space and "freedom", real or imagined. Whether it be from a viewpoint, from a trail, or across a meadow, it becomes a place for expansion and release; we breathe deep and move out. The land, however, is shared by many living things and is not really empty.

This land is old but it is also new, from the perspective of earth history. Like much of the US West Coast, Alaska is an assembled land, by the movement of the earth's crust, intersectons of the earth's plates and migration of island fragments. The earth is about 4.6 billion years old and these events started in the last 4% of that history. By contrast, the Hudson Bay area of Canada hosts rocks deposited when 13% of the earth history had unfolded. Alaska is a late bloomer.

Plate intersections can result in one plate getting pushed below another, subduction, producing magma that forms the magma core of new mountains. Look at the Alaska Range, including Denali's peaks, and the Polychrome Mountains, to see these results. Denali has been growing for about 60 million years and continues to rise today at about 1 mm per year. If one takes the bus to Eileson Visitor Center in Denali, the Polychrome Mountains will be traversed. These colorful edifices are the result of volcanic eruptions, with red, yellow and brown magma, rising from the plate action. At the Visitor's Center, one can see, if cloud's permit, the north side of "The High One", rising 17,000 to 20,237 ft, a prominence of 20,073 ft, 3rd in the world. If you can't see it (a frequent occurrence and one I shared), a local quilter has provided a beautiful image of it and the Park Service has put its outline on the facing window. Alaska is indeed a new land, but its a late bloomer on the earth stage .

Magic Metal
Driving north from Denali, one arrives at Fairbanks, founded when a riverboat trying to reach the gold rushes got stuck in the Tanana River. It has been key to Alaska's quest for gold and to its more recent oil rush. Gold and oil are also the result of Alaska's assembling. Island fragments originated elsewhere, mostly south, and then migrated, pushed by the forces of the earth's plates until they collided with North America. These fragments have names like Yukon-Tanana and Wrangellia. Alaskan highways cross many of them. Imagine the Galápagos Islands, pushed north until they slam into a growing Alaska. The island impacts started about 200 millions years ago, in the last 4% of the earth's history. With all of the diverse pieces assembled together, there have been lots of seams, places available to bring superheated water up from the earth's restless mantle to the crust, water that carried precious materials with it, like the rounded nuggets of gold. The Circle City rush of 1893, Yukon Rush of 1896, the Nome rush of 1898, the Fairbanks rush of 1902 were all the recipients of this gift (there are 16 mining districts in interior Alaska). Alaska gold is still attractive today as cable TV reveals.

The assembling has also provided petroleum, in the North Slope. This was a piece of land that was once
covered in plant life when North America was at a lower latitude. The fauna was then buried in the right way to result in hydrocarbons. And then North America was spun to the north and the North Slope was moved to its present position, an immigrant ready to provide treasure. The oil pipeline is a faithful companion as the highway runs south.

Now it's south to the coast. Grand mountains still dominate, but instead of the tundra/taiga of the north, the coast is a wetter, temperate,place. Both Valdez and Seward get lots of snow (200+ inches per year). And both are important places in the sweep of history. Both, along with Skagway, were key embarkation points for gold-rushers headed north. Today they provide glimpses into the bounty of Alaska's fishing waters and views of its coastal glaciers, key tourist attractions.

This story wouldn't be complete without noting the interesting people, some successful and others not so much, who filled the stories I've heard about Alaska. Here are a few of them: Adolph Murie, an early
To The Gold
naturalist around Denali who taught us about wolves and their prey; the 100,000 Yukon gold-rushers risking all to find magical nuggets over Chilkoot Pass in the Yukon; Bradford
The Washburns
Washburn bagging peaks and leaving brilliant photographic images; Bob Reeve and other incredibly brave "bush pilots", who have provided critical access to the backcountry; Fanny Quigley baking pies in frozen Kantishna, gathering five gallons of blueberries for each pie, killing a bear for its rendered fat, and then driving her sled to Healey with enough gold to buy flour and sugar, but also Chris McCandless overcome by the wild; Timothy Treadwell, lost to grizzlies in Katmai while once again recording them; Richard White, lost to a grizzly while backpacking along the Toklat River(where I had photographed the river and the Polychromes). The Last Frontier is a place that inspires and cautions, a land "of illusions and of hard facts"(Robert Wrigley). And then there are the ordinary folks like our children and grandchildren who go to work and school every day and make lives for themselves. Together all these folks have made and are making Alaska an interesting place.

My favorite point in the Grand Canyon is the aptly-named Point Sublime. Alaska has so many sublime points that I doubt it will run short anytime soon. It will remain a haven for get-awayers. It's status as a "treasure state" is another matter. It has had a bounty of precious metals, petroleum, fisheries, forests, and tourists. But these treasures can be fleeting, built on rushes that turn into bubbles. At present oil production, 90% of its state budget, is declining, 40% of its 1988 high, its fisheries are stretched, its glaciers and lake ice are melting, and its gold extraction challenged because of its likely impact on the world-class Bristol Bay salmon waters. Can the sublime substitute for hard cash?

I came as a tourist, notebook and camera in hand. It has taken a while to write this post, mostly because I have felt haughty, trying to put a place this big, that I've seen so little of, into a small place like a post. Now I feel like I've started to understand the stories and the reality of this land. I have seen Alaska in the Midnight Sun and dipped my toes in a river, but only started to come into the country. I would like to spend more time walking, feeling the earth crunch under my boots, waiting, feeling the breezes, hearing the sounds, smelling the earth, hopping across streams, watching spring flows. Maybe someday I can do those things. Still, I'm grateful for the brief glimpses that have been gifted to me and hope that my words portray Alaska faithfully.

There is a book list at the end of this piece, with material that has aided my understand of Alaska. If you want to see the land in images from insiders, look at the Hirschmann and Heacox works. If you want to see it from a journalist who has truly been "into the country", read McPhee. If you want to read about the magic of Denali, read the Sherwonit anthology. If you want to experience the mountains, read Roberts. If you want to read about the need for realistic preparation, read Krakauer. If you want to read about the bush pilots, read Heacox, Hirschmann. And, if you want to read about the early Denali and its treasures, read Murie.

I hope that you enjoy these few images of this giant land.

Welcome To The Gallery

Alaska Light(Heacox)
Coming Into The Country(McPhee)
Denali: A Literary Anthology(Sherwonit)
The Last of His Kind(Roberts)
Into The Wild(Krakauer)
Bush Pilots of Alaska(Heacox, Hirschmann, Thomas, Hammond
A Naturalist In Alaska(Murie)