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 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.
May Be Impassable
Travel At Your Own Risk"
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.
|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.
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)