We saw it many times, from miles and miles away, but I always dismissed it. Canyon country has plenty of odd lumps in the rimrock, and the trail was just sandy enough to be slow, the day just sunny enough to be fatiguing, and the cliff face along which we walked for a while was spangled occasionally with petroglyphs and pictographs. Discerning the 800 year old ones from the decade old ones took some time, as did puzzling out just what had happened during those centuries to isolate the spirals and sheep figures 35 feet above the valley floor.
We were awed when we got there, and on the way back awed that we had missed it so thoroughly. Ruins, standing in places 12 feet tall, spread over pieces of an ellipse 300 feet in diameter, set into sandy bedrock on a promontory. The wind howled at us whenever we crawled out from the walls, looking into it revealed a broad wash headed west, abundant water glinting gaudy in the sun, stark and shocking in a world of tan and sage and grey and buff red. Some archeologists think that in the heyday those walls were painted white. Now that we knew what to see, that which the ages had left could be seen from over an hours walk away. At full height and painted it would have been a citadel visible from Arizona, on a clear day.
Anyone who’s interested in the Colorado Plateau and hasn’t read Craig Childs’ House of Rain should do so, as soon as possible. If the highest end of hiking and backpacking is to give you enough time out there to see properly, and to take you to places where you can turn that ability into knowledge, House of Rain is the best explicatory guide I’ve seen for how to do it well. It starts at Chaco, a low and otherwise innocuous canyon whose only distinguishing characteristic, other than being among the most potent archeological sites in the southwest, is that it’s the largest in the series of low washes which stripe New Mexico in the hundred miles south of the San Juan River.
It’s difficult to understand Chaco, why it was so big, why it happened where it did, and why it declined and then disappeared with relative suddenness. Being there, and thinking about those questions, are good for the outdoor intellect. In the aftermath you might find yourself better considering why roads, cities, dams, and farms are where they are.
The added privilege for us was Little Bear, running through low doors and falling over on loose stones, squealing and staring into the wind and pushing his bike around the campground. The sites close to the road are of necessity sterile and inaccessible enough. The backcountry ones, without ropes and trail signs and other people, and with wind-blown dirt fill around the walls, make it a little less difficult to imagine yourself living there, those many years ago. But a toddler, with unfiltered interest, made the dust come alive. As it ought to be.
You should go there and see it.
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