The Chaco people were the true Romans of the Southwest. To visit this park you drive 21 miles each way over a very dusty, bumpy washboard dirt road. My shiny black motorcycle, hanging from the rear bumper, is now caked with an inch of red desert dust and gravel.
We begin driving at dawn and arrive just in time for the once-a-day 10 AM ranger guided tour. We get a shot of a firecloud as the dawn breaks just under a rainstorm.
The grand Pueblo has over seven hundred rooms arranged within a graceful semi-circular wall. It is estimated that a million man-days went into the construction of this complex. The tapered walls begin a meter thick and rise to three and four stories with many circular subterranean "Kiva" rooms used for ceremonial purposes. These are about twenty feet in diameter and ten feet deep with a covered roof to retain the smoke and heat. I'm thinking of constructing a smoke-filled Kiva in my backyard as an aid to meditation and vision.
Logs were hauled in from many miles away and sandstone was quarried from high mesa tops to construct this place. Again dendrochronology gives exact construction and occupation dates (about 850 AD to about 1250 AD). The Chaco also built a star pattern of five straight 30-foot wide roads radiating out into the desert nearly sixty miles. They did not deviate for terrain features and simply built up and over surrounding mesas. The purpose of these roads is unclear but something about them seems much more than utilitarian.
Something very dark may have happened here around 1250 AD. The Chaco set fire to this magnificent desert palace and moved away, leaving only the walls standing. In 1941, the canyon wall behind the Pueblo caved in and destroyed fifty rooms. One of the Chaco Indians buried in the Pueblo's floor was apparently someone very special since he was covered with 25,000 pieces of turquoise, including a bracelet with 2,400 turquoise pieces. Tonight we are camped in the Lake Fenton State Park in New Mexico. We drove hours along an unimproved mountain gravel road to get here in the misguided notion that the shortest way to Santa Fe should be a straight line though the mountains and the Santa Fe National Forest. Nice drive anyway.