Chaco Culture National Historic Park


Just got back from our annual vacation trip. We took a big loop around New Mexico. Visited Chama, NM and rode on the Cumbres & Toltec railroad. Worth every penny we spent. Visited Chaco Culture National Historic Park – aka Chaco Canyon Ruins. Stopped by Taos, Zuni, and Acoma Pueblos. Parked our RV in KOA’s and other RV parks most nights.

But what I want to talk about is Chaco. They have a great campground. No amenities other than a parking space with a picnic table. But the scenic beauty is awesome and the quiet fairly thunders (but then so did the  monsoonal rainstorms off to the west). It is one of the most pleasant RV camping spots we have visited.

We didn’t visit all of the ruins, only Pueblo Bonito – the biggest and easiest to walk to. We stared at the others as we drove around their nicely laid out loop road. Pueblo Bonito is fantastic! The Chaco Culture must have been awesome when it existed. Three story buildings made of pieces of flat sandstone, mostly with little mortar – and that was mud. Floors and roofs made of vigas (logs) latillas (smaller logs) and mud. Interior walls plastered with mud. Chaco Canyon is an area of little water. Huge underground kivas that were roofed with pine logs and mud. The logs had to have been brought in from 60+ miles away – and remember so far as anyone knows, those people did not have the wheel or horses or mules or oxen – it was all people power. The effort, ingenuity, and engineering skill demonstrated in those ruins is phenomenal.

In addition to the monumental structures, the Chaco peoples built 30 ft wide roads that connected villages and cultures all over what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado, and Utah. I believe there is evidence that they had contact with the Inca civilizations of Mexico. Many of the modern southwestern Native American tribes, especially the Pueblo peoples, the Hopi, and the Navajo have stories that link them to the Chaco Culture. The roads included grand staircases cut into the sandstone when they had to go over a butte or plateau.

Visiting places like Chaco Canyon and seeing the ruins of once-vibrant cultures that preceded the invasion of our European culture serves to remind me that we, today, may not be quite as hot as we think we are. How many of us know how to build a stacked stone structure that is three stories high? How many of us could transport big pine logs across inhospitable plains and over mesas without mechanical assistance? How many of us could design and construct highways wide enough to carry multiple persons of traffic both ways without bulldozers and graders? How many of us could conceive and build staircases that climbed sheer cliffs? Our modern culture is full of technological whiz-bang things, but we are not the only peoples that can develop technology and solve real-world problems. Those that came much before us were every bit as capable and solved monumental problems using the tools available to them and undoubtedly inventing new ones as needed.

I am tempted to try to write something using Chaco as the backdrop. It’ll be difficult to do, though. Tony and Anne Hillerman have set a very high bar for doing mysteries in Native America in the southwest. But, then a place as beguiling and mysterious as Chaco … who knows.

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