I am amazed and fascinated by the bloggers who write-as-they-go. I mean, almost literally posting their life as it happens.
I kind of like to mull things over a bit. Meaning, sometimes, for years!
So…it has been a few years, but I wanted to describe one day, and a night, in the Southwest desert.
I’d visited my extended family in both New Mexico and Utah, but I had never been to the “Four Corners” region (where the northern corners of New Mexico and Arizona meet southern corners of Utah and Colorado). This was not a vacation, but rather a traveling class, the summer after my freshman year of college — learning about the ecosystems, cultural and biological, of the Southwest.
We visited a range of places: an old played-out mining town, several spots in the vast Navajo territory, and the ancient ruins at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, and smaller pre-Columbian sites.
After a freshman year in a tiny concrete dorm, slogging through all the “requirements” I hated, to get them out of the way, this was like a slice of heaven. Eating Navajo fry-bread, staying in a haunted old hotel in Durango, rafting down a river in Utah, walking around Santa Fe, seeing beautiful country and towns.
The most striking element of the trip was visiting pre-Columbian sites in New Mexico and Colorado.
Visiting a deserted house always seems like an interesting detective challenge to me – seeing what information or impressions you can glean about the former residents. The folks at Chaco Canyon, who built all these complicated homes and religious chambers, and lived here for centuries, just walked away from it all eight hundred years ago.
You almost expect they’d leave a note on the kitchen table, telling us where they went, or why they left. Maybe a warning to us, about exhausting your resources.
Chaco Canyon is one of the oldest places I’ve ever been in this country. Some houses and kivas date back to the 800’s.
Other than Roman sites in Europe, the oldest structures I’ve seen. An eye-opener for an East Coast boy, growing up where everyone likes to consider themselves the keepers of the nation’s history.
I’ve walked through 17th century houses in the Hudson Valley, New England, Pennsylvania, and the south. The history center at my college, founded during the Revolution, is in a colonial-era custom house. All of us history buffs in the East, revere the remnants of the British days and New Netherlands, and just north in Canada, Nouvelle-France.
But, of course, the colonial buildings in the Southwest are even older. And then to see a native town many centuries older than any of those sites, was pretty spectacular.
Aesthetically, I much preferred Mesa Verde, with the dense pine forests on the mountain sides providing a more beautiful, and certainly more dramatic backdrop, than the vast expanses of brown and yellow desert of New Mexico. But, Chaco was the older site, and the start of a great adventure.
Part of what made our visit to Chaco Canyon so memorable, was that we stayed there at night.
Summer in Chaco Canyon, during the daytime, is not pleasant. The New Mexico sun is just too intense for a fair-skinned northerner. When 110 degree heat is beating down from a large and unrelenting sun, and you’re inhaling dust in airless old sunken kivas, and also discovering that some of the “ruins” had been rebuilt in the 1930’s (and not that well in many cases) made the whole complex seem less impressive.
But by night, they again became extraordinary.
Camping out let us see the solstice light shine into a special hole in a kiva, to mark the passing of the solar event,(Indiana Jones-style)
We spent a night enveloped by the most extraordinary stars.
The nighttime skies in the Southwest are incredible — so much clearer and darker than home, perfect for staring into the millions of twinkling celestial bodies. The”vastness of the universe” sounds corny, but it really unfolded before our eyes, making it seem even more magical to be lying a stone’s throw from the ruins of a vanished civilization.
By day, the desert is foreboding, vast and seemingly never-ending. It spread out all around us, making us feel isolated. And desiring to stay close to camp, so as to not get lost wandering it’s vast tractless expanse.
Heatstroke and dehydration outweigh other hidden dangers. I wasn’t too worried about rattlesnakes, we have them back home, too, and I’ve always thought they seem like pretty reasonable creatures – – I appreciate that they give us a warning, so they don’t have to bite.
But at night, the darkness softened the intensity of the desert and gave a sense of release.
The ruins, impressive in the daytime, seemed far more ancient by night, lit by our fires. The campfires cast a glow on the old stones.
Do I even remember this right? Or did I invent the memory — I think we had fires there. Or perhaps just lanterns. It was forest fire season, but there was so little vegetation, it was ok to build a fire in specific camping spots.
Maybe I just wanted to remember campfires, staying at a place where the home fires went out so many years ago.
We were there very briefly, and the people that built these homes, had withered away long ago. The old phrase seemed very apt “the sands of time.”
But the stars, and the entire universe were seeming to expand before our very eyes.