Best of the Southwest: Escape to Chaco Canyon

Kate Siber, a Durango, Colorado-based writer, has reported five feature stories on the best trips of the Southwest for National Geographic Adventure. Her most recent, “Best of the Southwest” highlights 14 winning new journeys. Here she shares some notes from the field.

After nearly eight years living in the Southwest, I finally made it to Chaco Canyon, the mother of all ancient Indian sites, on an impromptu getaway. It’s only a two-hour drive from my home in Durango, but my friend Danielle and I arrived to find a dry, monochromatic, lunar landscape, as if we had somehow traveled between planets rather than states.

Formally dubbed Chaco Culture National Historical Park, it can only be accessed by a rough dirt road, which scares away tour buses and pansy drivers, keeping annual visitor numbers down to a scant 50,000-70,000. (Compare that to Zion at about 2.5 million.) And yet Chaco has an unparalleled ability to inspire the imagination. Archaeologists believe that it was a ceremonial center for the entire four corners region because of the unique artifacts they found there, like wild jewelry, exquisite jet-and-turquoise ornaments, and colorful macaw feathers, presumably traded from Mexico. But no one knows the whys and hows of that place with certainty except for what we can see: a veritable metropolis of stone ruins, some three stories high with hundreds of rooms and intriguing astronomical alignments.

Danielle and I poked about several ruins sites, including Pueblo Alto, a 3.5-mile hike from the road. Sitting there in solitude amongst the centuries-old walls made of delicately stacked and mortared stones, we imagined the spirits of the original inhabitants lingering about. The spring wind wailed through the ancient windows—a delightfully spooky effect.

We happened to be there on an evening when the park offered an astronomy talk at its observatory, equipped with a 25-inch-diameter telescope. A tall, white-bearded ranger named G.B. Cornucopia narrated a slide show of the curious astronomical alignments among the many structures. “We don’t know for sure what any of this meant,” he said, noting that there were no written records left behind. “They could all just be extraordinary coincidences.” He smiled, leaving room for interpretation.

After spotting craters on the moon’s surface and Saturn’s rings and moons through the telescope, Danielle and I lingered. I’m incorrigibly curious, and both Mr. Cornucopia and the visiting astronomer, a retired professor, indulged my endless questions. Until the wee hours, they explained their own theories as to why the Chacoans lined up their buildings with the solstices and why a certain petroglyph might depict a supernova that burned as bright as the sun in 1054 and that the Chacoans surely witnessed. They explained black holes, the red limit, and other phenomena that lie beyond the confines of our comfortable earthly atmosphere.

Contemplating the night sky and the doings of those who came before us in a wild, remote location always has the unique effect of making me feel both very small and very miraculous. I become overwhelmed with the improbability of it all, and it’s a feeling to which I’m now genuinely addicted. It’s also precisely why I live in the Southwest. Year after year, I can still find new, wild, beautiful places that remind me that I am wonderfully small and the world is wonderfully big. Still, after eight years, there’s always something new to do, something new to learn, someplace new to explore. There's always some other corner of these American hinterlands calling my name.


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