Exploring The Parks: Musings From Chaco Culture National Historical Park

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Windows into the past/Lee Dalton

It’s a long, rough and dusty road from anywhere to Chaco Culture National Historical Park. But, boy, is it worth the trip! The fact that it’s such a rough trip may have a lot to do with determining the kind of people who come to visit this place carved out of the high desert of northwestern New Mexico. Unlike visitors to so many other parks, these folks have a certain quality about them that hit me right off the bat. They are obviously accustomed to being outdoors. No flip-flop shoes. Wide brimmed hats. Canteens on every belt and a lot of knowledgeable talk about what we were all here to see.

Chaco is not a place for casual visitors who just stopped by on a whim because they were wondering what was behind that arrowhead sign.

I came in via the south route from Grants. Good highway for the first hundred miles or so where I met less than a dozen other vehicles. Then it’s about 20 miles of dirt and rock and washboard. But, they tell me, the road was graded last month so it’s in much better shape than usual. No sand dunes to push through. I was a bit worried about towing my little trailer, but slow and easy did the job and here I am. I probably managed an average speed of a blistering 20 mph! A few days later, I headed out of the park toward the east. Only four miles of really bad washboard on which I probably averaged 5 mph. But even that is a little faster than the folks who once lived here could travel.

Don’t let the dire road descriptions discourage you, though. This road was actually much better than many other Navajo roads. At least it was today. Tomorrow may be another story altogether. The Park Service, however, has no choice but to post warnings galore. It’s not a trip anyone should take casually. You need to be prepared for the possibility of a blown tire far from help and water. Being prepared is essential and those warnings might help keep some who are not out of trouble. And, I’m sure, it has a lot to do with the quality of other visitors I met out here.

It may also help provide in modern visitors a sense of respect and even awe for those people who once lived here and built the monumental structures we have come to see. People who had to treasure every drop of liquid. People who, apparently without wheels or pack animals, literally carried huge logs for these buildings 40 or more miles across the same harsh land that threatened to flatten our tires. Logs so large that it’s been estimated that 4,000 strokes of a stone axe were required to cut through each of them.

I won’t even try to tell you all about the park. Do some homework on the park’s website and then go see for yourself. In the meantime, however, here are some things you won’t find on any website.

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Camping At Chaco

There are only 48 campsites at Gallo, the only campground in Chaco. Starting last January, Chaco began using Recreation.gov so campers may now reserve sites. It’s not mandatory, but it is highly recommended. It wouldn’t be any fun at all to drive over one of those rough approach roads and find there is no room at the inn. I telephoned ahead by about three days and there were three reservable sites left.

Perhaps because the Chaco reservation system is new to both the park and Rec Dot Gov, I discovered that I’d been assigned to the only handicapped site. After a quick conference with a very friendly campground host named Donna Jeffords, I was able to move to one of the sites that is first-come-first-to-grab- it and left the handicap site open for someone who might actually need it.

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Chaco Culture even has it's own observatory/Lee Dalton

Wind is a constant at Chaco. That’s why each of the campground’s tent sites have tie down rings around them. Campers who don’t use the tie downs may spend some time chasing their tents cross-country. There is no potable water at the campground even though there are flush toilets. Drinking water is available at two outdoor taps at the visitor center, about a mile away. There is also a dump station at the camp.

One more campground note: There are no shade structures at Chaco. Be sure you take along plenty of barbecue sauce – at least SPF 50. Chaco is also bike friendly with three trails, including one 24 miles long, open to bicycles. The nine-mile-long paved loop road looks like a wonderful place for pedaling, too.

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Some interesting tidbits — Chaco’s water comes from a 3,200-foot-deep well. It’s run through a reverse osmosis system and then pumped to a large water tank 250 feet above the visitor center that looks like a huge brown yurt. Sewage is another story. It’s also pumped up the cliff to some lagoons. When the pumps break down, as they do a few times a year, it is hauled by tank truck to a treatment plant some distance outside the park.

Quite a contrast to the days long past when those who built this place had to dig a foot or so into sand of a dry wash and ladle sandy water into pots or baskets coated with pine pitch.

Then there’s the visitor center story. Chaco’s old VC was just about 30 years old and the building was literally falling apart because its foundation was failing. Seems there’s a phenomenon called “piping” that takes place when water tries to move underground in alluvial soils. Piping does nasty things to buildings. Chaco desperately needed a new VC.

But there was something called money that caused another kind of piping. Then there were a bunch of those pesky environmental and historic site safeguards that had to be met. To make a very long story a bit shorter, the new VC had to go in the same spot as the old one because Chaco is such an environmentally and historically sensitive place. There wasn’t enough money, or time to do all that would be necessary to build in another spot. So engineers went to work and came up with what they hoped would be a foundation design that would withstand piping.

Budget cuts and other policy issues also got in the way and some of the engineer’s finest plans simply blew away in Chaco’s wind. The old building was torn down, a new one built, and now – only two years later, the new building is moving around just as the old one had done. (You can read more about the new visitor center in Traveler's archives.)

A couple hundred yards away stands Una Vida, a building that has been there for a long, long time. Although its walls have tumbled with time, its foundation is firm. But then, maybe its builders didn’t have to worry about money or an unpredictable thing called Congress where high priests of money giveth and taketh away.

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When you reach Chaco Culture, look up G.B. Cornucopia/Lee Dalton

Maybe we should just be thankful, though, that they didn’t drop a sewage lagoon into the viewshed between here and Fajda Butte where the famous Sun Dagger is located.

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Chaco’s Modern People

No visit to Chaco can be considered complete unless you’ve been on a walk led by the legendary G. B. Cornucopia. G. B. has been a ranger here for 27 years now. I heard someone ask if he lives out here and when the answer was affirmative, the visitor commented on how lucky he is. I thought G. B’s reply was a classic: “Yes, every day when I wake up, I’m glad I’m me.” Attend one of his walks or talks and you can see it coming through in everything he says and does. There is certainly no one who knows more about this place than G. B. Yet, his most common answer to questions about Chaco is, “I don’t know.”

Archaeology has to be the most unscientific science there is. Almost all of its conclusions are based on guesswork. What was this implement used for? “We guess it was for . . . “ Why did the Old Ones build it that way? “We guess it was because . . .” And it seems that every archaeologist, anxious to publish something new, must come up with more and more creative ways of providing answers to the same set of questions.

G. B. simply tells the truth. But in the process, he’ll regale you with a bunch of the guesses just to keep you happy. As he says, “Chaco has more answers than there are questions.” He has a fine definition for it. “Informed speculation.” That about nails it.

It’s worth wondering if G. B. Cornucopia would have had the chance to regale countless visitors through the years if government hiring had been the same back in 1987 as it is now. G. B. spent one summer here as a volunteer campground host. He was picked up the next summer as a seasonal interpreter who did a great job, so someone was able to help him become a permanent member of the Park Service. That’s the route many old timers used. But one that is blocked now by congressionally spawned federal personnel policies that seem to be based on the Walmart principle – temporary, no benefits, no future. How many other outstanding people like G. B. have we lost down through the years?

(Does anyone remember the title and author of a classic spoof on archaeology that was published back in the 1960s? It was an “archaeological paper” detailing the excavation of an American roadside motel of the 1950s by some archaeologists of the far future. If you do, let us know so we can all read it. It will be interesting to see what some archaeologist a thousand years hence has to say about us.)

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I also had the privilege of tagging along with seasonal interpreter Cindy Winkler on trips to Pueblo Bonito and Pueblo del Arroyo. She, too, used the "don’t know" dodge frequently. She told us that if she didn’t know what something was for, she just declared that it was “ceremonial” and let it go at that. But she also managed to tie a lot of what we were seeing here to parallels between our modern lives and those of the people who lived here so long ago. When you stop to think of it, we’re not that much different than they were. Perhaps we could learn some lessons from their experiences as they devastated the world around them until it became uninhabitable for all intents and purposes and they were forced to move on to other places. Where will we go if we fail to learn the lessons of our own day?

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Then there is Kayla Lanoue who made her debut Dark Sky presentation on Tuesday evening. Following an excellent slide show, she opened two of the park’s telescopes for visitors. I was struck by the presence of Cindy Winkler and G.B., who were there even though off duty for the night. It harked back to the days I remember at some places where everyone worked together to make all of us successful in anything we did. It was just plain fun and you could see the fun they were all having.

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Harold Suina takes time out from preservation work to discuss Chaco Culture with visitors/Lee Dalton

The next day, I followed along with a large group of high school students as Kayla led them on a walk to Pueblo Bonito. She managed to keep the attention of a rather difficult audience.

While we were in the pueblo, we came across Harold Suina, a Cochiti who works as preservation technician. We had a chance to watch him at work and listen to him explain the process of maintaining stability in those ancient walls. Asked by one of the students how long he has been doing this, he answered with a straight face, “About eight hundred years.” A little later he confessed that it’s only been 21. But here again was an example of the kind of teamwork that can make any NPS area even more outstanding than just whatever features they preserve.

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There’s a full schedule of interpretive programs at Chaco. At least two guided walks a day scheduled for the week of May 18. Two or three times a week there are Dark Sky programs at the park’s observatory (yes, observatory!) which is located just behind the visitor center. Maybe one reason the campground is so quiet at night is that all the visitors are simply tuckered out after a full day.

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Then there was an encounter along the way with Chaco’s new facilities manager, Jim Protzman. He’s moving down here from Aztec ruins. An Army veteran, he managed military facilities in the Middle East and now brings his skills to this park. I was very impressed. I have a hunch he’ll be running a tight ship – or whatever the Army equivalent may be. Although other divisions of park organization seem to get all the glory, it’s maintenance and facilities that often leave the most lasting impression of a park for a visitor. It might take a lot of good ranger programs to offset one grungy bathroom. (And it could go the other way, too.)

I was even more impressed later in the day when I spotted him taking time out of supervising a pavement sealing project as he and a seasonal law enforcement ranger named Jennifer tried to help some visitors who were having trouble changing a tire in the VC parking lot. Probably another tire that fell victim to the road to Chaco.

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Never grow old! Three words of advice for younger readers of Traveler. I started up the trail to Pueblo Alta and discovered that it’s a “trail” that requires scrambling up an almost vertical jumble of boulders through a narrow cleft in the sandstone cliff. All of a sudden, my old age caught up with me. Bifocals don’t work well on rough trails and here they were impossible. Took them off and it helped, even though everything was blurry. Then I discovered that some balance problems I’ve been having lately were there in full force. Not good.

After struggling perhaps half way up the 250-foot climb, I began to have visions of the headline in an NPS MORNING REPORT: “Former Ranger Packed Down Chaco Trail.” I wouldn’t have been killed if I’d fallen, but I do hate pain and pain would have been abundant. Embarrassment is even worse.

So instead of Pueblo Alto, I found myself on another walk with G. B. Cornucopia, who informed us that a Dark Sky program has been added to the schedule tonight. See, if I’d gone on up the trail, I might have missed that information.

G. B. is also one of the park’s astronomers. I’m watching the sky and hoping that those small cumulus floating around up there will go away like good clouds should when the sun sets.

They did, and Kayla and the others were able to show a bunch of us Jupiter, Saturn, and some other wonderful things.

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When I came back from that final trip to Pueblo Bonito with Kayla and the kids from North Mountain Charter High School in Albuquerque, I had a chance to shake hands with Christine Czazasty, who is chief of interpretation, and thank her for the experience she provides for people like me at Chaco. There can be no doubt that she and Superintendent Larry Turk are doing the job as it should be done. Running an energetic and full program; hiring excellent people like G. B., Cindy, Kayla, Jim, Harold, Rechanda Lee who I met only at the VC desk alongside Terry, the young man who rings the cash register for Western National Parks Association. To all them and those I didn’t have the privilege of meeting, I’d like to say THANK YOU.

Despite all the challenges I know you face, you’re all doing it right.

This is, indeed, the way it should be.

Comments

(Does anyone remember the title and author of a classic spoof on archaeology that was published back in the 1960s? It was an “archaeological paper” detailing the excavation of an American roadside motel of the 1950s by some archaeologists of the far future. If you do, let us know so we can all read it. It will be interesting to see what some archaeologist a thousand years hence has to say about us.)

Lee - I believe you are referring to Motel of the Mysteries by David Macaulay.

I think Mark Twain had a similar spoof about rats excavating some human ruins and speculating on what each piece meant.

Nice story, Lee. Reminds me that I haven't made this trek yet :-)

Your warning about road conditions is right on the mark, Lee. Like Sand Creek NHS and some other parks I could name, Chaco is served by roads that can be .... how shall we put this? ..... "challenging." My own experience with those roads is a good case in point. Last September, Colorado Jim and I squeezed a Chaco visit into our Dumb and Dumber V buddy trip by making a dawn departure from Canyon de Chelly (good idea) and severely shortening our stop at Hubbell Trading Post (bad idea). Our Chaco visit was wonderful, but the rain caught up to us as we were completing our tour of Pueblo Bonito, so we scurried back to the visitor center with the intention of viewing the orientation film. By the time we got to the VC, the rain was really coming down and I got that "uh-oh" feeling about the road we'd be using on our way back to civilization.

When we got to the VC I asked a ranger or volunteer (can't remember which) if we had time to watch the film before leaving. Giving me that you've-got-to-be-kidding look, she told me that CJ and I had better get our (behinds) in gear and get the (hot place) out of there if we wanted to have any chance whatsoever of making it to pavement before the roads became impassable. What happened next is pretty much a blur. I remember wondering if CJ's RAV4 would make it up that first big hill on the rain-slicked road. I remember seeing the flash flood warning sign at the ford and thinking it might be smart to let that vehicle behind us go first. I remember being almost moved to tears when we finally saw the beautiful, beautiful paved surface of Hwy 550.

AH HA! Thank you, Lizard.

I just checked our county library's online catalog and there it is. Gonna have to make a trip down there today.

It's amusing to note that it is cataloged as NON FICTION.

I'm wondering of Chaco is still a plague area? (Bubonic, that is.) I visited there in 1985 on a cross-country trip and bubonic plague was around. We were warned not to let domestic animals run loose, but a fellow camper had a cat that was wandering around which we enjoyed petting. Two weeks later my husband (now ex - but nothing to do with the plague) came down with flu symptoms. We'd been warned to see medical attention if you felt sick two weeks from being at Chaco. By then we were in Baltimore. The East Indian doctor we found knew just what to do, although he was surprised we had Bubonic Plague in the states, and hubby got a gamma globulin shot right in the rear! That fixed him up though. Fun times and a great place!