Chaco Canyon
April 2003

related links:
(after you read this, of course)
* Outliers
* Chaco Journals
* Chaco home (photos)

Friday, April 18, 2003
Chaco Canyon Campground, #5
"Hill Blocks View"

For the second year in a row, I am under the only real tree in the campground -- same site as my first trip here 16 years ago with Jas, Tom & Keri. The host says the CG is about half full -- seems less so, with more people at the far end in RVs or up the tent loop. There is no one in any sites near me. Unfortunately, the little yappy dog across the way is not far enough.

The sky is a rumpled blanket of clouds with black and gray folds. No stars tonight and perhaps not so cold. A few days ago, there was rain, hail and snow; tomorrow maybe more. A spread of white primrose nearby gives me hope for more wildflowers along the trails.

A rufus-headed towhee searched the ground all around my chair, venturing close enough to pick up a couple of peanuts I had dropped. He calmly carried each unshelled piece off to break them up with a toss of his head. I last saw him doing his little shuffle and dragging his tail in the dirt towards the arroyo.

No doubt I'll hear coyotes tonight -- someone left his scat near the fire ring. Perhaps they'll carry off the little dog.

I was in no particular hurry to get away today. Mer and I didn't put the camper on until after noon. Left from the grocery store after 3pm. The drive up Gary Johnson Memorial Highway (US550, formerly NM44) was easy. You can kill time counting the signs that say "Elevation 7,000 feet" -- I stopped at 8 or 9. The road seems to climb all the way from San Ysidro to Colorado and yet it must undulate quite a bit if these signs are correct. This is both the Colorado Plateau (in New Mexico) and the San Juan Basin.

Stopped in Cuba for gas and coffee -- spending the last of my cash. Got to the Visitors Center about 6pm to leave a message for Mer, who was at yoga class. I grilled a steak and ate it as fajitas with nothing but tortillas and onions -- no salsa, no cheese but delicious. Sat by the embers drinking coffee, smoking a cigar and watching it get dark, with twilight's glow lingering a long time just past Fajada Butte.

Tomorrow, I'll hike to Pueblo Alto and Tsin Kletsin, the northern and southern extremes of the canyon. [Note: see how many predictions I have made that do not come to pass.]

Saturday, April 19, 2003
Still in Chaco CG #5

Next Morning:

A raven just flew by. He knows my kind is sloppy with food -- perhaps the towhee told him I'm here. I happened to be looking out the window as he passed barely above the camper. Had I not seen him, I still would have known someone was flying close by the rustle of his wings, the strange slow steady sweeping sound. I love that sound of feathers in the air. It took me too long to first hear that sound; I wasn't taught that wings make noise and I never would have guessed; it had to be experienced. It startles me every time. Each time, I rediscover that flying is an effort, a pull and push against the air. In my dreams, when I could fly, that was also by great effort as I willed myself into the air and, inevitably that effort failed and returned me to the real world, where I sit, stand, walk and wait for my friends to remind me life is large.

The first time I awoke during the night, the camper was rocking wildly in the wind. The windows were zipped shut and the large zipper-pulls (handles?) were banging madly against the canvas like warning bells -- alert, alarm, aloud. I considered their warning in half-sleep. My first trip to Chaco in this camper, the wind blew in one side of the canvas. I could have opened the windows to let the wind through, but it was 36 degrees, so I hunched down into my 2 sleeping bags to sleep again. I awoke at a calmer hour to see the light of the waning gibbous moon through a window. Hours later, the first light of day at 6:30am seemed hardly brighter under the same dense clouds. By 9:30am it was 56 degrees and 12 hours of sleep was enough.

That night:

After a late start, I stopped at the VC. On my way in, on his way out, I passed G.B. Cornucopia, Mr Chaco, unless that makes you think of me or Ranger Rob. G.B. is the big man with the full beard everyone must see at Chaco. He would seem to be a man who loves life, Chaco and even his job.

Unfortunately, the guy working the desk lacked G.B.'s lust for life. This guy managed to make "May I help you?" sound just like "What do you want?" It's all in the tone. I filled out my paperwork and paid my fee, leaving him to the woman from the Gift Shop who was flirting -- don't waste your time.

Took a sweep through the unwomanned bookstore. There are always new books and stuff. A text that seemed to link Chaco and the Hohokam looked interesting, albeit academic. The Hohokam were largely between Flagstaff and Tucson, nearer the Sinagua. There are clear connections between all three (and more) in Wupatki, northeast of Flagstaff, a couple hundred miles west of here. You can find bookstore stuff (including videos) at

Drove past Una Vida, Hungo Pavi, Chetro Ketl and Pueblo Bonito, into the lot at road's end, next to Pueblo del Arroyo and the trailhead to Kin Kletso, Casa Chiquita and, much farther, Pueblo Peñasco. Up until recently (since my 40th birthday in Chaco), this "trail" was the road out of Chaco, climbing out of the canyon at Casa Chiquita. Vibrations from traffic were damaging Casa Chiquita, so the road was closed, converted to a wide trail, and the main route in made to come by the campground to the far east.

Close to noon, I gathered my gear and put on boots caked with mud from the trail out of the Three Rivers Petroglyph campground (my solo trip in January) -- I wonder what kind of contamination I was introducing to Chaco (few things can thrive in the White Mountains and in Chaco Canyon).

A guy pulled up and asked where the trail to the Pueblo Bonito overlook was (a little less clearly and confidently than that). I pointed him towards Kin Kletso and hurried on -- I wanted to hike alone, though I was sure we'd cross paths again (and we did).

I walked the short distance to Kin Kletso, behind which a steep trail climbs through a fissure and up to the top of the canyon wall. It's a very interesting, short climb. At the top, watch for cairns and don't fall off the cliff. There are great views down onto Kin Kletso, a compact & sturdy multi-story ruins, Pueblo del Arroyo (the only one on the Wash, unless you want to count Wijiji) and Pueblo Bonito and across the Wash to South Gap and Hosta Butte in the distance (holding up the clouds today).

The trail snakes along the cliff following the tops of side canyons before reaching the Pueblo Bonito overlook (though you can see that much sooner). It is also at that point that one can go left and up most directly to Pueblo Alto or straight along the cliff to an overlook at Chetro Ketl and the Jackson Staircase (who was Jackson? a photographer) which was carved into the cliff to connect the rim with the canyon below along one of the ancient roads. As I was looking down over Pueblo Bonito, it rained for an instant and two tiny snowballs (hail) landed on a piece of paper I was holding.

As an aside, I just wolfed down my grilled burger, maybe even better than last night's steak. I agonize over fires, even charcoal -- are 10 briquettes too many? -- it seems inefficient and smoky. Such reservations don't trouble the guy who collected pieces of a dead tree in the next site, nor any of the folks who huddle around bonfires all night. What the hell. When thousands lived here it must have been a real mess.

Anyway, after the Pueblo Bonito overlook, I took the shorter route to Pueblo Alto, another mile or so. I was looking for something I won't describe here; I went off-trail and felt pretty guilty doing so. My search was fruitless.

The trail climbs twice more, making one realize the top of the canyon wall is not really the top of the canyon -- the layering at Chaco is fascinating. Finally, at Pueblo Alto, you can't get any higher. Pueblo Bonito is sometimes referred to as the center of Chaco, but my feeling is that this is the center of the world and the middle of nowhere, with 360 degree views up into Colorado (towards Chimney Rock), south to Hosta Butte and over to Fajada Butte which pops up unexpectedly.

I went to the end of the trail to look north to the La Plata mountains and Huerfano (and, one would think, Angel Peak, but it may be blocked by Huerfano). I can't recognize the ancient roads, though they are here and earlier along the trail. These roads may have connected Chaco with its outliers. The old north road ended near Angel Peak; ceremonies in that area may have included smashing pottery into that canyon. The north is where the people came from (though some came from a lower world).

To the west is New Alto, a fairly small but upright ruins. To the east is old Pueblo Alto which is much larger than I remember, with a huge plaza to the south and an unexcavated mound roped off farther east (in the direction of the longer part of the loop via Chetro Ketl). Unusual features of Pueblo Alto are that it was single-story without kivas. It appears to have been heavily used seasonally and empty part of the year (my bet would be winter).

I turned back from Pueblo Alto, surprisingly tired, stumbling along the trail south. Back down to the canyon rim, to the crevasse stairway, down to Kin Kletso. Kin Kletso is still tall, with massive walls forming a multi-storied kiva.

You may already know that a kiva is a circular room that is usually below ground level. Often it is in a plaza, sometimes it is among other rooms (in which case you have a square room with a round peg, er, kiva inside it -- rubble usually fills the space between the circle and the square). Some "great kivas" are more than 60 feet across. Aztec Ruins near Farmington, NM, has a fully reconstructed kiva.

In modern Pueblo society (the descendants of the Anasazi), kivas are religious and civic and clan centers. They may have had different purposes 1000 years ago (but probably not, I would think). Clearly they have some connection to the below ground dwelling of the even more ancestral Basketmakers who lived in "pithouses" which were excavated and roofed with dirt (but rectangular). Kivas also likely have a symbolic connection to the place of emergence from the world below, the world before this one. And, how can you think of "the place of emergence" without thinking of birth.

In the parking lot, a different ranger flits from group to group in animated conversations. I watch in my rearview mirror as I eat and drink. When he comes up to me he seems sun-struck or wind-blow, checking in, touching base, but not saying much. The canyon may destroy more rangers than it nurtures, making the aforementioned G.B. Cornucopia all the more unusual.

I drive back slowly past Casa Rinconada (a great kiva, now closed to entrance, but you can look into it) and the Tsin Kletsin trailhead -- tomorrow [another bad prediction]. I stop to savor the view down into the wide Wash and up to Fajada -- so many layers here.

I stopped at the VC and walked to Una Vida, one of the oldest buildings in Chaco, which seems to sit on a hill. Behind Una Vida, a trail climbs to two large panels of petroglyphs. This was a terrible time of day (5pm) to see or photograph them, though there are some unique glyphs here.

In an impossibly turquoise sky behind Fajada Butte, a large cloud floats like a medusa, its mushroom shaped head purple above long tendrils dyed neon pink by the setting sun. It floats away from me farther out to sea. Perhaps it is raining in Grants or Crownpoint. Otherwise, the sky is mostly clear -- no blanket of clouds tonight -- it is colder already.

The CG is more crowded tonight. No one right next to me (to stop the wood gatherer) but folks in both sites across the road. A young woman nearby may have a mental disability. Her father speaks to her as one might to a child. Her voice is strangely sing-song. The parents have left her alone in the tent. She just let out a string of maniacal laughter; now she is muttering to herself, at once disturbed and disturbing. She missed the medusa.

Sunday, April 20, 2003

Next morning:

At 3am, it was 30 degrees. By 6am, it was 25 degrees, so cold I had to turn the light on a couple of times for the digital display to work. Now it is 4 hours later and 41 degrees warmer.

Midday at Wijiji Trailhead:

Just before I broke camp, I decided to put out a few peanuts, perhaps for the crows, though I was thinking of the mountain jays in our backyard. Imagine my surprise when a jay swooped down and carried off a nut -- I haven't seen a jay here ever (Mer says it was one that followed me from home). He returned, of course, and sat high in the tree, then carried off another nut. I could see him fly some distance before landing under a dense bush; his nest or just his treasure trove? I've watched the jays at home bury nuts (normal behavior for corvids -- including crows -- my ornithologist friend Dave says).

When I put out three more nuts, along came the towhee. He pecked at the nut knowing it held something he likes but ill-equipped for getting it, so I shelled a few nuts and put them on the table. Immediately the jay was upon them -- hey, yours are at the other end! Anyway, please don't feed the wildlife.

A few minutes later, I was at the Wijiji TH (in sight of the CG). I walked towards the sharp bend the trail makes to turn up Chaco Wash, but suddenly realized I hadn't seen my wallet since yesterday. I filled with dread when I remembered it had been in my fanny pack which had sat open on the truck seat with the doors unlocked all night -- how could I have been so foolish! Compounding my foolishness, I only briefly checked my pack before hastening back to the truck thinking about all of the things I would have to do (cancel credit cards, get a new license, etc). Of course, back at the truck I searched my pack more thoroughly and found the wallet. A little exercise in how fear can fool us.

On the trail again, under the noonday sun, the breeze to keep me cool in spite of long sleeves, I soon passed 2 other hikers on their way out (he says, "There's nobody home!"; "I'll leave a message," I reply). For the rest of the hike (2 hours), I have the place to myself.

This is the easiest (levelest) back country hike in the park, along an old ranch road between the Chacra Mesa cliff face and Chaco Wash. A mile and a half in you find the ruins on your left nearer the cliff. The trail officially ends at a bike rack cum gate (this is the only trail you can bike on) -- however, the road goes on in the direction of Pueblo Pintado about 12 miles farther.

Wijiji has some unusual features. Its plaza is not enclosed by a wall or row of rooms as other plazas are. No trash midden has been found. Some suggest these two points indicate that Wijiji is unfinished. It is also unique in having one style of architectural plan ("McElmo") but a different style of masonry ("Type IV").

A Navajo legend says a woman from Wijiji taught the Navajo to weave.

Behind Wijiji, a trail continues up canyon to an overhang featuring several colorful negative handprints of child size (created by blowing powder around an outstretched hand) -- most are yellow or white. There are also two red deer and three wavy river-like lines, as well as two petroglyph spirals (pictographs are drawn, petroglyphs are carved/pecked). These pictographs are particularly rare and fragile -- do not touch (some fools have actually scratched their own crap nearby). This was a great spot for lunch in the shade of the overhang. Afterwards, I followed the trail still farther but saw only beautiful rocks and vistas (and a few huge faces not man-made).

Now out to Pueblo Pintado, about 35 miles away. After about 16 miles, the road turns north, back to US550 or south, towards Pueblo Pintado on Navajo Route 9. This was the roughest road I drove with considerable evidence of recent mud and stuck vehicles. Perhaps ten miles down the road I got confused by a Y and almost turned back -- stay with the wider road as it curves to the right/west.

When the dirt road (possibly Navajo 7900) meets pavement (Rt 9), turn right/west and then turn right again onto dirt under the two silver water towers next to a school. Drive up the hill a couple of miles to Pueblo Pintado. This is a Chaco Outlier, outside of the main canyon but politically & socially connected to Chaco. I have pictures and text on other outliers.

Ironically, a family drove up just after my arrival. I don't begrudge anyone a visit to these great structures -- I just find solitude the ideal condition for contemplating them. We went in opposite directions around the building. There is one section with two things I don't think I've ever seen: wood and mortar for the relatively small wood floor supports. One sees the holes these supports required everywhere, but not the mortar; though wood was used extensively in construction, not much has survived.

Back at Rt 9, one can go east to Cuba (about 50 miles), completing a loop and returning to Albuquerque on US550. I chose to go west about 12 miles, just past Whitehorse, to South 509 (towards Milan, 50 miles, and Grants, 18 miles beyond Milan). This is a two-lane paved road with a 65 mph speed limit. It looked like it had recently been touched up, but it was bumpier ride than in the past. I like this route as just another way to go. Mt Taylor still has some snow on it, though less than we need.

related links:
* Outliers
* Chaco Journals
* Chaco home (photos)

I gassed up in Grants at 5:47pm, an hour and 20 minutes from Pueblo Pintado. Arrived home at 7pm, 52 hours and 355 miles door-to-door.

click here for another website by Mark Justice Hinton
Copyright © 2003 by Mark Justice Hinton.
revised Friday July 4, 2003 11:51 AM