I'm nearing the end of this trip and, over the last few stops, I've veered from my original intent of slow. Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico offers me the opportunity to, once more, surrender to the elements and the intensity of empty spaces, this one now inhabited by the ghosts and artifacts of long-ago cultures. But I'm resistant and think of innumerable excuses not to go. Time, the weather, a suspect road, "I can see it another time." Down deep, though, I know I'm avoiding this last chance to connect with myself, to experience the aloneness I had so forcefully demanded at the beginning of this journey.
I get there mid-afternoon. The road in is, as my friend Paul suggested, nothing I haven't driven before in Madison County. There are deep ruts and washboarding along the eighteen miles of unmaintained dirt road and I'm thankful it has dried after a snow two days earlier. It's going to be cold tonight, low twenties, but at Kate's suggestion I bought a sleeping bag liner and I'm hopeful it will be enough. There are few visitors in the Park and I set up camp in a small side canyon that I have to myself.
I spend the rest of the day wandering around the ruins of this sprawling and once vital concentration of Native pueblos. From about 850 A.D. to 1150 A.D., Chaco Canyon was the major center of life, culture and economy for the Ancient Pueblo People. It was abandoned in about year ten of what became a 50-year drought. The Park preserves the largest and one of the most important pre-Columbian historical sites in the United States.
It's is a humbling place. Arriving here after visiting three of our most modern cities, and the engineering marvel of Hoover Dam, it's unnerving to know that at any one time there were as many as 5,000 inhabitants of Chaco Canyon. It was a major trade route and religious center that had its own engineering marvels in its building techniques, agriculture and irrigation.
All Americans should be required to visit this place.
Back at camp, I'm visited by a couple from Germany who are car-camping out by the road. They are full of questions about Indians, relations with the government and white people, and the history. I relate my left-leaning take on all of it, which they seem to understand and appreciate. As we're saying our farewells, the man asks, "Do you feel safe here? In the middle of a reservation, with the history between Natives and whites, do you feel safe?" I assure him that I do.
The sun drops behind the canyon wall early, followed by a lack of light so complete I feel I'm revisiting my darkroom. The cold comes next, shirtsleeves by day, long underwear by night. I build a fire with my remaining Kelsey-cut kindling and make a warm supper of rice, Benny's pickled eggplant, sausage and a hard-boiled egg. I chase it with nephew Dave's ginger moonshine.
I put out the lantern and sit by the now iffy fire, wrapped in my heavy jacket against the heightening cold. I write some, but what to say. The enormity of the sky at 6,500 feet is impossible to describe with words or photographs. The stars, millions of them, are close and almost touchable. I'm so alone and so small here. No sound, no light, no people. I am safe.
I see a faint blinking light in the sky - an airplane so high above me I hear no sound. Filled with passengers, I imagine, on a path toward Las Vegas or LA, who know nothing of my presence below them in this ancient, abandoned metropolis. Minutes later, I see another, and then another, seven in all, same flight path, same lack of sound, only that blinking light announcing a world beyond.
The cold finally drives me to the relative warmth of my tent and sleeping bag. I wake well before dawn to see the sunrise, which my friend Charlie says is the main reason to be here. There is a heavy layer of ice on the tent and my car and I quickly make coffee, craving something warm and jolting.
Sunrise is the gift I've been promised and I welcome its light and warm embrace. I hear a slight flapping of wings and glimpse a shadow crossing the canyon floor. I look up to the shadow's host, a raven, sailing to a perch in the canyon wall, out of sight.