Concentric Canyon ~ Elizabeth Dodd

I seem to be having trouble with orientation.  Yesterday I stood on the mesa at Pueblo Alto and looked in the general direction of the people I love most in the world, recalling them in thought’s backlit profile against the largest land forms visible on the horizon. Huerfano Mesa’s stubborn resistance to the vanishing act erosion performs marks north beside its western flank.  Gazing past it in the featureless air, I tried to imagine the physical distance from this particular spot in New Mexico’s northwest corner to Manhattan, Kansas (my car’s odometer says I drove 916 miles to get here), and beyond that, nudging thought’s needle slightly more to the north, another some 800 miles to Athens, Ohio.  To the west, the La Plata Mountains in winter snow resembled orographic clouds rather than the peaks themselves, or maybe a small pile of tumbled moon-matter, the same pale substance we see when the full moon rises just before sunset.  Looking a little to the north of them, I envisioned the long curve of the continent stretching toward Bellingham, Washington, independent of the actual clutter of roads and cloverleaf exit ramps.

This is an interesting trick, imagining connective lines traced with straight perfection, disregarding the rumpled surface of the actual earth.  It means calling on the familiar concepts of latitude and longitude, and, in my case, the decades of looking at maps that began early in grade school with roll-down charts of dusty-smelling paper bolted above the blackboard and metal globes with minuscule lettering across the slight texture of continents.  Greenland, I remember, was an oxymoronic white like a slightly-raised blob of Elmer’s glue.  One year, on a vacation camping trip with my father and brother, I was appointed the official navigator, while my father drove the car, and I felt the responsibility of choosing for us–yes, that is our exit.  Yes, I am sure; turn here.  I sat in the passenger seat, the atlas open on my knees, the landscape streaming past the windows.  In the long, boring stretches across Pennsylvania, I’d turn pages, skipping ahead until called back to task–there’s another exit coming up.  For today’s children, map literacy probably begins, if it does, with computer software and purely virtual models. The voice of the GPS unit, “turn right,” with the iconic car facing straight ahead. In any case, there is Abstraction, casting its net, or its hook-and-line of direction, into the invisible distance.  I once heard a former surveyor describing the summers in college when he worked for the US Geological Survey near Salt Lake.  “Running Line,” was what the crew called their work, and Line became a force independent of their command.  Line stuck tightly to the contours of topography; when Line pitched over a cliff edge, they had no choice but to follow any way they could, and catch up with its conceptual advent at the bottom where they would then pause, drive in a survey marker, and take a breather before moving on.


Pueblo Alto is one of the high points in the Ancestral Puebloan world, on the north rim of Chaco Canyon where for three hundred years culture bloomed and went to seed in the sandy dirt.  It’s not one of the earliest buildings constructed during what archaeologists call “the Chaco Phenomenon,” nor is it the last.  It’s not the most remote from the central cluster of ruins on the canyon floor.  But it is a spectacularly lofted place, 350 feet above the canyon floor, and it affords direct sight-connection with Huerfano Mesa, which in turn connects with Chimney Rock Mesa in Colorado, a far northern outlier of the Chacoan array of great houses.  Several years ago a young woman tested this in a project either for a science fair.  Together with some friends who helpfully climbed onto the mesas in question, she found that it worked: they could flash signals to each other through intervening miles of clear, western air. So we can infer that, centuries ago, the imaginary lines radiating from the canyon would have had visible points along their trajectories, line guides to straighten the conceptual filament’s release, and cast, and set.  The people who raised these now-ruined buildings from the stone and mud of the Colorado Plateau–call them Ancestral Puebloans, Anasazi, or, with the clannish specificity of location, Chacoans–established many of these sightline connections with which to signal other houses miles away. Fire, or mirrors of mica or obsidian; the lights they wielded could speed through the distance, like the nano-moments when intention flashes its neuronal pulse within the landscape of the brain.

Then there are the ancient roadbeds, visible from the air, or, when I was here in a wet May a year ago, from the mesa itself, as a subtle indentation in the prevailing orange bloom of wildflowers.  These roads connect several sites within and outside the canyon.  Sometimes they scale the cliff walls with impressive, precarious staircases carved into the cap rock, easily visible–particularly so now, I think, since a recent snowfall has coated the horizontal lines with white while the vertical rises lift bare sandstone in a corrugated pattern that steps off into sudden air.  Once, there must have been ramps or wooden ladders to complete the descent, but in the austerity of ruin only carved stone is left in place. At Pueblo Alto a number of these stairways converged, connecting the high point with different locations on the canyon floor.  From the mesa top, a major roadway struck off to the north: first, it led northeasterly to cross Escavada Wash, a mile and a half away, but then it straightened out and for ten miles ran within ½ degree of true north.  Here it reached an archaeological site called Pierre’s Complex, a scattering of small structures built on the land’s highest places, rocky knobs and pinnacles.  From the complex, the road continued for nearly another twenty miles, always within 2% of north, arriving at a badlands punctuated by precipitous mounds and slopes that researchers have called “nearly impassibly steep.”

This was the Great North Road, a massive structure that archaeologists have been puzzling over for a generation.  It is roughly thirty feet wide–broader, that is, than many modern two-lane roads–and it plunges determinedly over the topography, without the kindness of curves or switchbacks to soften the traveler’s journey.  The builders lived and worked without draft animals, without the wheel, so it’s difficult to imagine why they needed a straight, flat road in which two modern SUV’s might comfortably pass (or two pickups stop, windows down, for conversation).  “Overbuilt” is the term scholars repeatedly resort to, and many argue the system was nonutilitarian, with, most likely, only “ephemeral practical use.”

“The road appears to be its own reason for development–an end in itself,” Anna Sofaer and her colleagues conclude.  They point to artifacts of language and tradition among the descendants of the Chacoans, the modern Pueblo people of Arizona and New Mexico.  Words aren’t immutable, of course, but language whispers history, tracing storied connections that ripple outward through both mind and world.  In Tewa, spoken in half a dozen historic Pueblos, the word for “road” connotes, etymologically, “channel for the life’s breath,” and the cycle of a human life, birth to death, is called “path.”  These are traces of metaphors so familiar in English they have nearly shaken the dust from their feet and stepped free from gravity, free from mud or dirt, to enter the realm of disembodied abstraction.

All this archetypal emphasis on journeying seems to be stirring something in my inner web of neurons and hormones, calling me to attention.  Migration, journey, voyage–this has been one of the fundamental aspects of  human experience for hundreds of thousands of years, and even though it’s a far cry from modernity’s daily commute from suburb to work or the employee relocation determined by the corporate office, we’re still a species in motion and the voyage remains potent in our mythology and symbolism.  We love echoes of Homer and his tale of Odysseus, whether he’s transformed into George Clooney’s Everett and breaking into song, or Charles Frazier’s Inman, in love with a woman and a mountain, trying to get home.  (It’s a lot harder with Finnegan’s Wake, I think, but of course, it’s there, too.)  When, several years ago, I sat in a therapist’s office, studying the shards and chips of identity at my feet, trying to lift my imagination toward any metaphoric horizon, it was the motif of migration he turned to.  “You’re on a hell of a journey,” he told me, and I decided to believe it was true.  After all, I already owned three different pairs of boots.

Here, in the warm-hued canyon, even in the single-digit grip of cold, consider the imagery of the journey presented through centuries of Southwestern art.  In legend, Puebloan people speak of “straight” roads that call to mind those “overbuilt” roads leading straight out of Chaco and into the surrounding world, the Great North Road being the iconic exemplar.  But I’ve also stumbled across suggestions that the spiral shape implies “journey,” as well, particularly in the many images carved in sandstone where the spiral seems to move out from its central point and terminate in something like a bubble, or the open eye of a needle, holding both potential and presence in that inscribed, enclosed space.

The ranger, G.B., is a private man, his psyche curled around the emergent point where his life changed and he left his work in the city to move forever between sun and shadow, mesa and ruin.   He’s lived in the canyon for two decades now.  “I’ve had my best and worst experiences here,” he says.  He tells stories, but guardedly, leaving me guessing at some of the fractures he’s witnessed; fragments or shrapnel he’s caught with his heart.  In a cleft where a building-sized boulder was cleft by time into two toppled halves, I peeked where he pointed.  The sedimentary surface, darkened into rock rind, desert varnish, was pocked and scabbed; only a hip-wide passage opened in the stone, and I stepped inside, my shoulders nearly brushing each sandstone surface.  The sky–that desert sky, clear as flute- or wren-song–was just a narrow band of late-afternoon light directly overhead.  In the shadow of geologic time, petroglyphs hung like silence between one song and another.

We guess at the images.  One figure, nearly centered in the corridor, could have been any number of things: two sandals, G.B. suggested, with their toes curving slightly towards each other.  Or a sunrise, cleaved by a conical landform or maybe a stylized tower.  He wondered: might moonlight, casting through the opening above, paint the rock art with its white-silver sheen for the brief slice of the night when the moon moved overhead?  It is, he said, a place that’s important for women, according to a Puebloan woman whom he accompanied here once, but if he knew anything more about the signifying nature of the artwork, he kept it to himself.  I followed a  deeply-pecked line that began at the eastern end of the miniature slot canyon with that same eye-of-the-needle, bubble-in-oil, loop-in-the-cordage shape, then traveled westward in a varying craze of meanders and back-loops, surely twelve or fifteen of it stretched across the desert varnish, maybe waist-high on the average. As I stood still, taking it all in, the line suggested wide-ranging, irregular motion.  It reminded me of a stream I looked down on from above, nearly twenty years ago, now, when I stood on a mountain in Maine and surveyed a cold, wet mountain meadow, the stream channel making slow, restrained switchbacks through the boggy grass while a red-eyed vireo sang an incessant accompaniment to the season.

It called to mind the drunk driver who careened off the snowy road at the campground one night and then wandered from the car as the temperature dropped toward single digits and the park police hunted for him in the dark.  Or the young woman checking into the cheap motel where I stayed on the long drive out, who objected when the desk clerk gave her room assignment.

“When I made the reservation, you told me room 105,” she said, setting a baby carrier on the floor at her feet.  “I have to report to Corrections, they want to know exactly where I am.  You can’t give me 106.”  Her voice crept upward, louder.  “I could get more prison time; I have to be where I said would be, in case they check.” An older women whom I took to be her mother came in carrying a plastic shopping bag of early Christmas presents and stood nearby, a listless pillar of resignation.  The desk clerk blinked and looked ineffectually at the paperwork he’d just printed out.  The baby began to cry, adding urgency to the little scene, and the manager arrived to sort things out, her eyes full of questions behind enormous glasses.  I wondered at the path those lives had taken, where each participant would place herself along its linear bend and curve, and did it feel, there in the cold night along Highway 160, that any of those turns was already carved in stone, no turning back.


But those were other days, other moments.  Today I’m in the middle of a ruined plaza atop West Mesa.  The great house, Peñasco Blanco, lies a couple of miles beyond trailhead near Casa Chiquita. It’s one of the three oldest buildings in the park, with some of its initial structure dating to the early 900s A.D.  On the hike here, I thrashed around in the brush along the canyon’s mostly-frozen wash, trying to scare up deer or elk or anything besides the juncos that have been my most numerous companions–their gray-and-white plumpness touched with rose in their breasts, marking them western birds, unlike their somber cousins I know must be pitting and trampling the snow back home.  But nothing much flushed from cover and mostly I just managed to get overheated and scratch my face a little, and I seem to have lost an earring as well, somewhere along the way.  Now, 150 feet up on the mesa, it’s much colder, exposed to the wind.  The sky is completely featureless and gray, and I’m getting chilly while I fiddle with my plastic compass.

Any compass is a compelling little tool.  Three hundred and sixty degrees around, it invites the user to be mindful of the encircling horizon, the observable sense that always, anywhere, you are in the center of things, encircled by a perfect ring of possibility in the phenomenal world. Azimuth, we call the locations around that ring, a term borrowed from the Arabic-speaking astronomers who sought to systemize understanding of the night sky, both before and into the so-called “dark ages” of Europe.  As-sumūt, “the way,” linguistically pointing to each summit pass I’ve ever climbed, stopping at the top to drop the pack and turn in all directions, gasping at the surrounding, snow-capped view.  But with the needle’s thin shaft seeking magnetic north, and the need to correct for declination (the difference between geographic north and magnetic north), that self-centering moment is quickly complicated.  Here, in northwest New Mexico, declination is ten or eleven degrees east (there seems to be some uncertainty among the more knowledgeable folks in the canyon) which means that each horizon reading requires a quick arithmetical correction, adding the local declination figure.  Since my math skills are atrocious, I’m sticking with ten because the arithmetic is easier.

Despite the fact that I’m mediating between myself and the horizon with a palm-sized tool that I don’t fully understand, I like the way concepts of location invoke the concrete world.  True north is geographic north, derived from the whole planet’s shape and spin upon that un-engineered and unseen axis, discernible once you have established east and west by observing the sun’s apparent motion through the year.  Even magnetic north, which isn’t “true,” is also Earth-based, generated by internal workings in the planet’s molten core. And although the magnetic poles aren’t fixed, moving several miles each year as the tectonic interior shifts and churns, magnetic north is neither purely arbitrary nor abstract.  The so-called “main field” wields an invisible shield in space, deflecting solar wind along the geomagnetic field lines toward the poles to ripple the skies with aurora light far into the northern night.

According to a research team that investigated the alignment of the great houses in the canyon, Peñasco Blanco is one of two buildings I can hike to in the park whose architecture reproduces the angles between the cardinal directions east or west and the azimuths of the major lunar standstills.  They describe how the ruins on the mesa contain interior angles of 33 and 35.5 degrees, both correlating roughly with the 35.7 degree angle that separates the major standstill from due east.   To get these figures, they surveyed a straight line linking the outside corners of the ruin’s curved wall of room blocks, and then another, perpendicular to the first.  Where that perpendicular line intersected the curved back wall, they surveyed (in a less frozen season, I’m betting) two more straight lines connecting the intersection with the two outside corners. All this geometry is reproduced in neat, convincing diagrams and figures in a library book I’ve toted along in my backpack and I pull it out to help me situate myself in the schematic.  In a clumsy gait, I also pace the snow, trying to follow Line, stepping over dry shrubs and stiff, scrubby weeds: a little over 300 feet across the plaza. The midpoint must be roughly here.

I turn and look to the southeast, and find I’m facing one of the tallest remnants of the single-story arc that was added sometime late in the 12th century.  It blocks my view of the canyon, so I pace forward again and then detour out in front of the masonry.  All this is the crudest sort of orienteering but for the moment I am satisfied.  Out of the wind in the remaining shelter of a room’s side wall on the arc, I can prop open the book, eat a little peanut butter and banana sandwich to coax back some body heat, and imagine the line I just paced off extending over the lip of the mesa, into the wintry wind that fills the canyon. The temperature must be hovering somewhere near freezing but the wind makes my eyes water a little as I lift the compass and sight along its quivering needle, 54 degrees from north.

That perpendicular line, cutting roughly through the center of the enclosed plaza (and which I hope I’m close to straddling now), should point directly to the spot on the horizon where the major standstill moon will rise. Not only that, the researchers argue, the same line projected down the canyon, past the trail I hiked to get here, past my muddy Chevy Tracker parked in the lot, old cassette tapes scattered on the back seat, past the other ancient buildings clustered visibly in the wash; past porcupines gnawing high in the cottonwoods to turn tree bark to mammal fat; on towards the southeastern end of the canyon–  That invisible, insistent line will hit another of the three oldest great houses, Una Vida.  And here’s the final detail I can draw from their analysis: Una Vida’s interior orientation, defined by a line perpendicular to the high back wall facing the cliff, also inscribes an angle of the standstill moon, 54.8 degrees. It is a house of the rising moon, preserving in its architecture the memory of the recurrent lunar maximum, that point of farthest cyclical travel south and north, beyond even the sun’s solstitial extremities.  Geo-metric, yes, but we’re measuring the heavens here, too–at least, I’m trying to.

Since this cycle’s last full moonrise in the major standstill position is only days away, just after the solstice, I think it’s a good time to be here, pondering the bond of moon and self.  I like to think of myself as a woman in the very middle of my life, but that’s true only if I live to be ninety, a prospect likely given my father’s family longevity, but far less so if I take after my (late) mother’s people.  And we do tend to inherit the proclivities for aging from our mothers.  So the sense of time left actually matters for me, as it never did when I was younger; the sense of what I’ve accomplished–or not–; of chances taken–or not; these stand out like late-day shadows at the year’s end.  Here in the shadowless gray of overcast afternoon, I consider the pull of the moon on the body, and so as well the body’s emotional life.

I think of the body’s own emotional life as something separate from the mind’s emotions, though this can’t be strictly accurate.  The former include the reptilian brain’s responses, from some chamber curled near the brainstem, and above that, maybe, tail wrapped across its nose, a hibernating mammal waiting out bad times.  When he came to live in the desert Southwest, D.H. Lawrence had plenty to say about these aspects of humanity, but he could never stand free from the carved fruitwood chair of his British empire perspective when he watched Pueblo people, some most likely the distant descendants of Chacoan builders. For him, the otherness of Southwestern symbolism, the dark-faced dancers and their plumed serpents, conflated the exotic with the erotic, intoxicating (although, of course, when he arrived in Taos, hoping to breathe healing air into his tuberculosis-riddled lungs, he was the exotic one, the traveler-from-afar). Right now, I’m alone, my skin ripplingly awake in the desert air.  I know there’s another hiker somewhere behind me–I can even see him through binoculars, off near the trailhead–but for the time being there’s no need to be social or even audible in the pervasive quiet.  And that’s what I want: for a while, at least, here at mid-day, I want to train all levels of alertness inward.

The emotional life of the mind is the delight in knowing and understanding.  Tyler, an astronomer taking a three-week sabbatical stay in the park, is an excellent conversational companion on the trail; he often seems nearly flushed with the pleasure of explaining, of offering knowledge to interested listeners.  I’m one of these, learning from his gestures to the sky.  We’ve chatted about the nature of scientific understanding, and his own frustration with imprecision in English concerning “knowledge” and “belief”–we agree, it would be helpful to have a greater variety of nouns delineating different kinds of belief, since it’s particularly unhelpful to use the same term for both tightly-held religious conviction and cautious, methodical reasoning.  “Consilience,” I think, is a helpful term here, though I learned it through biology and E.O. Wilson’s work.  A single explanation that follows induction from different sorts of data, was the best definition I could offer him on the spot.  And as I did, I called up the mental picture of those ancient roads converging on the central place.

Later, though, poking through etymology listed in the dictionary, I found that the very precision I was hunting for disappears.  “Consilience” may sound in the voice as though it’s related to reconcile or conciliate, calling together like a deliberative council with hemming and hawing and debate–and, if applied to the workings of Washington–lots of pizza deliveries to fuel committee meetings late into the night.  But it’s not.  The Latin verb stem is my old friend salīre, to jump, and so the word suggests impulsive action rather than step-by-step reasoning.  The body’s emotional leap, both feet off the ground, to the immediate future.  For a brief time, just when I was turning forty, I couldn’t stop jumping.  Creosote bushes, fallen logs across the trail; bunch grasses lifting from the perennial prairie: they all presented themselves like second chances at becoming a hurdler, when, instead, I had always been a distance runner.  Short running start; then the leap–the suspension of self for seconds that stretched, uncounted, while endorphins celebrated all the doors that still seemed open.  Short-term delight, though: the knees won’t take this kind of fantasy forever, and then the long, horizontal view clicks into view, and you settle back in to the sustained walk.

No more than half a mile away, over the precipitous lip of the mesa and sheltered in a protective sandstone overhang, the much-discussed pictograph that may record the Crab Nebula supernova faces east.  I remember first seeing it nearly two decades ago, after a hot, early-June hike through the canyon and a clumsy jump across the wash, which was running fast then from a recent rain.  I stood before the mesa’s flank, skin prickling with sweat, and looked up, thrilled by the red-paint composition, tucked beneath the protective overhang.  A crescent moon, a pointed star, a perfect human hand.

Two decades later, the pictograph has pulled me back–the me who both is, and is not, the woman I (then) was.  If the researchers are right, the artwork has been there, painted in confident, red pigment on the flattest, cleanest plane of rock, for nearly a thousand years.  Calculating backwards, astronomers have determined that the exploding star would have first been visible on July 5, 1054, in the pre-dawn skies with the crescent moon still rising. Anyone sitting outside, awaiting sunrise in mild, mid-summer weather, would have seen a sudden, brilliant addition to the familiar stars.  (Chinese astronomers did just that, and recorded the date precisely.)  Modern researchers figure that the apparent conjunction of star and moon was actually much closer here in the Colorado Plateau than it would have been in Asia; half a world away, the degree of separation between the two would have tripled by the time anyone saw their bright bodies near the horizon.  Here, recorded in paint, was an accurate cluster: the horns of the moon, the luminous star, the hand of the artist raised in witness and presence.

I want to imagine the moment: the sudden flare of new light, the indrawn breath, the sensual rush of amazement and–perhaps–alarm.  Then surely a shout, rousing the sleepers nearby within the great house walls: Hey! Come see!  But this wasn’t a one-off apparition, leaving the sleepers grumpy and skeptical, and the viewer(s) noisily defensive.  For twenty-three days it was visible in daylight.  Expanding remnants still drape that part of space with the color and light of the Crab Nebula, where a pulsar spins its neutron heart, still flashing spectra into the cold, dark distance.  Another probable depiction of the exploding star has been found painted on a piece of Mimbres pottery, a plate carbon-dated to within fifteen years of the event: the star is carefully drawn with twenty-three rays, perhaps counting those impressive days before the light subsided.

The plate itself, though I’ve only seen it in a photograph, draws imagination into its shallow basin.  Nearly centered in the visual field, a stylized rabbit arches its black-on-white back, tall ears cocked forward and a bright eye of concentric circles wide above a furry-bristly mouth.  This is the personified “rabbit in the moon” that many indigenous peoples see in the full moon’s mottled texture. Here, however, the exaggerated arc of the back, the sharp points of its little rabbit-feet, suggest instead the crescent moon, those “horns” in close proximity to the probable star.  The plate, though broken, has been reassembled, glued back together with only two pieces missing so that just a tiny bit of the rabbit’s back is absent from the image, as well as a section of the plate’s undecorated rim.  In contrast to the circles that define the design, the dark rabbit is ornamented with an angular light line, running from breast to tail: a bold, acute angle across the region of the shoulders, followed by series of step-like jags (ten of them) and an obtuse angle across the animal’s hindquarters.  I love the image’s contrasts: angle and curve, circle and line, figure and ground.  In the plate’s apparent perfect circle, the mytho-historic symbols are stilled in time, preserved in an understatement of clay and paint.

And here, near Peñasco Blanco, there’s another pictograph fading in partial sunlight beneath the star/moon/hand composition.  A series of concentric circles, in fairly broad rings of yellowish paint with a wide sweep of subtle red extending to the right.  In certain light, it’s nearly invisible but at other times of day the yellow stands out from the sandy substrate. When I look closely, I see three rings, or really two rings and a central dot, with faint traces of red between them.  I stand as close as I can, in the protected dust and litter beneath the cliff.  Then I move back along the eroding hillside, balancing among shin-high stalks of shrubs–rabbit brush, probably–and compare perspectives.  It’s a comet, some say–the reddish tail blown back by invisible solar wind centuries before anyone had named, or perhaps even imagined, such a celestial force.  In 1066, Halley’s Comet would also have been visible here, so together the panel may record the astronomical marvels of a generation.  Marvels for sure, because although Halley’s loops back regularly, its elliptical orbits swinging it into our view once (or maybe twice) in a modern human lifetime, the sky records few traces of exploding stars that could have been witnessed by human eyes, whatever the millennium.

Concentric circles are a common figure in rock art across the desert Southwest.  Some scholars take them to be deeply standardized, like hieroglyphs or potent runes.  According to contemporary Pueblo explanations for three concentric circles, the rings and dot represent the sun’s great aura, the fiery body of the sun itself, and the sun’s “umbilicus,” a portal that opens “to provide mankind with game and other food.”  Farther west, the Chumash peoples associated concentric circles with connective portals between worlds, passageways between mythic and profane realms.  Despite the cultural conservatism that must have held sway to keep Chacoan great houses under renovation and care for three hundred years, I like to think of the aesthetic play that happens in the hands of gifted artists.  We can imagine the hoopla at the installation site.

First, there’s the choice of someone skilled enough to be trusted to paint the panel just below the brilliant red star and moon, no longer visible in the night sky but preserved in still-bright pigment high above the alcove floor.  Not just anybody can be charged with such an important addition to a public mural.  I wonder who made the actual selection?  The decision might have been politicized, with a snarl of hard feelings or suspect motives.  But whatever the process, the choice has been made and now the artist is balanced high on a ladder, an assistant standing just a rung or two beneath him holding pigment and tools.  (Is it a he? Or a she? I’m undecided.)  Off at the small crowd’s periphery, someone else is blustering, trying to convince the people in earshot that really, he would have been the better choice, this guy’s not nearly as good as people say, etc.  In the front row, someone has pushed forward to see.  Oh, look, she breathes to the person standing beside her, or to herself.  (This time there’s no question.  In my mind, it’s a she.)  I like the way he’s made the long-tailed star look like the sun.  And I like the perspective:  its face is looking at us, even though the tail’s spread out to the side.

But the guy in the back row’s still having none of it.  Look, he scoffs, what a loser.  He can’t even tell the difference between a star and the sun.


Though I can’t see Una Vida from here, I’ve compass-puzzled enough to be pretty sure I have the angle right, and I stare at the smooth horizon’s flank at 54 degrees.  South Mesa presents a pale, barely-sloping saddle of grass, dotted with only a few widely-spaced juniper trees, none of them coinciding with “my” imaginary line.  If illuminated in sunlight, I think, the grasses would look like a tawny pelt, but now everything–vegetation, stone, sky–feels vaguely metallic and gray.

The moon will rise in mid-afternoon today and I had considered hanging around the ruins to watch it lift. Other researchers tell me they’ve watched this standstill moonrise, and it isn’t precisely over Una Vida (though the great house itself is occluded from sight by the intervening South Mesa).  G.B. and his colleague Ron watched from Peñasco’s height; they report that instead the moon rose over Pueblo Bonito, the oldest and largest great house in the canyon, clearly visible from where I stand.  But the cloud cover remains heavy and dull, and the chances of my seeing the moon in that sky seem pretty sparse. Besides, if I’m reading the research correctly, Peñasco Blanco isn’t aligned with the northern standstill.  Instead, that line I’ve abstracted outwards from the low point in the ruin’s bowl should point towards the moon’s southern standstill.  I’d have had to be here more than a week ago to see that–each month, the moon swings its arced trajectory from both extremes, north to south, cycled through in such short time compared to the sun’s annual pacing.  So even if the clouds were to lift, the moon to take the sky, I’d still be stuck with the compass, trying to measure the angle of the difference, plus or minus ten, and probably missing something else in the process. Suddenly, I feel very far from home.  Any way you look at it, I’m poorly placed for direct observation.  It’s probably time to think about heading back.

But first I look around again, counting the side canyons.  There, second from Escavada Wash, should be Atlatl Cave, the earliest site of known habitation in the canyon. I’ve seen reproductions of pictographs from inside that remote rock shelter, stylized human figures with broad triangular shoulders and narrow waists; near them is a four-legged creature, a dog, maybe, or a coyote.  Impossible to see the cave opening from here, but I imagine it, too, under the striped awning of the sandstone above.  Researchers have sorted through packrat middens stashed away there–deposits dating back more than 10,000 years, filled with pollen and seeds and other hints at the vegetal life of the canyon. For all that time, this part of the world has been a desert shrub grassland, with variations of drought and cold and heat, of course, and greater or lesser numbers of trees–even, in those oldest deposits, Ponderosa pines and Douglas firs, now long since gone from the canyon.  Before corn and squash tethered their farmers into settlement, wide-ranging Archaic people visited the rock shelter, leaving behind bits and traces of gathered foods (pinyon nuts, hackberry seeds), rabbit fur “fabric,” and even a single yucca fiber sandal as well as the eponymous spear thrower, an ancient atlatl.  They came and they went, governing their movement by whatever season and surplus they saw in the landscape.

Okay, okay.  I’m packing up, now, fingers back in my gloves, the sandwich bag stashed in a pocket.  But there on the ground where my stuff’s been sprawled throughout this little spate of amateur field work, I find a slip of bone and lift it up to see.  Off come the gloves again, and I cup the specimen in my bare palm.  It’s the upper mandible of some small rodent, a few exquisite molars the size of small beads, and one incisor poking forward, tool-like and yellowed.  Pocket gopher, maybe, I think.  Or a pack rat?  It looks too small for that, but bird and rodent bones always seem surprisingly small to me, such diminutions of the living animal.  I put it on a flat edge of stone that just barely protrudes from the masonry wall, a perfect shelf for my little installation–Rodentia: Memento Mori–and head back eastward.


One of my favorite petroglyphs from this trip is in the far eastern end of the canyon.  Beyond the cleft boulder G.B. showed me, there is a broad panel of images carved on spectacularly red sandstone.  Facing south and catching bright mid-day light, the carvings stand out imposingly against the patina of the rock face, without any sign of graffiti or vandalism.  A pecked rendition of a hand–except it’s a misshapen hand, only three fingers and the opposable thumb.  A few three-toed shapes, looking for all the world like the dinosaur tracks I’ve seen fossilized elsewhere in the West.  An animal, four-legged and with the perky antlers of a pronghorn standing in profile.  Some other designs, unidentifiable to my eye and a three-lobed shape–vaguely, I think, like a poorly-made backwards E (oh, it’s all about me).

But commanding the middle of this intriguing panel is a spiral, so regular in proportion and execution it looks too perfect to be hand-pecked into friable sandstone.  The lines are thin and even, impeccably circular.  In fact, at first I thought it was a series of concentric circles, one trim form inside the other like a bull’s eye on the flat stone boulder. They’re so tightly packed they resemble the growth rings from Pueblo Bonito’s original pine beams, cut in the Chuska Mountains in the 11th century, and datable now through the painstaking yardstick of dendrochronology.  Each ring’s record of sap and girth, the sequence of dry years with wet, make a calendar of that particular tree-time, in that particular location.  But when I tried to count the rings in the petroglyph, I discovered it is a spiral, after all: fifteen grooves from one side to the other.  It’s a trick to the eye in bright desert light: the illusion of concentric completion, combined with the journey’s outward turn from the central point.

There are other spirals on Fajada, a great free-standing butte in the eastern part of the canyon, which I will never see.  Beneath three slabs of sandstone leaning against the butte’s upper cliff are two pecked spirals.  The larger is slightly elliptical, over a foot in width, consisting of nineteen coiled grooves.  They seem designed to catch the light that crosses overhead, obscured by stone and then entering the gap between each slab in patterns that seem so richly symbolic I expect they’d make me weep to see them play across the rock.  On mid-summer’s day, in the flood of sun, a vertical blade of light would pierce the center of the largest spiral.  In mid-winter, the spiral remained in shadow but two vertical shafts of light would move into positions just touching the outer grooves on either side so as to frame the darkened spiral.

The research team who recorded these seasonal patterns of light and shade hypothesized that the moon would cast timely shadows as well: at major standstill moonrise, the large spiral would lie bathed in light, the shadow just touching the left edge.  At minor standstill, the shadow would bisect the spiral through its center.  The site seems to be an ingeniously calibrated cluster: the slow-weathered butte; the sloughed-off slabs; the cyclic patterns of daylight and season, moonlight and menology.

But all this is, now, academic.  The researchers simulated standstill moonlight and found the results they expected, but they never recorded the events themselves (unlike the solstices, remember, these cycles fall far apart (18.6 years), so at the time of their simulations, the team couldn’t make the direct observations to catch the moonlight’s actual patterns on the ontologic stone.  And now the slabs have shifted.  It’s theorized that, after the petroglyph’s discovery and fame, too many observers flocked there.  With the trampling weight of their own enthusiasm, they must have compacted the soil, shoved the boulders slightly out of line.  Predictable, ephemeral light on the stone is a thing of the past.  And anyway, Fajada Butte is strictly off-limits now.  The time of clambering up to catch the sunlight on Dagger Spiral belongs to the last millennium and to memory.


Some researchers argue that the canyon was never primarily a population center, a bustling pueblopolis with each great house filled, like desirable urban apartment buildings, with families–children playing in the dirt, annoying the dogs or turkeys, and their mothers chatting with a wrinkled grandmother about the latest raid some vermin has made on the remaining clay jars of corn.  Instead, they offer a story in which the great houses were mostly ceremonial, many of the rooms empty day after day until a time of festival when the surrounding roads would quicken with travelers, and then the canyon would fill with unaccustomed voices, perhaps in several languages, a cacophony of song and talk–a flash flood, maybe, of ritual, rising along the wash only to disperse again, days later.

Some of the evidence for this interpretation is that the buildings, for all their engineering expertise and aesthetic beauty, wouldn’t have been very comfortable or practical for daily family life.  Original excavation records indicate that Pueblo Bonito, with nearly seven hundred rooms, didn’t have enough kitchen space to support more than one hundred people.  (Kitchen space would translate, in archaeologese, to interior hearths, readily identifiable through burned dirt and oxidized stones.)  The rooms were laid out inconveniently for daily work rhythms like simply fetching fuel or water or letting the toddler hurry out to pee.  Another of my favorite ruins, Pueblo Alto, held 133 rooms but likely never housed more than 25-50 people.  However, its trash heap reveals something like binge-cooking, busted pottery and food scraps that are, as a researcher concludes, “strongly suggestive of periodic dumping events.”   I’m reminded of a group of foreign students who lived across the alley when I was in graduate school.  Following a noisy party, the dumpster we shared was filled not only with leftovers, but the pots in which the meal—unfamiliar food, which I looked at with interest when I went to dump my own trash—was cooked, along with the dirty plates.  No doubt heading back home by jet plane at the semester’s end, the young men had decided to pitch everything.

But that’s my personal aside. “Ritual destruction of pottery,” is what the scholars hypothesize for these feasts, and the number of potsherds scattered around the earthen ring of just one un-excavated kiva suggests even to my casual glance that either the “ritual destruction” model is accurate or else the people were astoundingly clumsy in their most public places.  (The latter explanation is pretty far-fetched, since some scholars conclude that by the heyday of the canyon, most pottery was made elsewhere and imported, not the sort of thing you’d smash unthinkingly.)  Most likely, the breaking of vessels was something deliberate, maybe performative.

In this interpretation, the canyon’s primary residents were a priestly elite dedicated to astronomical study, art, ritual, ceremony.  Engineering and drafting too, I think, if the actual residents of Chaco had a leading role in planning the architecture and the roads that headed out, north and south, to additional great house communities.  One couldn’t spend most of the day grinding corn or hunting deer or otherwise bustling to secure one’s material needs for this mortal coil, and still have time left for the observation implicit in the canyon’s complex astronomical orientations, let alone for the expert level of artistry and craftsmanship left in stone.  And I wonder what else has vanished in the intervening centuries–paint on the inner plastered walls, or on the rock faces, exposed to sun and wind and everyone’s view.

So perhaps the priests and scholars–one and the same–lived here year round, and shook out ornamental blankets and swept the kivas clean when, as modern scholars suggest, “pilgrims” would arrive for “episodic ceremonial events.”  Then, perhaps, the great round kiva of Casa Rinconada would be filled, the travelers descending into the sunken room through either of the opposing doors, one facing north and the other south. Some might duck through the antechamber on the north side, whose doors open east and west.  From the canyon floor, they might glimpse back up the way they’d come, through Pueblo Alto and then off on one of its converging roads. There’s a marvelous cardinal alignment among four of the central buildings grouped near Rinconda.  On the canyon floor, Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl line up neatly on an east-west axis, while Pueblo Alto and the great house on the south mesa, Tsin Kletzin, define another one reaching north-south.  No matter how you came to the festival houses in the sandstone canyon, there’s a building associated with your cardinal direction. Line, staking out the proper relations among clans or seasons; Line, insisting on its power far beyond your sight.

While the Great North Road leading to Aztec is perhaps the best defined, leaping off the mesa top at Pueblo Alto towards the San Juan River, the orientation to the south also casts its warp- line across the distances.  Archaeologist Stephen Lekson describes a “Chaco Meridian,” a north-south alignment running four hundred miles, from the ruins at Aztec, just south of the Colorado border, through Chaco Canyon’s careful alignments, south to the ruins along the Rio Casas Grandes in northern Mexico.  These three capitals, as he imagines them, lay out a time sequence, the architectural footprints for the migration of the culture’s elite.  Moving from Chaco, these founders established Aztec in the early 1100s; a century later they moved on to establish the “big houses” named in Nahuatl “Paquimé.”

From the mesas above Chaco Wash, the way south dominates attention: South Gap stands invitingly, the wide, U-shaped grassland resting between West and South Mesas  gesturing with nonhuman elegance: this way.  One afternoon I descended into South Gap from Tsin Kletsin, as a rising wind finally shook snow from the low clouds that, for hours, had obscured the far horizons.  As I moved along the trail, a group of coyotes crossed in front of me.  Muscular and dark, their coats patchy with shades of brown and a little white mottling the tawny look familiar from tall-grass dwellers back home, they leaped and bounded through the scrub along the valley’s intermittent stream.  Suddenly startled, they noticed me and took turns staring at the red-jacketed human standing stationary in the snow while they moved onward, west and south.  The deer I scared up later, as the snowfall increased and I headed back, made no such effort to monitor my movement.  All five of them lifted from their daybed in wind’s lea and, heads high, trotted up South Mesa’s slope and out of sight.

The southern influence on Chaco Canyon is strong in the archaeological record.  There are the trade goods from the south: exotic feathers, even macaws themselves, kept in dark, adobe cages more like caves that distorted their bone growth.  And agriculture came from deep in Mexico: maize, first coaxed into the hand-turned earth, out of the undisturbed grasslands of its undomesticated great-aunt, teosinte.  Mid-twentieth century archaeology may have over-corrected the earlier assumptions that cliff dwellings were the work of the great civilizations to the south–outliers from the Aztecs, as implied by the name given to the ruins by Anglo-American settlers in the 19th century.  It’s an “inappropriate name,” according to the Park Service, reflecting early Anglo ignorance of the Puebloan people’s connection to their ancestor-architects.  But recent genetic research complicates the matter, suggesting quietly that not just corn and the concept of its cultivation passed along through trade, but the planters and grinders themselves made the trip north as migrants from the metate-crucible of indigenous American agriculture.

Recently, researchers tested artifacts from what’s called the Basketmaker II archaeological period–in this case, items ranging from 500 BC-AD 500, before the rise of Chacoan architecture.  Throughout that thousand years, the people of that pre-ceramic culture in the Southwest left intimate hints of themselves in the dry caves and shelters of the Colorado Plateau.  “Quids”–plugs of what might be called “chaw”–have been dug up from the dust and sand of intervening centuries, with ancient DNA still caught in the masticated tangles of fiber–yucca, usually.  From the mitochondrial DNA sloughed off somebody’s cheek tissue, or left behind by the saliva, long since dessicated, geneticists can identify certain population subsets, or haplogroups.  Recognizable by certain shared mutations, these haplogroups indicate shared ancestry, and allow researchers to make improved interpretations about ancient migrations and the peopling of new territories.

The spat-out wads of chewed-up plant matter favor a particular theory of migration from Central Mexico; the presence of haploid A mitochondrial DNA seems to be correlated, the researchers believe, with farmers speaking Uto-Aztecan languages who walked northward, bringing their seed-corn and farming secrets with them, to become the Western population of Basketmaker people.  The Eastern Basketmakers, they conclude, however, were different people–an indigenous group who adopted the new agricultural arts introduced by their new neighbors.

But the results are tenuous.  The sample number was small–the scientists seem to have seen this as a pilot project, to identify a methodology that others could repeat, developing a larger base of information.  But even more than the dried-up spitballs, I’m intrigued by the other type of object they tested: women’s clothes.  Called “aprons” (an “inappropriate name,” I think–they look more like a breechclout or a wide, fringed thong), these are known to have been worn by women because they’re depicted that way in decorated pottery.  Many are stained with menstrual blood.

The researchers sampled that blood, taking tiny snippets of the fabric, grinding them up with mortar and pestle while adding purified sand and liquid nitrogen, spinning them in a centrifuge and finally, after other, chemically-abbreviated steps, removing the ancient DNA for analysis.  Only two samples gave results, and neither of these seems linked to the out-of-Mexico theory: neither belongs to haploid A.  These women left behind blood-shadows, hints of who they were or weren’t, but only hints. I imagine them in profile, bent over the stone basins in which, day after day, year after year, they pulverized dried kernels into flour.  Then I picture them standing, stretching skyward, trying to lift themselves out of the kinks that settled into their muscles–there, ooooooh–before they have to bend again to start the fire and hustle up some supper.


This month the park can be seen to re-enact the theory about Chaco’s ceremonial importance in its cultural apex, the 11th century. Throughout December, the few resident staff in the park are hosting guests, travelers from elsewhere who have come for the solstice season. We’re all on a first-name basis though some of us exchange formal business cards, as if we’re at a special seminar or institute workshop.  In an empty duplex in the residential area, a series of archaeoastronomers come and go over several days.  Alonso, from Chiapas, comes to see the sunrise at Bonito.  Anna, from Santa Fe, photographs the sunrise at Wijiji with John, from Durango.  A dark-sky preservationist from Albuquerque, Peter, drives up for an afternoon of meetings and stays the night. Cherilynn, with her belongings already en route from Colorado to Georgia for her new job there, arrives for the solstice and the lunar standstill afterwards at Chimney Rock.  Tyler, here for three weeks from Los Angeles, takes time-lapse pictures each clear night, showing us his finished pictures when they turn out well.  From Kansas, I’m the relative easterner and I’ve brought prairie-fed bison meat from back home to use in evangelical outreach: Reducing the Hegemony of the Cow in the American West.

It turns out I’ve been assigned quarters in a duplex called “The Cantina,” and my week-long host, Kelley, believes deeply in the ameliorative power of dessert, especially chocolate.  So most nights the travelers gather at the Cantina for dinner, following whatever we’ve been up to in the day.  Several members of the permanent staff drop in, one night or another, and people bring dishes to share–roasted vegetables, a giant Tupperware wheel of salad, a pot of soup nearly the size of a small generator, six-packs of beer to sit outside on the porch, keeping cold. After dinner one evening, we move furniture and take down one of Kelley’s hanging quilts so Alonso can show slides on the clean white duplex wall, and he describes astronomical alignments in Mayan ruins at Palenque while fudge brownies bake in the Cantina’s oven.

It’s nothing like the swell of folks who’ll be here in the summer, everyone says so.  In fact, the campground’s almost empty, with only the hardiest enthusiasts (and, one night, that errant drunk guy) sleeping in their vans or a few tarp-topped tents on single-digit nights.  And despite the continued importance of the winter solstice in the local traditions, I think it must have been a hard thing a thousand years ago to journey to the canyon for the standstill of the sun.  Even if, for people living anywhere in the Colorado Plateau drawn to Chaco for festivities or ritual, their travel converged on the wide, prepared roads that approach the cliffs from dozens of miles, their trek would likely start in more remote topography, perhaps in snow.  Assuming you could cover twenty miles in a day, all but the closest travelers in the Chacoan world could have expected to spend more than one night abroad before they reached the great houses and the waiting guest rooms.  And weather, of course, can always slow one down.

I was planning to brave the campground to be here, if I had to.  Until I learned that by joining the volunteer community I earned a heated place beneath a roof, I’d imagined pitching my tiny backpacking tent inside a larger, heavy one for a wimpy kind of double-walled construction.  A friend was set to lend me her expedition sleeping bag, rated for temperatures of forty below zero.  But it would have been a grim experience after an hour or so at the campfire, burrowing under down and rip-stop nylon, feeling the cold cast its tactile shadow along my spine, disk by disk.  Enough, perhaps, to make a person change her mind, pack up, head homeward early.  Certainly without the social pleasure–and distraction–of evenings in the Cantina.

Two hours before sunrise, when I slip out the door to the front porch to check the sky around Fajada Butte for clouds or stars, the single-digit cold is a shock in the lungs. It’s clear and I bet the temperature’s right above zero, just like the night before.  Exhaling, I’m exuberant, but if for hours my breath had frosted every nearby surface–pillow, bag, the inner tent walls inches from my face…  That would have made worlds of difference.

It would have been hard, I think, to set out from somewhere two days or more away, and crunch over the frozen sagebrush in rabbit fur socks, perhaps, and ankle-laced yucca sandals.  It would have been hard to watch the sun go down knowing the next settlement–an outpost, maybe, on the Great North Road–was still hours away, and who knew how full the rooms would be when you arrived?  And harder still when the feasting was over, the great fires burned out, maybe, and your pack and pockets far lighter than when you came, to direct yourself back over the snow, back through the days that, though marked by the promise of returning spring, were still so much shorter than the long, cold nights, and your home-bound shadow lengthened by the low sun’s low angle, from morning to dusk, until icy moonlight overtook the sun’s last hint of twilight, and you kept walking homeward, the canyon falling back beyond the visible horizon.