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Chaco and Chimney Rock

I usually don’t write about trips to Chaco Canyon or its outliers as I’ve lost track of the number of times I’ve been there. But this is a bit different as it was a School for Advanced Research (SAR) extravaganza. Those are always fun, interesting and sometimes decadent (at least compared to the usual trips we make on our own). And the focus of this trip was archaeo-astronomical linkages, something very different. So why not…

Our group was primarily led by Dr. John Kantner, Vice-President of SAR. Dr. Kantner had done considerable field work in Chaco Canyon area (writing a down-to-earth book on the subject) and was well qualified to answer our questions. Whether he had the endurance, well that was yet to be seen.

Our first stop was at the Chaco Visitor Center because…well, they have flush toilets. Some things are more important than others and it was a long drive. Following the addressing of basic bodily functions, Dr. Kantner briefed us and we all trundled off to the nearby Una Vida ruin. This was the oldest Great House in Chaco Canyon and as yet unexcavated. I forget what we talked about there, but I am sure it was interesting.

Dr. Kantner explaining our days activities to us at Chaco Canyon (I thought of labeling this “Pearls before swine”, but good taste requires I do not.)

Dr. Kantner at the Una Vida ruin either pointing out something important or waiting for his falcon to return. I forget which.

Following that, we met up with Ranger G.B. Cornucopia (yeah, I know, but it’s his real name). He showed us some possible archaeo-astronomical sites the public seldom gets to see.

The first one was a spiral petroglyph (sort of like the Sun Dagger). Several hundred feet away is a large rock with a triangular tip. Exactly two weeks before the Summer Solstice the tip of this rock casts a shadow in the center of the petroglyph during sunrise. This seems to function as some sort of early warning for the coming of the Solstice, letting the early Chacoans know it was almost, but not quite, party time (For more info, check this out). A rather cool thing to see, but really, what else did the Chacoans have to do but watch the sun rise and set. There was no Internet yet.

On this same rock, on another face is another rather odd petroglyph. It is “alleged” to be a representation of a solar eclipse that happened in 1097 AD. The swirly tendrils emanating from the circular body are taken to be the Chacoans’ idea of the Sun’s coronasphere, which would have been visible during the eclipse. The dot pecked into the rock to the upper left could be the planet Venus, visible during such an eclipse. However it’s not in the right spot if it is. Here’s more info on that idea. Personally, I’m skeptical. The tendrils on the petroglyph look annoyingly symmetrical, making it look more like an insect with antenna and legs. But the idea of a solar eclipse petroglyph is much more sexy than a petroglyph of, oh I don’t know….a tick.

Ranger G. B. Cornucopia relating the possible significance of the spiral petroglyph immediately behind him.

Yes, there really is a spiral petroglyph there. It’s in the circle.

The alleged solar eclipse petroglyph. The circle pecked in the rock at the 10 o’clock position from the glyph is “thought” to portray Venus, which would have been visible during the eclipse, although in a different position. Hence my use of disclaimers.

Following the tick/eclipse petroglyph, it was off to more Great Houses. Next stop was Chaco Bonita because…well, you just have to if you’re in Chaco Canyon. Dr. Kantner brought along a lot of exhibits and showed us where the important people had been buried in Bonito and other gruesome bits of trivia. Leaving Bonito, we hustled across the canyon to Casa Rinconada, the largest Great Kiva in the Southwest. There are some interesting and controversial solar alignments within Rinconada, and we talked about those. After that it was a long drive to Farmington and our crash pad for the night.

The obligatory shot of Pueblo Bonito from the overlook because it’s what you have to do when you’re there. Beyond that it serves no purpose.

The SAR group exiting Pueblo Bonito.

The SAR group at the (Really) Great Kiva of Casa Rinconada with Dr. Kantner pointing out possible astronomical alignments.

Saturday morning we headed over to the Aztec Ruins and wandered through those for a while. Jeri and I had been there only a few weeks earlier, so it was deja vu for us, but we learned things we didn’t know. The reconstructed Great Kiva, which you can walk down inside, really rocks. There’s no way in hell the Park Service would allow such reconstruction sacrilege today, so there are some things to be thankful for to the cowboy archaeologists of the day.

Leaving Aztec, we made a long drive to the northeast to our destination, Pagosa Springs and Chimney Rock.

Here’s the odd thing about Chimney Rock. It’s the location of a Great House situated high on a sharp ridge about 1,100’ from two massive rock columns (Chimney Rock). There’s a complicated motion the Moon makes that swings it back and forth across the sky, and every 18.6 years it reaches an extreme. Sort of like a solar solstice, but not. Anyway, when this occurs, the Moon rises right between the two rock columns as viewed from the Great House. And this Great House looks, feels and smells like a Chacoan Great House. If it were plopped into Chaco Canyon, it would appear perfectly in place, although perhaps a bit smaller than the grandiose neighbors. So it might well be this was a Chacoan outlier. It’s certainly a batshit-crazy place to construct a Great House, but as I have discovered from visiting a number of Chacoan ruins, they were crazy bastards when it came to them building exactly where they wanted to.

So we were really looking forward to seeing this moonrise. Of course we were also noting the increasing cloud cover and occasional rain on our drive in. It was not looking good.

We got to the Chimney Rock entrance well in advance of sunset and noted the rather large crowd heading to the same place we were. Solstice Moons always tend to attract a crowd to Chimney Rock, but it was greatly aggravated by the designation of Chimney Rock as a new National Monument only a week before. “Hey honey, there’s new National Monument! Put the kids in the car and we’ll check it out!”

OK, so we probably wouldn’t see an actual moonrise, due to the clouds, but at least the drum bangers, flute players and assorted new-agey wackadoodles would be an entertaining diversion, right? Well, no, actually.

As we got to the base of the climb to the Great House ruin, we noticed columns of rain off in the distance. And by “distance” I mean not a far distance. The rain was one thing, the lighting inside the rain was another. Thinking that this could easily be rained or lightninged out, Jeri and I shot up the steep trail to the ruins. Just as we reached the edge of the Great House, one of the volunteer docents approached us and told us we’d have to go back down as they were cancelling the event due to the approaching lightning. Seeing as how we were high on a razor sharp ridge, this seemed like a not unreasonable idea. We were allowed to take a few quick pictures of the side of the Great House before we started back down.

Jeri on the way up to the top of Chimney Rock. Why is she smiling? Because she thinks she’s going to get there!

This was as far as we got the first time. The docents let me take a pic of the side of the Great House before headed back down.

After descending much of the way, we ran into the main body of our group, still climbing. We stopped in the trail and gave them the bad news. While we were milling around trying to decide what to do, another docent climbing up from below caught up with us and asked why we were leaving? We told the docent we had just been turned back from the top and the event was cancelled. She responded that it wasn’t, and she had just heard on her radio the festivities were still on!

I attribute all this to the fact the site had been taken over by the Feds a week earlier and the organization was already losing its collective brain cells. You know, like lead poisoning.

So Jeri and I turned around again and headed quickly back up. This time we made it just past the Great House where we were greeted by a docent (not the one who had sent us back the first time). She whispered to us as if in a church that we could sit down and join the others already there. I looked to where she had pointed and there were in excess of a hundred people all sitting on the ground as if waiting for the Mother Ship.

I thought, “Screw this, I’m here for the Great House” and turned instead to the ruin. Good thing. 60 seconds after Jeri and I arrived the public address crackled to life and informed the sitting horde that things were indeed cancelled and everyone should get the hell outta Dodge. Some incentive was provided by the approaching bolts of lightning. Lightning does that to people.

A quick glance of the assembled masses indicated that many of them would likely be slow movers on the steep trail descending back to the parking area. So Jeri and I bolted to the lead and started back down. We ran into the bulk of our still ascending SAR group just before they had reached the Great House. So close, yet so far.

At last, a view of Chimney Rock! Ooops! Time to leave…..

The Great House at Chimney Rock. Looks like it should be in Chaco Canyon, almost a hundred miles away.

Jeri taking a picture of the crowd abandoning ship,..er, rock. The twin spires of Chimney Rock are 1,100 feet away, and that’s rain falling in the background. Oh, and that’s where the lightning was. Great fun!

Like rats from a sinking ship (or at least one being struck by lightning) the crowd begins their descent from the top. Fortunately, Jeri and I got out ahead of them.

As we reached the vehicles and headed down off the ridgeline, the rain came hard and lightning very close. So it was certainly the right call to make. Of course with a now earlier return to Pagosa Springs, we had even more time to eat, drink and otherwise carry on. Again, it’s a matter of priorities.

That Saturday night we stayed at the Springs Resort and Spa at Pagosa Springs. The place is a mecca for people who like to come to soak in the natural hot springs and pools for the “therapeutic” benefits. However when looking over the occupants of the many pools, it struck me that vastly more therapy would be gained for these folks by saying no to a few cheeseburgers instead of sitting in pools of hot, stinky sulfur water.

The rare and mysterious alignment of the setting Moon at the Pagosa Springs resort. I’m told it sets between those two fumaroles only once every 18.6 years. Or not.

Sunday morning it was back on the road, out of Colorado to New Mexico, by way of Chama and Ghost Ranch. The drudgery of the long drive was lessened somewhat by the changing of the colors of the trees along the way.