Posted by: Brad Nixon | July 27, 2010

Pondering the Ancient Ones

I know that it’s possible to sit right here at the ol’ desk and ponder matters of great consequence. However, distractions are many, and inspirations are few and subtle. Pondering under these circumstances leads only to pitiful, unremarkable insights like, “My next car should be a hybrid,” or “I don’t think my sink is draining the way it should.”

No, for world-class pondering, you want exactly the opposite situation: few distractions — as close as possible to none — leading to those lightning-bolt insights. In other words, a milieu so overwhelming that one must make an effort NOT to ponder.

We went to New Mexico to ponder. We found excellent pondering there.

Several things about New Mexico provide all the conditions necessary for substantial pondering: vast spaces, remote areas, poor cell reception and few outlet malls with multiplexes. Once we landed, we delayed not and proceeded directly to one of the world’s great centers of pondering: Chaco Canyon.

Vast spaces? Check. The population is well below 1 per square mile, and that includes trees more than 20 feet tall.

Remote? Check. Now that “The “Inn at Nageezi” — a lonely brick ranch house providing a bed but no breakfast — has closed, the nearest tourist habitation is in Farmington, 35 miles away from the entrance to Chaco Canyon, with 20 more miles of driving to the park entrance, 11 of which are unpaved.

Phones? No. Carry your mobile unit if you like, but the little place where the signal bars normally show up will read, “You’ve got to be kidding.”

Outlets/Multiplexes? Whatever you bring in with you. Check.

Chaco Canyon Brad Nixon 2948 (640x589)

Casa Chiquita, Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon (officially Chaco Culture National Historical Park) is stunningly beautiful. It is not the beauty of Yosemite or Bryce Canyon. It lacks the sheer drama and force of the more majestic national parks reproduced on wall calendars. It is the beauty of a desert that not everyone understands until they get out of the car and walk for a half a mile surrounded by the desert: serene; sublime. It is not a spectacular Grand Canyon or Snake River Canyon. It’s a broad, low cleft between walls of sandstone, through which the usually dry Chaco Wash wends its way.

So far away from everywhere and everyone, it is a place that allows every part of you to breathe a different spirit than you know elsewhere. A few minutes on a trail through sage and mesquite, and you remember who you are. If you’re lucky, you’ll be satisfied with what you remember. If it’s bad news, that’s worth pondering, too.

There are countless places on the planet that yield this solitude and space for reflection. They can be deserts or mountains or rivers or seashores or the porch of your grandmother’s house. One thing that sets Chaco Canyon apart is the people who used to live there, and the fact that we know so little about them. We use the Navajo name for them, Anasazi, which means “Ancient Ones.” (The Hopi have a similar name, Hisatsinom, or “the ones who came before.”) Ancient, indeed, because the Anasazi culture lived in Chaco Canyon and in a wide circumference around there from something like 400 to 1300 c.e. Then they were gone. Best estimates are that four to six thousand people at a time lived there in a sophisticated social and agricultural community for hundreds of years, in an extremely demanding environment. They did not have the wheel or draft animals or machinery other than hand tools. But they built enormous communal settlements, an extensive system of roads, and maintained connections with an extended set of communities across New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and traded with cultures in Mexico and beyond.

They left no writing and no one knows what language they spoke. Large portions of their well-planned and ingeniously constructed “great houses” still stand, but we know very little about how they conducted their lives, or even very much about the purpose of these structures.

One can go to Cahokia Mound or to Rome or Angkor Wat or the site of ancient Babylon and ponder the disappearance of great cultures, but I know of no other place on earth where it is possible to stand in such a powerful,evocative place, where once thousands of humans lived, and sense such an immediate connection with the uncertainty of what we can ever know about a lost civilization. To walk through Chaco Canyon is to ponder what it is to be mortal and what — if anything — exists beyond ourselves.

Chaco Canyon from on South Mesa

Chaco Canyon from on South Mesa

The world of Chaco Canyon is elemental. It can be cruelly hot and dry in summer, or lashed with thunderstorms. It is cold and sere in winter. Within minutes of setting out on any trail in any part of the canyon, you are immediately enclosed in a world all its own. You can focus on visiting the ancient Puebloan ruins, you can hike to see petroglyphs, or you can climb to the mesas north and south above the canyon walls, and look about across dozens of miles of desert.

Walking or sitting on a rock, you ponder. You look at the stunning cliffs, observe whatever birds and reptiles and rodents show themselves (not many in the middle of the day, since they have no time for sitting on rocks, except for lizards, who are, perhaps, the West’s great ponderers).

We have climbed to the mesas above both the north and south rims of Chaco, and looked down on the canyon and the ruins spread across the several miles. You can ascend the 400 feet of elevation onto the mesa tops in about 45 minutes of good walking, with a few scrambles here and there.

This year’s trip, up the south rim, led me to ponder what it took the Puebloans to build their many great house structures, which are stone masonry, with roofs made of log vigas supporting successive layers of smaller branches and then pounded clay. A guidebook tells me that it took about 225,000 trees to build the known structures, not to mention thousands of tons of rock, clay and water. Although the vegetation of the canyon was different a thousand years ago (overgrazing in the historic era has decimated a lot of the natural vegetation), there weren’t large stands of trees there then, nor are there now. The Chacoans traveled about 40 miles west to the Chuska mountains to cut trees. I started pondering this because from the Tsin Kletzin site (Chaco place names, by the way, are Spanish or, in this case, Navajo; we don’t know any Chacoan words) on top of the south mesa, you can see the Chuskas to the west. Remember: no draft animals; no wheels. Imagine saying to your friends, “Today we’ll hike 40 miles, cut down a tree with a stone axe, and then carry it back here.”

It required an impressively-organized effort to transport that many trees into the canyon during the years from 850 to 1250 c.e. that the major building went on. I can imagine having camps at 10 mile intervals, with four men at each camp (we may assume the men did the draft work — women are too valuable as skilled workers and child rearers). Each tree starts out from the mountain carried by 4 men, who carry it 10 miles and hand it off to the next team. Then, those 4 original men pick up supplies and food and water that have been carried out by another returning team, and ferry them back to the mountain. Each team makes their 20-mile round trip each day. 225,000 trees over 400 years is 562 trees a year, and if you do the math, there were 500 men just ferrying trees six months out of each year for 400 years. That doesn’t account for the teams cutting down trees, and the hundreds of others quarrying rock, mixing mortar, and building walls. Theirs was a vast enterprise of enduring, persistent organization, continuing while several thousand other Chacoan men women and children irrigated, farmed, prepared food, and kept the community going.

How could they have done it? One possibility is slavery. We know that some great cultures, including Babylon, Egypt, Rome and probably the Aztecs relied upon slaves — as did America and other modern states. Slavery, though, is an inefficient business and assumes a specialized economy and a determined technological or military advantage to keep subject people in check, particularly over such an extended period of time. It’s not a happy thought, and it’s hard to imagine how the Chacoans might’ve sustained a system of enslavement with so few resources. Assuredly, though, the Chacoan accomplishments argue for a strong, highly-directed leadership, and a social order of some sophistication.

Everyone, I think, who has a moment free from staying alive or finding food or shelter has something that evokes in them the Big Questions. It may be the waves on the ocean or the quiet deep shade of a mountain forest, or the rush of water in a stream. It’s there for me at Chaco. We didn’t make circles of stones or chant incantations up on the mesa. We didn’t burn incense or invoke any spirits. We did not hear voices or see visions. We heard the wind. We saw the sun on rocks, and the way the light strikes the sagebrush and mesquite in that shimmering, gray-green sheen that is inherent to the southwestern desert. We stood and looked out at one dry canyon in vastness of the arid southwest and thought about the tens of thousands of fellow humans who once lived there. We walked back down the trail and down into the canyon again where there are only walls of stone put there a thousand years ago by people we cannot know, under the western sky.

Chaco Klin Kletso Brad Nixon 2911 (640x478)

Klin Kletso, Chaco Canyon and view of South Gap

More articles about Chaco Canyon:

Home of the Ancient Ones: Chaco Canyon – Overview and introduction to Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon: Pueblo Bonito Great House

Chaco Canyon: Wijiji Trail to the Last Great House

Colorado: Home of the Ancient OnesAbout Mesa Verde, a stunning cliff dwelling complex in southern Colorado, an outlier of the Chacoan civilization

For driving directions to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, CLICK HERE.


© Brad Nixon 2010, 2017



  1. Good insights. Good photos. Thanks for sharing!


  2. Pondering the Ancient Ones…

    I found your entry interesting do I’ve added a Trackback to it on my weblog :)…


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