Day 11 Chaco Canyon and the Goon Squad

Published: August 19th 2015
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You may be wondering, where is my travelling companion and the love of my life in all of our wanderings. He is very busy being a photographer. He is either taking pictures with his camera or composing shots in his head. I get to glory in the scenery, walk a bit or just enjoy my book as we move slowly toward each days lodging. He is busy with camera and tripod. It’s a wonderful way to travel for both of us. He has taken somewhere in the range of 700 photos.

So far for me, 3 books finished. All fit a category in the 2015 reading challenge but each is also oddly connected to this trip. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich (category = first novel of a writer that I love) is set among the high plains Native Americans of the Dakota’s. Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Story of a Part Time Indian (category = banned book). This book is set among the Spokane tribe that Alexie is a part of. Finally, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (category = a book I’ve had for a long time, but never read) is about death and punk rock – it won the Pulitzer and that leaves me questioning the Pulitzer choices once more. I couldn’t put the book down and greedily read it a chapter at a time if that was all I got. Now I have begun to read They Changed the World: People of the Manhattan Project (category = biography) and so the connection here is pretty obvious based on where we’ve visited.

Erdrich and Alexie helped me with behavioral grounding in culture and behaviors and this has been helpful as we visit pueblos and exchange services on reservation lands. By the final pueblo we visit I finally feel that I am having honest and open conversations with the tribal members that I meet, not the awkward potential buyer and seller or trespasser/visitor/resident relationship that seems to permeate their existence and our travels through their land.

I remain puzzled as to how the Goon Squad was connected to this trip until we get to our campsite for the night. More about that in a bit.

Pueblo Bonito is the largest of the building sites in Chaco Canyon and all roads lead to this monolith. Excavation began at this site more than 100 years ago. In the beginning, the settler who did most of the excavating removed anything from the pueblo that he could sell. Leads me to a book that I need to read called Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession by Craig Childs.

Pueblo Bonito was, at one time, 6 stories high built with vertically layered walls that were engineered so well they rarely required buttressing. It could house up to 3,000 people. The scale is large. This pueblo is one of many that are known to be in the valley, several are excavated or partially excavated, many are the mounds and hillocks covered with grass and shrub that you see dotting the valley – each now excavated electronically and left in place as part of the landscape. The building began in about 850 CE and for this particular building continued until 1100 or so, with people residing in the pueblo through about 1240.

The building (as most significant pueblo structures do) lines up astronomically – windows align with sunrise on solstices, corner windows and doors with equinoxes. Built in the shape of a D, the building is vast in all dimensions. The Park Service allows us to climb into some of the rooms and so we can feel how perfectly the walls are built to provide cool during the heat, warmth during the cold, security and privacy. I lost track of the signs at one point and the pueblo is large enough that I have a moment of panic that I’ve gotten lost. I follow footsteps in the sandy soil and quickly regain the trail, but there was that moment.

I am filled with admiration for these ancient peoples. They were deeply spiritual – the buildings in this canyon are devoted to providing respite for long spiritual journeys and quests, they are engineers and architects, expert stone masons, masters of using the materials at hand to create and to survive, they were some of the best dry land farmers to inhabit the southwest and they were artists as well.

When you look carefully at the high edges of the plateaus above, you can periodically see subtle horizontal cuts in the rock. The width, height, and depth are identical as they descend into the canyon. Barely discernible, but in key locations. These are the places that they built for the roads that intersect into Chaco – to make the descent into the canyon easier. The Chacoans built 6,000 miles of road that led to and connected with other pueblos and settlements so that this magnificent place could be reached by all of the people they were related to. They even let the Navajo visit.

Based on our chats with and tours with the Puebloans, the Navajo are outlanders. More than one tribal representative has explained to us that the Navajo Apaches don’t even have the same origins as Puebloans. Puebloans sprang out of the underworld (and not our Christian, bad underworld). The Navajo are the outlanders who came over the land bridge from Asia. Apparently crossing the land bridge was not the best way to get to these lands and achieve status. We’ve also spent time on the Navajo reservation and in Canyon de Chelly with guides – their stories are quite different.

I am so grateful that we were able to get into Chaco and we are inspired to leave via the south road – in spite of multiple ranger warnings. What is life if you don’t take the road less travelled now and again? It is a rough road, some slipping and sliding but we are grateful that there are no significant vertical drops and the rains have stopped so the lakes in the road have dried up. It took us about 90 minutes to travel 23 miles of unpaved road. Photos, drinking in the landscape, ruts and washboard – they require time…

We decide to do an odd backward circle and head for El Morro National Monument. This is the site of a year round watering hole that was used by the native Puebloans, the Spaniards, early settlers and modern travelers before the interstate. All left their marks on the sandstone rocks. Petroglyphs to graffiti – what is noble and what is desecration is the key question at this site. Unfortunately, by the time we get there the gates are locked – this is highly unusual at national monuments, parks and historical sites. But OK. The campsites are primitive and I am frankly in need of a shower. So, looking at the map I spy a commercial camping site nearby that has showers. Call them, sites available, we head east. Getting there, the place is unique from the outside. When I get into the office/café the smell of dope is prevalent. Not just from current times, the log walls are permeated. The guy working the desk tells us to find a spot that speaks to us and we set out to peruse the 20 spots. Most are taken by pretty permanently planted folks. It is an interesting population with Jesus being a leading theme. The bathrooms are clean if a bit old and forlorn. We are in, but we take a ride to get cell service so we can text Sterling our exact known last whereabouts – if any tracking would need to be done. This is my Goon Squad moment – lost souls, drifting, found, landed in the most out of the way places. Our campsite allows a view of the most beautiful white sandstone bluff rising majestically above the pinon and cedar. You just never know where the road is going.


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