Touching History by Lazette Gifford

Published on 26 August 2003 in Discovery (Please wait)

If I look long enough at the picture, I can still remember the heat of June in New Mexico and catch the ghost scent of greasewood and sage brush in the air. The feel of ancient carved stone walls beneath my fingers…

I can remember the tingling along every nerve as we came around the curve and into the canyon. A hawk had stood on the cliff side rocks watching, like some ancient sentinel waiting for the enemy to reappear. He called out, but let us through; safe invaders in this hidden ravine, lost in the desert. He had no one left to protect. They had left long ago, the nameless inhabitants of this land.

The bright morning sunlight baked moisture from the ground and stunted plants, as well as from the few people who wandered through the Chaco Canyon Cultural Site. Lizards, indolent as they stretched out on warm rocks, watched as people encroached upon their territory. They didn’t appear to be too worried. Nothing moved very far or very fast.

A day before people had gathered here to celebrate the Summer Solstice and the changing of seasons. Somewhere on Fajada Butte the solstice marker had caught the first rays of the day — not quite the same location as in ancient days, but still, I had heard, impressive. Damage to the fragile site caused the carved symbol to shift a little, and now the officials keep it closed to outsiders, trying to preserve that bit of ancient history. No matter. I would not have time to see everything else here.

There are few places in the United States where a person can move so quietly through places of history. This site is not ancient by most European standards, but the buildings had been abandoned long before Cortez destroyed the Aztecs, and before Pizzaro ever heard of the Incas. The Spanish had been settled a long time in this area, living mostly in Santa Fe — the oldest capital in the United States — before someone stumbled into the ruins. In fact, the Spanish never found Chaco or even Mesa Verde. Those finds came with the Anglo incursions in the area… and chance.

Looking at the picture again, I remember the feeling of being there in the lost canyon of the people we call the Anasazi. I felt as though I had stumbled upon the narrow band of dusty land between red stone cliffs, and sprinkled with places holding lovely, alien names — the well known Pueblo Bonito, but also Chetro Ketl, Casa Rinconada, Una Vida and more. Carved stone staircases lead up red canyon walls to the plateau and more ruins.

I wanted to see them all. I knew that I wouldn’t — this was my second trip and there is not enough time in the day to really visit all of Chaco Canyon. Besides, the heat can wear a person down too quickly. But even before we moved past Una Vida, we found ourselves blessed with clouds and the distant sound of thunder. The whisper of a cool breeze ran through the ruins, kicking up tiny dust devils, like fairy ghosts. For a moment the place seems…not dead and deserted, despite the scattering of fallen walls and struggling weeds. For a little while I could feel life in the cool brush of moving air against my face, and the scent of green things, growing. Rabbits moved out on the path, standing up on back legs, as though watching the clouds with hope.

Life could never have been easy in this place. Rain might have been more plentiful in certain years, but over all it has always been a desert land. They had carted pine trunks from forests miles away to use as vigas — part of their roofing system. They had imported Macaws from Mexico. For pets? For religious reasons? No one knows. These were an industrious people, though. For the several hundred years they lived here, they built fine walls of carved stone blocks and grew food in carefully tended plots of land, watered by summer storms and irrigation ditches dug into the hard ground. They traveled paths to other areas — Aztec, Salmon, Mesa Verde. They can still be seen from the air. This could have been Sumer or Akkad…

Why these people had settled here, and why they left again, will never be truly answered. But they left behind a place of wild beauty, filled with the call of hawks, the scrambling of lizards, and the whisper of the wind.

And maybe, in the end, that had been enough to draw them here, so far from the wooded mountains and the riverside settlements. Perhaps, at first, they came for the same reason I did — to see a place that was not like anywhere they had been before.

I stood at the ruins of Hungo Pavi and stared across at Fajada Butte — this place, this picture — and imagined life here in an age when carefully tended dams held back the infrequent rain water that rushed in waterfalls over the canyon walls in the summer storms. Would we have such a storm today? It didn’t seem likely since the clouds, though dark and threatening, stayed in the distance. But the breeze felt cool still, as it would have over 1000 years ago, when someone else stood by these walls, newly built, and looked toward the sacred butte… the day after the summer solstice and whatever ceremonies and festivals they’d held.

I thought a person could be content in this place. I could live here, in this quiet, with only the distant sound of thunder and hawks calling in the sky.

But then the breeze died and the clouds parted. The sun blazed in a too bright sky, and I hurried back to the air conditioned car…

Lazette Gifford (SSC, United States)

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