Tracy S. Morris

Quirky Mysteries, Screwball Fantasy and Sassy History

In which we visited ruins and had the bejubus scared out of us.

Written By: Tracy - Jun• 26•09

This is more of the excerpt from my trip diary for the great summer vacation of 09.

6-17-09 (Wednesday)

After a relatively early rise, and a 6-hour drive from Utah across to northwestern New Mexico, we arrived at Chaco Canyon.  The plan was to camp in the park, but they apparently discovered a pit house while digging some lines for the sewer.  Consequently the campground is closed.  Fortunately (I think) some of the local tribal elders have opened up a hillside for guests to camp on.  The site is called cactus hill.  It’s sandy and windy, but it has privies.  The alternative is a working cattle ranch where campers have to dig their own latrines.  There was a troupe of girl scouts packing to go when we got there.  They looked haggard. 

We then went to explore the biggest and best preserved of the ruins, a spot called pueblo bonito.

For some background about Chaco.  It’s a designated world heritage site.  Which means that it’s on a list with places like Vesuvius and the pyramids in Egypt.  And on another side note, I didn’t realize it until I looked it up, but I’ve been to eight of the twenty of these places that are listed in the US.

They think Chaco canyon was a cultural center where trade and religious practices took place rather than a city where people lived. 

Archaeologists think that T-Shaped doorways like this one had a ceremonial purpose.  All the doorways were very short.  The chacoans must not have been a very tall people.

The centers were built steadily over about a thousand years.  Roads radiating from chaco go all over the southwest, and there are artifacts and architectural structures that indicate that there was trade in goods and ideas with the cultures of central America and with the cliff dwellers at Mesa Verde.

There is also evidence that the chacoan people were astronomers.  A few day’s time after our trip would be the summer solstice. There are markers all over the canyon that would indicate the the day. 

During the summer solstice, light would enter this corner window and touch a certain point on the opposite wall.

Then for some reason , the site was abandoned.  People just walled up the doors and left.  The Navajo moved into the area, and the chacoan cultures dispersed into what are now the puebloan cultures. 

With all this in mind, we got our camp set up, and then headed over to Pueblo Bonito, the largest and most well-preserved of the structures.

Doors in Chaco line up to let air circulate more efficiently. 
Unlike Mesa Verde, the folks at Chaco will let you crawl through the ruins.  Part of this is because you have to drive over 21 miles of washboard dirt road to get there.  So it’s not as well visited.  One of the rangers told me that if the local Navajo permitted a paved road to extend to Chaco, then the park service would have to require guided tours of the site. 

During our tour, we saw a lot of foreign visitors.  Chaco, and most of the sites in the southwest seem more visted by foreign travelers than by Americans.  Our accents drew quite a bit of attention.  One man from Salt Lake looked at our license plate and asked if we were really from Arkansas.  And then he wondered how a bunch of Arkies heard about Chaco.

Although the pueblo was interesting, I wanted to visit in earlier in the day when the light was better so that I could take better photographs.  So we resolved to go back to our camp and return in the morning.

Camp was windy on the hill.  And it carried enough grit to make us feel like we were camping in a sandblaster, so we went to bed early.

6-18-09 (Thursday)

After a cold windy night, we woke up to find a friendly neighbor going through our cooler to see what we cooked with.  (They’re really prepared!  See, they do cook with butter!)  It wasn’t the best way to wake up in the morning.  Fortunately, whoever it was seemed to realize that we were awake, and  left before we had to confront them.  Between that and the sand, we decided not to stay another night.

With that unpleasantness out of the way. We dressed and headed back to Chaco.  In addition to Pueblo Bonito, we saw Chetro Ketl, Pueblo Arryo, Una Vida and Casa Rinconada.   The light was much better at this time of morning, and I finally got the photos that I wanted.  Which made me happy.   Then we walked along the canyon wall, looking at the petroglyps. 

Returning to Pueblo Bonito, I knew exactly the angles and shots that I wanted to take, so I went the back way into the complex.  Which ended up with me wandering right into a National Geographic film crew.  The group was filming for a documentary that will air in France and Germany sometime in October.  My guess is that they were taking advantage of the solstice to film the famous dagger of sunlight piercing the petroglyph sun on the solstice.

The walking tours were very informative, if a little repetitive.  You can only hear that the base of the walls is thicker than the top portion so many times.  

The Great Kiva at Casa Rinconada. 

Once we finished exploring, we headed back to pack up the tent — only to find that there wasn’t much to pack up.  During the day, the wind pushed the tent over, splintered one graphite pole and snapped a metal brad in half on the other.  We packed it up, and headed for a KOA.  Once there, the dumpster became our tent’s new home.  

This is a very common design throughout chaco.


The veranda in the photo on the left is similar to a style seen in latin american cultures.  The kiva inside the rooms with the concentric circles on the right is a style of building found in Mesa Verde.  Both put together give some indication of how extensive trade and freeflowing ideas were at Chaco. 

Next Monday I’ll post about our last adventure: a night at the Big Texan Steak house.   


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  1. Cool. Thanks for posting the pics! I’ve heard about Chaco canyon. I’d like to go, but need a bit more money to go.

    Hmmm most of the ‘mericans I know know about Chaco. (If you’re a Stargate fan it’s a great place to use for finding Tok’ra in a jar. Or Gou’ald in a jar. lol!)

    Or maybe it’s more foreign tourists go because it’s this great save up for once in a lifetime trip for them (Airfare to US can’t be cheap, plus with traveling to New Mexico and that remote area to get to the ruins.) Whereas for most Americans, it’s in our own backyard, so to speak, so we can visit it anytime.

    Like how my mom’s relatives in Corpus Christi never go to Mustang Island or Port Aransas, or the beach very often. It was there yesterday, and it will be there tomorrow.

    Am I making sense?

    I’ve seen pics of those short door ways and was wondering if might not have been that the Chaco were short, but that they made the doorways short due to beliefs.

    It’s just I was remember my art history teacher. She could actually speak Mayan, had been down to the Yucatan several times, and told us that there was a belief that the steps on the temples were so narrow because they went up the steps sideways. Sort of ritualistically. Instead of they were narrow because everyone had short feet.

    Of course, if there wasn’t much meat and the Chacoans lived off beans, squash and corn, then they wouldn’t have had much protein and so could have been pretty short.

    I know why the Doctor likes to laugh at archeologists. Unless we were there, or we have writing to read from the period, we really can’t know why.

    Anyway, thanks for posting the pics! I’ve thought about going during winter.

    Hey, I wonder if Ken Burns did a piece on the Chaco ruins in his parks series?

    • Tracy says:

      I dont’t know about ken burns. I’ve seen chaco on lots of mysteries of the unexplained type shows and mocumentaries. One of the rangers said that the chacoans were very short statured. I think it was because of their diet.

  2. When you say “friendly neighbor” do you mean animal or human?

    Animal would be scary yet understandable. Human, though, would be much worse.

    • Tracy says:

      By friendly neighbor, I mean the camper in the next tent.

      • Ack! WTH? What is with people who didn’t learn not to touch things that don’t belong to them??

        • Tracy says:

          I have no idea. We met the man earlier in the day when we were at Casa Bonita (and that is also the name of a mexican restaraunt in Oklahoma City, which seems strange to me), and he was insistent that we go and see Aztec Ruins national park, where they reconstructed one of the great kivas so that you could go into it. He absolutely would not let us leave the conversation until we agreed to go.

          I’m thinking he is one of those folks who reach adulthood without developing certain social graces. When my sister heard him going through our stuff, she made lots of “I’m waking up and thrashing around in my bed due to your noise” sounds. He obviously knew he was doing something wrong, because he put the coolers back the way he found them and left quickly.

  3. ruby_jelly says:

    Thank you for posting these pics – I always get an excited buzz looking and hearing about other places. Thank you.

  4. shanna9064 says:

    You’ve got some gorgeous pictures (in both this and your other post), and I’ve always been fascinated by ruins. It’s quite possible I was an archeologist in a past life because the thought of going on an archeological dig would be my idea of a fun vacation (if I ever had the training to do so).

    It just amazes me how much history you can see and feel just standing in sites so old, imagining it whole and fully functional, bustling with older and ancient cultures.

    Your pictures reminded me of a book I read quite a while ago, but if you’re into the older Indian cultures and their mythology a good read is Thunderhead by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child. I don’t know how accurate the mythology actually is, or if it’s all fictional, but it’s still an excellent book if you’re in the mood for a bit of a supernatural mystery.

    Glad to hear you enjoyed yourself, and hope you indulged in lots of sunblock. It looks like it was needed where you were. 🙂

    • Tracy says:

      When I was still in high school, I got the chance to participate in a summer archeology dig. We were excavating a former caddo villiage in southern arkansas, so It was pretty facinating. While we were at Chetro Ketl, there was a woman at the great kiva who had archeological training and was explaining to some friends how a dig would go.

      I decided not to go into anthropology for the same reason that my husband decided not to go into astronomy. The work is interesting, but you have to deal with the elements and an inconvenient work schedule as a byproduct.

      We spent quite a bit of time hiking around the park here, so we continued to use our camelbacks and our hiking clothes. We came prepared for the weather.

      When I go anywhere, I try to pay quite a bit of attention to everything around me, just in case I want to use it for a future story.

  5. whidbeydave says:

    I’m visiting Chaco soon

    I’m going to be at Chaco next Fri. and Sat. visiting from Wash. state. I’ve left messages for the Cactus Hill people to see about stay at their place. Sounds like I should expect an adventure.

    Any suggestions for my stay there?

    Best, David

    • Tracy says:

      Re: I’m visiting Chaco soon

      If you plan on spending much time outside at Cactus Hill, then Bring something to block the wind while you’re there. The folks who maintain the place have their own big gathering place built to block wind, but unless you want to hang out under it, it won’t be of much help.

      Our tent was older, so the graphite poles were a little more brittle and they didn’t stand up to the wind. You probably want to have tent stakes, and make sure your tent is built for the wind.

      It’s primitive camping, so you have to pack in any comforts. Although they do have portable privies and TP. We always take a collapseable picnic table, grill and camp stove with us. Also there are a few wild animals(and tourists), so don’t leave food out.

      If you don’t hear from the folks at Cactus hill, don’t worry too much. We hadn’t realized that the park campsite was closed, and we just showed up at their door. They were pretty accomodating.

      • whidbeydave says:

        Re: I’m visiting Chaco soon

        Thanks Tracy. I’m coming from Seattle, so I’ll be camping bare-bones, with a tent and food. How will I know when I’ve gotten to Cactus Hill place? (without going in to Chaco to get directions)

        best, david

        • Tracy says:

          Re: I’m visiting Chaco soon

          You will pass it on the left as you drive in to Chaco from US 550. They have a hand-lettered sign that is difficult to miss.