This is a tale of two ancient cities. One was a joyous experience for me. One was not. I came out of Utah into Colorado and headed to Mesa Verde. Mesa Verde is actually the newer of the two ancient cities I visited. It became a city after the slow collapse of the culture at Chaco Canyon. Mesa Verde itself isn’t even a mesa, which is defined as a completely flat bluff top. The plateau here is tipped at about a 7 degree angle toward the South, which gives the mesa 20 more growing days than the surrounding lower plains. I was expecting lush green — true to the name Mesa Verde — but apparently, the elevated plane is also more prone to lightning strikes. Since the park was founded, more than 75% of the land has burned. So driving through the National Park, one is met, not with lush greenery, but with various stages of recovery from severe wildfires. The campground was situated far into the interior of the park, so by the time I reached it, I’d driven through miles of skeletal trees. As I stopped at various viewpoints to look at the cliff dwellings, the sun was setting and clouds were threatening. That lent the cliff dwellings a feeling of isolation and hunkering down. The stories I’d read at the museum, about how Mesa Verdean culture descended into cannibalism — either from within or from enemies that besieged it — made the drive that much eerier.
There was an oppressive feeling in the air. At night, in the isolated campground, I slept badly and had an odd sense of dread. I was due to join a ranger led hike at 8 in the morning, but I was packed up by seven and on my way out of there.
Chaco Culture National Historical Park was a completely different experience. Driving into the canyon, it becomes clear that a great city didn’t arise here by accident. A moonlight ranger/historian walk I took confirmed it. The canyon itself is uniquely formed so that the lunar and solar year are marked by notches in the mouth of the canyon. Therefore, the canyon itself works as a visual calendar of both the lunar and solar cycles. Halfway through the canyon are two naturally formed amphitheaters with perfect acoustics facing each other. The ancients marked these with carved holes in the wall to guide us to the sweet spot. As the ranger led our group to shout in unison, we heard how that shout echoed and reverberated from wall to wall. Unlike Mesa Verde, the grand cities and ceremonial centers of Chaco Canyon seemed open and welcoming.
As the museum described it, the ancient Chaco Canyon was not so much a city like New York City, but more a cultural and religious center such as the Vatican. Relatively few people actually lived in it — maybe a few thousand — but many thousands regularly traveled to it as a place of worship and trade. And unlike a single culture, Chaco Canyon appears to have been multicultural. At least as signified by the many tribes — Zuni, Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Ute — who still observe some of the art and culture of the Chacoan culture. Skeletons of Macaws and Central American animals attest to the wide ranging trade that ended at Chaco Canyon. From Mexico and Belize to the Pacific, evidence of wide ranging trading is clear. The majority of the buildings are not dwellings but are granaries, storage areas and ceremonial sites. The buildings, unlike the fortress-like buildings of Mesa Verde, are in the open and seem oriented to be welcoming and to echo the beauty of the canyon. No one is sure why Chaco Canyon was abandoned, but it seems to have been deliberate. There is much charring of the former roofs which aligns with Native beliefs that sacred spaces need to be burned to release the prayers. The continuity of culture, art and ceremony, indicates that the Chacoans simply dispersed to areas throughout the Southwest carrying the Chacoan culture with them.
My campground was not far from Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the ceremonial sites. In fact, a smaller building complex was just about a hundred yards from my campsite. But unlike Mesa Verde, I didn’t feel an oppressive air. Instead, the area felt spiritual and calming. During the night, coyotes howled, not sadly but musically. As I left early the next morning, suddenly a coyote burst out of the sagebrush and loped alongside Buffalo Soldier for about a hundred yards until he scooted back into the mesquite. Just a little bit of New Mexico magic.