There is something about the West that specially inspires wandering and wanderlust. Maybe it’s the overwhelming presence of the horizon–in much of the rest of the country it’s obscured by a forested flatness, but out West it’s hard to miss, and awakes a deep temptation to go see what lies beyond that sharp curve of Earth and sky. Or maybe it’s the mountains, that seem to carve the land out into separate hidden worlds.
In such a landscape, one very slowly begins to learn a truth about geography–that things like scenery, geology, spatial coordinates, or even directions have almost nothing to do with places at all. A place becomes a place not when your body is physically there, or you know how to get to it, but when it becomes alive–when it speaks. Sometimes it can speak from a very great distance, and without your having visited for years.
I remember my first trip to Chaco Canyon not for its famed Anasazi ruins, but because of where I was in life at the time. We’d just moved from Idaho, and I was incredibly stressed out about leaving; to me, our old home near the Boise River had been an idyll that could never be surpassed (though looking back now, it seems like it had no shortage of blemishes).
I found out my new school had the tradition of starting every year with a huge field/camping trip–something I’d never heard of before. The place this time would be Chaco Canyon, which I’d also never heard of. At the appointed hour, we piled into the buses and were off.
I still remember the surprise of the arrival: that first sight of the canyon’s walls rising up around us as the bus crawled along the rippled dirt road, then suddenly a view of a wide barren plain, punctuated with a huge mesa standing like a sentinel just off-center. I still remember vividly my uncanny feeling in that moment of having arrived on a new planet, a scene from some mythic cosmology I couldn’t name.
For all the stress of the move and fears about fitting in with the new class, that short visit stands out in my mind as a healing. We stepped out of the bus and soon were like kids, clambering over rocks and exploring every crack and cave, explorers on this new globe. We sat on the edges of cliffs and talked for hours, mostly about nothing, content just to be growing together, if only for a couple of days, far from the judgments of oncoming adulthood.
But there was also another aspect. I remember how each of my classmates, set against the rose-tinted rocks and the remains of a great civilization, became wrapped in a mysterious singularity of their own, bursting forth in the colors of his or her own personality for a short time, like the desert’s own wildflowers. Something about the little canyon and its centuries-old dwellings had dropped us into the deepest stream of human life, its glories and its falls, fortune and leave-taking. It set the most trivial things into an epic context, made us better. (Anyway, it felt that way to me.)
Most of my classmates have since gone very separate ways, but Chaco continues to speak to me from time to time. I tend to feel the call to return when there is a major life change on the horizon, or when gripped by some struggle that needs perspective and solace. So I hop in the car and 4 hours later, reaching the end of that same washboard road, I see the canyon open up and the Earth transform itself into that strange other planet, just as it did on that first visit.
I felt that call again very recently, after an incredibly frustrating three years in my life, where nothing seemed to work or lead anywhere, appeared at last to be giving way to some kind of definite future. Almost on cue, Chaco began nagging at the edge of my thoughts, until I made myself set aside a day and a night for the journey.
Instead of the usual minimum-mileage-maximum-speed highway route, I decided to pick a roundabout route, sticking to smaller roads–the “blue highways“. The distances and speeds of the road easily lend the world an artificial smallness, constantly and unthinkingly detaching us from it. In meandering and dawdling, I hoped to limit this retreat into what Jung once characterized as “another reality of speeds and explosive accelerations”.
The road was almost empty, and climbed and swerved through pristine canyons and forests, places where humanity seemed an exotic visitor, and the road more guide than master. The village of C––, nearly a ghost town, beneath vast sandstone cliffs, stands out to me. The remnants of restaurants and gas stations stood rotting and exposed by the highway, so that one wondered how the few remaining people ate or drove. The houses and trailers were makeshift and rusting, scattered for miles across the hilly landscape.
What kept this hundred or so people here, I wondered. Was there some deep camaraderie and belonging among the townsfolk that the ragged appearances did not let on, and which kept them there all their lives more or less contentedly? Did they all know each others’ names, gather on Fridays and laugh over simple pleasures and honest work? Was it that grinding poverty made it hopeless to ever leave, or was it nostalgia, a simple resolution not to abandon one’s roots?
I put these thoughts aside and hurried on through. Everything is young once, I thought–towns included.
I made it to Chaco hours later. The dirt road was worse than I’d remembered, less due to the bumps than to the driveways leading off to drilling pads and waste ponds dotted the road for last few miles up to the park boundary. Yes, our newest technological salvation racket, fracking, had arrived.
It’s hard to think a civilization with any remaining grasp of the sacred could engage in such a process, in such a place. But perhaps our no-holds-barred urge to sustain the high-energy fossil-fueled modern lifestyle of the past 80 years is the closest thing to a sacred goal we can still understand–at all costs, whatever it takes, for God’s sake, keep the lights, cars and A/C going.
(There was a weird irony too in passing a frenzy of fossil extraction on my way to an archaeological site. We can’t stop churning up the past–even if to burn it on the altar of the future.)
The canyon was exactly as I remembered: the mesa standing watch, the low-hunkering cliffsides ebbing into the distance, the little dry wash in the center. The same otherworldliness suggesting a stepping-off point into some other reality. The sun low in the sky, hurling wild colors, deep shadows crouching against the rocks: just over two hours left.
No one knows why the Chacoans started building here in the 800s, but it’s thought that even then, they recognized the canyon as a sacred place. Whatever first drew them to this impractical spot–some say it was trade in turquoise–they thrived for centuries, building dozens of great houses and a network of roads connecting hundreds of outlying settlements.
1200 years later, with basically no personal connection to those pioneers, I can still feel that there is something different here. Maybe the choice of a sacred place is not really a choice. Something in the shape of land, the color of rocks, that can reach out not just across the memory of one person, but across whole peoples and ages.
Maybe the world is really just an incubator for such places, hatching them anew as others fade away.
I chose the Pueblo Alta trail, the same one we followed on my first visit. It passes Kin Kletso, a Chacoan house of 55 rooms. As I stood and peered through one of Kletso’s doorways, I began to feel something that, for all its obviousness, had never fully hit me in my other visits, which was: this was a place where people had lived. Children and elders, passing through this very door, giving it its own augustness through the symbiosis of dweller and dwelling. Suddenly there was depth, a presence, not just rock and mud bricks.
I thought of Buber’s writings about the “I-It” and the “I-Thou” relationships. I felt sure Kin Kletso had just become a Thou.
The trail is exciting because it leads straight up the cliff face, through a rubble-filled crevice that you can climb like a staircase. You emerge into yet another world, one of wide, water-carved horizontal grooves of rock, just above the cliff edge. You follow the edge for a ways, turn north and head up and away, climbing gently over more rocky slopes, till the canyon floor seems remote and small and epic plains appear, as far as the eye can see, beyond the opposite rim.
The sky is inky blue, the wind is lively, and at the far horizon appears a speck of mountains, maybe Mt. Taylor. From forested ranges like these, over 60 miles away, the Chacoans carried enough timber on foot to give birth to a city.
On my way up this time, the land was covered in swarms of tiny golden flowers, waving in the wind, just inches above the cracked surface, like tiny gestures of thanks raised to the sky. As I looked out over the mesas I, too, felt a thankfulness at having been able to make it back, as if seeing an old friend.
Then New Alta came to view, on the threshold where the canyon’s rocks give way to the juniper-dotted steppes that run north into Colorado. New Alta made a dark sawtoothed shape against the sky, more modest than the houses down below, compact in its mystery. Reaching it, I walked among the rubble, the views now extending in all directions. I laid a hand on one of the walls and felt the “Thou” again–a kind of awe that these remains could stand for so long here, in a middle of nowhere that was once a center of everywhere.
Even in such isolation, at Chaco man-as-maker was as irrepressible in building and in dreaming as anywhere else. Whoever these people were, whatever their intentions, they lived for centuries with their god (gods?) in the midst of this awesome space; they built their world, they slept, they worked, they sweated and bled, they followed their customs and rhythms, and for a while it was enough. The breadth of that achievement is still attested by these enduring structures.
Just as no one really knows why the Chacoans set up shop here, no one is quite sure why they left. The best theory is that it was climate change–during the few centuries of its habitation, the canyon seems to have been far rainier and fertile than we now know it. The last big structures, like New Alta, were erected around the mid-1100s, as the first of many epic droughts set in. These likely taxed the civilization to the breaking point, causing its progressive abandonment.
My time was already up: soon the park gates would close. See you, I thought to New Alta, again thankful at having been able to return. Descending the canyon, thoughts of the Chacoans’ last days pursued me. What was that departure was like for the last inhabitants–was it bitter, abrupt, catastrophic? A drawn-out heartbreak? Or was it more like what I had seen in C––, a peaceful relinquishing and a moving-on, a slow turning towards greener lands and new adventures while a few lingered on in their memories?
On the drive back, as darkness fell, I saw the sky was moonless and the stars were hidden. On the radio I heard:
“You are the star tonight.
You shine electric out of sight.
Your light eclipsed the moon tonight.”
I decided not to make the whole journey back in the dark, but to sleep in the car and go on in the morning. For a bit of seclusion I found a winding road–another blue highway–that climbed into the heart of the Jemez Mountains, and soon there was supreme blackness. Not another soul.
The appeal of the forest is a strange thing, especially in how it changes at night–for then what one likes best is the edge of it, not its heart. There were plenty of places to park, little dirt roads leading off into the woods, but the trees were always too close; in the silence and night their congregation became primally eerie, like a maze of quietly leering figures, somehow a threat. I realized that here, too, I was seeing the trees as Thous (I also realized that Buber neglected to discuss was how a Thou can be unsettling, even menacing).
At last I found an empty campsite in a small clearing, and settled into the sleeping bag in the back of the car. Cocooned in solitude, a gentle pattering of raindrops on the roof soon lulled me to sleep.
With the morning sun, the forest that had been so ominous now revealed itself grandly: the orange and black veined trunks of hundred-foot ponderosas crowded round, their sky-high boughs bright with a dusting of fresh snow. A few yards away was a sparkling mountain stream. What had there been to fear?
The drive home held more wonders, and more Thous–simple things, but seemingly able to hold meaning for a whole lifetime. There was a great mountain that hunkered in front of me like a wise giant draped in blankets. A small secluded lake. A small cluster of houses in the woods, remote from everything except each other. I’d like to have such a house myself someday, I thought.
I wonder why I saw and felt so many Thous during this little trip. Is it just what happens when you travel alone and without distraction through places of significance and history, and your mind began searching for any snippet of company in the surroundings? Is it just illusion, or discovery?
The last few years had been somewhat haunted for me, but they’ve also brought realizations and a new fullness–new Thous. Maybe what I like best about places like Chaco is that they all have much to teach about understanding ghosts–how to respect them, and how to set them at peace.
Recently, I accepted a new adventure out East–in the old hometown of my family. I left there when I was only six, but I’m excited to get to know it better. This is another place I thought I had put to sleep, sunken so deep in the past that it would play no more part in my life; now, it is awakened and calling, and I will soon find out what it has to say. It may be that returning to a land where the ghosts of my ancestors are so numerous holds the key to putting the ghosts of recency in their proper place. But I will remember the presence of these Anasazi rocks, these images of remembrance deep in the desert, these strange little journeys into the forest. I think that one day they, too, will come calling again.