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Taking a solstice trek back in time

David Colburn
Posted 6/23/21

Another summer solstice has come and gone without checking off one of the items that’s been on my bucket list for years now – partaking of the celestial event in the grand and mysterious …

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Taking a solstice trek back in time

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Another summer solstice has come and gone without checking off one of the items that’s been on my bucket list for years now – partaking of the celestial event in the grand and mysterious landscape of the ancestral Puebloan ruins of Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.
If “ancestral Puebloan” is an unfamiliar phrase, perhaps the word “Anasazi” may ring a bell. While first used by archaeologists and popularized in modern days by the supposed mystery of their apparently sudden disappearance around 1200 A.D., Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning “enemy ancestors” and has never been used by the Indigenous people of current-day pueblos to describe their Chacoan ancestors. Ancestral Puebloan has become the accepted and appropriate term.
In 2005, I was in between professional gigs and living for a while back in my little Kansas hometown. One hot summer afternoon I hopped in my car, popped in my R. Carlos Nakai “Canyon Trilogy” CD of Navajo (Diné) flute music, and drove out of town headed west. I’d intended to be home by supper time.
Mesa Verde National Park had long been on the list of places I wanted to visit, and as I listened to Nakai’s haunting melodies my thoughts naturally drifted to the Southwest and the Four Corners region. When I reached the town 25 miles down the road where I had thought I’d turn back toward home, I didn’t. I just kept driving on toward the setting sun and into the night. Thirteen hours and more than 700 miles later, driving nonstop, I was in southeast Colorado at the entry to Mesa Verde.
I spent two fascinating and mildly disturbing days there. Seeing and learning about the impressive ancient architecture and culture was fascinating, but the tourist-driven, museum-like air to the whole experience was unsettling, unnatural.
It was in the park’s gift shop that I came across a book about Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northern New Mexico. Situated primarily along a broad canyon in the San Juan tablelands of northwest New Mexico, it looked to be a rather different experience just a few hours away, and I had a couple more days to spend on the road if I wanted to.
It was, indeed, an altogether different experience.
Chaco Canyon is 20 miles off the main highway, the last 13 miles of the drive on rugged dirt and gravel roads. A signature geographical feature, the monolithic Fajada Butte, is visible for miles before reaching the park, adding a sense of anticipation to the gradual descent into the canyon.
A nine-mile loop road provides easy access to five of the intricately constructed stone great houses of “downtown Chaco,” and short and moderate hikes lead to several more. Stunning half-moon-shaped Pueblo Bonito was the largest human-built structure in North America until the late 1800s, a four-story, 600-plus-room marvel constructed of small flat rocks and structural timbers carried to the canyon from the nearest sources of trees 40 to 50 miles away. It’s estimated more than 240,000 trees were used in building the great houses of Chaco.
Chaco Canyon was the center of a complex cultural system that stretched throughout the Southwest. Archaeologists have discovered a 180-mile network of excavated roads 15 to 30-feet wide, thought to be as much for religious symbolism as for transportation. Pueblo Bonito functioned as a trading and spiritual center, as well as an storage facility for food. Turquoise and skeletons of scarlet macaws found there provide evidence that the Chacoan trading network spanned nearly a thousand miles. An intricate irrigation system collected and stored rain water from the surrounding mesas and distributed it to the canyon floor for agriculture.
And while still the subject of debate in some circles, there’s strong evidence to support the theory that the Chacoans were attuned to the stars and the calendar of nature, including winter and summer solstice.
The “Sun Dagger” is a rock and petroglyph calendar far up the side of Fajada Butte, with rocks positioned in such a way that a slim sliver of light falls on specific spots of the petroglyph behind them on the winter and summer solstice. At Casa Rinconada, a great kiva 60 feet wide and 15 feet deep, a ray of sunshine streaming through its one window illuminates a niche on the opposite wall on the morning of the summer solstice, and no other.
While I’ve been back to Chaco several times and have explored many of the other associated ancestral Puebloan sites throughout the region, I haven’t yet timed my trips to scratch that item off my bucket list of being at Casa Rinconada to witness the wisdom of the ancestors play out in light on the kiva wall. Given my own sense of spiritual connectedness to the Southwest, it is surely an experience I would someday like to have.
My initial visit to Chaco Canyon left my head spinning as to why we studied the great Mayan and Incan civilizations in school but never learned about the rich and complex Chacoan civilization right at home that began in the mid-800s and lasted for more than three centuries. It’s really not surprising at all, I guess, given that throughout our history as a nation we have valued Indigenous civilizations mostly for what we could take from them and have at times actively sought to eradicate their history, culture, and identities.
So, the summer solstice is always a time for me to revisit Chaco, if only in my mind, but it’s been in my thoughts recently for another reason as well.
It is generally accepted that the sudden decline of Chacoan culture and the “disappearance” of its people was due to a prolonged drought that began in the late 1100s that made continued life in the arid canyon untenable. Recent news has been filled with stories and images of the devastating and prolonged drought in the western U.S., with key reservoirs dropping to historic lows. If recent years indeed represent a trend and the influence of climate change, there soon won’t be enough water to go around, and we could well see another drought-driven migration that dwarfs the numbers from 900 years ago.

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