Here is more celebrating with Vicki, her birthday and the solstice. This is such a treat!!
62 Orbits of the Sun
Winter Solstice at Chaco Canyon
Part Two, Spiral Time
The morning of solstice was overcast, only one slender streak of turquoise glimmering off to the northwest. The temperature was 9 degrees fahrenheit and it was pretty obvious we weren’t going to see the sun. And yet 15 people showed up to meet the ranger at the southeast corner of Pueblo Bonito at 7:00 AM. Five of them worked for the Park Service, two were visiting astronomers, two had driven all the way down from Bloomfield an hour and a half away over dirt roads with the threat of snow imminent. The rest of us had camped. We were a mixed tribe standing out there, shivering, and I felt a tremendous bond with these strangers. We had come to mark a moment that humans have celebrated for so many generations that the echoes of it form an unbroken arc connecting us past to present. In our culture it’s not usually much more than a blip in the stream of information, if it’s noticed at all. But here were 15 people who wanted this grounding, this connection with our place in the universe and with the history of our kind enough to make the journey out here. Chaco Canyon in winter is not an easy place to be.
The ranger’s talk, adhering to Park Service constraints, was full of theories and their corresponding counter theories. That’s how things are with Chaco. So much is known, so many facts, and the pieces of it keep coming together in new ways, rounding out an understanding of what happened there. But in the end no one knows for sure the why of any of it. There’s an essential mystery about this place.
We know now, for instance, that the great houses of Chaco were not built as dwelling places. Of the 700 rooms in Pueblo Bonito, only about 50 have firepits and show evidence of being lived in. The great houses were public buildings, built for ceremonial purposes, or for governance, or for trading and storage of goods. Or for –fill in the blank. It’s the “built for” part where theories begin to collide like billiard balls. For 300 years, from about 850 AD through the mid-1100’s, Chaco was the center of a cultural system that drew people from all over the southwest. And why? For me one of the biggest questions is why here?
The canyon is shallow and the land is barren. There’s no permanent water source. The climate at the time of Chaco’s eminence was pretty much exactly as it is today, dry periods alternating with severe dry periods. There may have been seeps along the base of the canyon walls that are not there today, but they would never have been an abundant source of water. And yet there’s ample evidence that for 300 years thousands of people converged on Chaco, at least periodically. And there’s the staggering evidence of the buildings themselves, millions of hours of labor required to construct them. Plus roads, 30 feet wide and arrow straight, leading out from Chaco. Roads that didn’t deviate when their line intersected an obstacle, a mesa or a cliff, but went straight up and over, even when that meant carving stairways into vertical walls of stone.
On my first trip to the southwest in the early 90’s I intended to explore all the famous places—Santa Fe, Taos, White Sands, and so on. I stopped at Canyon de Chelly for a night and stayed four. And then I came to Chaco and stayed until I had to head back home. It was as far as I got. Both places captured my imagination so thoroughly I didn’t want to leave. And yet, in all my southwest wanderings these past 7 years, I had never been back to either place. This year I felt pulled, compelled, really, to return to Chaco to celebrate my 62nd birthday and the winter solstice two days later.
Perhaps it’s because the news these days is so overwhelmingly bleak, the state of the planet and all its systems so precarious, that the symbolism of the longest night, heralding the slow but steady return of the light, seemed so poignantly appealing to me. At least one of Chaco’s key functions was as a sort of giant celestial clock. Sophisticated solar and lunar markers abound throughout the entire Chacoan system. I wanted to be at Pueblo Bonito, the central and grandest of all the great houses, larger even than the Roman coliseum, to witness the moment when a beam of sunlight would pour through an oddly placed corner window and bisect precisely a corner of the room opposite. More than a thousand years ago people stood below that spot on this morning and were reassured that the sun would travel no further south. The light would return. The necessary cycles of the earth were intact. It seems appropriate to me that the most common petroglyph symbol at Chaco is a spiral, life held within larger and always recurring rhythms.
Since the main event, the sunrise, was not going to show itself that morning, our little group lingered awhile asking questions of the ranger and the astronomers. But it began to snow, round little pellets like loose styrofoam, and people began to drift away. I spent the next three hours wandering alone around the ruins of Pueblo Bonito and it’s sister great house Chetro Ketl.
The masonry work here is renowned for its beauty and craftsmanship. It’s a mosaic of small flat stones, each piece quarried and shaped using stone tools. The mortar used to lay them required precious water, as did the plaster which covered the walls inside and out. These buildings rose 4 and 5 stories tall, with walls that are very wide at the bottom and taper upwards. Chetro Ketl is built on a foundation of earth 12 feet above the ground. This huge expanse of a building, and enough earth was moved first to elevate it that high. In the three centuries of active use and construction here, there were frequent remodels, new kivas constructed on top of old ones, rooms built inside the walls of older spaces. This seems to have been a place constantly adapting to new needs and changing uses.
Even today the four corners region is sparsely populated. That would have been even more true in 850 AD. Where did the people come from to build this place, and what drew them here to undertake this enormous enterprise? And when they left, they left behind so much. Rooms filled to the ceiling with pottery jars. Millions of pieces of turquoise, shells, macaw feathers. The more closely one looks at Chaco the more puzzling and mysterious it becomes. No wonder there are so many conflicting theories. We have a collective need to make sense of things.
Around noon the little pellets of snow changed to big flakes that began to quickly blanket the ground, and I returned to the van. I spent the afternoon in my new mouse-free campsite with a view of Fajada Butte, drinking hot tea, writing, and watching the snow swirl down. I felt blissfully cozy and happy beyond all measure.
About 4:30 the snow stopped and the sun dropped down below the clouds, sparkling on the unblemished brilliance of the newly white world. I needed to move after sitting all afternoon, so I laced up my boots, piled on more layers, and went out for a walk. A trail leads from the campground to Wijiji ruins a mile and a half away, and I headed down that, not so much as a destination but simply as a path to walk on.
As I rounded the base of the cliffs and started down Chaco wash, the light turned rosy gold on the sandstone bluffs, the snow crunched underfoot, the wind was at my back urging me forward and I fell under the spell of Chaco. The moon, nearly full, was already high in the sky. It wouldn’t matter if I came back after sunset.
Behind me the great monolith of Fajada Butte was centered in the mouth of the canyon, the sky beyond it like angel light in some renaissance painting. Two cow elk, each with a yearling calf, stopped grazing and watched as I walked by. A Northern harrier, out hunting late, hoping for one more meal before settling in for the long cold night, swooped on a junco but the smaller bird out-maneuvered him and escaped. The sun went down and left the world bathed in afterglow.
At last the ruins appeared up ahead, tucked back against the north wall of the canyon, their jagged walls blending harmoniously with fallen slabs of stone that had stuck upright in the earth. They had actually been in my line of sight for a while before I realized what I was seeing. I walked in the absolute silence around the partially excavated site, imagining what it would have been like down here 1200 years ago. The spirits of the old ones often feel close by at Chaco, the veil between the quick and the dead very thin.
A sign pointed the way to pictographs and I walked down a narrow footpath along the base of the cliffs until the trail ended and I gazed on two red figures facing east, both upright and bearing features both animal and human. They were surrounded by human handprints. There was just enough daylight left in the canyon for the color to be visible. By the time I returned to the ruins, light had morphed into the chiaroscuro of moonlight.
I walked back straight in to the wind but was warmed up enough by then that it wasn’t as miserable as I feared it might be when it was behind me earlier. I found myself thinking about sailing, how easy it is going downwind, flying across the water as if by magic, the wind not a felt thing but merely something that swells the belly of the sails. And how when one heads into that same wind the boat heels over and the wind becomes a force to grapple with, a wildly elemental presence, and you have to find just the right angle to move forward, using its force without being overwhelmed by it. Both experiences are exhilarating in their own way, and both are necessary to the art of sailing.
The moon cast blue light on the snow and as it became brighter I walked in my own moonshadow. All the birds by then had tucked in somewhere and the elk had disappeared and I seemed to be the only moving thing in that landscape. When at last I rounded the corner and could see my van gleaming white across the way, I slowed down, feeling reluctant to go inside and be shut off from this silent glowing beauty.
Still, when I got back and discovered that the doors were all frozen shut, I had a few moments of panic, longing suddenly for the warmth and safety of my little home on wheels, fearful of being trapped without shelter. I finally managed to get the passenger door open, and then one by one got the others to work with forceful kicks or by leaning my whole body against them and pushing hard. I went to bed early that night and slept well, undisturbed by any adventurous mice.
Saturday morning dawned with perfectly clear skies. I made coffee and headed back out to Pueblo Bonito, where the ranger had said he would once again be available. At solstice the sun actually stands almost still for about a week, so the marker that wasn’t visible the day before would still be dead on perfect this next day.
I was almost too late and had to run all the way from the parking lot. I could see a row of people sitting on one of the high, and usually forbidden, walls. A ranger came down to show me the way up and everyone scooted closer together to make room for me. There were 13 of us.
Behind us a bright line of gold edged the horizon and up the canyon sunlight had already touched the cliffs. We watched it move down the face of the bluffs. The top rim of the sun appeared behind us and we collectively held our breath, waiting. And then there it was, the light through that angled window bisecting exactly the corner of the room across from us, like a book whose spine was on that corner with its pages open on each side. Shouts and cheers of pure joy and wonder went up from all of us. We laughed and pointed and someone even sang a song. The golden light from the wall reflected on a patch of snow in the room below and lit up the dried flower heads of a clump of grass, adding to the magic of the moment. People were snapping pictures, talking excitedly. Again I had that feeling of being part of a tribe, making spontaneous and unself-conscious ceremony here in our own ways. Some of us had been in the group that gathered down below the morning before, others were new. If we weren’t all perched so precariously 15 feet up and half frozen I think we would have been dancing and hugging each other.
The precision of that light held there for several minutes, then began to slide to the right. The sun had reached it’s lowest point in the southern sky. It had nowhere to go from here but back to us in the north, bringing light and warmth with it.
We edged sideways off the wall, getting our feet under us again. There was a palpable sense of reluctance among us to separate. We had experienced something powerful and ancient together and maybe none of us wanted to return to more ordinary time. But it was very cold and one of the Park Service people announced that the visitor center was warm and she’d put a couple pots of coffee on if anyone wanted to stop by. We began to leave then, in two’s and three’s, walking back to our cars.
Since it was my last day at Chaco, I opted to skip the visitor’s center and stopped instead at the great kiva of Rinconada across the way. It’s there the official summer solstice gathering is held, when over 200 people usually show up to watch a beam of light precisely illuminate a niche on the wall of the kiva.
I climbed up there just as the sun came over the cliff and watched a patch of light settle evenly across two niches. They’re probably not official solstice markers, but they sufficed as my own solstice event there. I turned my face up to the sun, absorbing the light. Then I walked slowly around that great circle, listening to the snow squeak under my feet. Ravens flew just above the edge of the cliffs, rulers in their realm. There was a distant exuberant chorus of coyotes. A flock of Oregon juncos skipped lightly across the frosted tops of saltbush and greasewood, dropping into the snowy bases to forage seeds. Three of Chaco’s great houses were visible across the wash, with Penasco Blanco silhouetted high on a bluff to the northwest. Around me small hills and mounds covered the remains of villages that once thrived here.
When I was here before I had no real context for this place, no sense of the land or its
history, no knowledge of the people who built it and what an achievement it was for that period in a dry, harsh and sparsely populated landscape. Now I’ve spent years seeking out the ancient sites, the markings on stone, the traces left behind. I’ve read dozens of books and articles on all of it, and I’ve experienced firsthand what life is like in the desert southwest. I met Chaco this time on an entirely different level. It seems more human to me now, an embodiment of human longing for meaning. The Chacoans must have built this place in part at least to make sense of their world. I think what pierces my heart so cleanly here is the sense of connection with that longing and the way it bridges the centuries, so that time falls away and is no longer a separating barrier.
The snow glittered in the morning sunlight. I stood there at the rim of the great kiva knowing that I shared with the ancient Chacoans a precise understanding of my location in the universe at that particular moment, confident that planet earth was moving once again towards the light.