January 9th, 2008

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Morning thoughts -

I went to have blood taken yesterday morning and there was quite a wait.  The computers were still struggling after the storm, and so, everyone understood and was patient.  Usually, there is a bit of anxiety, foot-tapping and looking at watches, because most of the people have been fasting and no one has had their morning coffee, but, yesterday, everyone was calm.  I think we slowed in the storm. 

As I adjust back to having power in the house,  I feel like I did after I finished treatment.  Nothing was expected of me when I was in chemotherapy.  If I rose and brushed my teeth, people cheered.  A walk was like winning the Olympics.   I was present with each step.   Then, treatment ended and I was dropped off the conveyor belt.  I was back to choices.   While in treatment, there was no anxiety around choice or accomplishment.   I did what I had energy to do and I did it well.   I slept when I was tired and ate when I was hungry.   How simple is that.  It is the enlightenment path.   That is why most who have been through chemotherapy consider it a gift.

Now, I am again back to choice after a break.   My power is on, and a piece of me misses a day where watching and tending a fire is considered "enough."    Now, people would look at me askance, if they asked what I did today, and I said I sat and watched and tended a fire.  Now, I expect, and the world expects with me, and that is a good thing, obviously, and yet I think we each need to program into our calendars, days of rest.

Here are my morning ramblings of yesterday and today.

January 8, 2008


I used to feel safe inside,


Now I know a house can blow down

or burn or swim, float like cardboard

until it melts

into the sea.

Acknowledging that opens something in me.

I bring inside out and treat it to tea. 



January 9, 2008


Discombobulated after the storm


When the power is out in a winter storm,

there is only so much one can do.

There is the fire, the candles, and blankets

piled high

on the bed.

The time of light is short and even at its peak,


It is easy though to do the next necessary thing.

One can only see so far, so well.

It is harder now with the lights a glare,

and the heat shuttling through the vents,

to choose

among the array of books, files, and piles.


C.S. Lewis wrote:


          Five senses; an incurably abstract intellect; a haphazardly selective memory; a set of preconceptions and assumptions so numerous that I can never examine more than a minority of them – never become even conscious of them all.  How much of total reality can such an apparatus let through?


Perhaps that explains why I dwell right now

 like a fish by the shore

considering how to bring forth stubs

to stretch into legs.

I struggle with land and sea, juggle the elements of earth, water, fire, and air. 

I understand why we knock on wood.

It is a ceremony to go out to our trees and request, no beg, they stand another year,

offer shade and life and homes.  We dwell with their roots,

both vulnerable and safe, amphibians offered a chance to climb

and dare.

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Libraries of today -

When the power went out on Friday, a friend told me her partner insisted they check into a hotel so she could do her work.  She telecommutes.  My friend said, "Unnecessary."   They went to the Corte Madera library where every hour someone came through the area of the computers announcing that tea was being served in the library.  It is a wonderful world especially when immersed in books.

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Jane's poem of the morning -

What loss keeps calling
voice imprinted on my voice
seeking a home
here in the bones of other dead human
When it makes itself known
will I go mute
or be borne
into the language of praise?

    - Jane Flint

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And here is Jon Carroll - unbelievable!!

Jon Carroll

Wednesday, January 9, 2008


I try not to read right-wing blogs. As a reporter and commentator and pulse-reading finger-user, I suppose I should be keeping track, but I just can't do it. I don't need the aggravation. I don't want to yell at my computer. People who yell at machines are not practicing serene behavior.

I fully acknowledge that some people feel that way about left-wing blogs and, indeed, about me. I have often wondered why people who feel that way about me continue to read me. They read, they get mad, they write intemperate letters, and I'm sure they do not feel better afterward. There are no victors in shouting matches.

I get angry letters from left-wing people too, angry that I have accepted the establishment line on something or other, and Lord knows they can be as angry as any gay-bashing creationist. Nevertheless, I've always maintained that, as a general rule and taken as a whole, our crazies are less crazy than their crazies. That's not exactly a major claim to distinction, but it's something.

Still, I make forays. I spent time at RedState.com the other day and read a fascinating squib with the opening sentence, "Liberalism continues to cause people to vote with their feet and flee social and economic tyranny within our own country." That was the site's spin on demographic shifts that have seen people leave the northeastern states and move to the South and Southwest.

Weather has nothing to do with it. Economic factors and the decline of manufacturing jobs have nothing to do with it. Nope, it's people fleeing those darned liberals. Thank heavens Texas offers safe haven to political refugees.

But, I confess, it was one of those liberal bloggers who drove me to RedState.com. Duncan Black at atrios.blogspot.com reprinted a post from the site, and I had to see if it was real. It is. I share it with you now in the spirit of reality-based journalism:

"Dear RedState Reader: I have, as they say, some good news and some bad news.

"(Short version: We need you to open your wallet and give what you can to build RedState 3.0. Go here to help. We need the money ASAP.)

"The good news first: RedState.com is about to embark on a major upgrade of our website that will make it easier, more informative, and just plain more fun for you to visit. The bad news: our liberal 'friends' - you know, the ones who believe so strongly in free speech and open debate - have done what they can to prevent us from making these improvements, so that our influence will be minimized just as we head into the 2008 presidential primary season.

"No, our Blue State buddies haven't succeeded in stopping us from improving our website. But they've made it more difficult and more expensive - which is why I'm coming to you for help.

"Let me explain. You see, when we started RedState in May of 2004, we used a website program called Scoop - the same program a lot of similar sites on the left used. But, as the number of visitors to our site grew, Scoop kept crashing on us. If we'd been a liberal website, we would have been able to fix the problem quickly and relatively cheaply. The online left loves Scoop. Unfortunately, there weren't really any conservative Scoop developers out there to help us. We kept crashing and were out of money. We had to close down or take drastic action.

"Well, we didn't close down. We ditched Scoop and moved to the best alternative at the time, a program called Drupal. But, in accomplishing the switch, budget constraints forced us to sacrifice some popular site features in order to alleviate the strain on our overused servers.

"Needless to say, we always regarded those 'downgrades' as temporary, and we hoped to restore the eliminated features - and to add new and even better ones - as soon as we could afford to. Unfortunately, we still can't afford to. But we're convinced that America can afford even less to have us operating at anything less than our absolute peak potential during the coming presidential election season.

"So we've decided to move ahead with our upgrades without delay, and despite not having the cash on hand - hoping and praying that RedState.com readers like you will help us make up the shortfall with a generous donation."

In other words (I think): Left-wing Web site developers have been happy to assist liberal Web sites that are burdened by bad blog software for free, but they cravenly insisted that Redstate.com pay them for their time and effort. Damn you, vast left-wing conspiracy.

It's so wonderful. From now on, I'm going to blame liberals every time my computer crashes. Can't be my fault; can't be that I foolishly purchased or installed the wrong thing. Nope, gotta be the liberals. That's what conspiracy theories are supposed to do: Explain the world according to one all-encompassing idea. Too many powerful liberals! God, if only.

I see liberals everywhere, in my bed, in my office, even in my brain. They must be stopped before they, well, whatever they do.

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A Special Treat!!

My dear friend Vicki set out many years ago in her beloved Laurelheart.  She loves travel, camping, people, books, and nature.   She also needs to make a living, so, her wonderful Road Stories have gotten further and further apart, but, today, treat of treats, she sends one out, in two parts.  They are both very different from each other, and they are the same.   The Trickster is alive in the first one, and the second connects.  

Here is the wondrous, magnificent, beautifully alive, involved, and connected,  Vicki Dern.

62 Orbits of the Sun

Winter Solstice at Chaco Canyon



Part One, A Mouse Story


Chaco canyon in winter. Cold. Only one other camper here this first night, a guy from Texas with a couple of big dogs and a small tent. I’m glad I’m in the recently resurrected Laurelheart. I know what it’s like to be in a tent with the nights so long and bitter and all you can do is curl up like a pillbug for 14 hours or so, snuggled deep inside a sleeping bag. Even in the van it’s a challenge. I huddle close to the little propane heater and after boiling water for tea I leave the burner on low for extra warmth.


Today is my birthday. In two days it will be winter solstice and I’ve come here to celebrate the turning of the year in this place where the precise celestial knowledge of observers more than a thousand years ago is made manifest in stone. I was hoping for just this sort of solitude.


After heating up some leftover Thai curry, I settle back happily to look at the literature I picked up earlier at the visitor center. This is perfect. I can’t imagine a better way to be spending my birthday night.


But what’s that? Something’s scrabbling around under the hood. Mouse or a pack rat probably. I lean forward and bang hard on the dash. That buys about a minute of silence. I bang harder and longer and yell. Maybe 15 seconds of quiet this time. I hear the skittering of small feet then gnawing sounds—on what? Electrical wiring? Water lines? Clearly this creature, whatever it is, is not going to be easily scared away by a little irritating noise.


Sighing, I pull on gloves and jacket, fish a flashlight out of the drawer, pop the hood and lift up the lid. I shine the light on the engine and almost at once a mouse pokes its head up, then comes running straight towards the light. It stops a foot away, turning its head to check out this new aspect of the night. It’s a rather beautiful mouse, golden brown shading to cream at the belly and feet, long silky tail, very large dark eyes and an over-sized head that seems almost too big for its body. Later, when I have access to the internet, I’ll decide it’s probably a pocket mouse.


I keep the light in his eyes, bang ferociously on the metal and tell him to scram. (surely this ballsy behavior must be male!) He ducks out of sight, then reappears running along a pipe near the back of the engine, stops to look at me again, jumps up higher for a better view, darts behind something, then stops again in full view eyeing the light with way more curiousity than fear. I get the feeling he thinks this a great game of skill and daring and he is utterly confident of his ability to play it well. He turns his back to me, stands on his hind legs, and starts gnawing at the edge of some heavy tin foil that must act as insulation for the engine.


Since the light doesn’t faze him, I look around for a stick, then remember my walking stick in the van. When I return with it, he’s nowhere in sight, as if he knew I might return armed. I stand around out there in the cold for a while, searching the engine compartment with the light. No noise. No movement. I prop the hood open, figuring it might have been the warmth of the engine that drew him there in the first place and I can at least eliminate that particular amenity.


Back inside, the van feels deliciously warm in comparison, the light soft and inviting. I take off  my coat and settle down again to read. Krrrachh, krraaach, krraaach. Shuddery sound of sharp teeth on metal. Well, with the engine exposed to the night air, this probably won’t go on long. How much tin could he want to chew up anyway? I decide to ignore him and let his adventure run its course.


The gnawing does stop pretty quickly. There are sporadic sounds of scraping and chewing, much less enthusiastic than they had been. Then the sound I hear is the slithery rustle of a plastic bag and I catch a glimpse of movement by the driver’s seat. No! Surely not.


But yes, here he is, nosing around at bits of the YaYa’s popcorn I spilled earlier in the day.


Alright mouse. Enough is enough. I have no desire to cause you harm but you can’t be running around inside my little home here, casually scattering hantavirus or bubonic plague.


I spent a bad night in the van a few years ago when a mouse jumped in the open door and scrabbled around under the bed till dawn. After that I carried mousetraps. I pull out the toolbox where I keep the traps, but there aren’t any. I stripped the van of its staple supplies last year when it died and I was going to sell it. I’m still making a list of things I forgot in the re-stocking process and now here’s another to add in. Great.


Okay. Woman or mouse? Surely if I’m persistent enough I can chase this brash little fellow away. I lay aside the reading, diligently clean up every scrap of popcorn, pick up the walking stick, and for the next half hour I lunge and yell at every appearance. The retreats are short-lived. Then on one of his forays, as he comes within inches of my foot, I see another mouse nosing around where the popcorn was. Oh shit! He’s invited his friends! No telling where that could end.


Time for serious action, but what? Maybe I can trap them after all. I pull out my largest plastic bowl and a plate big enough to cover it. I put a few pieces of popcorn in the bowl, tilt it forward, hold the plate so that it’s covering about 2/3 of the opening, and wait. In less than a minute one of the mice crawls into the bowl and I slide the plate forward, but not fast enough and I lose him. I re-position and wait. It takes a few tries but finally I get the lid in place with a mouse trapped inside. Hah! Success!


I bundle up and march off into the night, proudly carrying bowl with mouse and lid. I walk a good 5 or 10 minutes, clear out past the entrance to the campground, and fling the mouse into the sagebrush where it immediately runs for cover.


Triumphant, I return to the van and repeat the bait and wait process. I have the technique down much better now and catch the other mouse on the second try. I set the bowl with lid on the counter while I pull on my gloves.


The first mouse, once it was in the bowl, went absolutely still. It was so still during the long walk in the dark that I shook the bowl to make sure it was still there. Thought it might have slipped out and I was only walking in the freezing cold with an empty container in my hands. That must have been the guest mouse, friend of the cheeky one. Cheeky mouse is not the passive type, and just as I turn to pick up the bowl he jumps up high enough to flip the plate off and dash across the counter. For a few minutes we play chase and seek behind the stove lid, around the water jar, zigzagging through the faucet knobs, until he finally jumps down to the door well and races up front. Damn, damn, damn! So close!


For maybe five minutes I neither see nor hear him. Then, here he is, poking his nose out near my feet again. Will he be foolish enough to fall for the bowl trick again? I try it and he is. I catch him on the first go. Okay smarty pants, you’re not as sharp as I thought you were! This time I set a heavy book on the lid while I finish bundling up. He jumps and rattles around in there the whole time, trying to bust loose.


We set off down the dirt road in the moonlight, out past the campground gate, even further than I took the other mouse. I’m pretty pissed and I fling with all my might. He lands on his feet and runs not away, but straight back in the direction from which he has just flown. Hmmph! Fat lot of good that will do you, I think. Still, I look over my shoulder several times as I hurry back to the van, half expecting to see him racing along after me. But the only movement is the occasional cottontail darting for cover, and once a clatter of hooves as I startle some deer grazing in the meadow.


Feeling very pleased with myself, I settle down finally with my reading material and immerse myself in facts and speculations about the history of Chaco. At midnight I reluctantly turn off the heat and burrow into my nest of down and fleece for the night. Just as I’m drifting off to sleep there’s a grating kraach kraaach of teeth on tin and I groan. A minute after that there are rustling sounds inside the van. That sucker has found his way back!


It’s already freezing cold in the van. The thought of getting up, dressing, going through the trapping process again and then out once more in the midnight air for what would obviously need to be a much longer walk, is more than I can handle. I pull the covers over my ears to muffle the noise and concede defeat.


I don’t sleep much. I’m afraid he’ll take an exploratory nibble on one of my fingers, or bite the tip of my nose as payback for his imprisonment in the bowl and his long journey back home. Whenever it sounds like he’s somewhere near my head I yell and slap at the wall. I have 3 AM visions of having to get rabies shots because he’ll draw blood, but then think I’ll probably die anyway from hantavirus.


At 5:30 I finally give up, turn on the light, get the heater going, make coffee, and wait for the sun. The little thermometer in the van reads 6 degrees.


Cheeky seems to take this as a sign that it’s time to call it a night and I don’t see him again.


The next night I move to the opposite end of the campground and pray that not all the campground mice are hip to the exciting possibilities of parked cars. Apparently they’re not, for the night was blessedly free of rodent visits.


I would have killed that little bugger if I’d had a mousetrap. I would have regretted the necessity of it, but wouldn’t have been devastated by the act. Now that I’ve had a good night’s sleep I find myself thinking of him rather fondly. It was, after all, an intimate encounter with a wild creature. A bold, fearless, and smart wild creature. He certainly outmaneuvered me and had himself a good adventurous romp.


I came here to wonder at the scale and the mystery of human history at Chaco, and a creature less than 3” long basically had me at its mercy all night long. There’s something satisfyingly humbling about that. What better way, really, to celebrate a birthday?




Vicki Dern

December 23, 2007





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The Enchantment of Vicki -

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.



Vicki Dern

Dec. 2007