Chaco Canyon, Mesa Verde, Capitol Reef, and the Escalante

September - October 2009

This was a somewhat fragmented adventure, spread among three weeks before and after art events in Albuquerque, Dallas, and Sedona.  I had never been to Chaco Canyon before, nor Mesa Verde.  Both of these places, as well as the hundreds of other sites in the Southwest, contain amazing cultural and architectural history of the Pueblo civilization which was thriving here on a roughly parallel level to civilizations in Asia and Europe, about 1000 years ago.  The volume of new information and new theories formed by archeologists and historians, just since my anthropology study in college, is huge.  Among the issues that I grew up with, and has since been met with disfavor, is the notion that the cliff dwellings were primarily defensive, and the "Anasazai" disappeared due to aggression from neighbors, most likely the Navajo.  Not true, it turns out, and the actual matter makes a much better story.

The cliff dwellings were chosen most likely for the shelter the overhangs provided, and for water sources.  Springs are still very active at each of the major sites, and in fact, the conservators of the sites actually pipe the water away from the dwellings to prevent damage from erosion.  Virtually all of the Great Houses of Chaco culture, and the cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde and Chinle were abandoned by 1250 to 1300.  The Navajo did not show up in the Southwest until over 200 years later.  The migration to the east and south, near the Rio Grande River, was likely due to several severe drought years, and a fair dose of soil depletion due to destructive farming practices.  Archeologists have identified a population explosion near the Rio Grande at the same time the great communities farther west and north were abandoned.  The "Anasazai" peoples became the tribes we currently know as Pueblo, Zuni, Hopi, Acampo, and other smaller groups.  The Navajo are direct descendants of the Athabascans of Alaska and coastal Canada.  They are not related directly nor recently to the Pueblo peoples.  More importantly, they did not aggress on the Chacoan peoples.

An impressive network of engineered roadways have recently been discovered from aerial photographs, linking Chaco Canyon, the apparent cultural center, to the dozens of other great houses in the four cardinal directions.  The archeological sites outside the canyon are scattered throughout NW New Mexico, and SW Colorado.  Within the canyon there are about a dozen great houses that have been partially excavated, and there are dozens more that have been left undisturbed.  Over two visits to the canyon, I hiked all of the trails and visited the excavated ruins.  It was a very moving experience.

Mesa Verde in SW Colorado is similar culturally to Chaco, but quite different architecturally. Here, Pueblo people chose overhangs among the sandstone cliffs to provide shelter, and built their communities underneath.  Agriculture was done on the mesas above.  The timeline of the habitation and migration away is approximately the same as for Chaco, and the hundreds of other Pueblo communities found throughout the Four Corners region.

At the end of these three art events, after Sedona, I visited the Escalante Canyons in southern Utah.  On prior visits to the region, I had inquired among Park Service folks what the road was like that goes from Big Water, over the Kaiparowits Plateau, to the little town of Escalante.  Their response was always, "Don't do it ! Go around, use the highway".   And, previously, I always had taken their advice.  This time, I rented one of those high-clearance big four-wheel drive vehicles, and decided to tackle this road.  Count this among the many things in life which I do not need to do again.  It's about 90 miles long, steep, rocky, sometimes washed out, and often frightening.  It took me nearly six hours to negotiate it. Anyhow, hiking in the Escalante canyons was the objective, and I did several memorable ones.  Deer Creek was the first, then down to Upper Calf Creek Falls and up the Escalante River, and another day, down Hole-in-the-Rock road to hike Willow Gulch, then on the final day, down the River from near town for several miles.

The canyons of this region, at least the ones I've seen so far, are deep and very wide.  As a consequence, there are a lot of sand and soil deposits, and a lot of brush.  The width makes the light a little less interesting to me, than say, the canyons of Zion, which are narrow and much deeper.  And way less brushy.  So, on this trip, no photographs of the Escalante.  I did, however, make one in Chaco which I am very pleased with.