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Sound And Light At Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Pueblo Bonito At Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

Editor's note: The following article comes from Frederick H. Swanson, a Utah-based writer currently working on a history of southern Utah's national parks and monuments. His last piece for the Traveler was a Centennial Series essay about ensuring national parks play a role in educating, and nurturing, youth.

An oddly familiar music greeted me as we pulled up to our reserved site in Gallo Campground, located in a side wing of Chaco Canyon’s buff-colored sandstone cliffs. That sounds like a white-crowned sparrow, I thought as I carried our tent to the 12-foot-square sandbox that would be our sleeping spot for the next four nights.

I got out binoculars and, sure enough, there were the telltale white-and-black head stripes that identified it as my favorite mountain songster. But here in the desert? In mid-October? Already this national historical park in New Mexico, which my wife and I and a friend from Albuquerque were visiting for the first time, was surprising me.

More surprises awaited us the next morning as we toured Pueblo Bonito with a knowledgeable volunteer guide. This 600-room complex of dwellings, kivas and ceremonial spaces was as stunning as we had anticipated. But the intricate details in the stonework, the numerous kivas, the windows artfully placed on diagonals to intercept the sun at the winter solstice—these I had not anticipated.

I also didn’t expect to see elk tracks. Not at the pueblo, of course, but up on the mesa to the south, where later that day I followed a deserted trail leading to the Tsin Kletsin pueblo site. Definitely not cow, I thought, but elk out here in the high desert, with nary a tree in sight? It was all a bit disorienting.

Kin Kletso ruins at Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

Kin Kletso pueblo, Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

Back at the visitor center, I learned that Rocky Mountain elk had moved into the park in 1999 and now numbered about 60 animals. Attracted by the ungrazed grass growing on the high mesas, they managed to thrive in this arid locale. Back in 1907, Teddy Roosevelt invoked the Antiquities Act in order to protect Chaco’s outstanding Puebloan buildings, not because he wanted a new game preserve. Still, he would have approved of the elks’ reappearance after an absence of some centuries.

The third realization dawned more slowly, as we toured Chaco by vehicle and on foot over the next few days. It’s one that comes to many visitors once they leave the parking lots and scenic overlooks and venture out on the trails. Wow, this place is quiet. Lonely, even. Only the wind in the grama grass, punctuated by the occasional croak of a raven, accompanied us as we hiked to Chaco’s various trail-accessible pueblo sites.

Revelation number four came as no surprise to me, but I’m sure it must come as a shock to numerous park visitors. It’s really dark here at night. Ensconced back at camp at sundown, we fixed dinner, played a board game on the picnic table, and waited for our fellow campers to turn off car headlights and camp lanterns. There it was, right overhead, stretching past Cygnus’s outstretched wings and reaching down past Sagittarius on the southern rim: the via galactia, the Milky Way. Could it really be true that eighty percent of Americans cannot see this wonder from where they live?

That evening we eschewed a campfire as we sat in our chairs and gazed upward, our voices hushed. I got out my binoculars again and had no difficulty bringing in the Lagoon Nebula, the great star cluster in Hercules, and other familiar sights. Chaco’s undimmed night skies have earned it designation as an International Dark Sky Park, joining Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, Grand Canyon and ten other National Park units within the Four Corners states.

Andromeda Galaxy from Chaco Observatory, Chaco Culture National Historical Park/NPS

The Chaco Observatory allows peeks at distant galaxies in our universe, such as the Andromeda Galaxy/NPS

While wandering Chaco’s trails, I thought about these two less-appreciated facets of the primeval: quietude and darkness. Examining the park’s thousand year-old pueblos, I was struck not only by the extraordinary architecture on display, but also by the harsh conditions its builders and inhabitants faced. Perhaps there were more trees on Chaco Mesa in the twelfth century, and possibly more water, too, before the arroyos cut so deeply. Still, it must have been a tough place in which to live. This was not the intimate canyon setting of southern Utah’s Puebloan sites, where cliffs shelter structures from the sun and wind. Out here, and especially atop the mesas, the wind blows unimpeded and the sun desiccates anything above ground. I thought of the workers who carried (not even dragged) ponderosa pine logs sixty miles from the Chuska Mountains to the building sites, the thirst they experienced, the fatigue. One can only imagine the kind of social organization that such monumental building projects must have required.

These people, the rangers told us, lived short, difficult lives. But they had two things that are denied to most of us today. They knew the silence of the great open spaces, in which the human voice is swallowed up in an instant, and they knew the darkness that enveloped them as soon as they stepped away from the firelight. Perhaps these attributes were frightening to The People, something to be avoided if at all possible. That could be why they sited Pueblo Bonito and Chetro Ketl (a neighboring pueblo) on either side of a natural amphitheater that reflects the human voice. Certainly they took advantage of the cliffs as a buffer from the wind.

Whatever disadvantages they faced, these dwellers must have felt a connection to their world that was unmediated by much technology. That’s a distant memory for most of us. Back at camp I watched as a mammoth RV pulled in to join the smaller rigs in the main section of the campground. In our tent-only annex, nearly everyone had a fire going, a vestigial connection to a more primitive past. One by one our neighbors slammed their car doors for the last time, got the kids into bed, and brought their campfire conversations to a close. The cliffs reflected the sound of tent zippers as the evening stars sank behind the western rim.

Nighttime at the original Chaco would have had its noises, too: dogs barking, the family overhead thumping about, pots being filled or emptied, and (in common with our camp) a background of snoring. But all it would have taken to escape this was a quick stroll outside the pueblo, into the open air, beneath a night sky that must have been reassuring in its magnificence.

Night timelapse over Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture NHP/NPS

Nighttime at Pueblo Bonito/NPS

After our visit, as we took our friend back to Albuquerque, I glanced at a newspaper headline: “Feds to Launch Expanded Review of Drilling in Chaco Region.” Oh no, I thought–not here too. I didn’t read the details,* but the story is all too familiar for those of us in Utah, where conservationists must fight off applications to drill or mine next to Arches, Canyonlands, and other park units. I recalled camping at Hovenweep National Monument the previous fall, listening all night long to the thrumming of a nearby pump station. Was this to be the fate of Chaco as well? Along with the bright lights and truck traffic that petroleum development would bring?

At Chaco, the National Park Service has gone to great lengths to preserve the ancient buildings and archaeological sites under its care. Visitors to the main pueblos must remain on walkways and everyone has to be off the trails by sundown. Guides and rangers exhorted us not to lean on fragile walls and to not even think about making off with a shard of pottery. All this is necessary and good, and I didn’t terribly mind being confined to our campground each evening.

The Park Service, though, faces the same problem at Chaco that it does in almost every unit of the National Park System: it has very limited say in what happens outside the park’s borders. Here it is up to us to help out the agency, by writing letters to the BLM when it is considering mineral development projects, by resisting the call for more roads and more “access,” and perhaps most important, by trying to curb our insatiable appetite for cheap fuel and easy living that powers the whole structure of our civilization.

Congress in 1980 renamed Chaco Canyon National Monument as Chaco Culture National Historical Park, honoring the people who erected its wondrous pueblos and built the mysterious roads leading outward in all directions. Perhaps one day there will be an Anglo Culture historical park that will house the noisy, over-lit, wasteful relics of the fossil fuel era. A place where we can marvel at the unshielded streetlamps, the blaring radios, the supersized and noisy vehicles that defined our moment in the sun, before we moved on to less raucous and profligate pursuits.

The builders of Chaco laboriously erected their great houses and lived in them for more than three centuries. Then they left. We don’t know a great deal about what they did there, or why they abandoned the sites, other than what we can infer from modern Puebloan lifeways. As I walked over Chaco’s windswept mesas, looking at walled-in clusters of buildings that had been erected at such great effort, it occurred to me that here lay the strongest of object lessons. We don’t have the option of packing up and leaving our cities en masse when environmental conditions change. Haunting and evocative in its isolated setting, Chaco Culture NHP invites us to reflect both on human resilience and the ultimate impermanance of our work.

* Albuquerque Journal, Oct. 20, 2016.  Mineral leasing and development near Chaco Culture NHP has been controversial for years; see National Parks Traveler, Sept. 4, 2013.

 Frederick H. Swanson is the author of Dave Rust: A Life in the Canyons (University of Utah Press). He is at work on a history of the national parks and monuments of southern Utah.

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"... I glanced at a newspaper headline: "Feds to Launch Expanded Review of Drilling in Chaco Region." Oh no, I thought-not here too. I didn't read the details,* but the story is all too familiar for those of us in Utah, where conservationists must fight off applications to drill or mine next to Arches,Canyonlands, and other park units. I recalled camping at Hovenweep National Monumentthe previous fall, listening all night long to the thrumming of a nearby pump station. Was this to be the fate of Chaco as well? Along with the bright lights and truck traffic that petroleum development would bring?"


You should have read the article, because it would not have triggered those fears. The study is being initiated precisely BECAUSE many people are concerned about development in the area. From the article:

"U.S. Deputy Interior Secretary Mike Connor announced Thursday that the agency and the Bureau of Indian Affairs' Navajo Regional Office are joining forces to take a closer look at management across federal and tribal lands throughout the region. This will mark the first joint review for the two agencies.

"Connor said he listened to concerns about development during a visit he and U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., made to Chaco last year. The review is a demonstration of the federal government's "commitment to ensuring that the region's rich cultural and archaeological resources are protected," he said in a statement.

"Udall on Thursday described Chaco park as a cultural destination that's important not only to the region but the entire state.

"Environmentalists also praised the move. ..."

Full article online (for now) at:


Thanks for clarifying this, Mike.  The joint BLM/BIA review in the Chaco area appears similar in purpose to the Master Leasing Plan recently begun around Moab, Utah, where continued oil and gas development is encroaching upon scenic lands near Arches and Canyonlands national parks. Both are good initiatives, but with a new administration in Washington calling the shots, we'll have to see the results.  My hope is that the lands surrounding national park system units in the Southwest will be treated with special care, so that values such as dark skies and natural quiet that transcend park boundaries are not compromised.

Just watched  a program  on this most interesting  site on National  Geographic  channel  last week and thought  why didn't  I visit this place when I was in the area  years  ago.

The claim  was that the water dried  up  and forced  the tribe  to move to an area of water.Food for thought  for the people  living  in  the  Southwest today.

The process isn't getting off to a good start:

BLM walks out of Shiprock meeting

Bureau of Land Management personnel were heavily criticized Thursday for walking out of what was supposed to be a community meeting in Shiprock, New Mexico, to discuss the future of oil and gas drilling near Chaco Canyon.

On Thursday, the BLM hosted the first of eight planned "scoping meetings" - in partnership with the Bureau of Indian Affairs - intended to engage members of the Navajo Nation on concerns regarding drilling, as well as fracking, on sacred lands.


Shiprock Chapter President Duane Chili Yazzie told The Durango Herald the BLM had set up tables in the Shiprock Chapter House, where community members were asked to line up one by one and write down their concerns.

About 45 minutes in, Yazzie asked BLM staff to change the format of the meeting in a way that would allow a more open discussion, so that all in attendance could hear citizen comments.

"(The BLM's format) just doesn't fit our mannerism and means of communication here as traditional people," Yazzie said.

In a video taken of the meeting, Richard Fields, field manager for the BLM Farmington Field Office, explains to the audience an open discussion is a different process than a "scoping meeting."

"If you want a consultation, we'll have to come back later," Fields said.

Yazzie again asked for open public comments, and Fields told him if that were to continue, Fields would shut down the meeting.

"Well, let's shut it down," Yazzie said.



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