Ancient castles set in lofty cliffs. (Game of Thrones, right?). Mountaintop signal fires communicating to settlements a hundred miles away. (Lord of the Rings movie, right?). Ancient roads running miles in a straight line, now hidden to all eyes except experts. And supporting a system of empire and tribute. (Ancient Rome, you’re thinking…). Hybridized Corn. (X-files, anyone?). Ritual cannibalism (New Guinea?). Pottery that will steal your breath it’s so beautiful. (Ancient Greece?). Use of geologic features and stone construction to support Astronomical events guiding religious ceremonies? (Stonehenge???). Underground rooms, home of rituals and dances, and settlements lost in the wilderness for a thousand years, found pristine by ranchers looking for lost cattle…..all this and more is right under your nose here in America, in the southwest near “4 corners”, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, the home of the Chaco culture, aka the Anasazi, aka “the Ancestral Puebloans”, as they are now called. It’s amazing how many Americans don’t know about this truly unique aspect of the history of the country they live in.
We’re just back from a duo of great trips. The first was my daughter’s wedding, which was simply awesome. Enough said.
Immediately following, Michelle and I went on an exploring trip with our old friends Thomas Jensen and Lynn Thorsen-Jensen. Both accomplished tech executives, published fiction writers, fencers, and amazingly well-versed historians. It’s enough to give a person an inferiority complex. Thomas in particular seems to know everything there is to know about English history (especially the medieval period), as well as being a near-expert (and I’m not sure about the qualifier) on the history of the ancient Southwest, the purpose of our trip.
We saw an amazing set of things. Flying into Durango, we were wisked off to Mesa Verde, home of the most famous of cliff dwellings, Cliff Palace (which is closed for renovations). First up is Balcony House. A couple of ladder climbs (30′ and 60′ !!!) later, we’re looking out over the valley from our own cliff house. Amazing that people lived here. Indiana Jones features: a tunnel leading both into and out of the cliff-house – this would not have been easy to attack, and indeed it’s believed that the move into cliff houses (from the mesa top) was primarily a defensive move, during a time when drought made competition for food an ugly business.
Through a happy set of circumstances, we were able to get a tour through Square Tower House, only open 5 times a year. Underneath a huge cliff overhang, with a natural water flow into the compound, Square Tower is an incredible fortress. (see the crow’s nest up there?).
Then it’s off to Spruce Tree House, and enormous complex with 130 rooms that goes back into a cave nearly a small city-block. And had 130 rooms and 8 kivas (underground rooms for ceremonies and living space.)
After doing more hiking and touring, we’re off to Hovenweep, one of the loneliest places I’ve ever been. (Hovenweep is Ute for “deserted valley”, so it seems appropriate). The Anasazi fled here from Mesa Verde and other places, fleeing the drought and conflict from further south. I’ve been here twice, and the first time I was literally the only one there, miles and miles. Closest I ever came to hearing ghosts. This time, the sun is up, and I have people with me. A bit less spooky but still amazing. And it’s spring in the desert – I’ve been out here a lot and I’ve NEVER seen the flowers like this before. And lots of turkeys! The Anasazi kept domesticated turkey as a food source.
Finally we’re off to Chimney Rock. Settled in the early 900s, a Chacoan Great House was built on the peak likely near 1076 AD, as the northernmost outpost of the Chacoan empire. I used the term empire advisedly as not every agrees there was an empire. But it seems likely. It’s established that signal fires, smoke and mirrors were used to communicate between the Great House and Chaco canyon 85 miles away (http://stevelekson.com/2011/09/09/regional-scales-how-big-was-chaco-%E2%80%A6-and-does-it-matter/). And the imposing presence of the Great House at the top of the mountain, when green and fertile river earth was available in direct sight, clearly indicates an imposing presence (military / religious empire?), rather than simply a good place to live. In addition it’s also established that the moon rises between the twin spires of Chimney Rock every 18.6 years during the Lunar Standstill, likely guiding religious ceremonies as well as planting seasons. (http://www.chimneyrockco.org/mls.php).
Finally, after our fill of ancient history, we’re back to the “modern” era – a last night at the Strater Hotel in Durango. The Strater is a old west hotel – the Diamond Belle saloon, period furniture and history of unique guests. Louis L’Amour wrote a number of his novels here. We content ourselves with a last night of bridge (we’ve been playing every night and I’ve been getting cards like I’ve never seen before). The hotel graciously finds us a room in the basement to play – wow – it’s filled with green velvet, vintage photos and mirrors – I feel like I’ve wandered onto a an old-west poker movie set. And, there’s a bluegrass band warming up next door. Too cool!
Struggling with a conundrum? Looking for insight? Take a few days off. The answer might be right under your nose….
And if you want insight into the Ancestral Puebloans, you could do much worse than House of Rain, by Craig Childs.