Cloudless sky, spacious highways that are not over crowded and limitless sunshine – a great combination for a road trip. We leave Santa Fe immediately after breakfast, head toward Albuquerque and north on Highway 550. Effortless driving, a catchy tune on the radio interspersed with great conversation make the two and a half hours pass with ease. A quick top up for gas in Bruno we fell prepared to brave the “rough” road promised in the travel guide and general national park information.
Anticipation heightens when we spot the turn off at CR 7900, three miles southeast of Negeezi at Mile 112.5.
“Hmmm, this road is not bad… ” Elaine, my travel companion and driver notes.
“Maybe it was paved since they wrote the travel guide.” My optimistic comment is soon disputed. Eight miles of asphalted road, just wide enough for two cars to pass one another quickly runs out and we are now on a dust road. This road cannot be defined as a dirt road by Canadian standards. The fine sand whirls up behind us creating a continuous dust trail.
Determined to reach our destination, we slow down and vary our speed between eight to ten miles per hour to combat the extreme washboard conditions of the road.
“I hope we don’t loose any parts on this car!” Elaine worries about the rented Chevy Sonic. At the same time I am silently grateful that we are not inflicting possible damage on our own vehicles. And so the journey continues…
I call for a brief interruption of the continuous rattle and jiggle to car and bodies to take advantage of a desert photo opportunity.
The sun is hot and bright, a welcome change from the near winter conditions we left behind in Canada. Using air conditioning in the car at the end of April feels decadent and surreal – but we can take it! We have been on the dirt road for 11 miles, a whole hour of precious time, when several trucks pulling campers inch their way toward us.
A quick stop and “Are we almost there?” was answered with” Keep going – only two more miles and the road is paved again! You are almost there.” We accelerate to a speed of seven miles per hour while we navigate the final two miles.
The rewards are visual and physical: The road transforms to a smooth blacktop and we accelerate to the posted speed, making our way to the visitor center. $ 8 per person is the daily park fee which provides 24 hour access to all public sites.
We park the car, eager to explore the first Chacoan Great House, Una Vida (Spanish for “One Life”). A quick refill of our water bottles at the public well and we are on our way on the short half mile round-trip. The sun is strong and reminds us to move slowly as not to exert too much energy during our first excursion.
The walls at Una Vida Great House exhibit a variety of masonry styles. These subtle differences enabled archeologists to relate the construction of this particular settlement to the other communities in Chaco Canyon. Evidence suggests a high degree of pre-planning in the construction of these Great Houses. Over a 250 year period builders added large blocks of rooms during several building episodes. After the walls were constructed a layer of plaster was applied much like the buildings at Taos Pueblo (see previous post).
Most Chacoan Great Houses are witness to efficient design. Located on the north side of the canyon the plazas are south or south-east facing. This would have provided shelter from the wind, as well as a constant heat and light source from the sun during the winter. The plaster coating reduced the maintenance on the buildings while safely holding the stone and mortar in place.
“Una Vida’s” surveys reveal several historic dry-laid (without mortar) masonry walls that were incorporated into the older Chacoan walls. These structures are Navajo in origin. Several “hogans”, traditional Navajo dwellings, a cob oven, and a sheep corral date from the 1800s.
Fajada means “belt” in Spanish. Its layers of carbonaceous shale and thin coal deposits created belts, or bands, ultimately forming this natural monument. Fajada Butte marks the site where the Sun Dagger was discovered by Anna Sofaer in 1977.
It’s time to press on and make our way to the larger settlements. We are walking back to the car without exchanging many words. We stop to capture desert imagery and wonder who has walked this path before us.
To be continued… Part II coming soon!