In the Four Corners of the Southwest, listen to the desert's story

Special to Washington PostOctober 19, 2013 

The mesas loom above us on either side as our raft drifts down the San Juan River. Sheer cliffs of crumbly sandstone and shale rise hundreds of feet into the air, eating into the blue sky, of which only a sliver is visible. On the rocky shore to our left, a bighorn ram looks up from its grazing to calmly take us in.

We’re in the middle of the Navajo Nation and in the heart of the Four Corners area – the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. For years I’d driven through this arid, haunting part of the country, wanting to explore it but overwhelmed by its vastness and rugged beauty and not knowing where or how to begin.

Then I found out about a working archaeological research facility in Cortez, Colo. The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is a nonprofit organization that funds its research in part by guiding people like me on trips led by archaeologists who have spent their careers in the area, digging into the past. What could be a better way to see the country, I figured?

This is the last day of our five-day trip, and I’m amazed at how much I’ve seen and learned. My archaeological guides, Mark Varien and Ricky Lightfoot, are true experts on the region, and though not all their expertise has successfully made its journey from them to me, enough has to reveal this country to me in a new light.

Four days earlier, I’d walked into a meeting room at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Farmington, N.M., filled with the fight-or-flight response I always get whenever I meet new people. There were nine others in the room: Mark and Ricky, two drivers and five other intrepid explorers. We civilians had all taken the recommended packing list way too seriously and looked as if we were about to explore the jungles of Borneo.

Mark and Ricky were dressed more or less like cowboys: bluejeans, snap shirts and cowboy boots. They wouldn’t stray from this clothing choice for the remainder of the trip.

Mark turned out the lights and showed us some slides and gave us an overview of the region and told us what we were going to see, much of it in archaeological words I didn’t really understand.

The next morning, we headed for Chaco Canyon. This is a place that looks like something you’d expect to find in the deserts of North Africa. Yet here, for 400 years, from the ninth to the 13th centuries, the complex civilization of the Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi, once thrived. Our very own Timbuktu.

Getting to Chaco is no easy task. We drive on small farm roads, cross from Colorado into New Mexico, turn off onto a hardpan dirt road, and then drive for 20 excruciating miles. Our two vans vibrate as if they’re going to crumble to death at any moment, as dust swirls in the air. Mark and Ricky use the van’s intercom to explain everything that we’d be seeing if we weren’t driving through a dust cloud. And I mean everything. Trees, rocks, plants, weeds, weather, buttes, mesas, ancient riverbeds, wildlife – being an archaeologist apparently makes one an expert on just about everything.

For a brief moment, the dust clouds part, and I point off to the right at an octagonal structure residing next to a trailer home and two red pickup trucks.

“Is that a hogan?” I ask. I’m already starting to pick up the lingo. Yesterday I would have seen just a trailer home. Now I know a hogan to be a traditional Navajo dwelling, the door to which always points east.

We get out of the van and walk to Pueblo Bonito, the most impressive of Chaco Canyon’s ruins. D-shaped and five stories tall, with 650 rooms, it was the largest of what archaeologists call great houses, and it was majestic in its time: Until the mid-19th century, it was one of the largest structures in the United States. It stands at the bottom of a cliff wall, part of which has since toppled onto it, and was built over the course of 300 years, using masonry that’s three feet thick in places and wooden support beams made from ponderosa pines.

“Welcome to downtown Chaco,” Mark announces. Theories abound, but Mark believes that Chaco at one point supported a population of about 4,000.

Because of the punishing road, we have the place to ourselves. As we walk through the rooms, we duck through small square doorways, trying not to bump our heads on 1,200-year-old wooden beams. Archaeologists (some professional and some not so) have excavated thousands of turquoise pendants and beads here, along with macaw skeletons, copper bells, and seashells from Mexico, hinting at sophisticated and far-reaching trade routes.

That the United States has been inhabited for a really long time isn’t something that I’d ever thought about. It’s as intriguing as Stonehenge and as magnificent as the works of the Aztecs or the Maya.

Chaco would have been a tough place to call home. Then, as now, the temperatures could drop well below zero in the winter and routinely hover in the triple digits during the summer. And food and water was and is scarce -- which would explain why, when we sit down at a picnic table to eat lunch, crowds of curious and intrepid squirrels and woodchucks gather around.

On Day 2 of our trip, we enter the heart of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, part of the Ute reservation, far from the tourist sites, visiting a cliff dwelling called Eagle’s Nest. Around 800 years ago, during a period of disappearing resources and increased conflict, the Anasazi, for their own survival, moved north to the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado and began building their homes beneath the lips of canyons. From below, they look like oversize hornets’ nests. From above, where I am, perching precariously on a sheer precipice, they look like death traps.

To get to Eagle’s Nest, I’ve had to climb two sets of old wooden ladders and squat-walk along a slight indentation in the rock beneath the cliff. It’s narrow, and the Anasazi weren’t big on railings. I hugged the rock wall to my right and pretended that the left didn’t exist.

As I sit in Eagle’s Nest, my mind is never far from my perilous location.

I look out at the canyon below and try to imagine what must have gone into obtaining the daily necessities of food and water and think about how dangerous life must have been to make living in cliffs seem like a good idea.

According to Mark and Ricky, the Four Corners area is littered with sites like this. Because of the desert climate, a sparse population, and miles and miles of undeveloped government land, there are more archaeological sites in this condensed area than anywhere else in the United States and all but a few places in the world.

The last day of the trip starts with a cold yet beautiful dawn, with stars in the night sky so numerous that I’m left rather stupefied and speechless. I’ve been to places where you can see lots of stars at night, but nothing like this. They seem to merge with the horizon.

Floating down the San Juan River takes you through the iconography of the West that John Ford made famous. In fact, the cabin used as the home of John Wayne’s character in “The Searchers” is nestled along one bank.

But our journey has a purpose: We’re on our way to Butler Wash, a great panel of petroglyphs, some of which date back more than 4,000 years.

The oldest petroglyphs are high up on the wall and sport long legs and trapezoidal torsos; the drawings get newer as they work their way down. Some of the more memorable are human representations that resemble lizards with clawlike hands and feet. This is yet another reminder that this part of the world was inhabited long before Christopher Columbus ever set sail.

Back on the river, Ricky gives us a lesson in geology – 300 million years of it. Navajo sandstone, Mancos shale, Permian shale, anticlines, synclines and monoclines. All of it crumbly and crumbling, all of it slowly being eaten away by the brown/green ribbon in the middle.

We’ve come to the end, and now we’re taking it all in. We’re high above Monument Valley and seemingly on top of the world. To get here, we drove up a precarious dirt road full of switchbacks, along which Ricky gleefully pointed out a handful of cars and trucks that hadn’t made it.

We sit on folding chairs, drinking margaritas and watching the sun work its way down the horizon. Mesas and buttes and the tiny San Juan River far below are lit up in dramatic hues of oranges and yellows and dark reds. My shadow trails behind me for more than a hundred feet.

As I sit looking at many of the same sights I’ve driven past for years, I realize that they have been transformed. Instead of some unknown pile of rock, I now see Jackson Butte. I now see either dark gray Mancos shale or ochre-red Navajo sandstone. I see where inland seas have created buttes and mesas.

The desert is showing me things that I couldn’t see before. And with the help of Mark and Ricky, it has also been telling me a story.

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