Late on May 21, 2011, I arrived at Chaco Culture National Historic Park. Known colloquially as Chaco Canyon, the place is almost equidistant from Nageezi and Crownpoint, New Mexico. For Interstate Highway reference, Chaco Canyon is about fifty miles northeast of I-40, if exiting at Thoreau, New Mexico. Although situated at what once was the crossroads of the Pre-Puebloan world, Chaco Canyon slipped into obscurity after the Great Disappearance, one thousand years ago.
Today, the larger Navajo Reservation encompasses over sixty percent of San Juan County, New Mexico. Of the county’s 130,000 residents, about thirty-five percent are Navajo. Seventy percent of county population resides in the Farmington Metropolitan Statistical Area (MSA), including Aztecc and Shiprock. Sparsely populated Indian lands dominate the balance of the county. Finding Chaco Canyon, sequestered as it is among high desert mesas can be difficult, unless you are Navajo.
Even in this era of GPS navigation, the Magellan map database is woefully inadequate in Navajo Country, which surrounds Chaco Canyon on three sides. At least twice during my southern approach from Crownpoint, Magellan instructed me to turn at erroneous locations. The first road resembled a dirt track; the second existed only in the minds of early Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) surveyors. Between my late start toward Chaco Canyon and Magellan’s sweet-voiced siren luring me toward sandy tracks in the desert; it was not until 9:30 PM that I arrived at Gallo Campground in Chaco Canyon.
There, as I scanned the bulletin board for information, the campground host emerged from her coach. That kind soul, living in the middle of nowhere, had held back two RV spaces for late arrivals like me. Had she not done so, there would be no other legal RV camping within twenty miles, via treacherous, washboard roads. That night, I had tempted fate and fate had smiled on me. It came in the form of the volunteer host who saved my camping bacon.
While conducting research for this article, I found the “Gallo” name attached to many features in New Mexico. After I had no luck discovering who “Senor Gallo” might have been, I recalled that in Spanish “gallo” translates as “rooster”. Is the derivation of the local place name as simple as, “Rooster Wash”? Either way, its adjacency to the Gallo Wash, makes “Gallo Campground” an appropriate name. On the mesa north of Chaco Canyon, three “Gallo Wells” stand among the few other human-constructed landmarks. Every drop of fresh water used in Chaco Canyon originates in that sandstone aquifer.
Early in the past decade, the Gallo Wash flooded a portion of the campground. During my September 2007 visit, several low-lying campsites sported yellow tape and barricades. Floods along this Chaco River tributary had damaged the septic system, requiring extensive repairs. If you look at a satellite photo of the campground, long, geometrical berms associated with the new septic system are evident. Used as causeways during wet weather, one of the flattop berms ends at the communal campfire circle.
To their detriment and possible demise, Anasazi visitors and residents stripped the San Juan Plateau of all its timber. Deforestation eliminated extensive root structures, which had long held the soil. Later, cattle and sheep that grazed around Chaco Canyon exacerbated the erosion begun during the Ancestral Puebloan era. Undammed and wild, the Gallo Wash became a twentieth century focus for erosion control projects.
Beginning in the 1930s, the Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) conducted extensive tree planting in the lower reaches of Gallo Wash. By that time, it was too late to save the meandering stream of yesteryear. Today, most of Gallo Wash is a deeply eroded, if somewhat stabilized ravine. Although only treetops are visible from the Main Loop Road, cottonwood trees planted there eighty years ago still flourish. At either end of Chaco Canyon, highway bridges span Gallo Wash. At the eastern bridge, near the confluence of Gallo Wash and the smaller Fajada Wash, you may stop and view full sized trees growing up from the streambed, far below.
Only upstream from the campground does the wash retain the look of a broad arroyo. With scrubby growth stretching from bank to bank, the water table there is closer to the surface. With less soil or sand below that section, floodwaters spread, rather than cutting deeply into the soil. In satellite photos, the larger Gallo Wash stands out as the most highly eroded canyon in San Juan County. Did early exhaustion of timberlands and arable land doom Chaco Canyon to depopulation and eventual abandonment? Today, the grassy wasteland that we see in and around Chaco Canyon tends to say, “Yes”.
The following afternoon, I spent time walking south along a nearby canyon wall. Other than the contemporary toilet facilities, the most prominent permanent feature at Gallo Campground is a humble Chacoan rock house. Unlike the multi-roomed and multi-storied great houses found elsewhere at Chaco Canyon, this structure contains only two small rooms. Tucked under the canyon overhang, most of the structure has stood the test of time. In its heyday, around 1050 CE, what function did this structure serve?
The Chacoan rock house sits near the seasonal stream at Gallo Wash. Perhaps the structure was a granary, overlooking a stream fed cornfield or milpas. Maybe it served as a welcome center or port of entry to Chaco Canyon itself. Northbound, Chacoan visitors had the unique round kiva at Kin Klizhin to welcome them. For southbound visitors, the campground may have served much the same purpose that it does today. Then, as now, the site provided a final rest before viewing the great houses at Chaco Canyon.
As I continued my campground tour, I felt and then saw the spirit of the ancients on the walls around me. Whether decorating the canyon walls with pictographs and petroglyphs or building a small granary, the ancients imbued their outdoor areas with sacred art. As with many of the structures at Chaco Canyon, the rock house at Gallo Campground displayed an anthropoid image to me. Using its windows, air vents and roof beam holes, this little structure exhibited a face with character equal to its age.
As I approached the canyon wall, a variety of rock art images leapt out at me. One of the more obvious examples was a red ochre painting of a man. A pair of slim antennae emanated from the top of his head and a male organ pointed downward. Standing spread-eagle, this ancient Vitruvian Man predated Leonardo Da Vinci’s by five hundred years. As with so many ancient spirits, he had evolved over the past 1000 years. With two small rivers of gold flowing over his body, I noted that his stone cranium was proportionally larger than that of current humans. Perhaps the longer a spirit lingers on a Chaco Canyon wall, the greater consciousness he or she attracts.
My next stop was under the overhanging wall. There, water and minerals have seeped through porous sandstone, leaving their unique mark. If you study the Gallo Campground, you will find that both wind and water play a continuing role in the shaping the local landscape. Since the ancients last viewed it, this perennially damp wall has been sand blasted by one thousand years of storms.
As I stepped back, the erosional rock formation (image above) revealed its ancient essence to me. With the profile of a Mayan warrior in headdress, a face appeared. His large left eye seemed to spy me at the same time that I saw him. We both looked startled, I am sure. Regaining our respective composure, I asked if I could photograph him and share his story with the world. In silent ascent, he posed ferociously, if a bit comically for my lens. Oh, the stories he might tell of campfires and revelry at Gallo Campground, both past and present.
Soon, I reached the end of the cliff wall, where I discovered a cave large enough to shelter a family from the elements. When a freestanding slab of sandstone tilted, and then came to rest against the canyon rim, the cave established itself. Not knowing what wildlife might be lurking inside the cave; I remained outside.
As I completed my circuit of the campground, I could see Fajada Butte rising in the distance. The lowering angle of the sun reminded me of other plans. By then, there were less than three hours before sunset. My planned trip around the Main Loop Road at Chaco Canyon would take most of that time. Although the loop contains only nine miles of paved road, I hoped to stop and visit other Ancestral Puebloan spirits along the way. During a previous visit to Pueblo Bonito, I had discovered a cleft-rock frieze that I called “Lizard Man”. Had Lizard Man sloughed off in a recent rock slide, or did he patiently wait there for my return? I could not wait to find out.