On Thursday, May 22, 2008, I departed Chaco Cultural Historical Park and headed northeast, towards the nearest paved road outside the park. Last fall, when I traveled the same dirt road, I was careless about the “washboard” effect that the passage of many vehicles had created along the road. During that trip, I lost a full-length mirror from an inside door of my coach and almost shot the microwave oven out to it secured place in an upper cabinet. This year I slowed to a walking pace whenever I hit a rough patch, of which there were many.
Once I hit dry pavement, I proceeded to north on US-550, which is wide, fast and almost like a freeway. My next destination was Aztec, New Mexico and Aztec Ruins National Monument, located by the Animas River, just upstream from its confluence with the San Juan River, which drains to Lake Powell, along the Colorado River, further downstream. The La Plata River and then the Chaco River are also nearby contributors to the San Juan River, demonstrating the complexity of the landforms and natural drainage of the Colorado Plateau, nearby.
Early Anglo visitors to the area assumed that indigenous people could not have created structures and culture as extensive or advanced as that which they found in northwestern New Mexico and southwestern Colorado. In order to create a match with their preconceived notions, they ascribed the elaborate complex of ruined buildings there to the Aztecs of old Mexico. Likewise, they gave credit to the Spanish conquistador Hernando Cortes by naming the town of Cortez, Colorado after him. Cortez did lead an expedition up through Baja California, but never set foot in either New Mexico or Colorado.
As I arrived at the Aztec Ruins, the rainy weather that had followed me all the way from Chaco Canyon, 65 miles to the south again threatened my tour of the ruins. Luckily, the rain held off just long enough for me to make my personal inspection of these well-preserved structures, some of which retain their original roof structures, even after 800 years of abandonment.
Surely, we should celebrate the pre-Puebloan Indian engineers and architects for such great achievements as the masonry corner-window the great kiva, shown here reconstructed nearly as it stood in 1200 CE. Such was Anglo culture in the second half of the nineteenth century that most considered Indians, contemporary or ancient as a backward and unenlightened.
What we now call the Aztec Ruins were constructed beginning around 1100 CE, which was around the time that Chaco Canyon began its decline. Not ironically, Aztec lies almost due north of Chaco, one to two weeks away by foot travel. Another interesting fact is that Aztec Ruins have many similarities in size, layout and apparent function to the crown jewel of Chaco Canyon, the Pueblo Bonito Ruin. One of the mysteries of the Four Corners region is why the more southerly ancestral Puebloan Chaco culture declined, even as the new development at Aztec expanded on its concepts and thrived.
As I prepared to depart for Durango, Colorado, the young woman at the front desk at Aztec Ruins told me that it had snowed in Durango and that the highway department had closed the highway between Durango and Silverton, Colorado. Consulting my maps, I decided that I would avoid the high country altogether and head for the remote Hovenweep National Monument, just north of the little town of Aneth, in southeastern Utah. With luck and good weather, I could make it to Hovenweep before nightfall.
Traveling north on Highway 491 (formerly the devilish Highway 666), I turned southwest at its intersection with Highway 160, a location dominated by another of the southwest's "Chimney Rock" locations, this one towering to an elevation of 5761 feet. At the turnoff is the most picturesque former gas station in the entire Four Corners region. With its long overhang and stark horizontal lines, this architectural relic gives a lonely and serene look to the grand geographical features that abound, including a long view back to Ship Rock and its thorny peaks, to the east.
Next stop, Hovenweep National Monument, Utah.