Archive for the ‘Four Corners’ Category

I think there is nothing more distinctly Southwestern than our Ancient Puebloan Ruins. Built roughly 700 to 1000 years ago, they dot our sage, rabbitbrush and piñon/juniper mesatops, canyon floors and sandstone cliffs. They lie beneath thousands of mounts of southwest earth, where their stones or adobes have tumbled or melted. They are, it seems, everywhere, especially in the  inhospitable, windblown, inaccessible, drylands.

Autumn Day—Aztec Ruins

Autumn Day—Aztec Ruins

Except for Aztec Ruins National Monument in northwest New Mexico. Located on the everflowing Animas River, it lies 55 miles north of Chaco Canyon. Chaco is one of the most well known ancient puebloan sites, an enormous stone city abandoned by its builders in the 1100s, “discovered” by Richard Wetherill in the early 1910s, and recently “re-discovered” by new age revelers and sun dagger buffs.

Aztec, on the other hand, remains another of the national monuments which is missed by many on their ruins pilgrimages. And that’s too bad.

We visit on a warm, hospitable Indian summer day. Against the New Mexican autumn blue sky, adrift in flame-gold cottonwoods, is etched the enormous ruin which is Aztec, an ancient  community of east and west multistory complexes, on the Animas River’s north bank. At its peak, each unit was up to three stories high and formed a three-sided enclosure around a central plaza, a great kiva, and smaller kivas. (Kivas are round underground rooms used for ceremonial, spiritual and community purposes. They are still found at modern pueblos along the Rio Grande.) Other even smaller kivas are found inside partially excavated West Ruin, a 400 room building, a football field long across its north face.

At first Aztec may have been an outlier of Chaco but as Chaco’s influence waned in the late 1100s, Aztec’s may have risen and, judging by its size and the grandeur of its great kiva, it may have served as a regional trading and ceremonial center.

Visitors see the various ancestral puebloan units as they were when acquired by the National Park Service (NPS). Because of NPS policy, few ruins have been restored, except for necessary stabilization to preserve what remains. (Or, in too many cases, what’s left, after ransacking by amateur “archeologists” and low life pot stealers.)

Not so at Aztec. In the 1930s, Earl Morris, an archeologist with the American Museum of Natural History, returned to Aztec, where he had undertaken the original mapping and excavating of the Aztec mounds, beginning in 1916. On his return in 1934, he supervised the reconstruction of the great kiva, based on his earlier findings. Today, it remains the only reconstructed great kiva in the Southwest and is the largest and oldest of its kind.

Upon descending into this huge (two stories tall, 40 feet in diameter), round, underground architectural feat there can be no doubt of the builders’ incredible skill and dedication when, after all, they were using only stone age tools. The sheer magnitude of the construction is awe-inspiring. The spiritual power held within it is unmistakable. I approach it as sacred space, not in the new age sense, but with a sense of its timeless centering in the earth. The grounded culture and community it embodies are undeniable.

This reconstructed kiva, for me, is the greatest gift of Aztec. Even for those few who are not moved by the huge community ruin, the great kiva confirms that Eurocentric culture isn’t the only culture to achieve greatness.

In this time of incessant noise and instant communication, of  arrogance, the silent walls of Aztec Ruins are a wonderful, and humbling, tonic.


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In September we camped at Hovenweep National Monument. Never heard of it? Don’t feel bad. Most people haven’t, including many of our Southwestern friends. Although it’s been a national monument since 1923, less than one million folks have ever visited.

Hovenweep (Paiute/Ute for deserted valley) straddles the Utah/Colorado border in the Four Corners area, less than 30 miles from Mesa Verde as the crow flies. While much less celebrated than its neighbor, Hovenweep is one of the most fascinating of Ancestral Puebloan ruins. Above pinon dotted canyons, finely masoned towers up to 20 feet high are posted like sentinels watching over the vast mesaland landscape. Those which remain standing are architectural wonders, some perfectly square, some round, some D-shaped. The masonry is exceptional, the stones fitting together with remarkable precision. Many perch directly on the knife edge of sheer canyon walls and seem almost to have grown organically from the mesas.

It’s quiet, definitely off the beaten southwestern loop—a pleasant secret of spectacular ruins and Great Sage Plain.

On our second afternoon we had a desert downpour that rocked our little car and tent. When it stopped around 4:30 pm, we set off for two little-visited ruins, Horseshoe and Hackberry, about six miles north of camp. Down a rutted dirt road we reached the trailhead and skirted across a mesa top toward the ancient towers. Along the trail we watched and were watched back by three gray foxes. When we first spotted them I couldn’t believe they weren’t coyotes. But the large ears, bushy tails and pointy snouts were unmistakable.

Late Afternoon—Hovenweep

Late Afternoon—Hovenweep

But the best came last. On the trip back we looked south across a desert panorama blown clean by rain. Through the fresh washed air we watched as the storm moved off toward Arizona and Utah. From our upland vantage point looking south, we named the mountains along the horizon—San Juans, Ute Mountain, Shiprock, Chuskas, Abajos, La Salles. And there, 85 miles southwest, like a tiny, distant cityscape between the Chuskas and the Abajos, stood Monument Valley, etched against the darkening sky.

That night we slept peacefully beneath the star-filled bowl of desert night. Far away, coyotes howled in the wilderness.

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