Chaco Culture

Like Paquimé, Chaco Culture is on UNESCO’s World Heritage List, joining it in 1987 — 11 years before its Mexican cousin (or descendant).  Chaco’s World Heritage designation also includes Aztec Ruins National Monument, 71.8 miles and two hours  due north, in the town that is also named Aztec.

World Heritage is highlighted at Chaco and there is high awareness of it. Good.

I arrived at Chaco a bit after 1:00 p.m. on Thursday, March 29, 2012.  I stopped first at the Visitor Center, where I was warmly greeted by Ranger Landis Ehler, behind the desk.  Landis warmly welcomed me and noted that I’d be sharing his park housing unit with him for the next two nights.  (The other usual occupant would be next door, babysitting for the park superintendant’s dogs, while she was vacationing in Spain).

Entrance to Chaco Culture NHP Visitors Center

Jim Von Haden, Chaco’s Chief of Natural Resources emerged from his office and was introduced.  He took me to meet Teri Jaquez, who is in charge of assigning space to visitors and collecting the $11.28 per night (if I recall correctly) that one has to pay for a room in a rather perfunctory three-bedroom, one-bath house with a view that would knock anyone’s socks off.  I also met head ranger Don Whyte, who provided another friendly welcome. Jim suggested I pop over to Pueblo Bonito, the superstar attraction of Downtown Chaco, where Landis would be conducting a guided tour at 2:00.

Energized by the incredibly warm welcome and by the thrill of finally being in this place, I reinserted myself into my rented Malibu (equipped with sunroof, leather seats, and non-functioning satellite radio), and motored over to the Pueblo Bonito parking lot.

A large group had assembled around Landis, who provided a thoughtful introduction, assisted by photographs contained in vinyl sleeves in a looseleaf binder.  Landis’s preamble included a friendly warning to avoid touching the ruin’s walls. Given the girth of at least half of the tourgoers and the diminutive dimensions of the Pueblo Bonito’s doorways, that admonition soon  proved worthless.

Ranger Ehler provides an introduction to Pueblo Bonito.
Don't touch the walls.

Although Chaco is enormous, encompassing hundreds of sites.  Prevailing theory indicates the “great houses” (complexes with hundreds of rooms) were “impressive examples of public architecture used for ceremony, commerce, and trading when temporary populations came to the canyon for these events.”  (Source Chaco Culture pamplet from NPS.)  I like Landis’s description.  He said Chaco was the Las Vegas of its day.  I haven’t yet begun to study maps to understand the parallels between Chaco and Las Vegas and I probably won’t.  What happens in Chaco stays in Chaco.

These T-doorways didn't stay in Chaco. They are also found in Paquime.

A team of rock art specialists were visiting for the week to instruct the preservationist crew on methods of conserving this early art, much of which has been desecrated over the years by visitors unable to resist the urge to mark their territory in more permanent ways.    (Speaking of which, the visitor brochure includes the following admonitions:  1) Do not collect pottery, plants, or rocks.  2) Do not deface, add to, or alter petroglypshs, pictogrpahs, or rocks. 3) Do not walk, climb sit, or lean on fragile walls. 4) Pets are not permitted to enter cultural sites. 5) Stay on designated trails. 6) All trails close at sunset. 7) Watch out for rattlesnakes. Nothing there yet about pissing on the trail.)

After the Pueblo Bonito tour, I strolled over to visit the adjacent great house, Chetro Ketrl.  As I drifted toward the parking lot I ran into  Jane Kolber and Dabney Ford, the rock art expert in the Southwest and Chaco’s chief archaeologist, respectively.  (Next time I’m in Tappahannock, Virginia, I’ll be sure to look for Dabney Ford Tractor.)  We had a lively conversation about their project, vandalism control, and the visitor experience at Chaco.  They invited me to stop by Jane’s housing unit that evening for dinner.

When I arrived (30 minutes late, at 6:30), I discovered there’s a living Chaco culture of group meals with great food and abundant wine.  I had been prepared to eat a dinner of peanut butter and jelly and was abundantly thrilled to be able to enjoy the nice spread and a couple of glasses of Italian vino.  Equally appealing was the conversation among the shifting cast of characters around the dinner table.  So, as Dabney Ford and Roger Moore left, Don Whyte popped in.  He, like most of the crowd, had a biggie-sized personality and a love for Chaco.

As he enthusiastically ate his dinner, Don entertained us (or at least me) with some stories about his job.  Don is qualified in firefighting (both structures and wildfires), lifesaving, interpreting, and law enforcement.  (Apparently he is the only ranger at the park so qualified, which, I noted, makes him the lone ranger. Don, like many park employees, is Navajo.) To maintain some of these qualifications he must annually prove himself with physical tests.  Right now he is readying himself for these tests by taking daily early morning hikes with 45 pounds of weights strapped to his chest.

He explained how he is adept at multitasking. While taking care of his many duties, Don will occasionally pause for a moment to observe suspected distant vandals, pot shard and rock collectors, and other miscreants.  After he described his logic for watching these potential perps, it occurred to me that he is effectively performing what has become know as behavioral profiling.  I recalled my tour at Logan Airport with the security director who had been schooled by Israeli profiling expert Raffi Ron. Whyte said that his behavioral profiling skills are a direct result of growing up hunting on the rez, where one is constantly looking for things that a bit askew from normal.

Park housing.


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