The archaeologist Stephen Lekson believes Paquimé is the final ceremonial/political outpost, following consecutive abandonments at Chaco, Salmon, and Aztec — sites in northern New Mexico. His arguments unfold in an immensely readable book, The Chaco Meridian: Centers of Political Power in the Ancient Southwest. Whether or not Lekson’s hypothesis is valid, there is abundant evidence of strong links between Paquimé and various sites in what is now the Southwest United States.
I’m not an archaeologist. I took a trip first to Paquimé and then to Chaco to understand how the experience of visiting two UNESCO World Heritage sites that are separated by 400 miles (600 km) and one mostly menacing border. (I’m excluding the US Antelope Wells Station, of course) and understanding how other things, such as location and the way they are operated, effects the visitor experience.
Chaco is 3:13 northwest of Albuquerque and 154 miles, according to Google Maps. Park officials commented to me that to go to Chaco you have to want to go to Chaco. The NPS website makes it clear that Chaco is not a destination for the uncommitted flaneur:
Chaco Canyon is located in northwestern New Mexico. The preferred and recommended access route to the park is from the north, via US 550 (formerly NM 44) and County Road (CR) 7900, and CR 7950.
Warning: Some of the local roads recommended by map publishers and services using GPS devised to access Chaco are unsafe for passenger cars. Please use our written directions below to avoid getting lost or stuck.
From the north, turn off US 550 at CR 7900–3 miles southeast of Nageezi and approximately 50 miles west of Cuba (at mile 112.5). This route is clearly signed from US 550 to the park boundary (21 miles). The route includes 8 miles of paved road (CR 7900) and 13 miles of rough dirt road (CR7950).
National Park Service officials were extremely helpful with my research for this project and arranged for me to stay in park housing for two nights. The alternative to that would have been sleeping in my rented car, which would have been extremely uncomfortable, with nighttime temperatures dipping to a level a wee bit above freezing.
The 8 miles of paved road and 13 miles of rough dirt road don’t sufficiently reflect the degree of isolation. One can’t go to the Chaco visitor center and buy a hamburger or a pack of Twinkies. I did hear there’s a Coke machine there (although I didn’t see it), but that’s about it for nutrition available for purchase. The nearest real grocery store is 42 miles north on US 550 in Bloomfield (after the 21 miles journey from the park).
I was approaching from the south, so I made sure to stop at the sole supermarket in Cuba, New Mexico, more than 78 miles from Downtown Chaco, Mickey’s. (The big plastic sign out front, however, identifies it as Cosmos.)
I also ate at Presciliano’s Cafe, on the north end of town and had a delicious breakfast of eggs, potatoes, carne adovada, and tortillas. I enjoyed the meal and dispute the review on Urban Spoon that says “Don’t bother eating here. McDonalds is a better bet.” Plus, as I was leaving, two officers from the NM State Police were entering, which I viewed as a good sign. As the cops entered I was being approached by a totally inebriated Indian woman who was trying to sell me three necklaces. (My AAA road map tells me Cuba sits between the Zia Pueblo and Jicarilla Apache reservation.) Two were simple strands of a) turquoise or b) abalone. A third was a gaudy affair with silver, turquoise, and coral. That one was $20. The other two were only $10. I asked the cashier/waitress if that was a good price and observed that it certainly was compared to the $10 another Indian woman who had been in there moments ago wanted for some flimsy little earrings. So I bought my first souvenirs. Evidently this kind of trade is pretty common there, and I was happy to do my part to boost the local economy.
Cuba appeared to be a reasonably lively place. The mile or so stretch of 550 passing through the village includes at least seven restaurants, according to Urban Spoon, plus the McDonalds, which I would bypass. Other notables are El Bruno Mexican Restaurante (accent on the e), the Cuban Cafe, and Del Prado Cafe. The town features several relatively ancient motels, which appear to remain active, given the absence of chain operations.
Stocked up on bananas, peanut butter, jelly, tortillas, sourdough bread, apples, Coca-Cola, bottled water, and packaged fruit pies, I headed up the road toward Nageezi.
The principal path to Chaco takes one up the magnificent US550 (butter smooth with wonderful sweeping curves and fabulous vistas), then transitions to CR 7900, a serviceable two-lane affair, and then results in the final dirt stretch. About half of that final stretch is smooth, but the other half is assumes the proverbial washboard surface. As one approaches the park, the bumps become more pronounced.
(Someone mentioned that the washboard effect is caused by car suspensions. An initial abrupt stop or other action creates a first dip, which spawns new dips as the next vehicle hits the first dip and its suspension responds. Eventually the road winds up looking like what is depicted above, the segment just prior to entering the park.
Whether deliberate of unintentional, there is a distinct transition as one follows this principal path into Chaco. It reminded me of the deliberate transitions in place at Disney World, where visitors (they call them “guests”) typically arrive in massive parking lots and then are transported by fake paddlewheelers, motorized trams, monorails, until they arrive at the so-called Magic Kingdom.
Visitors to Chaco know they’ve arrived when their car, truck, or motorcycle is once gliding over smooth blacktop.