Monday, February 7, 2011

A Date at Chaco Canyon with Matthew, My Love - Revised

Matthew thought I should have set up this post with a little more detail about our preparation for that first trip to Albuquerque together. He claims I made him run out with me at 9pm the night before we left, so I could buy a new outfit in which to meet his folks. My sister Annie was in collusion with this last ditch effort to dress to impress, and I bought a pink shirt and capri pants, he says. I find this detail highly suspicious. First, because it's very doubtful a man would remember an outfit his wife bought a month ago, let alone ten years after the purchase. Second, because I'm no great fan of capri pants. But leaving that alone, the only other thing I will say about the journey west to meet my new folks is that west Texas is pretty ugly. No, not pretty. Just ugly. And forlorn. And I've seen it many times since.

I'm thinking about decades and milestones and how I still feel in many ways like that young girl who traveled from San Antonio to Albuquerque with her fiance to meet his parents ten years ago this March.

And I'm wondering at the fact that we have four children now.

With a smile I'm recalling what Matthew's parents asked me on that first introduction to New Mexico, "Is there anything you'd like to see?"

Later I bet they wished they'd never asked that question. You see, I didn't say, "Oh, Santa Fe would be nice," or "How about Old Town Albuquerque?"

I knew exactly what I wanted to see, even though I had no clue how far away it was. I wanted to see Chaco Canyon where a whole slew of ancient and beautiful Native American pueblos stood. I'd recently seen a documentary on PBS about the ruins, about the exciting discoveries being unearthed there, some even that suggested cannibalism could have occurred. I knew the archaeological dig was still in progress, and that thrilled me.


Day-picking, plans-laying, map-spreading preparation had to be done for such an excursion. But they had, after all, asked.

On the appointed day we headed northeast toward Sante Fe in my mother-in-law's jeep, stopping at a little restaurant in Bernalillo where Matthew's parents treated us to breakfast. I thoroughly enjoyed my oatmeal with caramel ice cream. Then we skipped across the road to look at all the kachina dolls and turquoise and pottery for sale in the ubiquitous shops they have here in the Southwest. We hopped on another highway, heading northwest now, and some time later we were on a dirt track headed for the great houses of the thousand-year-old ruins.

I say dirt track, because to say road implies a smooth and well-maintained trail of transport, and this was by no means smooth. The track was narrow and there were deep ruts in it. After a good haul of bouncing and jangling on such a trail, Matthew's dad decided to speed up. At this point the road ceased to be a track through the desert and became a mild roller coaster. With every rut or hole in the road, Matthew's and my head were launched toward the ceiling, a few times making contact and at other times spared by our upraised hands pushing back against the roof of the vehicle. We laughed like two teenagers on a carnival ride, but I also began to get the impression that my father-in-law either loved speed or that he really hated that he had agreed to such a hair-brained trip. I don't think it helped that between bonks on the ceiling, his son was attempting to canoodle with me in the backseat of the car. I was already feeling the angst coming from the front seat, so I hissed, "Matthew!" many times while giving my lover boy hard looks, my eyes popping in an attempt to dissuade his amorous advances.

It didn't help when Matthew's mom said, "Okay, cut it out back there!" without even lifting her head from a book, and Matthew just grinned at my flushing face.

It must have been three plus hours after starting out that we parked at the visitor's center in the high desert and began to traverse the trails. Matthew and I borrowed jackets from the back of his parents' vehicle - so like them to always be prepared for anything. The only thing we weren't prepared for was the fact that the visitor center had no snacks, so we pulled out suckers (years old?) from the jacket pockets to tide us over.

As we navigated the extraordinary ruins, I for one was giddy. It was my first close encounter with ancestral puebloan ruins. The complex of great houses, all oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions, was extensive. The great houses themselves were large. Pueblo Bonito, just one of many, contained 800 rooms at one time. And all the magnificent Chacoan ruins, sacred to the descendants of the Anasazi - including the Navajo peoples, are rimmed round with beautiful mesas. Long ago, there were many roads leading from Chaco Canyon to other great houses in the region; it appears to have been central to the region's ceremonial, economic and administrative activities.

I confess I wasn't thinking about all that historical significance, though. Okay, maybe I was gaping now and then at the thought that these structures helped feed the social needs of a culture that flourished hundreds of years before, but I was more or less intuitively sopping up the atmosphere of Chaco Canyon, as if my eyes and feet were parched sponges.

We were the only visitors, and the day was unusual, seeming to cast us on the whims of the ghosts of the place, for one moment it would feel warm enough to remove our jackets; a few minutes later, large ethereal flakes of snow would drift down from the dancing clouds.

We only saw a portion of the ruins, mainly exploring Hungo Pavi and Pueblo Bonito, but they are by far the most outstanding puebloan ruins I've ever seen. Granted, I've only gazed upon Montezuma's Castle and crept about Tuzigoot since (both in Arizona), but neither one of those compares even remotely in size to Chaco Canyon.

We left after wandering around the trails connecting the ruins for what could have been hours. I was so smitten by the experience of being surrounded by that remarkable ancient architecture, of catching glimpses of rooms where archaeologists were excavating, that I'm not sure exactly what time it was. I do know once we left the track and got back on paved roads, we had to stop for gas. That's when Matthew said suddenly, "Hey, Dad, isn't that a sign up there for I-40?"

Matthew's dad was obviously glad to see that it was, and the way back to Albuquerque was considerably shorter than the journey to Chaco had been.

I've convinced Matthew to take me back there this year, our tenth together. We'll take the short route, though - back to explore the history, the beauty, and a portion of the landscape of our romantic beginnings. Only this time, we'll have four of our immediate descendants trailing us. As it was for the Anasazi, so it is for us. Time marcheth on.

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