I first heard of Chaco Canyon over 12 years ago and never forgot the name. I knew it was in New Mexico and it was sacred land but that was about all. It seemed I would get there someday for it called me. I waited until the time was right. It isn’t an easy place to visit. You can go as a day trip from Albuquerque but it is a three hour drive and the last 15 miles or so are on unpaved roads. The only way to spend much time there is to camp in the small campground and I’m not much of a camper. Our tour leader arranged for us to go “glamping” for the night so we could be there for equinox sunrise.
The 15-passenger van picked us up 8am from Hotel Chaco, a new hotel designed to represent the architecture and feeling of Chaco Canyon. Our guide was very knowledgeable about history and geology, but I soon found myself really wanting to enjoy the land. So I put on my headphones and slipped into a gentle reverie of music and exotic landscape. Every few miles the ground changed and yet stayed the same–beautiful barren layers of brown and deep blue sky. By noon we arrived at the Visitors Center and had looked around before heading outside and on a small hike up a hill to see a ruin and petroglyphs of animal and spirals—a first taste of the wonders of Chaco Canyon and a preview of the afternoon.
After a picnic lunch were a large, friendly crow offered to help with the leftovers, we went to the main ruin Pueblo Bonito. The Chacoan people built on a grand scale for over 300 years. Their buildings had hundreds of rooms with several stories, surrounding open plazas and kivas. Some of the buildings were oriented to solar, lunar and cardinal directions. Chaco Canyon become a ceremonial and economic center by the early 12th century. This was a sacred place and the energy still remains. Most of the ruins have just a story or two remaining and only one original roof remains. We wandered around the multi-acre site admiring the unique stone work. I enjoyed the contrast between stone and the intense blue sky that has replaced the roof.
By late afternoon I was getting chilly and ready to see the special camp. Our wonderful tour guides Angelisa and Tommy set up new circular tents that blended into the sand. Inside each tent was arranged a bed with fluffy pillows, bedside tables complete with flowers and a special tin filled with glamping necessities. I happily spent the rest of the afternoon snuggled in my little cocoon reading and napping.
The sun went down and it quickly grew very cold. We had a gourmet supper followed by s’mores around the campfire and we stayed close to the fire to keep warm. Choco Canyon has a protected night sky. No light pollution is allowed, and any city lights are too far away to interfere. Only a few times in my life have I seen a sky like that night. The moon was a sliver crescent with Venus nearby. The rest of the night sky was deep black with the Milky Way slicing deep through the middle. I had many opportunities to see that amazing night sky as I was awake every hour of the night. It was a very long cold, cold night—-a new definition of cold. Glamping would have been perfect for a summer night but we didn’t have quite the right equipment for 12 degrees. But like all good pilgrimages, the triumph and cheerful survival of the cold added to the story and experience.
Before dawn we were all up and getting ready for the main event—sunrise. Fortunately, hot coffee was brewing, the bathroom was heated, and the van was warmed-up and waiting. We didn’t have to worry about changing clothes as we had all slept in every stich of clothing we brought. Some of the campers did have to use the hand-dryer to thaw out their contact lenses which froze solid in the cold. With coffee in hand we headed back to Pueblo Bonito along with a total of 100 people allowed to experience the equinox sunrise and accompanying alignment. Just as the sun rises, a shaft of light shines through a doorway and illuminates the sacred inner room. This phenomenon is only seen once a year for just a couple of minutes. A large group was already lined up to see this special shaft of light but I was quite content to see a photo of it rather than be jostled in the crowd. I felt my experience was just to be there in that holy canyon on that morning. So I went and stood near a Navajo grandmother who was performing a ceremony to welcome the sun. In her right hand she held a small rattle which she started shaking the minute the sun started peaking over the mesa. In her left hand she held an eagle wing and a small pan flute which she would play every minute or so. I was happy to experience this miracle of the sun and this wise woman who welcomed the light to the world.
photo by V. Budayr
Before long the sun was well above the mesa and the crowd quickly dispersed. I enjoyed the warm sunshine as long as I could before it was time for a hot breakfast. Part of the group went hiking and to practice some yoga poses and a couple of us headed near a mesa to build an impromptu medicine wheel and give thanks for our wonderful time in Chaco Canyon.