Dear space, I can't seem to live the way I should, without
loneliness, without passing out, I keep wishing
I knew more about supernovas,
that I had some of your dark energy,
your dark matter, I wonder
if you're expanding or cooling or what
it will look like
when you turn your back toward your own beginning
what fire, what ice,
what will you invent out there..." --Matthew Dickman "Dear Space"
Chaco Canyon is a treasure trove of constellations, canyons, and campfires. Everyone who has visited has esteemed Chaco for it’s magic, it’s history and its vibrant ruins that depict the brazen culture of the Anasazi, advanced in many ways before it’s mysterious disappearance.
Now that I’ve seen it for myself, I can also attest to the strange magic found in Chaco—an old world heartbeat contained somehow in the canyon, something that makes visitors awe and explore despite (this time) the beating sun and unshaded prairie.
The capstone of the Outlaw Summer adventures was months in planning, and turned out to be our most elaborate. Cat and I knew that one of the top on our list was to visit Chaco Canyon, and our Mooncusser posse was made of a few of our close friends—Michael, Pete, and Jamin— who were also very excited to visit Chaco. A few things made this trip perfect: our friends who will never turn down an adventure, Pete’s astronomy lessons and his showing of true pirate colors in search of treasure, Jamin’s camp cooking and perfectly tuned fire lighting magic, Michael’s adventure hat and his wanting of a trip like this for years, and finally, the Perseid’s flinging their light across the Milky Way.
Jamin and I drove North through the Jemez Mountains on the west side of the volcanic Valle Grande through Cuba and then West through the badlands that make up this part of New Mexico. My lite geological research reveals that the Chaco Canyon area was once a by-product of the Rocky Mountain’s formation a coastal land called the Western Interior Basin, which explains the wide canyons and low mesas. The basin was an epicontinental sea way that crossed the North American continent connecting the Arctic Ocean and the Atlantic Gulf.
This topography must have made a lush and rich land for the Anasazi people who settled Chaco Canyon for over 300 years. They are famous among archeological scholars for their architecture as well as their use of astronomy to determine time and seasons. In two hundred years, the Chaco area linked two hundred communities. The cities and kivas in the canyon are built in nearly perfect North/South alignment and they are famous for the relics of archeo-astronomy that have lasted through history like the Sun Dagger petroglyph which measured the summer and winter solstices and the equinoxes in the fall and spring from its hidden perch on Fajada Butte, three hundred feet high. The Anasazi used the Sun Dagger to measure agricultural seasons. The other fascinating relic of Anasazi astronomy is the Supernova Pictograph depicting the burst of the light from the Crab nebula entering our sky in 1054 A.D..
Now, Chaco is a gorgeous but hot desert tundra, without water or shade. In fact, before we left Jamin found pictures of the campsite online and we immediately deemed a sun shade as a highly necessary investment.
Once everyone arrived, we finished setting up the campsite. Pete set up his telescope and we watched the moon change in brightness through the telescope and marveled that it really looks like a land with it’s shadowy craters and ridges of rocky canyons usually so shielded by light
As the sun set, the clouds came in, blocking the view of the stars in twilight. We had campfire burgers, camp vegetables, and s’mores (of course), and by some miracle, the sky opened up.
Sagittarius was the first to rise, just under the moon. In the telescope we saw Jupiter and its four moons, Saturn surrounded by its rings. We saw the summer triangle and began to learn the 'landmarks' of the sky--points of light near points of light that are really so much bigger than we know. , and so many constellations much brighter in this sky than in any city sky. We saw the Pleiades cluster of blue giants, pursued in legend by Aldebaran, the "follower" a red giant in the eye of Taurus, and Albireo, the dual-colored binary stars in Cygnus pulling at each other. We saw the zodiac cross the heavens into the Milky way. Our own galaxy is a shining spine of white stars and the middle a black stripe of cosmic dust blocking the light of countless stars. Lastly, as Orion rose over the canyon walls, we saw the Orion nebula (M42) below the three starred belt at the mid-point of the hunter's sword. The lens allowed us to see the cloud of a thousand stars in the tiny point of light we often see with naked eyes, being that Orion is one of the most recognizable constellations in our sky. In the meantime, the Perseid’s meteors shoot across the sky in every direction and there’s nothing like spending a night looking the this incredible atmospheric window. It’s really indescribable. Just before going to sleep, Pete showed me the Andromeda Galaxy (M31), located between Pegasus and Cassiopeia, in the telescope a blur of the light of one trillion stars spiraling towards the us. In four billion years Andromeda will collide with the Milky Way. Can you imagine the heavens then?
Astronomy puts the study of being 'in place' on a plane of spectacular comprehension. A plane which I'm not fully ready to write about, however, Chaco Canyon seems to be the perfect place to connect the ideas of Time and Space and Place into a nebulous gestalt of how connected Creation actually is and how we don't often realize in the day to day without effort.
We spent Saturday touring the ruins of Chaco, admiring the cliff sides of fossils entrenched with veins of crystals and geodes at Una Vida. The walls harbor petroglyphs that give small insight to the way of life and the geologic time that has passed since men carved shapes into the walls of rocks. We ponder, ‘Why these shapes? Why this family?’ and think about what each of us would carve into a cliffside if we had the tools and hours.
We wandered through the ruins of Pueblo Bonito, passed the petroglyph cliffs that connect to the city of Chetro Ketl and then we drove to the South side of the canyon where the great kiva of Casa Rinconada, once full of prayers and roofed, now rests empty and open—which I guess sends a different kind of prayer to the heavens.
In Casa Rinconada there is another small grouping of dwellings with another kiva. This kiva has three layers, which allowed us to recognize immediately that after so many years, the Anasazi wanted to build a new kiva and another some years after that. Now to us, they look the same age. It was a strange concept to comprehend.
That evening the wind picked up. We took down the sunshade, and moved the camp around. Our dinner was bratwursts and more smoky vegetables and more s’mores. The sky was cloud heavy again and we spent the evening talking about everything from movie titles to our adventures and memories to archeo-astronomy and the Anasazi mysteries.
The stars came out after midnight and we each got up, in turn, to watch them. Coyote songs spun over the mesas, a shrill cutting through the wind.
Sunday morning, after taking down our campsite, we readied for one more hike. The Sun Dagger has been closed for twenty years in order to protect the site from erosion, disappointing, but understandable. While Cat and Michael stayed on a closer trail to look for petroglyphs and treasures, Pete, Jamin and I decided to brave the daunting hike to Penasco Blanco to see the supernova pictograph. It was somewhat over-estimated to be a 4 hour hike, 6 miles back and forth, but we decided to try and see how far we could get before we wanted to go back. It took us 2.5 hours, and though the land was excrutiatingly shadeless, as part of Chaco’s magic: I think I speak for all of us when I say it was completely worth the time. The trail goes along the North side of the canyon and then there is a complete crossover towards the South side cliff topped with the ruins of pueblo Penasco Blanco. At the very end of the trail, we could see the hanging cliff where the pictograph has lived for a thousand years and were momentarily puzzled by the deep wash that split the canyon with gray, clay-like mud and water. After measuring the water we could tell the stream was shallow and the bottom, a sticky quicksand mud.
We could see the cliff.
We wanted to go to it.
It seemed to be that simple.
“How are you feeling?” Pete asked. Jamin’s ready. I'm ready.
All our shoes are taken off and the laces tied around our shoulders.
Pete’s the first one to cross. Then me, and finally Jamin.
The water is cold and the mud is definitely of the quicksand construction, so sticky it suctions our feet only really coating the bottoms of them. Thank goodness for that because we had to walk barefoot the rest of the path to the supernova, and as the mud dried it really turned into some hot lava sand.
Then we saw the supernova, painted on the underside of the cliff, underneath the cave hedge, protected from wind and water and sun, still a brilliant red beside a crescent moon and the artists handprint. Below is a faded two-ringed sun.
It was incredible to see, and really, it connected our entire adventure and our exploration both the heavens and the earth and how time passes in both places, and what space it creates, what memories we have of being in those moments.