The ruin of Kin Kletso at Chaco Canyon
Theorized “solstice crack” in the rock
Dark snow clouds roll in from the West
Winter solstice at Chaco Canyon
—Ty and Barb Belknap
Our friend Denis from Durango, avid river runner and archeological buff, e-mailed an invitation to join him for the winter solstice at Chaco Canyon. He had a theory about a possible archaeoastronomical site that he wanted to check out. We figured that he knew a way to the sophisticated Sun Dagger solstice marker on Fajada Butte.
We went straight to the Chaco Canyon Visitor Center on December 20 after driving sixteen miles into the setting sun on a washboard road off US 550 just east of Nageezi and fifty miles west of Cuba. Our fourteen-year old son, Evan, his friend Jesse, our dog, Ruby, and the two of us were crammed into the Honda with all the sleeping bags and blankets we could carry. The ranger denied with obvious uncertainty that there was anything happening to mark the solstice. After taking our $8 entry fee and $10 camping fee, he said, “Just come back here in the morning and we’ll get you off on the right track.” We couldn’t help but get the feeling that a lot of wide-eyed seekers appear in the canyon to mark the change of season, perhaps at the expense of some sacred sites.
Denis already had the campfire burning when we pulled into the designated camping area at sunset. It was a welcome sight because it gets darned cold in Chaco Canyon in the winter, especially on a clear night like that one. You can always count on good ol’ Denis to get a camp set up right. We hadn’t seen him since a San Juan River trip last spring. We heard that he had suffered a minor stroke, and were glad to see no drool on his chin. He told us he was 98 percent back to normal and we were relieved not to notice what two percent had disappeared.
The tents set up quickly, we huddled around the fire and reheated a pot of chile made that morning. Denis was comfortably set up in his van. He told us that he had been living in the van for several months, ever since returning from rowing the Grande Canyon to find that he had been evicted from the shop where he lived and operated his outdoor equipment business. Homelessness is a minor inconvenience for a man that goes from one one river trip to another throughout three seasons. Denis, well known for his competence and amiability, is sought out by dozens of private rafters every year for outfitting rigs and as a guide.
There was no moon to hide the starlight. We had brought plenty of firewood. Denis explained that the famous Sun Dagger had not been open to tourists for twenty years. Apparently so many people had leaned on the slabs of rock that the dagger of light no longer pierces the petroglyph spirals at the dawn of solstice and equinox. He knew, however, a place down the canyon where a profusion of spiral petroglyphs adorned the wall next to a crack in the rock. His theory, as far as we could ascertain, was that at dawn on the winter solstice, the sun would rise through the crack. This theory was not so far-fetched, considering that the Chacoan great houses were often oriented to solar, lunar, and cardinal directions.
It got so cold that Ruby, the boys, and Ty retreated to their sleeping bags while Barb stayed up and played harmony on the mandolin to some of Denis’s original works on his mountain dulcimer.
In the predawn hour, we were surprised to find that the sky was completely socked in with clouds and the air was relatively warm. Denis was making coffee in the dim light of his van. There were a few places the clouds were starting to break up, so he still planned to test his theory. By the time we got everybody up, we were running late.
We followed Denis at sixty-plus mph down the deserted single lane posted at twenty mph, speeding past the visitor’s center and the massive stone ruins of Una Vida, Hungo Pavie, Chetro Ketl, and Pueblo Bonito. At the trailhead a sign gave notice of the required back-country permit. Denis said he had one. Other signs warned of possible dog violations, as we struggled to keep up with Denis and the pink sky to the east and west heralded the dawn. There was a crack in the wall, but the sunrise was obscured by clouds. We climbed around and looked at petroglyphs obscured by vandals. There was time to wonder what possessed us to come to this place, and, for that matter, why the Chacoans built such an amazing settlement here. Maybe it was enough that we had dropped out of our mechanized world for a moment to pursue something we didn’t understand in the pink dawn. The sun poked through enough for Denis to discount his theory, even though we realized that the solstice was still a day away.
Black clouds rolled in from the west and it started to snow. Knowing from experience that the slick clay roads out of Chaco Canyon should be avoided when wet, we ran past the great houses again and drove back to break camp. The kids slept through the movie at the visitor’s center, and we checked out the exhibits, but never went back to see Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco tour was over by noon, and we left Denis with the usual see-you-on-the-river farewell.
Somebody quipped, “The heck with it, let’s go bowling.” So we drove the two and a half hours back to Bernalillo and the Starlight Lanes at Santa Ana Star casino—another colossal structure for which we can thank our Native American brothers. We all bowled personal bests.
[For more information on Chaco Canyon visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park (National Park Service)]