Tuesday, February 28, 2006
It’s Mardi Gras and I may be at the opposite end of the world at this moment. Although I have been to Chaco Canyon many, many times over the last 20 years, I’m certain I’ve never been here in this combination of circumstances. Sure, the ever present wind is, well, present as ever. The camper rocks like a boat in choppy water. Eight years ago, one side of the canvas blew in from this same wind, sending me home a day early; I hope it holds up tonight.
I left rather late, especially considering it is still winter. I was in Bernalillo a little before 4pm; Cuba about 5pm; the Chaco Visitor Center close to 7pm. I’ve heard people claim to drive here in under 3 hours, but I never have. I notice that the Gary Johnson Memorial Highway (US 550, old NM 44) has a lot of patches. Seems the innovative construction methods and the “insurance” promising perpetual upkeep didn’t get us much more than any other road in NM.
I drove here under gathering clouds, the most promising we’ve had in 3 months. Indeed, rain is not likely but for this storm moving in from Arizona, rain is more likely here, of all places, than in Albuquerque.
I was sure I was too late and it was too dark to photograph Fajada Butte, but, if I’m lucky with the exposure, I may actually have some dramatic photos of Fajada silhouetted in front of clouds barely lit by the setting sun. It was beautiful to see, even if the photos don’t work out.
At the closed Visitors Center, I stood in my headlights calling home as the coyotes called each other. Or were they greeting me?
I don’t think I’ve ever been in Chaco in the rain, though it did snow a couple of tiny pellets on me on the Alto trail one time. Ordinarily, I would not consider heading towards Chaco under threat of rain, but the threat is light and the rain would be a blessing. I’m here seeking that blessing.
I have much to offer: water, tobacco, alcohol, coffee, corn (but no blue corn), even blood.
The most remarkable thing is that I seem to be alone in this campground. My first trip I was one of four — Jas, Tom, Keri and me — in this otherwise empty campground in mid March. We awoke to snow on the tents. Now I am completely alone, except for the coyotes and forces beyond my control. Like that first trip, and many others, I am in #5, under the only significant tree in the loop, with a great view of Fajada beyond the dumpsters.
There are two trailers and one car in the two host spots, but I think they may actually be decoys and unoccupied at present.
In my hasty departure, I forgot my pillow and, more importantly, my flashlight. I particularly missed the flashlight as I tried to determine if the propane tank was properly connected. Uncertain, I had a cold supper of chips and salsa and beer. Let the offerings begin.
I am always conflicted about camping alone. More often, I have the company of my two favorite travelling companions, Mer and Lucky. Heading out alone, I’m drawn to the solitude and complete freedom. On the other hand, I’m a bit of a chicken. I’ve always regarded Chaco as the safest campground in the world, in part because it is usually teeming with people. Now I am alone, utterly alone, but for those forces that rattle my fragile walls.
Well, I do have pepper spray and a sharp stick. If the camper kept grizzlies out (not really tested), the coyotes shouldn’t be too much of a threat. But nothing stands up for long to a determined wind.
I’ve been reading Hemingway with cko’s encouragement. I see why she wanted me to read The Big Two-Hearted River, with its loving account of a man alone in the wilds. Was she also thinking specifically of my experience trout fishing? I took one delicious life before I realized how I would feel being ripped from the glorious waters of Treasure Creek. I threw back the next one, but Hemingway says I may have doomed it with my touch.
An hour or more later, it is just as breezy, though there have been moments of absolute stillness. If anything, as I write this, the wind is picking up. It has just blown over the wicker folding chair, though I think the bike is still leaning against the truck. If my bike is there in the morning, I’ll ride around Downtown Chaco, as I have done only once before.
This morning, on my walk with Lucky around Altura Park, I heard the Altura road runner mournfully calling from a tree. Then I saw another road runner trot with some curiosity in that direction. Rivals or soon-to-be mates?
Just before I drove away from home, our neighborhood road runner ran down the sidewalk in front of the house. Merri and I watched two butterflies on our cactus. Merri identified them as mourning cloaks, brown to almost black with light spots along the lower edge and, just above those, a few blue spots. One lingered on the seemingly dessicated fruit of the cactus — could it possibly find any nourishment there?
I may be in bed by 10pm. It is still above 60 degrees in the camper, though it feels colder (and should be much more so). More than likely it will drop to below freezing overnight.
At 6:30am, it was 41 degrees — not as cold as I predicted. Now, 3 hours later, it is 63.
I set my alarm for 6:30am, but could not manage to get up. Snoozed it a few times before resetting it to 7:30am. Woke up a few minutes before that when I heard a car idling close by and someone walk around the camper. Probably a ranger noting my license plate and bumper stickers for the good of the nation.
A couple of hours later, Gloria, the campground host walked by and also noted my license. We chatted amiably about Chaco, New Mexico and Colorado, where she’s from. She’s an artist and is sketching the canyon for the NPS.
She says the weekend was “busy” with 4 campers. Turns out there were as many here last night; my neighbors were just widely dispersed.
As I sat soaking up equal parts sun and coffee, a few canyon towhees visited. They are very curious and worked their way all around the camper. At one point, I was sure one would enter the camper, so I closed the door. Missed a few great photos, but caught a few involving my coffee filter.
I’ve been thinking about that Hemingway story and, so, titled this journal “Trout Fishing in Chaco,” as much a hat-tip to Brautigan as Hemingway, as well as to the general irony of such a phrase. In Hemingway’s two short stories, I ran across up to a half a dozen unfamiliar words. All were very practical nouns, not prissy adjectives or adverbs. No, wait, there was a word describing a sound that struck me (not to the point of remembrance — how did I ever develop a vocabulary).
I think I have a prejudice against Hemingway, though I’m not sure why — probably his macho image. These stories certainly gave a brilliant impression of the scene — a scene I would love — and the man therein. And, I won’t hold against Hemingway a few turns of phrase that sounded archaic — those would have made him seem contemporary at the time. I will read a bit more.
Wednesday, March 01, 2006
I decided to leave the camper in the CG and bike the whole day. I rode to the VC and got water. While paying my entrance fee ($8) and for another night of camping ($10), I chatted with the volunteer. She says the first 3 miles of the currently-dirt road 7950 will more than likely be paved because the county will use its and state money. The rest of the way (about 18 miles) are more iffy because they will require federal funds and impact studies, including cultural. Seems the current road crossed something historical and that may be a problem in a new review.
The stretch from the VC and Una Vida to Hungo Pavi is a long one without any ruins, as is the return from Rinconada. At Hungo Pavi, I encountered a serious photographer (large camera) from Kentucky. He asked if I’d gotten any good shots and I demurred. How about you, I asked. I don’t really care, he replied. We crossed paths a few more times in the day; he’s up the tent-only loop, as I believe he may have been last night.
I spent a lot of time at Chetro Ketl, my current favorite, and more time than usual at Pueblo Bonito. I tend to think of the noon-day sun as being unfriendly for photos, but I do love the sharp lines of shadows — one wall in sun, one in shade, the demarcation perfect in the corners.
I lunched under the ramada at the trailhead to Kin Kletso, etc. Then I explored Pueblo del Arroyo, another favorite. I think it may have been the last time I was here that my camera batteries died at del Arroyo and I had no spare. Now I have several sets of spares AND a recharger, but this one set has served since home.
I stopped only briefly near Rinconada and a couple of other times, including overlooking the Chaco Wash. Then back to the VC to refill 4 bottles, and on home to #5. It was perfect weather for riding. I was comfortable in long pants and long sleeves the whole time. My bike odometer indicates 11+ miles and a ride time of 1.25 hours (which seems long) — I was gone 4.5 hours.
Back at mid-afternoon, I had coffee and read. I like that many of the people in Hemingway’s stories read and talk about books and authors. Those were more literate times, perhaps.
It felt colder than mid-60’s. About 24 hours after my arrival, the clouds looked even more auspicious than yesterday. I offered the canyon coffee, beer and tobacco. I said “please” for rain. I swear, as I got back into the camper at dark, I heard the tell-tale pricks of rain for 15 seconds.
I was reminded of a solo trip here years ago when I intended to sleep under the stars, as I have a couple of times. As I cooked my dinner, I saw storm clouds to the west. I soon realized they were moving in very quickly. I had just finished raising the tent but not yet staking it when the storm hit. I threw myself and my gear into the tent as the only way to keep it down in the fierce wind, certain I would awake some distance from there in the morning. I don’t really recall the rain, just the wind, but it must have rained in such a storm.
For dinner tonight, I pan-fried a steak with onions and garlic and ate fajitas. Muy sabrosa.
At the moment, I’m thinking I will drive out to the outlier Kin Klizhin below South Gap and head home by noon, possibly with a little side trip near Cabezon. Morning will tell.
At 6:30am, it was 33 degrees — ten degrees colder than the morning before.
The coyotes just sang for the 5th or 6th time that I heard in the past 12 hours. Unusual to hear so many choruses from the same vicinity. I thought I could see movement towards the canyon wall. I love the song dog’s song, but a few times these had a demented and unharmonized sound.
The canyon towhee has been back and tapped, tapped, tapped his feet across the roof, stopping by the vent to inquire. We chatted a moment before the coyote’s last song.
No sooner had I stopped writing last night about the feeble rain, it started to rain slightly more. It was rain for sure, though I doubt it soaked the ground much. Thank you, just the same — a gift is a gift.
Thursday, March 02, 2006
I loaded up, dropped the camper top and headed out at about 9:30am, bidding farewell to the towhees. I ran the laptop in tablet mode plugged into the cigarette lighter with the GPS going, tracking my entire trip home.
Before leaving the canyon, I drove around the loop one last time. Then I headed south on 57 to the unmarked turnoff for Kin Klizhin, which I have been to once before, for my 47th birthday. That road has everything: washboard, ruts, and inclines that threaten to tip the truck over on its side. It certainly is odd that the first sign isn’t until 4 miles in — you really have to have faith until then.
It’s funny that what I remember best from my first visit was that Kin Klizhin has dikes that used to impound water for crops — instead of remembering the ruins themselves. Not only is the location desolate and dramatic, but there are pieces of a 4 story kiva still standing. That reminds me of the tall kiva at Kin Ya’a, though there may be more of this one intact. According to documentation, this wasn’t one 4-story kiva, it was 4 kivas stacked on each other. Hard to imagine. I don’t recall hearing of stacked kivas before, though that may not mean much.
In Chaco, in places, at least, when there were several stories, the lower stories have thicker walls and the walls effectively taper as they rise — seems reasonable. Here, the upper wall is thicker than the lower, as if, inside, they wanted a tapered room, like being in a big pot. This is also an example of a round hole in a square peg; that is, from the outside we have 4 walls and inside we have a round kiva. So much work to get things just so.
I left Kin Klizhin around 12:30pm, beginning my return journey 45 hours after having left home. Having endure such a rough drive to Klizhin, I felt the old South Road couldn’t be worse — and it wasn’t. I still like this route the most; it has more variations in terrain than the north road, twisting and climbing much more.
I hit Navajo 9 and turned east. At the turnoff towards Grants, I headed back towards Cuba instead. This allowed me to stop at Pueblo Pintado for a half hour. I saw two people on horses, including a girl in velvet amid a flock of sheep. The trip from Pintado to Cuba was longer than I remembered. By chance, I passed through Cuba 47 hours after the first time, stopping for gas, fries and coffee before returning on 550. I tithed the parking lot crow 2 fries.
The rest of the trip, at least as far as Bernalillo, was easy going. I stopped once for a photo of Cabezon and its neighboring plugs. I grooved to Talking Heads, and others. Somewhere along the road, I recalled something I read, perhaps from a Buddhist, in which he said, “see that waterfall? For a brief moment, single drops of water fall seeming independent from each other, but in the end they join again in the endless cycle of water. So are our lives.” Apt and beautiful notion or no, it makes me sad. I’m still enjoying the fall.
In Bernalillo, I hoped to avoid the Interstate by taking 318. Unfortunately, I got stuck behind two vehicles that didn’t seem to care that the speed limit was 55 instead of 35. I tried to remind myself of the Kentuckian saying Chaco tells us to slow down. That didn’t quite work.
Wading across town through “rush” hour, I felt “behind” though, as is often the case, I had no schedule, no time to keep (just “dappled and drowsy and ready for sleep” — all is groovy). And, chance or fate, brought me through the pink light and down a side street directly towards my dear Mer and Lucky Dog. Timing is everything. mjh