Pueblo del Arroyo ruin at Chaco Culture National Historical Park, New Mexico. © Randall K. Roberts

Originally published: July/August 2017

Between Chimney Rock in Colorado and northern New Mexico is a region where an ancient political system once thrived—one more sophisticated than previously understood.

By Kerrick James

When I was young, my family road-tripped to Durango for visits with relatives, and on these westbound drives, we passed by the looming landmark called Chimney Rock, near Pagosa Springs. Back then, I thought nothing about the resourceful people who lived centuries ago in its shadow, trading with their “cousins” in the high desert canyons of the southland we now call New Mexico.

As a teen, I roamed Four Corners and the greater Southwest, still unknowing, following without understanding in the very path that Ancestral Puebloans built and traveled.

Last September, I returned to Chimney Rock, now as a more inquisitive adult, to satisfy my growing curiosity about these hardy ancestors. Yet, despite more than a hundred years of exploration and analysis, with new discoveries every year, so many questions remain unanswered: How far did trade take the Ancestral Puebloans, why did they abandon their homes, and where did they relocate?

The Southwest may once have been a bit wetter landscape than today, supporting more than 225 sustainable Ancestral Puebloan sites. “One of the most intriguing concepts in Chimney Rock archaeology is that the inhabitants of Chimney Rock were part of a larger regional community centered at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico,” per the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association (CRIA). These plateau folks thrived for centuries, through the mid-1200s, and they left, never to return.

On my visit in September, I joined 60 other reverent and curious gazers on the sharp ridge next to Chimney Rock. We gathered at the Great House Pueblo and Kiva—a wide ring of rock that served as a worship space, with rooms that housed elite guests. We weren’t royalty; we were students, listening and learning about the first occupants, the past coming alive in a mix of dying daylight and ethereal moon glow. At 7,600 feet of elevation, with a 360-degree view, this is indeed a place for reverence.

Charlie Martinez plays flute at the full moon music ceremony atop Chimney Rock National Monument. © Kerrick James

Charlie Martinez, 53, a Jicarilla Apache-Navajo musician, added his flute to our experience of the harvest moon.

Born in Pagosa Springs to Catholic parents, Martinez began playing guitar at age 8, but it was when he reached 27, Martinez told EnCompass, that he received “gifts” from the Creator—the ability to build and play the flute, without formal training. While performing on an open mic night, patrons praised his work, inviting him to perform during full-moon ceremonies at Chimney Rock. This year will be his 18th doing so.

“The melody I play during a night when the full moon is scheduled to rise invites the moon to appear,” Martinez says. “The moon will rise whether I play or not, but sometimes it will disappear behind a cloud, and I will play. It will reappear, and that delights people.”

Most visitors experience healing from his melodies, Martinez says. “They say the music connects them with the Spirit, and releases them from a state of depression.”

“Not everyone will like it,” he says. “A medicine man told me that I might play for 100 people, and the music will touch just one with the power of medicine.”

Ancient commerce, and new

Guided Tour Groups gather near Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, N.M. © Quade Smith

Scholars cite evidence that during the 11th century, the Chaco region was a “destination for visitors, traders, and pilgrims.” Chimney Rock may have been established as a trade center, supplying timber products to the treeless lands in the south. More than 400 miles of prehistoric roads networked the Chaco region to the many outlying communities. They were real roads, engineered and maintained.

Stephen Lekson, Ph.D., professor of anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, and author of Chaco Meridian (Lanham, Md.: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), says that the ancients signaled by smoke from fire boxes atop this ridge to neighbors in line of sight atop Huerfano Mesa, a sacred site in both ancient and modern eras, in northern New Mexico. They in turn would relay messages farther south to Pueblo Alto (Chaco Meridian, pp. 201, 202-203). This is tantalizing conjecture of an early communications system, eight centuries before the telegraph united the American states.

“Chaco meridian” refers to the fact that three ancient political capitols—Aztec and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, and Paquimé, Cassas Grandes in the Mexican state of Chihuahua—lie along the exact same meridian (north-south line that encircles the Earth).

“Chaco—a dry canyon in northwestern New Mexico—was central to a region with a few tens of thousands of people, who were from time to time buffeted by drought,” Lekson wrote in “Diffusions and histories,” a July 2013 post on his blog, stevelekson.com. “Yet, in this unpromising region, Chaco developed as a small city of perhaps 3,000 people, marked by a half-dozen masonry ‘Great Houses’—structures that took local traditions of domestic architecture and scaled them up to palatial dimensions. Noble families lived in the Great Houses. Substantial quantities of corn, pottery, building materials, and other goods flowed into Chaco to support the nobles and the social undertakings centered in the city. Noble families distinguished themselves from commoners both by their Great Houses and—more central to our theme here—by the conspicuous display of powerful objects, foodstuffs, and animals obtained from distant Mesoamerica: tropical birds, cacao (chocolate), metal artifacts, and many other things. These objects confirmed the nobles’ status, a common tactic in secondary states around the edges of major civilizations. Turquoise, controlled by Chaco and highly valued in Mesoamerica, paid for potent political symbols. Chaco flourished for a time, before being laid low by drought. Chaco was the first and last political system in what would become the Pueblo Indian world. There were no precursors, and no successors. Chaco became a memory for modern Pueblo people, who never attempted (nor wanted) another capital city. Chaco’s story, of course, is more complicated and interesting.

“Chaco, a starter-kit kingdom on the edge of empire, needed anything it could use to legitimate and bolster its fledgling nobility—always precarious because of the harsh Chacoan environment. With turquoise and Mesoamerican prestige goods, Chaco nobles could ‘buy’ legitimacy,” Lekson concluded.

Even with this much evidence, so much of Chaco culture remains a mystery, in part because it lacks written records, which allows my mind to imagine more freely than certainty would allow, and that’s why I’ll return time and again.

Guests linger in the circular lobby of Hotel Chaco, new to Albuquerque’s historic Sawmill District. The space is designed to reflect the Puebloan architecture in Chaco Canyon—with its floor-level centerpiece a bronze sculpture, “Oneness,” by Joe Cajero of Jemez Pueblo, Sandoval County; and above, a giant glass oculus designed by Tammy Garcia, renown Pueblo potter. © Minh Quan

The last three miles of dirt road into Chaco Canyon is deeply rutted washboard, so when I return, I’ll stay in a new Albuquerque hotel, Hotel Chaco, that offers narrated rides to the canyon. I’d rather their vehicle’s suspension take a beating than mine. Lunch for the all-day trip is catered by the hotel.

At press time, the luxury hotel anticipated a AAA inspection and hoped for a high-count AAA Diamond rating. Located in Albuquerque’s Historic Old Town, the hotel is the centerpiece of the developing Sawmill District, a former industrial landmark that in 2018 will include restaurants offering local culinary traditions, a growers’ market, art galleries, and high-end retail.

The hotel opened in May, offering 118 rooms, with the focal point in each room a Navajo rug designed for the hotel by the Toadlena Trading Post, established in 1909—one of the last active weaving communities on the Navajo reservation.

The building itself is aligned with the sun’s movements. Its southern walls feature deeply recessed windows (and a wide balcony) to protect guest rooms from excess heat in the summer, while large windows on the northern side allow the low winter sun to warm interiors.

The circular lobby’s ceiling features a giant glass oculus surrounded by wooden beams in a traditional Hogan pattern. The concrete floor is unevenly polished to show the granite pebble aggregate that hints of a riverbed. On the fifth floor is a patio with an unparalleled view of Albuquerque.

Like I said, I’m coming back, and the next trip will be even better than before.

Kerrick James, an Arizona freelance writer/photographer, says he will join Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s Haynie Site project this summer.

Additional reporting by Tom Hess, Editor of EnCompass.




Plan for fun

Access to some Chaco culture sites and activities is limited, and requires advance planning:

  • Great Houses were not common, but two new great houses have been discovered at a site northwest of Cortez being excavated by Crow Canyon Archaeological Center staff and volunteers. The only way for the public to see the site is as a volunteer with CCAC.
  • The Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, 111 miles south of Chimney Rock in Nageezi, N.M., offers a nine-mile, two-way driving and cycling loop that takes you to several Puebloan ruins—among them Chetro Keti, Pueblo Alto, Kin Ketso, Pueblo del Arroyo, and Pueblo Bonito.
  • Every 18.6 years, the moon rises between the twin spires that give Chimney Rock its name, with the next event in 2022. Full Moon ceremonies allow only 100 people, by reservation only.

Pagosa Springs is the closest Colorado town to Chimney Rock, and offers a variety of AAA-rated lodging and dining (check the AAA TourBook for Colorado, available at all 11 AAA Colorado retail stores.