Monthly Archives: June 2016

Chaco Canyon: New Mexico’s ancient convention center

Chaco Culture National Historic Park is in remote northwest New Mexico. The drive will take you on twenty miles of dirt roads and beyond cell range. But in this most remote reach of New Mexico lies the crossroads of an ancient culture. In Chaco Culture National Historic Park lies 3,614 recorded archaeological sites, including many massive great houses. The largest, Pueblo Bonito,  has roughly 800 rooms; visitors may walk through the doors and rooms of Pueblo Bonito. The Chaco Culture also built astronomical features into many of their works; some windows align perfectly with the sun on solstice, and some decorations align with phases of the moon.

When Chaco was discovered in modernity, it was thought to be a vast city. Having walked through it, it feels that way. It feels like it could hold thousands. But archaeological evidence suggests otherwise—there is little garbage, and few burials. Massive Pueblo Bonito may have housed only 70 people on a permanent basis. The guides at the park suggest that Chaco might have been a meeting ground, used for trade and weddings and astronomical ceremonies for a small portion of the year. Remnants of cacao from 1200 miles south have been found at Pueblo Bonito. The bones of macaws, native to eastern Mexico, have been found at Pueblo del Arroyo. They apparently didn’t flourish; only the bones of adults were found. So the astonishing quantity of ruins at Chaco Culture Park may be the remnants of an ancient convention center.

Chaco offers an amazing range of ruins, from the many-roomed grand houses to petroglyphs to astronomical markers to ancient stairs and roads. Like Mesa Verde National Park, not so far to the north, the whole site was abandoned in the 1300s, well before European influence. Like Mesa Verde, archaeologists don’t know exactly why the people left. There is evidence of an ancient drought. Some argue for catastrophic deforestation after all the building at Chaco (because all that construction took a terrific amount of timber, some of which still remains in the structures), though there is not consensus.

I grew up in St. Louis, a town once called Mound City for the mounds left by the ancient Mississippian culture. The massive city at Cahokia was also abandoned around the year 1300. A city of 15,000 abandoned, around the population of London at the time, and we don’t know why. It’s easy to live in the United States and think of it as the new world. But these amazing works of ancient people live on quietly. The inconvenient mounds of St. Louis were largely destroyed; those who did so may not have even realized their origin. But the remnants of the Pueblo culture at Chaco remain, mostly protected by their isolation over the years. Though the journey today is easier than it ever has been, Chaco is still hours from the interstate and quiet. As I took in the ruins, I was filled with the same wonder and questions that Cahokia Mounds always presented. Places like Chaco and Cahokia are reminders of humanity—no matter the size of the structures we build, one day people will view the barren remnants and wonder about us. We will walk the same valleys and cliffs, touch the same stones, but we won’t know each others names or voices or values. Ruins like Chaco remind of us of our place in the universe, and how beautiful and belittling that can be.

 

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The stars through my tent at Chaco Culture Park. Chaco is one of the night sky parks, where the darkness of the sky is specifically preserved through lighting choices and such. In light of the ancient Pueblo interests in astronomy, it seems appropriate.

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Sunrise at the camp site.

Book review: The Six-Gun Tarot (R.S. Belcher 2013

There are no spoilers in this review beyond what you’d find in the first few chapters.

Rating: 4/5

I chose to read The Six-Gun Tarot by R.S. Belcher for two reasons: one, I’ve read more western-based science fiction since I moved west, and two, I met Rod Belcher and heard him speak about the book twice. Belcher was such a pleasant and interesting person that I made note of his book, even though Six-Gun Tarot is more fantasy than I usually read (my friend Stephanie Hunter called the genre “paranormal western”). I really enjoyed Six-Gun Tarot and want to read more in this universe.

Six-Gun Tarot is set in a small 1880’s mining town in Nevada called Golgotha. The reader sees through the eyes of a dozen characters. The cast is refreshingly diverse for a western tale; we meet a teenage boy fleeing his crimes in West Virginia, an American Indian deputy, a death-defying sheriff, a housewife who’s more than she seems, a German butcher with a terrible burden, a Mormon mayor struggling to accept himself, and more. From the get go, you know that Golgotha is abnormal. The deputy is part coyote, the boy has a Chinese talisman; everybody is magic in their own way, and watching them work together was fun. I sometimes find fantasy snobbish: Harry Potter is special and muggles aren’t; Piers Anthony’s Xanthians are just plain better than the mundanes. I suppose the reader is meant to imagine themselves as one of the special ones, but so far I have not discovered magical acumen. Anyways, I felt that Six-Gun Tarot handled this aspect of fantasy well. The characters cared about action, not a sense of personal destiny or power.

Golgotha is one hell of a place; it was my favorite part of the book. The characters casually mention previous disasters; babies getting drained of blood and people going mad. And there’s something just not right up under the mountain… Golgotha feels wonderfully western and weird. It made me think of Carrizozo, one of the haunts of Billy the Kid, or of Tularosa, stuck between mountains and a desert of gypsum. For me, Golgotha was the protagonist. It draws odd people. We learn about its bars and its neighborhoods and its residents. We learn its geography. Belcher’s language really suits the setting. At one point, he describes the sunset as resembling a bruise. The only parts of the book I enjoyed less are the ones set outside of Golgotha.

Basically, Six-Gun Tarot was a fantastically fun read. If you like paranormal, you’ll probably like it. I almost exclusively don’t like paranormal. But great writing and memorable characters and setting can enliven any story. It was fun to enjoy a read outside my normal wheelhouse.

 

One year a New Mexican

A year ago this week, I arrived in the Land of Enchantment and called myself a New Mexican. Since then, I’ve seen a lot and learned a lot, much of it I have posted here at this blog. More than I could ever fit into a single post. So instead, I include 24 of the 24,000 pictures I’ve taken since I moved to this lovely state. They are images of architecture, culture, geography, wildlife, weather,industry, and celebration from all around New Mexico.

Happy anniversary to me. New Mexico, I can’t wait to see what you show me in the next year.

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Surprises out west: Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument

Last week, I traveled through eastern Colorado, hitting Pike’s Peak, Rocky Mountain National Park, and the Great Sand Dunes. But the biggest surprise was a tiny national monument in central Colorado—Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument. Florissant Fossil Beds has provided fossils to the scientific community for over 100 years; an estimated 40,000-50,000 specimens of some 1500 species. As a visitor, you learn about how the fossils at Florissant formed and the era from which they came. The visitor center is full of great science and amazing fossils. A fossil learning lab is open from 1PM to 3PM. The most impressive part, though, are the massive petrified redwood stumps. The largest is 41 feet in circumference and about 10 feet high.

Scientists started coming to Florissant to document fossils in the 1870s. Unfortunately, tourists flocked to the site as well, fascinated by the redwood stumps and petrified wood. Once upon a time, petrified wood littered the landscape. Now, visitors take in the big stumps alone. The biggest stump has two blades still embedded in it, remnant of when someone tried to chop it up to sell pieces out east. Two tourist companies staked out the site and competed bitterly over traffic. One left nails at the other’s entrance; they also literally got into a shooting match.

Federal protection came very late for Florissant. Despite calls for conservation going back at least to the 1890s, it took until the 1969 for the site to gain national monument status. Before that, people wanted to divide the site up for houses. Environmentalists faced down bulldozers. Standing in the empty fields of Florissant, over an hour west of Colorado Springs and really in the middle of nowhere, it was hard to imagine why the area needed more houses. By contrast, Petrified Forest National Park gained National Monument status in 1906. When you visit Arizona’s Petrified Forest, they will tell you how much petrified wood has left the park through tourism—Petrified Forest is still littered with petrified wood while Florissant is not.

I learned a lot about fossils and fossil formation at Florissant Fossil Beds. I marveled at the great tree trunks, wondering how many more must lay still buried around me. But I think I was most struck by the story of conservation at Florissant Fossil Beds. The monument covers the fight to preserve Florissant, but it can’t editorialize. Florissant is a microcosm of when capitalism and general human interest don’t align. Many of our national lands tell the story of where the human interests won. Florissant tells a story where that interest emerged on top at the very last possible moment; I felt wistful wondering how many marvels wandered away with all the care of a tourist buying a souvenir shot glass.

If you find yourself in central Colorado, stop by Florissant for a visit. The stumps are truly other-worldly. I learned a lot about fossils. And I took a pleasant hike through an alpine meadow in the shadow of Pike’s Peak. The park implores us to imagine what the meadow was like 30 million years ago when the valley was in the flow path of a volcano. I also found myself imagining the place as a virgin bed of paleontology 150 years ago.

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41 foot circumference petrified tree stump

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Pike’s Peak!

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