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Back from a week of exploring ancient ruins with lnhammer — specifically, the 500-1200 year old remains of towns and cities at the Gila Cliff Dwellings, Chaco Canyon, Aztec, and Bandelier, all in New Mexico — all with lots of raven-filled, star-lit camping along the way.

Going from the Gila Cliff Dwellings to Chaco Canyon was especially striking. The former were built in a valley along the Gila River (one of the last year-round rivers in the west), against a backdrop of sheer cliffs and tall pines and (below) bright cottonwoods — a place where things grow, a place where you could see wanting to settle and farm and raise children. Though it was likely only a single extended family that did settle there, and only for a generation.

And then, after a couple days camped by that river, we drove to Chaco … and found ourselves in a rocky windswept canyon where the trees are sparse and the river never had year round water, not even 1200 years past, when building there began. Coming from the Gila Cliff Dwellings, I looked around and wondered: why would anyone build here? Because Chaco was a beautiful place — but it wasn’t a place where things live.

Yet the complex at Chaco Canyon was huge — a city, not a town. Hundreds and thousands of rooms in dozens of great houses, some of them four and five stories high, their broken pink brick walls yet reaching for the sky. Many of those rooms were empty, much of the time: with only a few thousand year-round occupants — but seasonally, there may have been many more. Public architecture, was the phrase we heard over and over again, only know one knows what the purpose of that architecture was, because the Chacoans (aka the Ancestral Puebloans, aka the Anasazi) didn’t leave behind any written language.

And the roads. The Ancestral Puebloans built road straight roads that went straight up natural features, not around them. In one place, where a sheer bit of cliff fell away some years ago, we learned that the builders knew the danger full well — but they didn’t build elsewhere on account of it; instead they built a wall to shore up a cliff.

When we saw that we thought: they were arrogant, these people. Who cuts their roads straight across the land and tries to hold back cliffsides — to hold back nature?

Well, us.

That was when we realized: the Ancient Puebloans, the Anasazi — they were like us.

Some of the people descended from the Ancient Puebloans say they left Chaco because they’d done what they’d intended to do, because the work was finished. Others say that they built at Chaco, realized what they were building there was a bad thing, and so left again.

It’s impossible to walk around Chaco without trying to come to conclusions of one’s own. Maybe they did this. Perhaps they did that. Maybe those buildings were palaces. Marketplaces. Senate chambers. Maybe they were meant simply to be pretty, or to inspire a sort of awe for its own sake. Every so often we’d remind ourselves — we really don’t know. But then the speculation would begin again.

One hike we took before we left was especially lovely, a loop hike atop the sandstone cliffs. The trails of prehistoric shrimp and clams marked the stones beneath our feet as we walked past ruins and the remains of the old roads. Once, in the lonely distance, we saw stairs, carved into the stone. Another time a raven landed on a perch high in the cliffs. It called out into the canyon, listened for its own echo, then called out again, and again, always waiting for the response, sometimes varying the call.

A beautiful, fascinating, compelling place — and yet it was a relief to move on, too, to other valleys where water flowed and trees grew, because it was an uneasy place, too. My stomach tightened as I walked through those small, dark rooms. My breathing felt less easy. And when I stood places where the roads had run, I felt like I was standing in places of power, but not in a comfortable way. I lingered in those spots, but uneasily, some part of me wanting to step away, off those ancient paths.

Excavation has stopped at Chaco, out of respect for Native American tribes, and at least some of what was excavated has been reburied. When I learned that, it struck me as a good thing, for all that we could learn more about who the Chacoans were, if we kept digging.

One more thing about that hike — at the very beginning, we had to scramble steeply uphill, over tumbled rocks and through a narrow slot in the stone. As I headed awkwardly through the slot — I’m not entirely easy about heights — I thought, a little regretfully: I am so not a creature of the heights, of the cliffs.

And I heard a voice in my head — somewhere on the edge of could be real, could be imagined — saying: You are who you are. Be welcome here. That voice held nothing of the uneasiness so much of Chaco did — and as I thought that, I heard as well: What, did you imagine their [the builders’] presence was the only presence here? You’re as arrogant as they were, if you believe that.

Looking at the fossils and the cliffs as I came out of the slot, I found myself thinking: Indeed.

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