Ancient Echoes -- Utah and New Mexico

November 4-16, 2008

Storm clouds gather over Canyonlands National Park, Utah.



November 4th: Obama wins!!! We spend election day at a motel in Bluff, Utah, the heart of red-state country. Our TV is tuned into the election returns as we watch anxiously, on the edge of our seats as the results tick in. We had run into a few folks wearing tiny Obama buttons within the sea of McCain-Palin signs. When we start talking politics with these folks, they light up with bright excitement. Closet Obama supporters here were starved to talk with like-minded voters.

Even with the polls showing a solid lead, it was hard to let ourselves believe that the same country that elected Bush for a second term a few short years ago would do the right thing and put an adult back in the White House. Watching Obama's acceptance speech was an unbelievably emotional experience! It's been a long time since we felt optimistic for the future of the US of A...



Always on the look out for more rock art, we ask around in Bluff to see if anyone knows how to find the Procession Panel. This "not-to-be-missed" collection of petroglyphs was mentioned to us by a ranger in Natural Bridges NM during a discussion of Child's House of Rain. And somehow we did happen to run into a friendly guide who knew the way and gave us the cryptic directions. Hidden several miles up one of the unnamed canyons along the Comb Ridge, at the base of a smooth canvas of sandstone descending from the cliff above, is this remarkable panel (in the photo above). In addition to the animals and other strange symbols, a long line of figures can be seen traveling towards the circle on the left, beyond which they emerge to travel further in the same direction or turn down into the folds of the earth. Who knows what this all means, but some imagine a depiction of the great migration away from the now-empty pueblos of the four corners...



We spent four days camped out at Chaco Canyon in northwest New Mexico. Here in the stark high desert landscape lay the remains of three hundred years of Chacoan art and architecture. At the epicenter of the Chacoan world, this huge preplanned ceremonial center was connected to more than 150 outlying great houses by a series of engineered roads. Radiating out from Chaco, over four hundred miles of prehistoric roadway have been identified using low-sun-angle aerial photography. Inside Pueblo Bonito's 700 rooms and thirty kivas, archeologists discovered great quantities of the Cibola black-on-white pottery, turquoise beads, necklaces and pendants, seashells, copper bells, and the remains of macaws, parrots, and eagles -- a repository of religious offerings and evidence of a vast trade network that reached down into Mexico and to the coast.

Back in the 1920s, Pueblo Bonito was partially excavated and the walls stabilized by Neil Judd for the Smithsonian. Now there are many rooms open to the public where one can wander through and exercise the little gray cells in a journey of the imagination. The stonework here is beautiful to behold. This is a special place and we find ourselves unconsciously whispering and walking softly with a sense of awe and wonder...


We caught the tail-end of a tour by a ranger who has spent the past 22 years working here at Chaco. One story that caught my attention was about a Pueblo Bonito tour he gave to village elders from a nearby modern-day pueblo. At the end of the tour, after so much talk of abandonment, they pulled him aside and said: We didn't abandon this place. We just use it differently now. This is how we learned that on every summer solstice, Indians from local pueblos still return here to mark the event with ceremonies and dances. A thin thread into the past remains unbroken.

We need to return here next summer!

At Mesa Verde, Edge of the Cedars, and several backcountry ruins on the Cedar Mesa, we were able to descend into still-intact kivas. These circular rooms with a central fire pit, entered by ladder through a single opening in the center of the roof, were religious ceremonial spaces and are still in use by modern pueblo peoples. What a special feeling it is inside these sacred spaces, a shaft of light pouring in through the roof entryway and lighting the dim interior with a warm reflected glow.


There were many roofless great kivas visible at Chaco. But due north of Chaco at Aztec Ruins, we visited a great kiva that was reconstructed in 1934 by archeologist Earl Morris (photo above). The circular room is 48 feet in diameter and is light-filled with a row of windows around the perimeter. The authenticity of some details of the reconstruction are disputed (ceiling too tall, original windows may have been enclosed within an outer wall, etc), but what a glorious space! We sat quietly absorbing the energy, listening to the dreamy Native American music that is piped in.

Now I want to design a house based on the circular room concept. What a wonderful feeling it would be to inhabit such a place on a daily basis!




The "supernova pictograph" panel on the right is from Chaco, near the ruin called Peñasco Blanco. In 1054 A.D., Japanese and Chinese observers made detailed records of a very bright star appearing in the sky. This exploding star in the constellation Taurus was visible in broad daylight for 23 days, and gave rise to what we now call the Crab Nebula. (Surprisingly, only two brief reports are known from medieval Europe.)

Calculations of the moon's orbit on July 5th, 1054, show that the moon was waning, just entering first quarter. At dawn on that day in the American Southwest, the moon was only 3 degrees from the supernova. In the pictograph, the star shape next to the crescent moon depicts the supernova (and the life-size hand print is believed to mark this as a sacred site). So the pictograph appears to be an accurate true scale rendition of the 1054 supernova.


Messages from the past...



We visited several museums along our path that hold wonderful collections of Anasazi pottery. The distinctively bold white-on-black designs look modern to us today. Some of the pieces are very reminiscent of the Incan and pre-Incan pottery we saw in Peru.

For us, this pottery is a personal link to the people of other cultures and times.




After three cozy nights in the campground at Chaco Canyon, we crawl out of our warm sleeping bags and make coffee as the sun rises. It's 6:15 am, 21 degrees, five degrees warmer than yesterday. We hit the fifteen mile washboardy dirt road out of the park, driving past remote houses, adobe hogans, and flimsy trailers, double-wides with tires on the roof. We are in another country, one many Americans don't realize exists, with a different language, lifestyle, and history. We remember meeting a Navajo man the night before as he filled twenty gallon jugs of water at the Park Service water pump. He lives on a plateau above the canyon, a lonely outpost with no running water, no electricity, the water is for his sheep.




We're on our way to a rug auction at Crownpoint, a community of about 2,500 folks on The Rez, sixty miles from nowhere -- Gallup, New Mexico is the closest city. We roll in to a dusty, dry place with identical anonymous houses lining streets laid out in an out of place suburban grid, a new high school under construction, a Baptist or Mormon church on every corner, or so it seems. We called and got directions: There aren't any street signs, but you can’t miss the elementary school, it will be the only place in town with lots of cars. We wonder whether anyone will show up for a rug auction on a freezing Friday night in November. But as we turn the corner, there's the parking lot, full of Navajos and gringos vying for spaces.

It's 4 pm when we enter the school gymnasium and we are amazed to find a long line of Navajo women snaking along the back wall. Each woman holds her latest creations: magnificent, hand woven wool rugs.  Every month for the last forty years, Navajo women from communities across the 17 million acre Navajo Nation, members of a weaver's collective, drive hundreds of miles to auction their wares to eager gringos at the Crownpoint Rug Auction.

We admire the older women who have come to the auction dressed in their finest velveteen blouses, sky blue full skirts, white ankle high socks and clean Keds, silver and turquoise jewelry weighing heavily on their chests and arms, braided hair tucked in tightly bound buns.  It's a dying style. The younger women wear traditional American garb, white t-shirts and black pants or jeans, and crop their luxuriant hair.

Each rug is carefully checked in, the weaver's name and home town noted. As it is placed on one of the growing piles of rugs on nearby folding tables, a swarm of anxious buyers quickly descends. The buyers, all gringos, are characters who have come from all over the southwest: Grey-haired older couples like us; serious, knowledgeable, remarkably friendly dealers, clipboards in hand; a couple who rolled in on their Harley Davidson, a string of rattlesnake vertebrae ringing the man's greasy black felt hat. Tony Hillerman was a regular. We sort through the rugs, marking down the numbers of our favorites: Number 1778, a beautiful red, black, gray and white rug from Chinle, stands out. No doubt it is way out of our price range.


Number 1778, Victoria Yazzie, Chinle, Arizona. Eight hundred dollar bid, now eight fifty, now eight fifty, will ya' give me eight fifty? Eight fifty dollar bid, now nine, now nine, who will give me nine, give me nine, nine, nine? Sold to Number 19. Number 1603. Loretta Succo, Lake Valley. Here's a beauty, folks. Four hundred dollar bid, now four twenty five, now four twenty five, who will give me four twenty five?

At 7 pm the fun begins. Harry Connell, the auctioneer, lays out the rules of the auction and with a slow western drawl, steady rhythm, and warm sense of humor, starts the bidding. He has 277 rugs to sell in three hours, about 40 seconds per rug. The weaver has set the opening price. We watch intently as one after another incredibly beautiful rug is brought to the podium and held aloft before the audience. Excitement and anticipation ripples through the crowd of gringos, as well the weavers and their families. Everyone anxiously awaits the outcome, cheering and clapping when a particularly beautiful rug is bid up in a frenzy to $4,500.

For three hours, with no breaks, the auctioneer continues his rapid-fire but somehow reassuring chant, admonishing the audience when there are few bids for gorgeous, room size rugs, looking back at the assistants with eyebrows raised when he feels the opening price is to high. Sadly, a quarter of the rugs didn't sell. Rugs of all types were on sale: Eye Dazzlers with zigzagging geometric designs that vibrated with color; Two-faced rugs with, amazingly, a completely different pattern on each side; the hottest item, finely woven Two Grey Hills; little pictorials with pastoral farm scenes; brilliant red, gray and black Ganados; elaborate Trees-of-Life; Yei rugs depicting kachinas...each rug a unique and wonderful work of art. The Harley Davidson dude (a dealer) walked out with fifteen rugs, the lady next to me bought a couple of small ones for her home in Moab. We will always treasure the three rugs we bought (!!) -- lucky for us, the styles we like are not so popular with this crowd.

At the end of a very long evening, we ask around and find the weaver of one of our rugs. She was as excited to meet us as we were to meet her, and as we hugged and said goodbye, I felt we touched hearts, forging a warm bond between artist and admiring buyer, woman to woman, one culture to another.