The wall bisecting Pueblo Bonito is aligned with true north. Each day at noon its shadow disappears.
I read this and look out my window on woods veiled with mist. Colors leached out, the mulberry leaves shriveled and darkened from first frost, those of locusts gone already, prairie grasses on the low hills burnished into the last rich shades of autumn. Soon to be no more. The image of a long stone wall stretching toward low bluffs superimposes itself. For a moment I am in two places.
I am going on a journey. I say, wordlessly, soundlessly: I am going on a journey. I am going with two friends. I am going alone. I am going on a long journey. I will be in two places.
Shadows creep toward the wall and disappear. High noon. Behind the wall the ancient ruin once reached five stories and housed almost seven hundred rooms. The eastern half of the southern wall of Pueblo Bonito is aligned on an east-west axis. During the spring and autumn equinoxes the sun rises and sets in perfect alignment. Cities as observatories. Cities laid out along cardinal directions. For what? Cities settled for hundreds of years and then abandoned. In this prairie landscape it is hard to imagine that such a thing could be.
I was there before, many years ago, when our boys were little. The place was dusty, it was hot, our trip had been difficult, we were tired. The archaeoastronomical significance meant little, and we escaped just as a storm was moving in. The twenty miles separating Chaco Canyon from the nearest paved road were, and remain, washboard, sandy, impassable when wet. Wet it was becoming, and we had little desire to stay. It was another fifty miles to the nearest town. Chaco is as remote as they come.
Now I think of that shadow creeping toward the stone wall. I think of Chetro Ketl, whose back wall is aligned within one degree of the lunar minor standstill. One degree. Ditto for Pueblo Pintado. This by stone-age people.
I am not as observant as I sometimes think I am. It was while we lived in Broomfield that I first noticed the sun’s horizontal trajectory. As the seasons changed it wandered from north to south and back again, setting sometimes behind Mount Evans in the south and sometimes behind the Never Summer Mountains in the north. I thought of marking a notch in my back fence for the location of each sunrise. After one year I would have a visible map of the astronomical calendar, and I could tell at a glance when the days and nights were the same length, and when the sun slowed in its wandering and seemed to hesitate and stop as it reached the end of its journey. Solstice. But I never did.
Nor have I done so here in Kansas. At times I’m taken by surprise at the hard slant of shadows as the wintering sun is embraced by the trees along the road, or when in summer it slides behind the hackberry and welters in a crimson haze, and I wonder why I notice it more when the sun is at its extremes. These are things modern people have forgotten. Our days and nights are arranged to the absolute of a clock. But a clock in itself cannot inform us of the time. Seven o’clock is either morning or night, but a notch on the back fence indicates when autumn has arrived, or when the nights will begin to get shorter. They would tell me when to plant and when to harvest. They would tell me when the birds come, and when they go.
Sixteen days before the winter solstice, the sun rises along the northern edge of a notch in a butte to the southeast of Wijiji. Sixteen days later it rises along the southern edge. I wonder how long it took for the ancients to find that location, and once found, why they built a city there. Of the significance of living in a place so intricately and reverentially aligned to the sun, the moon, and the cardinal directions. Was there power of some sort, religious, mystical, actual? Was it part of being centered, an alignment of place and people?
In a large duffel I stuff a tent, rainfly, fiberglass poles, candle lantern, inflatable mattress, folding shovel, stakes. A tote holds notebooks, pens, batteries, flashlights, a camera, binoculars, battery charger. A pistol. A book of poems. My friend Scott Edwards, who hiked from Wisconsin to the Grand Canyon with only the clothes on his back and a camera, advises me to keep it simple. Too much preparation ruins the adventure, he says. He’s right. He’s wrong. I add winter clothing and a Gore-Tex shell.
I am going on a journey. I say. I am leaving behind the two things I most desire to take. I am going with two friends. I will in two places. I will be lonely. The sun creeps toward the stone wall at Pueblo Bonito. I think of standing there in that center place and watching the shadow compress. I want to be there when it disappears.
Time changes all things. The man who left Chaco Canyon at the forefront of a storm is not the same as he is now. The time of children has flown. My hair has silvered. I feel more deeply. My emotions are more raw. In a world spinning into chaos, I look for connections. At Kin Kletso, at Hungo Pavi, at Una Vida, there are connections galore, some known, some never to be known. Of the fourteen major buildings within the canyon, five are oriented to the solar cycle, seven to the lunar cycle. In the fortress of Fajada Butte, the sun dagger waits for the solstice.
Something waits for me at Chetro Ketl. I am going on a journey. At Pueblo Bonito, a shadow grows thin. I am going with two friends. I am going