Solstice, eclipse, equinox, standstill. If the Chacoans expressed their lives in the long slow arc of the moon and sun across the celestial horizons, ours is the opposite extreme—a race to beat the sun. Already descendant, it falls into a west rapidly clouding over. Shadows creep across the face of Fajada Butte, pool in tree-choked Chaco Wash. We pile into the truck and head deeper into the canyon, binoculars and cameras ready.
By the time we reach the visitor center I know that everything I’d hoped for hangs on that narrowing interstice between the horizon and the pendant yellow dwarf. As I stop to look at a small butterfly a surge of apprehension jolts me; here is a new species, and there, in the truck, is my field guide, and over there, quickly disappearing over a rise, are my partners. In the distance a cluster of ruins stand out like broken teeth against a glyphic, carved cliff. Una Vida. The witchcraft woman’s house, according to the Navajos. Could she witch me more time? Legends say that Jacob commanded the sun to stand still, but in this desert place the gods have fallen silent. One last look at the butterfly and I’m scurrying up the trail. Incrementally, heartbeat by heartbeat, time and hope slip away.
White-crowned sparrows flee the truck, interrupting our motion with regularity. Jim mutters something vile and announces that he needs a sage sparrow. Hungo Pavi passes with barely a glance. When a bird flies up to perch on a tall bush I yell for him to stop and clap the binos to it. Dark gray mantle, broad white throat stripe, eye-ring—“Sage sparrow,” I chime.
Silence falls as we study the bird.
“That’s a northern shrike,” Jim says. His tone expresses grievous doubt about my birding skills. I’m immediately on the defensive, remembering too clearly the shiver as the prairie dog went under the tires.
“Are you nuts?” I seethe. “How can you mistake a sage sparrow for a shrike?”
“Because I’m looking at a shrike!” he snaps.
Jim’s something of a legend in Kansas birding circles but we aren’t in Kansas anymore. I’m aghast that he could be so—wrong.
Following his line of sight I see a shrike not twenty feet from the sparrow. “Pan right,” I tell him. He does, pauses, and says, “Nice.”
Indeed it is, and the satisfaction of finding him the bird momentarily eclipses the sting from his judgmental attitude. Though the two of us haven’t birded much together before, I know that beneath that gruff, curmudgeonly shell there’s a warm and generous nature. The problem is breaking though that gruff, curmudgeonly shell.
He lowers his binoculars and turns to thank me. His eyes are startling pale, like ice melting in the sun, made paler still by a ruddy face capped with a white shock of unruly hair. A slight smile plays on his lips. Score one for the youngest member of this irascible, crotchety trio.
And here at last is Chetro Ketl, whose fabled wall forms an axis from the minor lunar standstill to distant Kin Bineola and Pueblo Pintado and beyond. What once was five stories tall is now rubble, and the sun is falling fast. Chetro Ketl, where I thought to feel the power of something I cannot name, now witnessed through fast footwork and the shutter of a camera. We’re there and gone before it even registers.
A small crowd follows a park ranger into Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Chacoan great houses, so we bypass it in favor of nearby Kin Kletso. As Jim stays near the truck to bird, Chod and I hightail it past the ruins to a narrow incline leading to a notch in the cliff. The first fifty feet are almost straight up and there are no ropes or rails to assist. Near the entrance I look down and shudder. “That isn’t going to be fun,” I say.
“It’s easier going down,” Chod says.
“You haven’t looked down yet,” I remark. We squeeze through the cleft and break out atop the bluff. A pair of youthful hikers confronts us.
“You’re going to run out of light,” they say. The sun lower now.
“We’ll make it,” Chod says, setting off at a grueling pace. The next group of hikers makes the same comment. I’m getting irritated. Do we look too old to make it to the overlook, a distance of only a mile? Loosely following the edge of the cliff, we zigzag past cairns until the half-moon shape of Pueblo Bonito appears far below. Jim waves at us, no larger than an ant on the valley floor. Shutters whir. Cottonwoods lining the wash glow golden in the slanting sun.
We’re halfway down the notch when I mention how I wish we could stay longer. Chod says, “This is a month-long trip squeezed into one week.” Yes, and more’s the pity. And contrary to Chod’s placatory musings, he does not skip lightly down the fractured detritus of the escarpment like some two-legged bighorn sheep. His descent, like mine, is largely made on his butt.
Another sleepless night. As I toss and turn and fight my sleeping bag, it comes to me that Chaco is a sacred place, a place of power, the center of a civilization that extended hundreds of miles outward like spokes of a wheel. In the end, it is a place of forgetting, and of remembering.
Lately I’ve been transcribing my old diaries of the first years of our marriage. The entries were sickening, with me preoccupied with myself, living a twisted macho fantasy where I pitted myself against criminals and always prevailed. I often wondered if it would be best to burn them.
The people of Chaco knew the paths of the sun and moon. Such knowledge was not gained lightly. Nor was that in my story. In the dark emptiness of night I feel the bad memories slip away, as if in this holy place they have no hold over me. I see Lori standing at the bridge above the Rio Grande, the sun in her hair. I see her waiting for me at home. Like the Chacoans who left here so long ago, I, too, know where my sun rises and where it sets.
(Continued next week)