The Holy Grail of Southwestern Archaeology

We’d been hearing about it for weeks.

“Trust me this masonry, while similar to the Chacoan style, is not nearly as precise as Pueblo Bonito Architecture…”

“These two Chacoan outliers have identical great houses that are bi-fold from other another…”

“The D-shaped structure which resembles the unique style of Chaco Canyon…”

It seemed that we couldn’t go a day without hearing about this elusive and mysterious place. To the native desert dwellers like me, the idea of “Chaco”had been imbedded in our brains since birth. Whether or not we had been there, Chaco was a part of our southwestern blood. Green chile, tumbleweed tornados, fire dangers never dipping below severe, and Chaco Canyon all define our southwest. However, to the foreign east coasters, Chaco was the Holy Grail of southwestern archaeology. Always talked about in high regards, always sought after, yet never truly understood.

It was nine of us who set out that hot Saturday morning. The quest for the Holy Grail had begun and the threat of 100 degrees was not to stop us. We knew what was in store for us. 5 long legged people in a car for 3 hours with no air conditioning and a broken radio playing only christian rock. It was a feat that would have driven the weak of heart to return quickly to the safety of swamp coolers. Whether it was madness or determination that drove us ever farther into the desert, we will never know.

Liz was our King Arthur and I was her faithful sidekick Patsy. The only two New Mexicans in a car full of East Coasters. Laila as Sir Lancelot the Brave, Kayla as Sir Galahad the Pure, and Dara as Sir Robin the Not-Quite-So-Brave-As-Sir-Lancelot. Our quest was wrought with obstacles as we watched in terror as two dogs walked back and forth across the back of the moving truck that had no walls. We braved the anticipation that came with hitting “Scan” on the radio. What fateful song would enter into our hearts and minds? We fought the Black Knight and won as the road changed from the wonderful Colorado pavement to that of the New Mexican cracked and broken. Our quest was long and sweaty, but as we turned onto the final stretch long dirt road and the endless desert landscape lay out before us, we were reminded of why we began this quest to begin with.

We regrouped with our fellow travelers at the entrance. The great mesa loomed on the horizon and the heat rose around us in waves. In a flurry of souvenirs, filling water bottles, rearranging cars,  pointing to maps, and photographing the unphotographable landscape, we split into different groups, and dispersed.

The Quest for the Holy Grail of southwestern archaeology continued. And like King Arthur and his band of misfits, the path there was winding and wandering one. The rangers who say “did you know…?” demanded payment in the form of a shrubbery (or maybe just 16$ per car…) Our attempts at disguising ourselves from the UV rays using sunscreen worked as well as the Trojan Rabbit worked at entering the castle. Clapping my coconuts together to led my three east coast knights through a slot canyon and onto the flat endless mesa.

The temperature creeped closer and closer to 100 degrees and the Irish among us did not fare well, yet we trekked onward. Like the dorks that we were, every null and every dip was an ancient and wondrous feature. We crowded around a sherd of pottery and with our expert knowledge of 5 weeks, quickly identified the small square of hardened mud. I loved being around people who, like me, wanted to point out every possible feature, every interesting window shape, and every block in the wall. Our quest took us through Pueblo Alto, which rose out of landscape and reminds me of the iconic monument of Stonehenge. We journeyed across the never ending mesa. The landscape comes alive and stretches to the ends of the earth. Something which can never be captured in pictures, never be captured in words, lay before us.

As we reached the final slot canyon which took us down to the outlook of the elusive Pueblo Bonito, we asked our three questions.

“Why is it so hot?!”

“Why is only the backs of our knees burning?!”

“Have we passed the lookout yet?!”

But unlike Arthur, Patsy, and the faithful knights, we reached our Holy Grail. We stood, awestruck. Some of us at a loss for words, and some of us with too many. To describe Pueblo Bonito is a feat I dare not attempt. I would love to describe to you the wonders of the masonry, the beauty of each of the stones, the way the light bounced across the canyon. I would love to describe to you everything. Each pictograph. Each stone. Each bead of sweat that dripped down our backs.

But alas I cannot. No one can. Just as no one will ever be able to describe the Holy Grail. However, the Holy Grail of Southwestern Archaeology is in our reach. In the stretching landscape of Northern New Mexico, nestled beneath the mesa, lies our beautiful, elusive, and mysterious Chaco Canyon.


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