About a two-and-half-hour drive northwest of Albuquerque is an exquisite archaeological site called Chaco Canyon. It is unfortunate that it is not more well known among the average American because it rivals Machu Pichu for its size and architectural accomplishments. The best estimates place its construction somewhere between 950 and 1150 AD or CE if you want to be politically correct. That is the where and the when, but as for the who, we are not really certain.
I have visited the site twice this year. Once in the winter and once in late spring. I went alone because my family is still in Colombia waiting what seems a lifetime for their visas to be approved. I like taking trips on the weekend because it keeps my mind active. I do not sit around my apartment feeling sorry for myself about how I cannot hold my 18-month-old son and listen to him sing and see him dance with his mother.
The last time I went to Chaco Canyon, I awoke early on a Saturday morning. Not too early. I had planned to get out of bed at 4:30 and then drive to Mesa Verde in Colorado, but I slept in because I drank too much wine the night before. I rose somewhere around 7:00 and was out the door by 8:00. I ate at McDonald’s before heading north on I-25. There are really only two ways to reach Chaco Canyon and going north on I-25 and then turning west on Highway 550 at Bernalillo is the fastest.
It is a wonderful drive. As you leave Albuquerque you wave goodbye to the Sandias on your right with the sun crashing over their serrated crest. The foothills roll out like ripples in the desert and you ride through them crossing through the Sandia Reservation. Just one of many Indian reservations you must pass in order to reach any destination within the state. The foothills are covered in shrub bushes, cercocarpus montanus (I think is its Latin name). Of course, at this time of the year there are also wild flowers, millions of them – white, yellow, purple, and red. Cactuses too, not the big saguaro that you see on Arizona license plates, the prickly pear and the large cane cholla. Higher up on the Sandias you can find Ponderosa pine trees and Aspen trees, but you have to be sufficiently motivated to climb. But today is a day of driving.
New Mexico is vast, and it requires a lot of driving if you want to get anywhere. But the driver is rewarded with unprecedented scenery. To the visible north you encounter the Jemez Mountains, and to the east, Mount Taylor rises in a purple haze like a massive ice berg floating on the desert horizon. To your immediate left is a patch of dense green populated with grasses and Cottonwood trees that line the banks of the Rio Grande whom the Spaniards once called El Rio de Nuestra Señora. I prefer this name because today, like every other day when I drive, I am saying the rosary. This is something I have been doing every day since I was separated from my family. I promised Nuestra Señora that I will pray to her every day until my family arrives, and today I am tracing her river.
It takes about fifteen minutes of driving north before you reach Exit 242 for US-550 West. This is where the drive becomes really spectacular. But first you have to drive through the urban sprawl of Bernalillo, but it doesn’t take too long. You are also passing through the Santa Ana Reservation and then the Jemez and then the Zia and countless others. But what you notice most about crisscrossing through the reservations is how the inhabitants have preserved the land and kept it from being pockmarked with strip malls and other eyesores too often called progress. The land how it was meant to be, natural and hauntingly beautiful.
The first thing you notice as you cross the Rio Grande is a sign indicating the Coronado Historical site on your right. It is the site of an old pueblo along the river that was excavated initially during the New Deal. It was named Coronado because the archaeologists studying the site convinced themselves regardless of evidence that Coronado had wintered there during his time in New Mexico. The second thing you notice is the Santa Ana Casino. It like all the casinos here is always full of cars abandoned by their owners for a time while they search for the American dream amid the smoke and flashing lights of the hundreds of slot machines. However, once you pass the casino you enter a Mars-like landscape where you can settle back with your cruise control set comfortably at 70 miles per hour and watch the scenery unfold.
The road dips and courses through canyon after canyon and continues to rise in elevation. To give you an idea of elevation, Albuquerque sits at about 5,400 feet above sea level. But you gain an 1,600 additional feet as you approach Cuba. This is a small town nearly 7,000 feet in elevation nestled amid pine trees in a picturesque valley surrounded by the Nacimientos Mountains and bisected by the Rio Puerco. It is home to less than 1,000 people, and as I drive through it at a slow 35 miles per hour I notice a number of hippie backpackers emerging from the small hotels. They are all groggy eyed, sunburned, and young – 21st Century Kerouacs – following the rhythm of the road.
Not far outside of Cuba one notices an increase in Ponderosa pines as one climbs up the road as it loops around the mountains’ base before flattening out amid the great expanse of the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. The road passes through this area in silence crossing over the continental divide and the highest point of my trip today of almost 7,300 feet. You descend after this crest until you reach NM-279 West at which point you turn left and leave the smooth as silk US-550 behind you. You have about 4 miles of pavement at which point you leave the comforts of asphalt for a winding dirt and gravel road that cuts through grazing land populated by the occasional sheep and bushy haired cow. Above you the sky is crisscrossed by ravens and sometimes a falcon that swoops down to scoop up a prairie dog.
My car rattles and bumps. The package of water bottles I have in the back of my CRV burst open and scatter across the floor. My teeth chatter, and I abandon the radio all together. There is little to no cell phone coverage much less radio signals that are not interrupted by prolonged bouts of static. Occasionally a farm house rises in the distance and alongside the road you find the bleached white skeletons of cows. Some of them still have patches of black fur clinging to the skulls yet every other morsel has been dried by the sun or eaten by ants and coyotes. You reach a point on this road where you tell yourself, “This is ridiculous. Why am I driving here?” And you don’t even think about the consequences of your car breaking down. However, each day the Park Rangers drive this road two times a day. So, worst case scenario, you are guaranteed to meet at least one government employee at some point if you do break down.
Yet my car powers on at breakneck speeds of 20 miles per hour that is often slowed to 10 miles per hour. The fields to my left and right reach to the horizon in both directions and are green and streaked with wild flowers. The first time I drove this road was in January, and the fields were gray and barren and partly covered in snow. It is now June and the temperature is in the high seventies at this point. Eventually after about 40 minutes of driving, the dirt road ends and becomes asphalt for the final few miles to the Chaco Culture Visitor Center.