Chaco: Peñasco Blanco

I look forward to the coyote serenade each night.  It adds to that special feeling of being at Chaco.  I am disappointed by the moon, though.  It is waning, and no longer bright enough to be confused with sunrise.  I begin to appreciate why the Chacoans developed an interest in astronomy.  Compared to city life, the sun, moon, and stars are so much more a part of life here.

Breakfast is scrambled tofu with a red bell pepper.  I find I forgot to bring an onion and also any oil.  But I have butter for oil and the onion is not missed.  Of course tofu is nothing without spices, which I brought premixed.  This is a very pretty dish with the red peppers against the yellow tofu, and as I write this I wish I had taken a picture.

One other thing I forgot to bring is a long-sleeved shirt.  Being out in the sun all day Wednesday, I have picked up a touch of sunburn, and I am afraid the bright sun will make me uncomfortable on this long hike.  However, nothing can be done for it at this time.

This is going to be a long hike, nearly 8 miles, so I decide to leave the Pentax in camp, and rely on rely on the new Panasonic point-and-shoot for any photos.  This allows me to carry my water and lunch in a Camel-back instead of water bottles stuffed in pants packets, and I can also carry a pair of binoculars.

I throw a couple extra water bottles into the panniers and ride my bike to the trail-head.  On the way I stop at the Visitor Center to see if they have any long-sleeve shirts. They don’t.  At the trail-head I fill out the back-country permit and bike the one mile to Casa Chiquita.  The trail has been realigned and the round trip to Peñasco Blanco is now 7.8 miles instead of 7.2.  No bikes are allowed past Casa Chiquita.  Casa Chiquita is unexcavated, and to my untrained eye it looks like any other unexcavated Great House, so I skip it and start walking. I can see my destination, the Great House Peñasco Blanco, up on the western horizon.

I take the Petroglyph Trail, a spur that travels at the base of the sandstone cliff.  From here I see six identified panels of rock writing.  Many of the petroglyphs are of Puebloan origin, and many others are Navajo.  The art styles are distinct, even to the method of marking the rock.  Puebloan glyphs tend to be pecked into the stone, while Navajo symbols tend to be scribed.

I follow the trail across the canyon floor to the Chaco Wash.  Ranger GB showed pictures at the Night Sky show of the wash as it was overflowing its banks just last week.  It hasn’t rained since then, and the wash is now down to a small muddy stream, but the trail is still officially closed, as it would be easy to slip and fall on the muddy bank.  A few yards upstream someone has placed a large rock in the middle of the stream and this has become the unofficial crossing.  I cross with no problem, and am walking through a thicket of greenery, so different from the brown landscape almost everywhere else.

5000 years ago a large star exploded in the constellation Taurus, and in 1054 the light of the supernova reached earth.  Chacoans were great astronomical observers, and they certainly noticed a new star that lit the night for a month, and was visible during the day.  The supernova event was during the height of the Chaco construction time period and it would make sense that they recorded the event.

I climb up out of the wash and approach the base of the cliff.  There underneath a ledge are three dark red pictographs: a hand, a crescent moon, and a star.  Taken together, these symbols can be interpreted as instructions for locating the Crab Nebula, which is the remains of the 1054 supernova.  Below the Supernova Pictograph is a fainter figure: three concentric circles.  This is interpreted by some as a depiction of Halley’s Comet, which made an appearance in 1066, only a few years after the supernova event.

So far the the trail has been fairly flat, with only a slight climb to the Supernova Pictograph.  Now I start the last 0.8 mile leg of the hike, up to the top of the West Mesa, to the Great House of Peñasco Blanco.  I pass a couple who had started early and are returning from the city.  Peñasco Blanco is where several Chacoan roads coming from the West converge; Pueblo Alto stands at the convergence of roads from the North; Pueblo Bonito is at the center.  From Peñasco Blanco I can see both of these Great Houses, even without the aid of field glasses.

It is now noon, the sun is overhead, and I am feeling yesterday’s sunburn.  I find a shady spot beside an ancient wall and have a sandwich and some trail mix for lunch.  After eating and a few minutes rest, I am ready for the 3 mile hike back to my bike.  Down by the Supernova, I meet three girls enthusing over the rock art.  Across the wash, on the way back to the Petroglyphs, I pass two men in succession, getting a late start on the hike.  By the time I reach the Petroglyph Trail, my arms and neck are prickling and my feet are dragging so I skip the spur and continue on to Casa Chiquita.

Bicycling uses a different set of muscles than walking does, so I feel better as I bike back to the trail-head.  There I find a couple having their lunch.  They speak what sounds like German among themselves, and we exchange only a couple of words.  I suck on my camel-back but nothing comes out.  Oh no!  I have drunk all my water, and I still have the bike back to the camp, in the heat of the day!  Then I remember the two bottles in the pannier.  Saved!  I shall survive this day after all!

Though it has a lower resolution than the Pentax DSLR, the Panasonic P&S camera has a more powerful telephoto lens, so I stop at the Staircase for some pictures.  I also stop at the Fajada Butte Overlook for the same reason.  Eventually I make it back to camp.  On the way a yellow VW camper van passes me.

Surprisingly, I am not especially tired upon my return, so I make a tour of the campground.  There is a Casita RV trailer parked at the far end; I want to meet the owners and ask them about the RV.  On the way I am hailed by a woman who says, “We passed you.”  She was in that yellow camper van.  We end up having an extended conversation on topics ranging from archeology, to economics, to health, to education, and more that I can’t now remember.  Christiana and her husband develop curricula for sixth graders that introduce them to soil, plants, and gardening.  They live in Albuquerque, where they do a lot of gardening.

I notice the girls are back from their tour of Pueblo Bonito so I walk over to their camp and we have ourselves a good “chin wag”.  The conversation is interrupted by their neighbor John pulling up in his truck camper.  He reverses a couple times so I walk over to see if he needs help.  He doesn’t, but offers a tour of the camper.  He’s very happy with the camper and explains lots of features he put in the truck to handle the camper safely.

Gayle and Bandhu go off to photograph Fajada Butte at ground level while Sor’a and I go to the top of the cliff to watch the sunset.  The trail closes at sunset and the Ranger yells up at us to be  “down here!” by sunset.  That admonition causes us to turn back earlier than we would have, so the photo of Fajada Butte from atop the cliff is partially obstructed by a closer cliff.

We are off the trail just at sunset, and join Gayle, Bandhu, and John (as well as everyone else camping that night – it is crowded) in the campfire circle to hear details about the next morning’s events.  First the head ranger (the one that yelled at us) explains the traffic arrangements, then Ranger GB explains the astronomical event that will occur.  GB throws in a lot of “informed speculation” about how the Chacoans may have utilized the astronomical alignments that are being found throughout Chaco.  GB emphasizes that only two facts about Chaco Canyon are known and agreed by everyone:

  1. A thousand years ago there were people here.
  2. They built large buildings.

Ranger GB is answering many questions about ancient astronomical alignments, but I have heard most of the answers at the Night Sky program on archeoastronomy.  We call it a night.  Gates to the park open at 5:45; we agree to carpool at 6:00.

 

Chaco: Penasco Blanco at EveryTrail
EveryTrail – Find the best Hiking in New Mexico

 

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