The sky is the way the sky gets sometimes around here, that high-cloud, flat grey. I’m on a promontory in the ash-colored badlands of Kutz Canyon in northwestern New Mexico with my brother, Geoff. We look at our compasses and then scan the horizon toward true north and true south, looking for clues. Nothing. Instead, I see gas wells scattered here and there, a white truck driving a road down below. Then my eye alights upon a set of tracks leading into the bleached-white sprawling bed of Kutz Wash. They end at the carcass of a horse, a reminder of how harsh this landscape can be.
We stand among what’s left of the 17 rooms and two kivas of Twin Angels Pueblo, built around 1100 A.D. and probably occupied for a century, maybe more. A few walls were exposed during the one formal, partial excavation here, undertaken 100 years ago, and one glance at the thick-walled, distinctive masonry confirms this “Great House’s” connection to Chaco Canyon and the iconic Pueblo Bonito, Casa Encantada and other massive structures some 35 miles to the south.
By now you’ve probably heard that fracking is encroaching on and threatens Chaco Canyon. That’s only partially true: Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito and its sibling structures are all part of the Chaco Culture National Historical Park, and thus protected from oil and gas and other development (though drilling-related light and noise pollution are a legitimate and significant concern). But it is now widely known that Chaco Canyon, itself, was merely the center of a larger society that extended hundreds of miles beyond the canyon’s walls, to dozens of related structures such as Twin Angels. These sites are concentrated in the central San Juan Basin, long a prime target for oil and gas drillers and now in the nascent stages of an oil-bearing shale drilling boom. And only a few of the sites, such as Aztec and Salmon Ruins and Chimney Rock, are formally protected.
So Chaco Canyon’s mostly safe. The rest of the architectural features of the greater Chaco society, particularly those that have been least studied and therefore have the most potential to answer the many outstanding questions, are threatened, however, and have been for years. Indeed, in order to access Twin Angels, my brother and I drove through a maze of dusty oil and gas field roads and embarked on the short hike from a well pad housing a grinding pump jack.
Geoff’s been working as an archaeologist in the region for years and knows as much about this landscape and its history as just about anyone. As we gingerly step around the rubble of the site, he gives me the two-minute overview of the wide range of theories on what Chaco was. The mainstream interpretation is that it was a pilgrimage site, a ritual center where people visited but didn’t necessarily live. Another notion is that Chaco Canyon was made up of a bunch of distinct agrarian, egalitarian communities, each similar to modern day pueblos along the Rio Grande and in Hopi, which are, after all, where the descendants of the Chacoans live.
The most controversial interpretation, though, is put forth by archaeologist Steve Lekson. He posits that Chaco Canyon was a contiguous city of 2,000 people or more and the capital of a great Chacoan state. Pueblo Bonito and the other massive structures in the canyon were the palaces of the nobles and ruling class, while the common folk lived in nearby, less elaborate homes. It’s a Mesoamerican-esque model, buttressed by the discovery of macaw feathers, copper bells and chocolate at Chaco. It seems to be supported, as well, by the Navajo story of a divine gambler at Chaco who, by winning bets and games, enslaves the populace and forces them to build him a palace. Ultimately, the gods go after him, and shoot him with a magic bow into the heavens. Eventually, he falls to Mexico, where he continues his reign.
Regardless of which interpretation one subscribes to, this much is clear: The culture of Chaco Canyon did not end at the canyon walls. Twin Angels Pueblo, for example, was not only architecturally one with Chaco Canyon, but was physically linked via the Great North Road — a 30-foot wide, engineered architectural feature that stretches at least 30 miles across the high desert, deviating from true north by no more than a few degrees. It’s just one of many such “roads” radiating out from Chaco Canyon like spokes on a wheel, and that is slowly being lost to the ravages of time. No one knows what the roads were for, but mere pathways for getting from one place to another they were not. Perhaps they were expressions of domination over the landscape or over the distant minions of Pueblo Bonito's nobles. Maybe they were tracks on which ceremonial running races were held, or provided a guide for Kachinas to come from the mountains to the canyon, or for ghosts to travel from their place of death to the northern spiritual home.
The roads are just one critical piece of a vast Chacoan "ritual landscape" that extends throughout and beyond the San Juan Basin and that had great spiritual and perhaps political significance. Today that ritual landscape continues to be sacred to the Hopi, Zuni and other Puebloans, and in it lies the key to understanding the "mysteries" of Chaco Canyon. “You aren’t going to understand Chaco unless you get out of the canyon,” said Lekson, in a presentation to an archaeological group in 2013. By that same token, if you destroy the Chacoan resources outside the canyon, you’ll never understand what’s in it.
For some places, it’s already too late. The Great North Road has been criss-crossed by dozens of roads, including a major highway, and natural gas wells have been drilled on or near it. The road’s northern terminus is adjacent to a massive land farm, where hydrocarbon-contaminated water and soil is plowed into the earth, and a prehistoric stairway into Kutz Canyon has been mostly carried off by looters.
In November of last year, The Wilderness Society and the National Parks Conservation Association quietly floated a master leasing plan proposal to the Bureau of Land Management. The plan would put about half a million acres directly surrounding the park — the Chaco Core Protection Zone — along with a wide swath that contains the Great North Road, off-limits to future oil and gas leasing. Existing leases in the protection zone could still be developed, but with a list of stipulations for preserving quiet in the park, night sky darkness and important viewsheds leading into and out of the park.
In most of the San Juan Basin, such a proposal wouldn't have much of a chance. But the proposed Chaco protection zone happens to encompass one of the few swaths of land in the basin that has not been leased out in its entirety for oil and gas development, meaning the BLM has some say over what happens there (once land is leased, the leaseholder has certain property rights). The proposal also recognizes that you can’t get something without a little bit of give, and so proposes that restrictions on drilling be eased in a “designated development area,” which lies to the east and north of Chaco Canyon, and where oil drilling is currently concentrated.
This, however, shifts the burden of the drilling even more onto the backs of the Navajo communities of Lybrook, Counselors and Nageezi, which have already been hit hard. Low oil prices have reduced the total number of rigs operating at any one time to about three, but the industrialization of that area is intense, nonetheless. Backroads are dusty and teeming with tanker trucks, used to transport crude oil in the absence of a pipeline. Rigs, rising up from huge well pads, pierce the badlands skyline.
In March, a coalition of environmental groups sued the BLM in an effort to stop, or at least delay, drilling in the entire Gallup Sandstone oil play, which would include both the Navajo communities and the area around Chaco, on the grounds that the BLM hasn't properly considered the impacts of shale drilling. But this goes up against an existing management plan, created a decade ago, that authorized nearly 10,000 oil and gas wells in the San Juan Basin, less than 4,000 of which have been drilled.
Back at Twin Angels, Geoff tells me of an uncanny alignment he recently found, by poring over Google Earth maps, between a Great House and a distant natural landmark. Like other such patterns he has found, this one is too precise to be mere coincidence. It's almost as if the people of Chaco were building an enormous piece of land art, that incorporated cities, sacred mountains, and even the cycles of the sun and the moon.
I’m not sure what these things tells us about the Chacoans — that they were deeply religious, bent on creating an empire, both or neither. But one thing is certain: Our search for meaning now helps us see this odd and lovely landscape and, perhaps, will help us understand what part we play in it.
Jonathan Thompson is a senior editor at High Country News.