On the Ridge

We were up early, tanking up on fluids: juice, water, yogurts. Today’s plan was to hike to Penasco Blanco, up at the top of the canyon, about seven miles round trip. We took the alternate trail that followed the shady side of the canyon to see the petroglyphs and pictographs that decorated our way to Penasco Blanco. The trail turned to cross the canyon and we could see remnants of the old Navajo wagon roads. (Pueblo Bonito became a trading post in the late 1800’s – early 1900’s.) We threaded our way up the opposite canyon wall along the terraced sandstone, passing the “supernova” petroglyph, and landing at the foot of Penasco Blanco. Like Pueblo Bonito, the first view does not reveal the full extent of the site. Even in its partially excavated state, it is clear that Penasco Blanco was large. If all the walls were still standing, we probably would be dazzled even before we started up the canyon.

The ranger clued us into the ancient roads near Penasco Blanco constructed by the Chacoans. We wandered around, and were able to find the change in topography that indicates a large road. We also found surveyor flags and pieces of rebar planted in the ground – someone is studying (and mapping?) this site.

We hung out in the shade of one of the ruin walls for awhile, snacking on apples. The heat is building, so we head back towards the trail head near Pueblo del Arroyo. By the time we get to the parking lot, we hang out on the picnic tables under ramadas. The wind has picked up, but the air is hot, and it just intensifies the desiccating effect. Water bottles empty, we head for the visitor center. Hmmmm…it’s only noon. I retrieve grapes and other snacks from the truck, and stick my head under the water faucet. Knowing that any shade in the campground is hours away, we hang out on one of the shaded picnic tables next to the visitor center. I felt like a homeless person, hanging out at a picnic table, reading books and napping, because I had no place else to go. I emptied my water bottle several times, and stuck my head under the faucet more times than I can remember. I don’t know that I have ever been in this intense of a heat before.

Enough time had finally passed that we could retreat back to the campground. A quick pasta and bagged salad dinner, and we were once again reclining in our tent, admiring the show overhead. Sometime later, I woke up with stomach pains, and I found myself fishing for my shoes and headlamp to get myself to the bathroom pronto. After flushing my dinner, I stopped to rinse off my face in the non potable water. Without warning, several coyotes started their yipping and calling just outside the bathroom. Well, I wasn’t sure I was ready to go back to the tent anyhow, so I enjoyed the canine serenade. Eventually, I headed back to our site, making enough noise to make my presence known without waking up the entire campground.



Chaco Canyon

Chaco Canyon

Boy, is it hot here. Up early, more free motel breakfast, then off for fuel, ice and entertainment. We got the gas and ice, and arrived just after opening at the dollar store. No cribbage board, but at least we now have a deck of cards. We head south to the turn off to Chaco. It is clear that Halliburton is quite present in the area – lots of energy resources extracted from this area. While we have both written and electronic guidance, the National Park Service has done a fabulous job of signing the way, keeping the pilgrims from wandering all over the area, and onto ranches and Halliburton infrastructure.

We cross the park boundary – we are in the high canyon country that I love so much. We enter Chaco, and it is a broader, shallower expanse than I thought it would be. And one side of the canyon has a more vertical wall, while the other side is more broken and easier to access. Since we drive by the campground before anything else in the park, we stake out a site. It’s tough to choose: there is no shade, and we try to predict when a site would be shaded by the canyon wall. The campground host tells us that they had about 175-200 campers sharing 40 campsites for the solstice, but today there are about a dozen sites occupied. We did the right thing to stay in Bloomfield last night. I am surprised that while there is a plumbed restroom, there is no potable water. But, we can get water at the visitor center. Checked in, we head for the visitor center.

The regular building is undergoing renovation. No surprise: the research done at Chaco over the past decade or so has changed the perspectives of archeologists and anthropologists about life in Chaco at the height of activity in the 900’s – 1100’s. In place of the usual visitor center, NPS staff are working in an air conditioned yurt. The area natural history association has a well outfitted corner, selling books and DVD’s, and a few touristy items like coffee mugs and key chains. We chat with the ranger at the desk about best hikes, etc., drop $40 with the association on books and site guides, and then we are off to Pueblo Bonito.

Pueblo Bonito is the iconic ruin most often pictured in reference in Chaco Canyon. It is also the largest, most excavated, most studied, and mostly restored of all of the great houses. And it is breathtaking: approaching from the parking lot, some walls are evidently three stories high. The masonry work is beautifully crafted. The range and scope of the construction is remarkable. And, as we walked through, I realized that only half of the pueblo is evident from the parking lot. Pueblo Bonito is divided into two halves – it covers nine acres! Because it is the most excavated, we are able to walk through a number of rooms: contemplate, touch, marvel at the craftsmanship.

Many great houses are built on the canyon floor. There is no shade, and with the sun at its zenith, little shadow cast by the still-standing walls. Despite the heat, we move on to the neighboring Chetro Ketl, and then across the road to Pueblo del Arroyo. I can’t stop taking pictures. But, it’s really HOT, and we have consumed our two bottles of water. We retreat back to the visitor center to refill water bottles. We take the short hike to Una Vida, and then further up the hill to the petroglyph panel. We then headed to the campground, hoping that we picked a good spot.

Unfortunately, we did not. Our site was still in the sun, and might not be in the shade for yet another hour or so. But, it was definitely at a lower angle. We headed out on the 1.5 mile trail to see Wijiji, that might at least be in shade. The walk was nice and flat – no real effort needed – and it did eventually fall into the shadow of the canyon wall. With not many people around, a handsome coyote appeared on the trail in front of us. We watched him make a wide circle around us, appearing and disappearing in the scrub.

By the time we returned from our hike, our campsite was finally shaded – but it was also nearly dark. A quick chicken dinner, and we were tucked into our tent, wondering at the celestial display over our heads.

Travel Day

The sun rises early and hot, and so do we. We peruse the free breakfast, and then head into the desert. Our destination tonight is a Best Western motel in Bloomfield, New Mexico. When we compared our travel dates to the celestial calendar, we realized that we would land in the crowded Chaco Canyon campground within a day of the summer solstice. A call to the ranger confirmed this – they assured us that by the 23rd the campground would have emptied out.

The desert is hot, even for June, and we quickly retreat behind closed windows and air conditioning. Despite the heat, we can see a surprising amount of green still evident in the surrounding vegetation. On through Barstow, and finally a fuel stop in Needles. Steve checks his phone: he’s still working – generally a taboo activity once we leave our home driveway. At the Desert Oasis gas station, complete with palm trees, he returns a reporter’s call. I have left all of my electronic devices on the shelf on Berta Ridge – I feel virtuous that I have not broken our “on vacation” pact.

We have a few errands to run before we get to the river part of our trip. This is another thing we try to avoid. On our first river trip together, we needed a new blue plastic tarp. (Blue tarps are handy for covering gear, and for building free-form rain/sun shelter.) We waited until Flagstaff on that trip – there should be plenty of places to find a blue tarp. Ha! We made four stops at places like hardware stores and feed stores before we found one. Blue tarps must not be in the same demand they are in California, for no one had a healthy stock.

This trip, we need an all-in-one tool (think Leatherman), and a deck of cards and a travel cribbage board. Steve forgot the cards and cribbage board, and his Leatherman has been missing in action since we got back from Zambia. (We’re pretty sure it made it back, he just doesn’t know where it is.)

We blew through Flagstaff, thinking that we could find everything we need in Shiprock or Farmington. We also were getting hungry. I suggested that we stop for Navajo tacos in Tuba City, but nothing was immediately obvious, so we just kept on going. We finally stopped in Kayenta, famished. We got okay Navajo tacos – they were enormous, and we both ate more than we should.

We arrived in Farmington about 8:30 p.m., and we stopped at the still open Auto Zone to find an all-in-one tool. They had what we needed – score! However, by the time we got done, the dollar store next door was closing. We’ll try again in the morning before we head to Chaco. We landed in the Best Western, checked in, and crashed, although Steve was still poking at his iPhone as I drifted off. Boy, is it hot here.


“If we don’t get out of here by 7:30, we’re not leaving at all tonight.”

It’s that witching hour – one hour before we actually lock the front door and drive away. Steve tends to bark and growl in that last hour – somehow, I guess he thinks this is a useful attitude for starting a trip. It’s not.

He got home early from work, so the back of the truck is already loaded with gear. I only hope that he remembered to make the kitchen box accessible for the camping nights in Chaco. I load up my share: road food, road/camping cooler and my bags in the extra cab of the pick-up. Ammo boxes loaded, cats patted and we are on our way.

Ammo boxes? Yes, many things that the Army issues in war-time serves quite well for peacetime civilian activities, like rafting vacations. The standard issue 50 cal. ammunition boxes are just the perfect substitute for a day pack on a river. They are rigid metal, and well sealed against any moisture and dust. That means nothing in there gets crushed, wet and/or muddy on the raft, as long as it is closed. It’s a perfect size for field guides, paperback books, and smaller cameras. It’s also a good place to stash a headlamp, pen, and a bit of duct tape – all that can suddenly become necessities. We have two more ammo boxes for critical gear: the first aid kit and the raft repair kit. On larger trips, larger ammo boxes serve as food and gear storage, or as the loo.

So we are off. We’ve got one iPhone in tow with us, so I use the map app to see what route is suggested. I have the good old AAA paper version, and I don’t agree with the electronic directions. We are headed for Bakersfield, or beyond if we can stay awake. But after three hours, we are toast and we pull into a Fairfield Inn on the far east side of Bakersfield. We are poised to jump into the Mojave Desert first thing tomorrow morning.

We note the passing of the solstice with relief, happy that we are not in Chaco Canyon already.