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Chaco Canyon

Fajada Butte, at the mouth of Chaco Canyon.

I don't remember when I first heard of the wonderful, mysterious Chaco Canyon. I thought it was from a National Geographic article, but when I found the article it was dated 1982, and I'd already written my novel, Crossfire Canyon (Zebra Books, 1986), which takes place, in part, in the canyon.

Sometime in the late 70s, at some post-hippie festival, I heard a native american medicine man speak about holy places on the earth. He suggested Gainesville, Florida (where he was speaking) was one such place, and the Four Corners area was another. (Gainesville?)

The Four Corners is where New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado come together. But according to this medicine man, this was a sacred area long before white men came and drew lines on a map that happened to form a cross.

I began working on Crossfire Canyon (originally titled Gil Fleming & The Anasazi Dagger) in 1979. It's the story of a renegade half-breed, half-Irish, half-Navajo, who is preventing the American Survey & Mining Company from exploring the Chaco Canyon. The Company has hired several bounty hunters and gunmen to get this troublemaker, named Digger McCarthy, but all have failed. So they hire the best, Gil Fleming.

When I set out to outline the story, all I knew was that a half-breed renegade would be defending a sacred area from white intrusion. I needed a sacred area. I remembered what the medicine man had said about the Four Corners area, and did some reading. The intersection of the four states itself is a flat, relatively non-descript area. Nothing much there to place some action in.

But nearby, around 80 miles southeast of the four corners, lies Chaco Canyon. There was a place for an ambush, a showdown, a confrontation. So I read about the canyon, discovered its known history and the many mysteries (why did the population who built these structures choose this place, why did they leave, and where did they go?) that still make it such a compelling place.

And I discovered that archaeologists had just discovered an ancient Sun calendar among the ruins. On the Fajada Butte, which guards the mouth of the canyon, at the top, they found what they dubbed "The Anasazi Dagger". Concentric circles carved in the rock, with slabs of rock placed in just such a way that would make the light passing through turn into a dagger which, when it hit the circles, would reveal the solstices and equinoxes.

At the time all of this was great grist for the story I was working on.

I did not get to Chaco Canyon until I moved out west from Florida in 1991. I drove straight there from Albuquerque (there used to be a back door route into the canyon, from the south).

I was fascinated immediately by three observations: the Fajada Butte was more compelling than I could have imagined, the canyon was bigger-- longer and wider-- than I thought, but other than that I got the area pretty much right. Just shows what research and imagination can do.

Chaco Canyon is vast and mysterious. The Anasazi (Navajo for "Ancient Ones") built their civilization sometime after 850 A.D.; they left sometime in the 1100s-- no one knows where. The canyon has 10 buildings which are thought to have contained around 3,000 rooms. Several of the buildings may have been 5 stories high. Pueblo Bonito itself is 3 acres, with 700 rooms, and was 3-4 stories. Pueblo Bonito is also the center of an elaborate solar calendar: all of the buildings are either part of the solar calendar, or part of a lunar calendar that traces the 18.5-year lunar cycle.

There are several large kivas (estimated to have held up to 400 people) and many smaller kivas (estimated to have accomodated up to 50 people).

Was it a center of worship? It was certainly a center of trade, with items from faraway central and south america found in the ruins. What drew the Anasazi here, a land with little water and food and no wood to speak of? Why did they put so much effort into building what is in the main a huge calendar? Why are so many of the room dark, windowless, unventilated, showing no indication that anyone lived there? Why did they seal up so many doorways before they left? And why did they leave?

I spent three days there. The third day was the best as I was virtually the only one in the entire canyon.

Since then I've visited three times-- the last time was 1996, which is when the photos below were taken.

I'm not an expert on the canyon, or the Chaco Culture: there are many books and a couple of excellent TV documentaries about it.

(Among the books: the short but informative booklet put out by the Southwest Parks and Monuments Association, Chaco Canyon, Center of A Culture, by Douglas and Barbara Anderson; and In Search Of The Old Ones, Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest, by David Roberts. Among the documentaries, most fascinating is The Mystery of Chaco Canyon, produced by Anna Sofaer and the Solstice Project in 1999, and narrated by Robert Redford. It goes into great detail about the new theories about the solar and lunar calendars that seem to be at the center of the location of the buildings. It's available through PBS at

And although it might sound like a cheesy idea, there's also a cassette you can buy to listen to either as you drive through the canyon or wherever you're going when you leave.

There are some fascinating discoveries that have been made since I first encountered the canyon, and there's been some controversy, too.

The controversy has to do with whether or not the Anasazi were cannibals. Apparently there is some evidence, in the declining years of the civilization there, that some of the people were murdered, cooked and eaten. Scholars are heatedly debating the truth of the charge.

On the lighter, and much more interesting side, recent discoveries strongly indicate that not only was the dagger a calendar, but the whole place may be a calendar. On a recently aired documentary, several archaeologists and other scientists pointed out many, many examples of how the ruins themselves were aligned in a specific way, so as to line of with the arc of the sun and moon on key dates, at important times of year.

I want to study that a bit, then return to take a look.

Below are several photos I took, mostly in 1996. If you're passing through Durango, Albuquerque, Farmington or even Gallup, and you enjoy ruins with an air of mystery, take a day to visit.

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Looking down on the marvelous Pueblo Bonito
ruin, from the lip of the canyon above.
(This is the centerpiece ruin, covering
around 3 acres, the size of the Roman
Coliseum; the intersection of the north-south
axis part of their solar calendar: when it
existed it is thought to have been around
700 rooms; 3-4 stories high.)

Another view of Pueblo Bonito; the edge of
the lip of the canyon wall above is in the
lower foreground.

Another view of the Fajada Butte

An ancient stairway-- see it?

A closer view of the stairway,
rising at a 3-5 degree incline.

Another view of the stairway

Another view of the stairway

The ancient stairway.

Looking up from almost ground level to the top
of the canyon. There's a passage through a tunnel
to get to the top.

A steep passage to the top of the canyon.
(Entrance to tunnel leading up to the top
is behind the person in white in the background
in the center of the photo.)

Within the tunnel, looking down at the entrance.

Within the tunnel, looking up to the exit.

Taken from the edge of the canyon wall.

Another view of Pueblo Bonito.

Another view of Pueblo Bonito.

A wall within Pueblo Bonito.

Another wall within Pueblo Bonito.

Looking down on Kin Kletso
from the trail up to the plain above
the canyon wall.

Pueblo del Arroyo, looking west.
(This ruin is the western
piece of the east-west solar
calendar line formed by this ruin, Pueblo
Bonito, and Chetro Ketl-- see map below.)

Pueblo del Arroyo.

Anaszi architecture. Note the wooden beams.
No trees grew within at least 50 miles of the canyon;
all the wood had to be hauled in by a pre-wheel culture.

More Anasazi architecture.

Arroyo del Pueblo, looking west.

A ruin (Pueblo Alto) in the distance
on the plain above the canyon.

Pueblo Alto, on the plain above the canyon,
on the north-south axis. (There is a walking trail
from the canyon to this ruin.)

A view of the tip of Fajada Butte from the far end
of the canyon.

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Chaco Canyon. (From the National Park Service Map.)

Chacoan Culture

NASA Map based on aerial/space photography
showing impressions of straight roads leading away from the Canyon.
There is also a straight road that heads from Pueblo Bonito past Pueblo Alto due north.
Responsible Official: Dr. James E. Arnold (
Page Author: Tom Sever
Page Curator: Diane Samuelson (

Web Links:
Chaco Canyon/National Park Service
GORP/Chaco Canyon Info
NASA hi-tech space photo info
Chaco Canyon astronomy info
Tour of various sites at Chaco Canyon

The Chaco Handbook: An Encyclopedic...

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