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Old Man Halate

This story requires a preface, so bear with me.

The home of the Zuni people is the Pueblo of Zuni in western New Mexico. The region around the pueblo has been the tribal home for 4,000 years.

One of the Zuni traditions is the carving of small figures called fetishes, which usually depict animals. The carvings are small, rarely exceeding a few inches long. They can be made of turquoise, shell, marble, pipestone, antler, or some other material.

Fetishes are symbolic in nature. To understand the concept, consider that in Zuni culture, the world is divided into six regions, each protected by a guardian animal.

The mountain lion guards the north, the bear guards the west, the badger the south, the wolf the east, the eagle the sky, and the mole the earth.

The guardians, and other animals, as well, are said to have certain innate strengths and qualities. The bear represents power from within, the badger represents perseverance, etc. A fetish, the Zuni believe, empowers its owner with the characteristics of the animal it depicts.

Over time, the carving of fetishes evolved from a ceremonial practice into an art form. Today, Zuni fetishes are very popular, like Hopi pottery and Navajo jewelry.

On my many trips to the Southwest over the years, I’ve brought home 13 fetishes. They range from simple to intricate, from so-so quality to impressive works of art.

fetishes

A sampling of my Zuni fetishes.

I chose each one for its aesthetic appeal, not the symbolism. I liked them, and the price was right.

Which brings me to the point of all this: the story of my favorite fetish, a bear.

This bear:

fetish

When I spotted the carving in a shop in 1999, I did a double-take. What is going on here?

The thing looks like a grotesque hippo. The ears and facial features are askew. The craftsmanship is sloppy, almost laughable. Maybe, I thought, a child carved it.

Intrigued, I asked the owner of the shop. And, as you might expect, it was a fascinating story. This is what he told me:

The fetish is a bear. In most respects, it’s a traditional carving, down to the prayer bundle on its back and the use of coral and turquoise for the nose and eyes.

And, yes, the work is crude and a bit funky. That’s because it was done by an aging “master carver” who had lost his touch. His eyesight and dexterity, perhaps also his mental faculties, were failing.

Out of respect for the old fellow, friends and family said nothing. He continued carving, and everyone pretended his work was still fabulous.

The story was both plausible and appealing, and it made me see the fetish is a new light. I bought it for $26.00 and made a note of the name of the carver.

Years later, I Googled the name of the carver and learned that the shop owner’s story was partly correct, but not entirely.

The carver, now deceased, is a well known Zuni artist. He is a big deal these days among collectors.

Leonard Halate (pronounced Hal-ah-tee) was born in 1914, and he herded sheep most of his life. In the 1940s, his uncle taught him the art of carving. In the 1960s, Leonard finally got serious about it.

Most of his fetishes were, like my bear, crooked and crude. But the work of “Old Man Halate” had a folk-art quality that made it charming, popular, and soon, highly collectible.

One account said Leonard paid local children to bring him any dead bird they found. He used the claws as horns on his dinosaur fetishes, or as deer antlers or alligator teeth.

Leonard died in 2001. For a number of years afterward, some carvers took advantage of his popularity and mimicked his style. Halate knockoffs became common. I’m confident I have a genuine Halate, since I bought it well before he died.

Today, Leonard Halate fetishes can bring hundreds of dollars, sometimes thousands. And someday, my heirs might put my lop-sided bear fetish on the market and make a $26 investment pay off nicely.

But, for now, I like having the little thing at home where I can enjoy it. That silly expression, with two nostrils and one eye lined up on the same plane, amuses me greatly.

old-man-halate

Old Man Halate.

 

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Rocky Raccoon

At the moment, I’m on a road trip. I’m heading west to do some hiking at Grand Canyon, and I’ll drive back to Georgia along the Gulf Coast — maybe go swimming and get some seafood and what-not.

This trip is unique, and quite memorable, because I’m driving an RV. It’s a Dodge van, specially tricked out with all the amenities one needs on the road: refrigerator, microwave, sink, shower, toilet, stove, heat, A/C, TV, and DVD player.

So, at the end of the day’s drive, I’m obliged to find an RV park instead of a motel. So far, things have worked out fine. I haven’t been forced to settle for a Walmart parking lot.

A couple of days into the trip, I rolled into a state park in central New Mexico. The facility looked clean, the rates were low, the weather was nice. So far, so good.

Shortly after hooking up the power, I decided to check out the bath house. If it turned out to be dirty or otherwise inadequate, I would shower the next morning in the RV.

The bath house was about 50 yards or so from my campsite, on the far side of a playground. Next to it were three large dumpsters, the kind made of heavy steel with plastic lids. In this case, the plastic lids were missing.

Judging from the scratching sounds coming from one of the dumpsters, a critter of some kind was inside having a meal.

The dumpsters were about five feet tall, and I had no idea what sort of critter was inside. As quietly as possible, I approached the dumpster so I could find out.

But I wasn’t quiet enough. When I got to within 10 feet, the scratching stopped.

Holding my breath, I veeeeery slowly moved forward and peered over the edge.

Inside, a large raccoon was looking back at me.

As I hastily retreated, the banging inside the dumpster resumed. This time, it sounded less like a raccoon rummaging through bags of garbage and more like a raccoon trying unsuccessfully to climb out.

This, I thought, is the park’s problem, not mine. After checking out the bath house — which was in A-1 shape — I walked over to the park office to tell them about the marooned raccoon.

“Excuse me,” I said to one of the two ladies at the front desk, “Are you folks good at rescuing wildlife in distress?” I told them about the raccoon.

The ladies gave each other a knowing look. “That’s Rocky,” said one of them wearily. “We have to rescue him from one dumpster or another practically every day.”

“Rocky can get inside a dumpster in a heartbeat,” said the other lady. “Our maintenance people have to drop everything and go get him out.”

“Well, it’s their own fault he keeps doing it,” said the first lady. “Rocky knows they’ll come and get him out!”

“What they do,” explained the second lady, “Is put a 2×4 into the dumpster at an angle. Rocky scampers up the 2×4, and off he runs.”

“It’s a real problem,” said the first lady. “A never-ending problem.”

“Just once, they ought to leave him in there for a good long time,” said the second lady. “Like, two days, maybe three!”

“Now, Helen, Rocky don’t mean no harm,” said the first lady. “We can’t treat him mean like that.”

“I know. But that would sure teach him a lesson!”

Five minutes later, I watched as one of the maintenance guys placed an eight-foot 2×4 into the dumpster at an angle and stepped back. In a split second, Rocky raced nimbly up the 2×4, hopped to the ground, and sped off through the underbrush.

That happened at about 4PM. The next morning, I arose, ate some breakfast, grabbed a towel and my toiletry kit, and walked across the playground to the bath house.

As I neared the building, I could hear Rocky inside the dumpster, scratching through the garbage.

Rocky Raccoon-2

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“The Couve”

At the western end of the Columbia River Gorge, 30 miles inland from the Pacific Ocean, in a wide valley at the foot of the Cascade Range, the cities of Portland, Oregon, and Vancouver, Washington, face each other across the Columbia River.

On the south bank is Portland, population 588,000. On the north bank is Vancouver, population 162,000.

According to the local joke, the city is Vancouver (not the one in British Columbia), Washington (not the District of Columbia), in Clark County (not the one in Las Vegas), across the river from Portland (not the one in Maine).

To the locals, Vancouver is “the Couve.”

When Europeans first arrived there in 1775, the area was inhabited by an estimated 80,000 Native Americans, mostly of the Chinook and Klickitat nations. By the time the Lewis & Clark expedition camped there in 1805, half the natives were dead from smallpox.

By 1850, smallpox, measles, malaria, and influenza had reduced the native population to a few dozen miserable refugees whose land had been taken by the white settlers who brought the diseases.

But, hey — we Americans prefer to look forward, not backward, right?

Meriwether Lewis wrote that the Vancouver area was “the only desired situation for settlement west of the Rocky Mountains.” High praise from a guy who had reason to know.

The location isn’t perfect. Rain is a frequent thing, and occasionally, an ice storm will shut the city down.

On the other hand, heavy snow is infrequent, and the Columbia River has been neutered and doesn’t flood anymore. And when the clouds go away, you can look up and see Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, Mount Adams, and Mount Saint Helens, looming above in all their glory.

Today, Vancouver is a bona fide bedroom community of Portland, not only because of the relative sizes of the cities, but also for economic reasons.

In Oregon, the income tax is high, but the state levies no sales tax. In Washington, there is no income tax at all, but the sales tax is 6.5 percent.

Consequently, people shop in Portland to dodge the sales tax, and they live in Vancouver to avoid the income tax.

I got to know a bit about Vancouver in 2010, when I spent two weeks exploring the Pacific Northwest and used Vancouver as my base of operations.

Downtown Vancouver is attractive and pleasant. A long stretch of the riverfront is public space — incredibly, green and undeveloped — and accessible to the water‘s edge. I wandered along the bank for quite a distance in the company of joggers, picnickers, and several kids wading in the water as their moms looked on.

Riverfront

One day, I had possibly the best meal of my life at a hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurant in downtown Vancouver. It was a divinely flavorful seafood soup.

I have a weakness for Oriental seafood soup, and that soup was as the nectar of the gods. Every spoonful was sublime — an almost religious experience. Even now, the memory of it gives me pangs of delight.

But I digress.

The Couve is a very walkable city. The same day I had that marvelous soup, I wandered for over an hour around Esther Short Park, Vancouver’s main public park and town square, which is about five acres in size.

After the trip, I did some research and learned a few interesting things about the city and the park.

For one, I learned that over the last couple of decades, Vancouver has faced two chronic problems: slow economic decline (everyone shops in Portland) and the presence of homeless people, lots of ’em, in the downtown area.

For another, I learned that the public square in Esther Short Park is the oldest in the state. It is anchored by the Salmon Run Clock and Bell Tower, which features (in addition to the salmon running around the base) a glockenspiel that goes off three times a day and relates a Chinook tribal legend.

Clock tower

The park is named for Esther Short, the founding mother of Vancouver and a colorful and fascinating character. She, her husband Amos, and their children arrived there in 1845 and established a farm near the British Fort Vancouver.

The British army and its corporate ally, the Hudson’s Bay Company, were not pleased with their new neighbors. The British wanted to confine American settlements to the south bank of the river. They wanted Amos and Esther gone.

At one point, while Amos was away, British soldiers rounded up Esther and her children and set them adrift on the Columbia River in an oarless raft.

Esther managed to beach the raft, and no one was hurt. Amos undoubtedly went bonkers when he returned, and, yes, the situation went downhill from there.

According to one version of events, the Shorts were squatters on British land. When the legitimate owner of the property went to California on business, he left his caretaker, David Gardner, in charge.

There was a confrontation. Amos shot and killed Gardner, then promptly went to court and filed a claim on the land in his own name.

A second version is that ownership of the land was unclear. Gardner, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, tore down a fence Amos had built and ordered the Shorts off the land. Shots were exchanged, and Gardner was killed.

Amos, then, was either a murdering claim-jumper, or he acted to defend his home and family. He was, in fact, tried for murder and acquitted.

Not long after the trial, Amos drowned when his ship capsized at the mouth of the Columbia River.

Esther carried on and did quite well. Over time, she opened a restaurant and a couple of hotels. She also donated several strategic pieces of property to the new city of Vancouver.

One piece she donated in 1855 was the land for Esther Short Park. Another was the long strip of undeveloped waterfront.

Esther Short

The unsinkable Esther Short.

Fast-forward to the 1990s. By that time, Esther Short Park was old and shabby and largely populated by street people — the homeless, the mentally ill, hippies, panhandlers, bag ladies, eccentrics, and etcetera.

In 1996, a newspaper article named the park as “the nucleus of the majority of emergency 911 calls in the city.”

One day in 1997, while the mayor of Vancouver was attending an event designed to help make the park a more family-friendly place, he was rammed from behind by a street person pushing a shopping cart.

The angry assailant threatened the mayor and warned him to leave.

That did it. The man was arrested, and public support surged for efforts to take back and clean up the park.

My guess is, the police also began to crack heads and otherwise make the park less appealing to the “undesirables.”

Slowly, things turned around. By 2007, Vancouver and Esther Short Park were winning awards for excellence.

I should mention, however, that the park today is not transient-free.

During my afternoon stroll there in 2010, I noticed several unkempt or colorfully-dressed persons who were not tourists, business types, moms with strollers, or kids playing in the fountains.

In fact, for a solid half hour, one woman pushed her shopping cart slowly back and forth along the sidewalk while shouting at the top of her voice, addressing no one in particular. Profanities and incoherent babble rained down in all directions.

The moms and tourists and business types completely ignored the woman.

I suppose they can afford to be charitable. The park now belongs to them.

Park

Kids

Homeless

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As a red-blooded American sports fan, you no doubt are familiar with the “Curse of the Bambino.” In 1919, according to legend, the Boston Red Sox brought a curse upon the team by selling Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees. The Red Sox did not win a World Series for the next 86 years.

You probably also know about the “Curse of the Billy Goat” visited upon the Chicago Cubs in 1945. It happened when a local bar owner and his pet goat were booted out of Wrigley Field during game four of the World Series.

“Them Cubs, they ain’t gonna win no more,“ the angry bar owner declared. The Cubs haven’t won so much as a National League pennant since.

Compared to those world-class curses, the “Curse of Billy Penn” in Philadelphia might seem rather bush-league. But it lasted for two decades, and as soon as an atonement of sorts was made, the curse ended.

William NMI Penn (1644-1718) was an English Quaker and real estate speculator who founded the American colony of Pennsylvania. Penn is widely lionized in the Keystone State. Indeed, no state is as closely associated with an individual as is Penn with Pennsylvania.

William Penn founded the city of Philadelphia in 1682, and appropriately, a massive bronze statue of Penn stands atop Philadelphia City Hall. The 37-foot-tall statue, created in 1894 by Alexander Calder, cuts a dashing figure above the city.

Curse-1

For almost a century, Penn’s statue was the tallest structure in Philadelphia. The city fathers kept it that way, turning down requests for new buildings taller than 548 feet, enabling Penn to preside proudly over the City of Brotherly Love.

In the mid-1980s, however, the city fathers caved. A rich bigshot was allowed to build One Liberty Place, which, at 945 feet, dwarfed the statue of Penn, big-time. William Penn no longer reigned over the city skyline. Worse, bigger and taller skyscrapers soon followed.

By allowing the statue to be thus diminished, so the tale is told, Philadelphia brought upon itself the “Curse of Billy Penn.”

Whether the curse was visited upon the city by the ghost of William Penn or by divine providence, it is said to have prevented the Philadelphia Phillies, Philadelphia Eagles, Philadelphia 76ers, and Philadelphia Flyers from winning a single championship for the next 21 years.

Some say the curse even affected horseracing. In 2006, a Philadelphia-based thoroughbred named Barbaro was favored to win the triple crown — until he fractured a leg during the Preakness, and his career was ended.

The curse came to an end, we are told, thanks to the communications behemoth Comcast.

Headquartered in Philadelphia since 1969, Comcast began construction of the opulent new Comcast Center in 2005. The new headquarters building would become the newest tallest skyscraper in the city.

In June 2007, during the topping-out ceremony, a steel beam was raised on the roof of the 974-foot building.

The dignitaries and construction workers signed the beam, and, in accordance with tradition, an American flag and a small tree were affixed.

Then, two workers stepped forward and attached to the beam a 25-inch-tall statue of William Penn. A whopping twenty-five inches tall.

They did so at the direction of Comcast EVP David Cohen, who had proposed the idea when construction began.

Cohen had intoned for the cameras, “Let’s once again restore Billy Penn to his rightful place and the highest location in Philadelphia.”

You’d think a company with a net worth of $73 billion could do better by William Penn than erecting a toy statue, but that’s what Billy got from Comcast.

Nevertheless, it apparently sufficed.

One year later, the Philadelphia Phillies won the World Series.

Penn’s statue atop City Hall has suffered repeated indignities over the years…

The Philadelphia skyline, showing One Liberty Place (with the red dot), City Hall (center), and the Comcast Center looming at right.

The Philadelphia skyline, showing One Liberty Place (with the red dot), City Hall (center), and the Comcast Center looming at right.

The curse-ending mini-statue of William Penn affixed to the beam on top of the Comcast Center.

The curse-ending mini-statue of William Penn affixed to the beam on top of the Comcast Center.

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Money Shot

In September 2011, on a lake near the small town of Inlet, New York, the Central Adirondack Paddlers Society sponsored an attempt to break the Guinness record for the “World’s Largest Floating Raft.”

“Largest Floating Raft” in this case was a gathering of canoes and kayaks, held together only by hands, floating freely for at least 30 seconds.

At the time, the world record was 1,619 boats, set in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in 2010. The New York team easily set a new record with 1,902 boats.

The Inlet event was known as One Square Mile of Hope, and it raised $80,000 for the Komen foundation for breast cancer research.

So — 2,000 paddlers had a memorable day, and a chunk of money was raised for medical research.

Also notable about the event was the awesome photography.

At ground level, the largest floating raft looked like this:

The most eye-popping photos were taken by Lake Placid photographer Nancie Battaglia. Her amazing aerial shots earned two-page spreads in Sports Illustrated, Canoe & Kayak, and National Geographic.

Here is a bird’s-eye view.

And here is the money shot, a beautiful mosaic.

The population of Inlet, New York, is about 400. They like to point out that they bested mighty Pittsburgh, population 350,000.

It was, in addition, a revenge thing. Inlet had won the championship in 2008 (1,104 boats), only to lose to Pittsburgh in 2010. I assume Pittsburgh has plans to retaliate.

Meanwhile, to celebrate Inlet’s victory, you can go to OneSquareMileofHope.com and choose your memento:

— A 16″ x 20″, 500-piece jigsaw puzzle of Nancie Battaglia’s money shot, $25.00

— A 22″ x 28″ poster of the same photo, $15.00

— A nifty pink One Square Mile of Hope commemorative cap, $15.00

All profits will be donated to Susan G. Komen for the Cure.

All in all, it’s a pleasant, uplifting story that has no bad guys.

Not counting Pittsburgh, of course.

 

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Daniel the Sandpainter

Sandpainting is the art of creating intricate designs and pictures on a horizontal surface using colored sand.

In various forms, sandpainting has been practiced around the world for centuries. It is still in use today by Tibetan monks, Australian Aborigines, and the Navajo and other Native Americans.

Sandpainting the Navajo way.

By nature, a sandpainting is temporary. It’s usually done ritually as part of a religious or healing ceremony.

Last month in Santa Fe, I encountered a different kind of sandpainter: an anglo artist using a special form of sandpainting to draw attention to a cause.

Santa Fe, New Mexico, has a thing for museums. By my count, there are 23 in town, some public and some private.

Four of the most popular are located at Museum Hill, a picturesque spot in a wooded area not far from downtown. Museum Hill is home to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian, the Museum of Spanish Colonial Art, and the Museum of International Folk Art.

The first and last of those four face each other across Milner Plaza, an attractive spot that invites you to sit and take a break from all of that history and culture.

I visited Museum Hill on a Sunday, and, as I have a habit of doing, I arrived early, before anything opened. After taking photos of buildings and statues for a while, I sat down to review some of my shots.

Every few minutes, a museum employee would arrive for work, slip inside, and close the door. An occasional runner came into view and out again. Several souls like me were scattered around the plaza.

One of them, a tall, lean young man, was walking toward the center of the plaza carrying an armload of something — strips of wood, it seemed. He dumped the stack of whatever it was onto the bricks and went back for another load.

Not far away, on the grass at the edge of the plaza, three people were setting up a display booth. The banner across the top said “New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.” The young man seemed to be part of that group.

On his next trip to the center of the plaza, the young man brought a small crate that contained a dozen plastic catsup dispensers.

He set down the crate, picked up a stack of his wooden somethings, and began to arrange them in a large circle on the ground. Curiosity was killing me, so I approached the circle.

The dispensers held colored sand of various pastel shades. The wood strips were stencils.

I moved closer so I could read the lettering.

RAZORBACK SUCKER

GRAY WOLF

GILA TROUT

WESTERN RIBBONSNAKE

MOUNTAIN TOAD

By then, I was practically reading over the guy’s shoulder, and he looked up.

Before I could ask, he said, “These are the names of New Mexico’s 112 endangered species.”

He extended his hand. We introduced ourselves, and I listened to his story.

His name was Daniel Richmond, a sculptor and art teacher from Albuquerque. He had come to Milner Plaza to create a project he called, “112 Endangered Names Embossed in Dirt.”

Daniel’s tools were the wooden stencils and colored sand. While he did the creating, members of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance backed him up with information, refreshments, games, and face-painting for passers-by.

For the next couple of hours, Daniel would arrange the stencils in circles on the plaza and fill the letters with sand, removing each stencil in turn to reveal the name.

As Daniel well knew, wind and foot traffic would soon obliterate his work. He knew, because he has created this project many times around New Mexico in recent years.

As he explained, the fragile nature of the work is intentional. It dramatized the urgent need for action to prevent the 112 species from disappearing.

Daniel did his work effortlessly. When he removed a stencil, the words stood out crisply on the plaza bricks.

“Now it’s your turn,” he said, handing me a catsup dispenser.

I must have looked surprised. “Please — go ahead,” he said. “I want people to participate.”

I got down on all fours in front of the nearest stencil, GREENTHROAT DARTER. I wondered whether it’s a bird or a fish.

“Just… pour?” I asked.

“Pour slowly,” he told me. “You’ll get the hang of it.”

Haltingly, I added sand to GREENTHROAT DARTER. It wasn’t as easy as Daniel made it look.

I finished applying the sand and carefully lifted away the stencil. The effort was terrible. I had applied far too much sand. The letters ran together.

“Crap,” I muttered.

“No, that was a good first effort,” he said. “And you’re now officially part of the project. Try another one.”

My second attempt was better. My third was better still.

Other curious tourists began to arrive, and Daniel turned his attention to them. I continued to stencil names until my knees were sore.

At length, I reckoned it was time to go see some museums. I got up, waved to Daniel, and limped off toward the Folk Art Museum.

Of the four museums at Museum Hill, the Folk Art Museum was my least favorite. That’s not a common opinion. Most visitors rate it as the best in town. Go figure.

But I give the Folk Art people credit in one important area: they allow photography inside. None of the other museums do.

When I asked about the photo policy, I was told that their new curator had changed the policy. She thought barring photography was pointless and dumb. Good for you, lady.

Better still, she did not remove the signs that say NO PHOTOGRAPHY PERMITTED. She left them up, but had the NOs crossed out with big red Xs.

Later, as I crossed the plaza on my way to the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, Daniel was still at work. He said the project always drags out because of constant interruptions by passing tourists. Which is a positive thing.

Maybe — just maybe — Daniel’s work is having an impact. In 2011, he identifies 112 endangered species in the State of New Mexico.

Five years ago, the number was 118.

By the way, the greenthroat darter is a fish.

An 18-foot-tall bronze statue of an Apache mountain-spirit dancer stands guard over Milner Plaza.

Elsewhere on the plaza, Daniel readies his stencils.

He arranges the stencils in circles...

... and deftly applies the colored sand.

My first attempt -- an embarrassing GREENTHROAT DARTER.

But I got better with practice.

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County Road 57

One morning last week, I stepped out of my motel room in Taos, New Mexico, and was greeted by the sight of a flat tire on my rental car.

That set off two hours of activity in which I had to remove the flat, replace it with a pathetic mini-spare, drive to a repair shop, and wait while they made things right.

The flat and the mini-spare were front and center in my thoughts as I sat in the tire shop, pondering a day trip that was on my agenda a few days later: I planned to drive to Chaco Culture National Historical Park, located way out in the New Mexico desert, 40 miles from the nearest town, 13 miles from the nearest pavement.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park, known until recently simply as Chaco Canyon, is a remote site that was, a thousand years ago, a thriving center of Pueblo Indian culture.

Chaco was an important stop on the southern migration of the Pueblo Indians. To many of today’s pueblo-dwellers, Chaco is one of their ancestral homes and a sacred place.

Today, Chaco is home to five major pueblo ruins that have been excavated and stabilized, plus numerous other sites that remain untouched, so far.

Each of the five ruins takes the better part of an hour to see. When you factor in the long drive, visiting Chaco is, at minimum, an all-day trip. And, if you’re really into pueblo ruins, you’ll probably stay at the campground and hang around a while.

That 13-mile stretch of non-pavement I mentioned is described by the Park Service as “rough dirt road.” I found it to be a brutal washboard road peppered with rock outcrops that threatened my muffler and cattle guards that assaulted my tires.

Good thing I was driving a rental car.

Fortunately, the weather that day was sunny and dry. Any rain whatsoever makes the road impassable.

I went to Chaco Canyon briefly back in the 1960s, but frankly, I have almost no recollection of that trip. Which was a good reason to include Chaco on my itinerary in 2011.

I had prepared myself appropriately. That morning, I left my motel in Farmington and was on the road early. I had a full tank of gas and a spare gallon of water in the trunk. No food is available in the park, so in my glove compartment were two Nature Valley bars, a bag of Doritos, and a package of homemade cookies I had purchased at Taos Pueblo. I figured that would tide me over for the day.

My rental car survived the 13 miles of bad road, and by 9:00 AM, I arrived at the park.

The lady at the Visitor Center told me that a ranger-guided tour of Pueblo Bonito, the largest ruin, had just started a few minutes earlier. She suggested that I go catch up.

I wasn’t sure about that. I usually prefer to proceed at my own pace. But, by the time I arrived at the ruin (Stop Number One on the loop drive), there was the tour group, about 30 people in all, just getting started. Somewhat reluctantly, I walked up quietly and joined them.

The ranger’s narrative was interesting and informative, but the milling herd of tourists made it impossible to take photos. Literally.

The group was standing at an elevated overlook that provides a bird‘s-eye view of Pueblo Bonito down below.

“The Great Kiva you see before you in the plaza was the center of religious life for the Chacoans,” intoned the ranger.

I stood there, completely blocked out by a solid wall of tourists, many of them frankly overfed. Of the Great Kiva, I could see zip — nothing.

That did it. I drifted away from the group and for a while, took photos elsewhere. After they moved on, I went back to the overlook and gazed upon the Great Kiva in peaceful solitude, at my leisure. I got lots of cool photos.

For the next few hours, I did the drive-park-walk thing around the park. It was most enjoyable, most interesting.

I’m pleased to say that by that point in my trip, I had learned (okay, I learned it from the ranger) to distinguish the relative age of a given ruin based on the details of its construction — the materials being stone, wood, and adobe.

Basically, the more intricate and precise the handiwork, the older it is; the sloppier the workmanship, the newer it is. Sigh.

In case you’re wondering, modern-day pueblo-dwellers build with Tyvek and sheetrock, then slap a layer of adobe on the outside for appearances. Hard to blame them.

By about 3:00 PM, I had done and seen all I intended to do and see at Chaco. It was time to pack up and depart. My goal was to reach Gallup by nightfall.

The main access road to Chaco exits to the northeast. There, it meets US 550, running northwest and southeast. To get to Gallup, I needed to go — drat — southwest. Driving to Gallup via US 550 would take me 200 miles out of the way.

On the map, however, is another dirt road, County Road 57, that exits the park going southwest. I checked the park website, and it said the road is seldom maintained and “can vary from rough to impassable.” Basically, one takes CR 57 at one’s own risk.

I went back to the front desk at the Visitor Center to get a local perspective.

I told the lady at the desk I wanted to get to Gallup, and I was driving a rented Hyundai Accent. I asked whether or not she thought I should attempt CR 57.

There was a long pause. “A Hyundai Accent?” I nodded.

“Well,” she said, “I have a Toyota Corolla, and I drove that road last year. That was the only time. It wasn’t easy, but I made it.”

She looked at me meaningfully. “You probably won’t pass another vehicle out there. No cell phone service, either. If anything happens, you’ve got trouble.

“On the other hand, the weather’s good, and the road is drivable… if you take it easy.”

As she spoke, visions of flats and mini-spares swam in my head.

But, hey — how much worse than the 13-mile unpaved entrance road could CR 57 be?

As it turned out, not that much worse. True, it was one of the most remote and desolate places I’ve ever been. But, except for a couple of steep, slippery hills, a few nasty rocky patches, and the high wind and blowing sand, CR 57 was, indeed, drivable.

The distance from Chaco Canyon south to the pavement of Indian Route 9 is 20 miles. By the clock, it took me one hour and 15 minutes. I took the lady’s advice and didn’t push it.

The long drive, however, was not without drama.

At one point, deep into the drive, I topped a hill and saw a vehicle stopped in the road ahead.

It was a tow truck.

The driver was busily changing a flat tire.

His own.

I pulled over behind the truck and got out. “Good morning,” I said.

“Howdy, friend,” replied the man. He was a lean, ruddy Anglo fellow of about 50. He wore dusty jeans and a well-worn baseball cap, typical of the local residents.

He finished tightening the lug nuts on the right rear wheel, stood up, and heaved the flat tire into the bed of the truck.

“A tow truck with a flat is kind of ironic,” I said.

“Reckon it is,” he replied. “I came out here to fix a guy’s tire. He left about 10 minutes ago. I was right behind him, and then — boom.”

“How far is it to the pavement?”

“Probably five or six miles. You ain’t there quite yet.”

“Are you okay?” I asked him. “Do you need water or anything?”

“I’m fine, thanks. You doin’ all right in that little Hyundai?”

“Yeah, I’m taking it slow.”

“Well, you can rest easier now. You‘ll have a tow truck not far behind you.”

I liked that idea a lot. For the entire drive, I had been apprehensive and tightly wound. Taking CR 57 truly was a genuine risk, and the more I drove, the more that fact was hammered home. I imagined spending the night out there, waiting for the next rash tourist to come along.

I also imagined my rescuer having a flat, too.

But now, miraculously, I had a tow truck behind me. I drove on, still slow and easy, enjoying a wonderfully exhilarating sense of relief.

Ten minutes later, with a friendly wave and a toot of his horn, the tow truck passed me like a rocket.

Well, the sense of relief felt good while it lasted.

Say what you will about Hyundai Accents, but mine was a scrappy little thing. Although it only had the power of a moped, it stayed cool, climbed every hill, and slid on the loose gravel but rarely.

It also came equipped with XM Radio. Even though I was miles from civilization, I had all the news and tunes I wanted, and that was a comfort.

About 15 minutes later, while bumping along and munching Doritos, I topped another hill and saw up ahead a familiar sight: my friend the tow truck driver.

He was changing a flat tire.

His own.

I pulled up beside him and rolled down the passenger-side window. “We meet again,” I said cleverly.

The man was not in a good humor. He let fly a few curse words, aimed not at me, but at his situation. He was being severely tested that day.

“I carry three spares,” he said with a hint of menace. “Now I’m down to one.” He jerked with vigor on the tire tool to loosen the lug nuts on the offending wheel.

Although I should have remained silent, I was compelled to speak.

“Bad break for you,” I said, “But now I have a tow truck behind me again.”

He couldn’t help but smile.

“Them damn Hyundai tires are tougher than I thought,” he said.

“Knock on wood,” I replied.

He returned to his labors. “Have a safe trip,” he said.

“Good luck,” I said and drove away.

Soon after that, I reached Indian Route 9 and was back on pavement again, ahead of the tow truck. I assume he made it without having a third flat. Or a fourth.

I drove south through Crownpoint to Thoreau, picked up Interstate 40, and headed west into Gallup.

Earlier, I had noticed another shortcut on the map — an unpaved county road going west from Crownpoint straight to Gallup.

It would have shaved off 25 miles, but I decided not to take it.

On the road to Chaco.

 

View of the Great Kiva at Pueblo Bonito, unobstructed by tourists.

 

Leaving Chaco on County Road 57.

 

CR 57, one hour later.

 

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