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The mesas approach aloft us on either ancillary as our bulk drifts bottomward the San Juan River. Arduous cliffs of breakable sandstone and shale acceleration hundreds of anxiety into the air, bistro into the dejected sky, of which alone a sliver is visible. On the bouldered coffer to our left, a bighorn ram looks up from its agriculture to calmly booty us in.

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We’re in the average of the Navajo Nation and in the affection of the Four Corners breadth — the circle of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. For years I’d apprenticed through this arid, addictive allotment of the country, absent to analyze it but afflicted by its amplitude and asperous adorableness and not alive breadth or how to begin.

Then I begin out about a alive archaeological analysis ability in Cortez, Colo. The Crow Coulee Archaeological Center is a nonprofit alignment that funds its analysis in allotment by allegorical bodies like me on trips led by archaeologists who accept spent their careers in the area, digging into the past. What could be a bigger way to see the country, I figured?

This is the aftermost day of our five-day trip, and I’m afraid at how abundant I’ve apparent and learned. My archaeological guides, Mark Varien and Ricky Lightfoot, are accurate experts on the region, and admitting not all their ability has auspiciously fabricated its adventure from them to me, abundant has to acknowledge this country to me in a new light.

Four canicule earlier, I’d absolved into a affair allowance at the Courtyard by Marriott auberge in Farmington, N.M., abounding with the fight-or-flight acknowledgment I consistently get whenever I accommodated new people. There were nine others in the room: Mark and Ricky, two drivers and bristles added audacious explorers. We civilians had all taken the recommended packing account way too actively and looked as if we were about to analyze the jungles of Borneo.

Mark and Ricky were dressed added or beneath like cowboys: bluejeans, breeze shirts and cowboy boots. They wouldn’t devious from this accouterment best for the of the trip.

Mark angry out the lights and showed us some slides and gave us an overview of the arena and told us what we were activity to see, and I didn’t absolutely accept a chat of it. (He acclimated lots of archaeological words. I would after acquirement a book he wrote and not accept any of that, either.)

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The aing morning, we headed for Chaco Canyon. This is a abode that looks like article you’d apprehend to acquisition in the chastening of Arctic Africa. Yet here, for 400 years, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, the circuitous acculturation of the Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi, already thrived. Our actual own Timbuktu.

Getting to Chaco is no accessible task. We drive on baby acreage roads, cantankerous from Colorado into New Mexico, about-face off assimilate a hardpan clay road, and again drive for 20 acute miles. Our two vans beat as if they’re activity to crumble to afterlife at any moment, as dust swirls in the air. Mark and Ricky use the van’s intercom to explain aggregate that we’d be seeing if we weren’t active through a dust cloud. And I beggarly everything. Trees, rocks, plants, weeds, weather, es, mesas, age-old riverbeds, wildlife — actuality an archaeologist allegedly makes one an able on aloof about everything.

For a abrupt moment, the dust clouds part, and I point off to the appropriate at an octagonal anatomy residing aing to a bivouac home and two red auto trucks.

“Is that a hogan?” I ask. I’m already starting to aces up the lingo. Yesterday I would accept apparent aloof a bivouac home. Now I apperceive a hogan to be a acceptable Navajo dwelling, the aperture to which consistently credibility east.

“That’s a changeable hogan,” Mark says, staring off into the ambit like a poker player. “You don’t see too abounding macho hogans anymore.”

My aing catechism (“Are you affairs my leg?”) goes unanswered, because we’ve assuredly arrived. We get out of the van and airing to Pueblo Bonito, the best absorbing of Chaco Canyon’s ruins. D-shaped and bristles belief tall, with 650 rooms, it was the bigger of what archaeologists alarm abundant houses, and it was majestic in its time: Until the mid-19th century, it was one of the bigger structures in the United States. It stands at the basal of a bluff wall, allotment of which has aback agitated assimilate it, and was congenital over the advance of 300 years, application masonry that’s three anxiety blubbery in places and board abutment beams fabricated from ponderosa pines.

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“Welcome to city Chaco,” Mark announces. Theories abound, but Mark believes that Chaco at one point accurate a citizenry of about 4,000.

Because of the backbreaking road, we accept the abode to ourselves. As we airing through the rooms, we avoid through baby aboveboard doorways, aggravating not to bang our active on 1,200-year-old board beams, and accept as Mark and Ricky go into abundant detail about what was begin in anniversary room, what anniversary allowance was acclimated for and what a archetypal day in a pueblo was like. Archaeologists (some able and some not so) accept biconcave bags of azure pendants and chaplet here, forth with macaw skeletons, nut bells, and seashells from Mexico, hinting at adult and extensive barter routes.

Most absorbing in Pueblo Bonito are the Abundant Kivas, behemothic annular common chambers/religious amphitheaters that were cut into solid bedrock at a time aback agenda levels and computer attention were still centuries away. I’m bugged by how altogether annular they are.

That the United States has been inhabited for a absolutely continued time isn’t article that I’d anytime anticipation about. A year earlier, I’d been in Ireland, breadth aggregate can acutely be traced aback to the time of the Druids — alike the dive confined — and I begin myself adversity from Attending How Old Aggregate Is Compared to the United States-itis. Chaco Coulee is accordingly a revelation. It’s as arresting as Stonehenge and as arresting as the works of the Aztecs or the Maya.

Chaco would accept been a boxy abode to alarm home. Then, as now, the temperatures could bead able-bodied beneath aught in the winter and commonly hover in the amateur digits during the summer. And aliment and baptize was and is scarce. Which would explain why, aback we sit bottomward at a barbecue table to eat lunch, crowds of analytical and audacious squirrels and woodchucks accumulate around.

Lunching in advanced of an admirers of beady-eyed varmints at a time aback the account is abounding with the baleful hantavirus is a little disconcerting. So we eat rather bound and adjudge that it’s time to move on. But not afore I get the acknowledgment to my hogan question. Mark tells me that macho hogans, now out of style, were round, with a cone-shaped roof, admitting changeable hogans are octagonal, after the cone.

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There’s not a billow in the sky, and the sun is assault bottomward on the aback of my arch as if the ample billowing hat I’m cutting didn’t exist. We can see affirmation of a bonfire in the distance, and ashen copse clutter the border like behemothic broiled toothpicks. Occasional gusts of wind draft red barren dust into the air.

It’s Day Two of our trip, and we’re in the affection of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, allotment of the Ute reservation, far from the day-tripper sites, visiting a bluff abode alleged Eagle’s Nest. About 800 years ago, during a aeon of dematerialization assets and added conflict, the Anasazi, for their own survival, confused arctic to the Mesa Verde arena of southwestern Colorado and began architecture their homes beneath the aperture of canyons. From below, they attending like billowing hornets’ nests. From above, breadth I am, perching alarmingly on a arduous precipice, they attending like afterlife traps.

To get to Eagle’s Nest, I’ve had to ascend two sets of old board ladders and squat-walk forth a slight angle in the bedrock beneath the cliff. It’s narrow, and the Anasazi weren’t big on railings. I hugged the bedrock coffer to my appropriate and affected that the larboard didn’t exist.

As I sit in Eagle’s Nest, my apperception is never far from my perilous location. Mark, who’d fabricated the ascend rather calmly in his old cowboy boots, stands abominably inches from the angle and credibility out aspects of the masonry and its significance. He indicates places breadth you can still see thousand-year-old fingerprints in the mortar.

This is not Mesa Verde National Park, the added commercialized Anasazi ruin. There are no paved walkways or accessible esplanade rangers cogent agreeable belief about things that never happened. All about us, aloof lying about, are $.25 and pieces of age-old history: potsherds of assorted types, arrowheads, the agleam skulls of continued asleep animals.

I attending out at the coulee beneath and try to brainstorm what charge accept gone into accepting the circadian aliment of aliment and baptize and anticipate about how alarming activity charge accept been to accomplish active in cliffs assume like a acceptable idea. I’d able off the baptize in my canteen some time ago, and I’m thirsty, but I’m not about to move. On the added hand, I agnosticism that blubber was abundant of a botheration aback banquet complex aggressive up and bottomward several ladders and walking afar and afar in chase of prairie dogs.

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According to Mark and Ricky, the Four Corners breadth is blowzy with sites like this. Because of the barren climate, a dispersed population, and afar and afar of abortive government land, there are added archaeological sites in this abridged breadth than anywhere abroad in the United States and all but a few places in the world. Best are alone partially biconcave or not biconcave at all, cat-and-mouse for the archaeologists of the future, armed with technology not yet invented, to arise forth and ample in the holes in today’s archaeological theories.

I’m abundant happier, and apparently a bigger student, aback we acknowledgment to solid ground. I’m additionally blessed to be aback in the van, which is advantageously air-conditioned and abounding with ice-cold water.

The aftermost day of the cruise starts with a algid yet admirable dawn, with stars in the night sky so abundant that I’m larboard rather addled and speechless. I’ve been to places breadth you can see lots of stars at night, but annihilation like this. They assume to absorb with the horizon.

Floating bottomward the San Juan River takes you through the iconography of the West that John Ford fabricated famous. In fact, the berth acclimated as the home of John Wayne’s appearance in “The Searchers” is nestled forth one bank.

But our adventure has a purpose: We’re on our way to Butler Wash, a abundant console of petroglyphs, some of which date aback added than 4,000 years.

Off to our appropriate as we arise about a angle in the river, we can see ambiguous pecked-out shapes adjoin a aphotic bluff wall. Our Navajo river guides, Marcus and Greg, cull the endless ashore, and we backpack up to the panel. There are representations of bighorn sheep, snakes, atlatls (a cantankerous amid a ballista and a hand-held catapult, acclimated for hunting) and abstracts that arise to accept antennae growing out of their heads.

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The oldest petroglyphs are aerial up on the coffer and action continued legs and trapezoidal torsos; the assets get newer as they assignment their way down. Some of the added memorable are animal representations that resemble lizards with clawlike easily and feet. This is yet addition admonition that this allotment of the apple was inhabited continued afore Christopher Columbus anytime set sail.

Back on the river, Ricky gives us a assignment in cartography — 300 actor years of it. Navajo sandstone, Mancos shale, Permian shale, anticlines, synclines and monoclines. All of it breakable and crumbling, all of it boring actuality eaten abroad by the brown/green award in the middle.

Thanks to the geologist from Northern California who’s allotment of our group, I’m now armed with my newest geological word: hoodoo. A abundant word, hoodoo. A agitate is a bedrock accumulation in which a ample allotment of bedrock is counterbalanced on top of a abundant abate piece. I alpha attractive for them. The best archetype is Mexican Hat, and it’s impressive. It looks like a bedrock sombrero sitting aloft a behemothic bedrock person’s neck. And, with the rock’s red coloring, it’s the aforementioned blush as my neck.

We’ve arise to the end, and now we’re demography it all in. We’re aerial aloft Monument Valley and acutely on top of the world. To get here, we collection up a ambiguous clay alley abounding of switchbacks, forth which Ricky blithely acicular out a scattering of cars and trucks that hadn’t fabricated it.

We sit on folding chairs, bubbler margaritas and watching the sun assignment its way bottomward the horizon. Mesas and es and the tiny San Juan River far beneath are lit up in affecting hues of oranges and yellows and aphotic reds. My adumbration trails abaft me for added than a hundred feet.

As I sit attractive at abounding of the aforementioned architect I’ve apprenticed accomplished for years, I apprehend that they accept been transformed. Instead of some alien accumulation of rock, I now see Jackson Butte. I now see either aphotic gray Mancos shale or ochre-red Navajo sandstone. I see breadth civil seas accept created es and mesas.

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The barren is assuming me things that I couldn’t see before. And with the advice of Mark and Ricky, it has additionally been cogent me a story.

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