It's not fair.
28 Sep 1997 22:26:01 -0700
5:25 OK RV
Park; Holbrook, Arizona :: 26 SEP 97
"It's not fair," she said.
We'd pulled into the mission RV park about an hour earlier and
had been waiting for its office to open. The park's manager, we'd been
told, would be able to tell us how best to get to some old ruins in a
remote corner of New Mexico. A pair of parallel narrow black lines on
the road atlas lead to Chaco Canyon National Historical Park where an
ancient, illiterate civilization once built masonry structures up to five
stories tall containing hundreds, nearly thousands of rooms. The south
road had been described to us as extremely rough and, during the rains
of the previous days, all but impassable. The north road, on the other
hand, was well-maintained and could even allow us to tow the trailer into
the park site. The trade-off? The north route would mean tripling the
distance required to drive.
No journey down Route 66 is complete without a few side-trips
to the sights found some distance off the highway. The Grand Canyon, the
meteor crater near Winslow, Arizona, Nevada's Las Vegas, Death Valley:
travelers follow 66 to the nearest turn off and spend a day or so sightseeing
before returning to the Mother Road and continuing the journey. HWY 93/466
and HWY 95 form two sides of the triangle formed by Kingman, Las Vegas
and Needles and should be considered an alternate 66 routing, like a business
loop off the bypass. In Gallup I met some Germans riding Triumph motorcycles
the full length of the highway. On their gas tanks were painted the familiar
US ROUTE 66 road sign and on the fairings a squiggly orange line traced
the route from Chicago to LA with a notable hump to include Las Vegas.
However, none of the popular guides and literature mention Chaco
Canyon and, since none of these is less than two years old, we wouldn't
have trusted the information in them anyway. We'd already tried Thoreau's
Sheriff's office which, despite two cars in the parking lot, was dark
and no one answered our door poundings. The next logical place was the
RV park where, if we discovered the roads were not suitable for RV travel,
we'd be parking the trailer for a couple nights anyway. So we picked the
best available spot and waited for the manager's return.
"The north road is well maintained, graded regularly," the manager
went on. "You could take your trailer on it and dry camp at the park,"
meaning no electrical, water or sewer. That's not a bother for a trailer
like mine: holding tanks, water reservoir, and 12-volt battery keep those
luxuries available in sufficient quantity to last a few days if conserved.
"But the south road is never graded and gets badly rutted, extremely rough.
And if it rains, like the past couple days, even four-wheel drives get
"Hmmm," I wondered aloud, "why isn't the south road maintained?"
"I asked the Park Service about it," she answered, "and they
said that the park already gets more than enough visits so they leave
the south road rough." She didn't have to explain that the Park Service
was discouraging visits from the heavily travelled interstate at I-40
while still allowing for relatively smooth sailing for the more dedicated
sightseer on the northern highways. "I guess it gives Farmington a chance
at some business, but it's just not fair."
Farmington is the nearest sizeable town to the park's north
entrance. A good deal larger than Thoreau, a little further from Chaco
Canyon and on a smaller, less-travelled highway. Its advantage is its
20 miles of park access road is graveled and graded while Thoreau's is
not, and this is the result of a government agency's conscious decision.
21:00 OK RV Park; Holbrook, Arizona :: 26 SEP 97
Stanley Fish, whom I've been quoting of late, has a bit to say
You've probably heard the one about the two guys in
the mail room. One is the CEO's son, and the other some recent business
school graduate. One promotion comes up and the manager who is to make
the decision calls the two men into his office. "It's come straight from
the top, I have to award this promotion strictly on the basis of merit,"
he informs the two aspiring execs. We all laugh when the CEO's son replies,
"That's not fair!"
Of course, the joke's funny to us because the 'merit' this
manager's talking about specifies an apparently objective criterion
of ability, an opinion of merit which has overtaken other points of
view, for example, that belonging to the son of the CEO. He was brought
up under the impression that being the CEO's son is an indication of
merit, and a more important one than mere ability or competence. Were
this scene played for an earlier, more elite audience, say to the Victorian
aristocracy, the result would not have been laughter, but indignation
at stolen birthright. Issues of fairness, or lack of it, usually indicate
conflict between interests.
There's No Such Thing As Free Speech: And It's a Good Thing Too!
These thoughts run through my mind but I search for a more direct
expression of them. There was a time when National Parks lay down their
welcome mats for all comers, but in the last couple decades Parks managers
are discovering good reasons to limit access. "No, I suppose it isn't,"
I say. "But then too I've been to lots of National Parks and, frankly,
it'll be refreshing to visit one that's not over-run by tourists and subject
to all the damage they cause." She immediately replies, "well they just
have to educate visitors to be more careful." I tell her about the visitors
to Rainbow Monument walking right by Park Rangers who'd warned them away
from the area beneath the arch. It is off limits for two reasons: the
arch is sacred to the Navajo, who have leased or sold the land to the
Park with the stipulation that it be properly protected--the area under
the arch can only be traversed under certain circumstances; additionally,
so many people ignore the signs and rangers and walk under the arch anyway
that the vegetation has been destroyed and any further trampling undermines
the attempt to revegetate the area. "I'm not sure you can educate all
the people," I said. "I'm just as happy to have such a beautiful and important
place accessible only with some effort. Yellowstone's largely ruined many
of its most important features by making them so easy to get to." It's
Disneyland without all the costumes.
This doesn't deter her. "Most of my business comes from people
heading for Chaco and when it rains, like the last few days, you just
can't get there from here...it's not fair."
It occurs to me now, as I jot this down, that I should take
the other direction. If the the Park Service paves a four-lane highway
from Thoreau to Chaco Canyon and builds a deluxe camping area with full-hookups
and a swimming pool within park boundaries, this would also be unfair
to the manager. I wish it had occurred to me at the time to bring this
point up: "If the Park Service maintained the south road the same as the
north road, I'd be driving up there right now with my trailer rather than
parking it in this RV Park for the next two nights." Were I able to haul
the trailer to the park and spend the night there, I wouldn't have to
satisfy myself with a day trip bracketed by two 2 hour drives all on the
same day. How fair would that be in the manager's eyes, I wonder?
07:22 OK RV Park; Holbrook, Arizona :: 27 SEP 97
The next morning we rise bright and early for the drive into
Chaco. There's been no rain during the night but showers are possible
in the afternoon. I called the park and the south road's passable," the
manager tells us. "You won't have any problems getting there. But if it
starts raining while you're up there," she continues, "you should either
come back down immediately or take the north road."
It's a pretty drive and, for the first 30 miles or so, smoothly
paved. We come up behind our neighbours from the previous night at the
park and follow them onto the dirt access road. A sign warns "EXTREMELY
ROUGH ROAD". And we slow.
It's amazing how regional ideas of 'extremely rough' vary.
Connecting Pemberton and Harrison in British Columbia, the West Harrison
Road in British Columbia passes along the west bank of Harrison Lake.
Most of it is maintained by the logging industry and is kept quite smooth,
but a significant bit of it along Lilloet Lake is used only for accessing
the high-tension power lines coming down from the northern hydro-electric
projects. These Hydro access portions are considered extremely rough.
A high-clearance four-wheel drive can usually pass it but in several sections
passengers will rock-n-roll while the drivers manoeuvre through steep,
washed-out boulder fields. We had to carry our mountain bikes down one
I'd have no qualms about driving my old Honda Civic up and down
the south access road to Chaco Canyon. It was bumpy, and badly rutted
in a few places, but not worthy of "EXTREMELY ROUGH." Still it took us
a good hour to traverse the 20 remaining miles to Chaco. We'd make better
time on the return trip.
Much is known about the Anasazi people who once inhabited the
arid four corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. But
much more is not. We have found their buildings, their roads, their irrigation
systems and many artifacts. We have dated their civilization centred in
the Chaco canyon region from the 10th through the 11th century. Their
pictographs and petroglyphs offer clues as to methods of hunting, farming
and daily life. But the culture was illiterate and left no written record.
Chaco Canyon contains a series of Great Houses, the greatest
of which is now called Pueblo Bonito, Spanish for 'Beautiful Pueblo' I
believe. Formed in a 'D' shape, it stood four or five stories tall on
three acres of land and contained approximately 800 rooms. It's primary
construction materials were stone and mud mortar with logs and tree limbs
supporting mortared floors and ceilings. To understand the scale of construction,
over 26,000 trees were used in the construction and maintenance of Chetro
Ketl, a smaller great house in the canyon, estimated to have contained
500 rooms. Note also that these trees grew not in the canyon but on the
mountains dozens of miles away.
17:12 Railside RV Park; Williams, Arizona :: 28 SEP
The masonry work is beautifully delicate, intricate and massive.
Although few of the second story rooms are now intact, pot hunters in
the 19th and early 20th century generated a remarkable amount of structural
damage as they'd punch through walls into sealed-off rooms. A climb onto
the canyon walls provides a birds-eye view that can ease the imagination
into a picture of how it might have looked over a thousand years ago.
Only recently have archaeologists begun to question the common
sense reasoning which placed a significant population in Chaco Canyon.
Bonito is just one of several great houses in the canyon complex and some
would have been only slightly smaller than Bonito. By my reckoning, there
were more than 2,000 rooms in the canyon. (By comparison, billboards leading
into Tucumcari advertise the town as having just 1,500 motel rooms, down
from 2,000 during the heyday's of Route 66.) But archaeological digs aren't
finding much in the way of human remains or trash, at least not the amount
which would indicate people occupying a substantial number of the rooms.
This leaves a rather startling conclusion: a civilization transported
15-20cm thick logs in 10' or so lengths for distances up to 75 kilometers--without
the wheel or draft animals--to provide structural support in enormous
buildings in which they didn't live.
21:00 Railside RV Park; Williams, Arizona ::
28 SEP 97
We're not sure. Administrative purposes? Food storage? Religious/cultural
events? Trade centers? Many archaeologists now refer to Chaco Canyon as
the 'ceremonial center' of the Chaco culture. A series of roadways radiates
out from Chaco Canyon linking these buildings with outlying communities
and to the resources necessary to build and maintain the complex in Chaco,
and support the labourers. The roads are up to 10 meters wide, some stretching
for 75 kilometers or more. Thus far archaeologists have verified roadways
traversing over 600 kilometers of Northwestern New Mexico.
One theory places Chaco as the center of a turquoise economy.
Artisans worked imported raw turquoise and the jewellery and other artifacts
were traded throughout the four corners and as far as the great civilizations
in Mexico. Such an economy might have supported such an apparently large
labourer population in the dry New Mexico climate with its long winters
and short growing season.
Despite this flourishing economy, two droughts early in the
twelfth century--one of them long and severe--seems to have brought an
end to the culture. By 1150, none of the great houses in the canyon or
in the outlying regions were in use and traffic on the roadways would
have dropped to nil.
Nobody knows for sure where the people went though most appear
to agree that the various pueblo tribes are the most likely ancestors.
And there's been no nostalgia kick to bring the Chaco roads back into
regular use either. <grin>
~~~ Responses Sought ~~~
Aspect he rose, and in his rising seemed
A pillar of state; deep in his front engraven
Deliberation sat and public care;
And princely counsel in his face yet shone,
Majestic though in ruin.
||John Milton (1608-1674)
25 Mar 2010, 11:30
I take exception to your statement that the Anasazi of Chaco were
"illiterate". That puts a very negative label on them. Certainly they left
no papers behind, but they did leave pictographs and I think that has to
qualify as written language. We have no way of knowing if there was
something written that did not survive. These people were brilliant when
it came to astronomy and engineering. Please don't downgrade them by
calling them illiterate.
If you were able to make it in the South Road in an hour, you were
traveling on a very good day. I estimate it took me more than 2 hours to
make it down that road and I questioned whether my truck would survive
during the entire trip.
There are many sides to every story and you speak as an expert, when you're
not. Most of your data is as flawed as your description of the smoothness
of the South Road.
You should label this description as your "opinion", not fact. And you
should do so more research on your facts.
25 Mar 2010, 20:27
Thanks for taking the time to comment. :)
It's only in the last couple of centuries that the term illiterate began to
be thought of negatively. I certainly don't think of it in such terms when
applied to the Anasazi (a term for those ancient people, btw, that is now
superceded by "Ancestral Pueblo"). On the contrary, my point is that they
built a large, prosperous, graceful society featuring extraordinary art,
craft, architucture and construction without the advantage of written
language. Quite remarkable.
The archeological record so far has discoverd no indication of a written
language, and pictographs are not considered such. If you have any evidence
to the contrary, I'd be delighted to hear it.
I've done a fair bit of research regarding these people, and have visited
numerous sites in addtion to Chaco including Mesa Verde, Anasazi State
Park, Canyon de Chelly and a number of smaller sites. The information in
this article was gleaned from guided tours of Canyon de Chelly and Chaco
Canyon, and from information pamphlets distributed by the US Park Service.
I strive to be both factual and inquisitive.
What I wrote about the South Road is that it took one hour to traverse the
final 20 miles to Chaco -- not the entire distance. I also wrote that while
signs cautioned that the last 20 miles were extremely rough, I found it to
be relatively smooth compared with scores of other unpaved roads I've
travelled. I didn't use the word "opinion" but it seems clear enough to me
that's what it is.