Route 66 :: June '97 -- October '97

Subject: It's not fair.
Date: Sun, 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 stuck."

"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 about fairness.

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.

  graphical element Stanley Fish
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'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 stretch.

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 97

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 ~~~
With grave
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.
  graphical element John Milton (1608-1674)
Paradise Lost