Roaming The San Juan Basin-Part 2
My previous post: Roaming The San Juan Basin-Part 1, was about the first day of a two-day road trip through the expanse of a great bowl shaped depression in the middle of the Colorado Plateau in northwest New Mexico. I spent Saturday night in Farmington and awoke early on Sunday. I had planned to head straight home from there, but as I prepared to leave, I thought better of it and decided to do some more exploring. As I drove up the road that leads from Farmington to the edge of the basin, I began to formulate a plan. I decided that I would avoid any of my normal haunts: the Bisti Wilderness, Ah Shi Sle Pah, etc. and that I would try to stay on dirt or gravel roads as much as possible. With this blog post in mind, I also decided to take a photojournalistic approach to making my images as opposed to my usual process.
I left the paved road about forty miles south of Farmington and immersed myself in the rolling, broken landscape. The San Juan Basin has numerous drainages of all sizes that carve the washes and valleys that form the irregular surface and expose the long buried geological features. I turned south on a road I knew would take me past Ah Shi Sle Pah…forbidden territory on this trip. I noticed three abandoned dwellings off to the west. The walls were of rock; the roofs, non-existent or barely there. They had a melancholy look to them; it was as though they were being swallowed by the great expanse that surrounded them.
A few miles further along the road, I saw a band of horses; one group of seven animals, and a mare and foal off by themselves. I stopped the car and walked to the side of the road to set up my tripod and the larger cluster immediately moved farther away from me. I made a few exposures and decided I would try to get closer, but the horses ran to the edge of the wash while the closest one–a stallion and probably the alpha–stood his ground and began to snort and pound the ground with his hoof. From this behavior, I surmised that this was a wild band; the tame horses I have encountered are typically friendly and will even approach to within an arm’s length.
I took the hint and returned to the car. I didn’t want to alarm the animals any more than I already had. I didn’t make it more than a half mile further when I spotted a smaller group of three white horses on the south side of the road. These were more friendly, but still more stand-offish than usual. They continued their grazing, but were wary of my presence.
Now I dropped down into Kimbeto Wash, a key drainage for this part of the San Juan Basin. I came to a tee in the road; to the left, Ah Shi Sle Pah, to the right, unknown territory. I turned right and crossed Kimbeto Wash. Less than a quarter mile further along was a road to the left and a sign: Chaco Canyon miles. The mileage was illegible. Onward.
I was excited to find a back way into Chaco; connecting the dots on a map has always been satisfying for me. The road crossed a grassy plain with a low mesa on the southern horizon. The only other visible feature was a lone hogan about a hundred yards off the road to the west. After about ten miles there was a sharp left turn and the track dipped down and crossed Chaco Wash before continuing up to the top of a high plateau.
By now, I was firmly into a spontaneous wandering frame of mind; I took a turn onto a two-track that seemed to lead to the plateau’s edge, but the road curved back and dead-ended at an abandoned homestead, complete with old cars and trash burn barrels. I’ve seen hundreds of these forlorn dwellings scattered across the remote desert areas I frequent. They always put me in a pensive mood.
Back on the main road, I soon came to an intersection that put me on the main road into Chaco Canyon. I decided to make a quick tour of the loop.
One of the most interesting elements of the ancient pueblo culture for me is the kiva. There are different kinds of kivas: many were used as places for social gathering, but most of them were ceremonial in nature. These adjacent kivas at Chetro Ketl–the second largest pueblo complex in Chaco Canyon–were used for religious ceremonies. Standing near these centuries-old subterranean enclosures made me feel connected to the ones who contrived and built these amazing communities.
Chaco Canyon is actually comprised of many pueblo complexes which were built over a span of four centuries and housed thousands of permanent residents and visitors from outlying sites. Of these complexes, Pueblo Bonito is the largest with more than eight hundred rooms. Like most of the pueblos in Chaco Canyon, Pueblo Bonito is built close against the wall of the mesa.
A little further along the loop road from Pueblo Bonito is Pueblo del Arroyo. It is situated along the edge of Chaco Wash and had three hundred rooms; it is thought to have been built by residents of Pueblo Bonito who moved due to overcrowding in the larger site.
I had already spent more time at Chaco Canyon than I wanted to, so I made for the exit that brought me to Hwy 57 heading south. As I passed the boundary I stopped to make a photograph of Fajada Butte which rises 440 feet above the canyon floor and is home to the most famous of all the Chaco sites: The Sun Dagger site. Three slabs of rock are set up and arranged in such a way that shafts of sunlight shine through them and onto specific parts of a petroglyph carved on the rock wall of the butte on each of the solstices and eqinoxes. More proof that these early Americans were far more advanced than the “savages” they have been depicted to be.
So, with these thoughts bouncing around in my head, I left Chaco behind and continued my exploration of the San Juan Basin. New Mexico State Road 57 is not what you might expect from the designation. Soon after it starts at US 550 between Huerfano and Nageezi, it sheds its asphalt coat and becomes a dirt road in the truest sense of the word. A good rain will quickly turn it into a quagmire of greasy clay, the kind that will defeat even the most serious four-wheel drive vehicle.
So, although I truly enjoy a good thunderstorm, I couldn’t help but hope that the building thunderheads would hold their water at least until I made it to the pavement of Indian Rte. 9 twenty-five miles to the south. I was about half way between Chaco and the paved road when over a rise in the road came two beautiful horses. One of them, a mare, turned sideways in the road and seemed to be bowing to me. I was enchanted; I spent over half an hour with them and when I finally left them behind, it was with some reluctance.
The remainder of the drive on NM 57 was relatively uneventful. There were a few small clusters of hoodoos and several small herds of livestock and then, suddenly I was at the intersection with the paved road. I looked back the way I had come, again with some reluctance, and then turned onto Indian Rte. 9. Almost immediately I came across three horses drinking from a water barrel. The scene seemed to say a good deal about the nature of this remote area, so I made a photograph of it.
After its intersection with NM 57, Indian Rte. 9 climbs onto a low mesa and emerges at Pueblo Pintado, an outlier of the pueblos at Chaco Canyon. This area is still inhabited by the descendants of the anasazi people, but now they live in houses scattered across the mesa in the shadow of the ruin that was their ancestral home. Another thirty miles brought me to Torreon. It is here that IR 9 becomes New Mexico 197 and turns northeast towards Cuba, NM. I turned onto an un-numbered, but paved road that runs from Torreon to the small village of San Luis in the Rio Puerco Valley. I passed a rock ruin that I had photographed before, but I stopped to make several exposures before continuing on towards San Luis.
As I drew near San Luis and the Rio Puerco Valley, a heavy thunderstorm passed ahead of me, nearly obscuring the volcanic monolith of Cabezon Peak. It seemed a fitting end to my adventure. Even as I neared home my mind began wandering and wondering about another dirt road I had noticed meandering into the vastness of the San Juan Basin…