The mesas loom above us on either side as our raft drifts down the San Juan River. Sheer cliffs of crumbly sandstone and shale rise hundreds of feet into the air, eating into the blue sky, of which only a sliver is visible. On the rocky shore to our left, a bighorn ram looks up from its grazing to calmly take us in.
We’re in the middle of the Navajo Nation and in the heart of the Four Corners area — the intersection of New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah. For years I’d driven through this arid, haunting part of the country, wanting to explore it but overwhelmed by its vastness and rugged beauty and not knowing where or how to begin.
Then I found out about a working archaeological research facility in Cortez, Colo. The Crow Canyon Archaeological Center is a nonprofit organization that funds its research in part by guiding people like me on trips led by archaeologists who have spent their careers in the area, digging into the past. What could be a better way to see the country, I figured?
This is the last day of our five-day trip, and I’m amazed at how much I’ve seen and learned. My archaeological guides, Mark Varien and Ricky Lightfoot, are true experts on the region, and though not all their expertise has successfully made its journey from them to me, enough has to reveal this country to me in a new light.
Four days earlier, I’d walked into a meeting room at the Courtyard by Marriott hotel in Farmington, N.M., filled with the fight-or-flight response I always get whenever I meet new people. There were nine others in the room: Mark and Ricky, two drivers and five other intrepid explorers. We civilians had all taken the recommended packing list way too seriously and looked as if we were about to explore the jungles of Borneo.
Mark and Ricky were dressed more or less like cowboys: bluejeans, snap shirts and cowboy boots. They wouldn’t stray from this clothing choice for the remainder of the trip.
Mark turned out the lights and showed us some slides and gave us an overview of the region and told us what we were going to see, and I didn’t really understand a word of it. (He used lots of archaeological words. I would later purchase a book he wrote and not understand any of that, either.)
Civilizations come and go
The next morning, we headed for Chaco Canyon. This is a place that looks like something you’d expect to find in the deserts of North Africa. Yet here, for 400 years, from the 9th to the 13th centuries, the complex civilization of the Ancestral Pueblo, or Anasazi, once thrived. Our very own Timbuktu.
Getting to Chaco is no easy task. We drive on small farm roads, cross from Colorado into New Mexico, turn off onto a hardpan dirt road, and then drive for 20 excruciating miles. Our two vans vibrate as if they’re going to crumble to death at any moment, as dust swirls in the air. Mark and Ricky use the van’s intercom to explain everything that we’d be seeing if we weren’t driving through a dust cloud. And I mean everything. Trees, rocks, plants, weeds, weather, buttes, mesas, ancient riverbeds, wildlife — being an archaeologist apparently makes one an expert on just about everything.