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It was an early Saturday morning, and I was excited because I was going on a long-anticipated visit to the Chaco Culture Historical Park, about three hours away from Albuquerque, New Mexico. The night before I had packed my VW Bug with necessities for an overnight camping trip, so in the morning I was on my way west to Chaco by daybreak. I arrived at the Chaco Visitors Center in late morning, checked in with the chief ranger and parked at the parking lot for overnight hikers. I spent a couple of hours going through some of the many rooms of Casa Bonita and then followed the trail to the Kiva or ceremonial area.

Casa Bonita is, by far, the largest complex in the valley, and I planned to spend some time at an area on the mesa right over those ruins.

I followed an ancient trail up to the edge of the mesa right over Casa Bonita. On the way I passed through a field of marine fossils which looked like great stone marine boa constrictors and other sea creatures. This area testified to a time when the entire Colorado Plateau was at the bottom of an ancient inland sea.

I found a big sandstone boulder to sit on and my imagination took me to the men and women, who had lived, worshiped, worked, and dreamed here over a thousand years ago.

I let my imagination run freely. I wondered who had decided to build this place. What was that person like? Was that person a priest or shaman? How could that person convince people to donate sweat and pain to build a place that it would take 300 years to build and no one alive at its inception would ever see it completed? They would need logs from the Chaska forest over a hundred miles away for the beams to hold up the roofs of the Kivas. Probably they had felled the trees, stripped the bark with stone tools and then let them dry so they would be lighter to carry to Chaco. They would need millions of stones to build walls and these stones needed to be flat and shaped like bricks, so the walls would stand for centuries.

Who watched and plotted the stars and planets so that the builders could locate the kivas in a straight line north to south leading to various temple complexes some sixty miles away? The walls are arrow straight and the stonemasons who built them were true artists. They did all this without modern tools and cement.

Who drew the plans? What about the blueprints? Who supervised the whole operation? How did they reward and punish those who contributed more or who did less? Who supervised and coordinated the work? How were the workers fed? I had so many questions, but then I realized that I was hungry, and it was time to have some food and visit the Pueblo Alto temple complex to the north.

Pueblo Alto is smaller than Casa Bonita, but I spent several hours exploring its buildings and Kivas. I then took the ancient road back toward my observation and meditating place above Casita Bonita. The road was nearly a modern one lane wide and I visualized several pilgrims walking abreast in a procession going to some special event in the Chaco Valley. I got to my observation place and found a comfortable place to sit and relax as I watched clouds form on the southern horizon.

It was so quiet up there, yet the silence built up so that I could almost feel ancient people all around me, watching me and reaching out to me. As night approached millions of stars came out on what became a beautiful high desert night. Soon the moon crept up on the horizon and began to light the whole world. I felt as close to nature and nature’s Creator as I did to the spirits of those primal people around me. Time went by and occasionally I heard some creature stirring, but they seemed like friendly visitors who would do me no harm.

I don’t think I slept. There was too much happening for me to miss any of what I was experiencing and feeling. The dawn was soon coming, but everything around me seemed to be converging. Nature seemed most prominent with the millions of stars, the moon and those fossils merging with the rest of this world including these ageless people as they built what they felt was a more beautiful world. What joy for me, an ordinary human being, to be able to share in all of this, the fruits of creation!

In the morning I left Chaco, but I knew I would never be the same.

Paul Carpenter

Paul Carpenter was born in Colorado and lived there until he entered the military service at the end of World War II.

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