Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Today is the 102nd birthday of our National Park Service, so in celebration I thought I would share another one of our adventures to a National Park… Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico.

My husband has always been an adventurer and loves to explore near and far.  So when he said he wanted to take me on a day trip to some ruins he had researched, I thought, okay let’s go!

On Aug 11, 2013, we loaded the car and headed out early for another adventure.

entrance

The drive was long… 3 hours to get to Chaco.  And the last 16 miles of the drive was on a gravel road.  Yes, a gravel road.  This was an out-of-the-way, you REALLY want to go there, park.  And we wanted to see it.

Chaco Canyon was inhabited by the ancestors of the Hopi, Navajo and the New Mexico Pueblo Indians more than 1000 years ago.  The Chacoan people began using this canyon as a cultural center in the mid-800’s and for 300 hundred years it was inhabited.  There were many Great houses built by and for those who stayed here or just traveled through.  These Great Houses were used for ceremonies, storage, burial and hospitality among other things.  This valley was the cultural center for hundreds of miles.   

As we drove into the park, where the road was finally paved, I couldn’t help but wonder about those early people who lived here…. And how they lived.  This was such a harsh desert environment. 

Our first stop, as always, was the visitor center where we were able to see and learn a little more about these long ago people. 

We then drove further into the park, stopping at Pueblo Bonito, the largest of the Great Houses here in Chaco Canyon and it was impressive.  In its heyday, Pueblo Bonito had 500 rooms and 16 kivas (ceremonial rooms).  We were able to walk in and around the ruins, seeing for ourselves the incredible architecture of those ancient people who used sandstone to build their buildings and kivas and then held it all together with mud mortar.  Incredible!  And enough was still standing for us to see and imagine what a magnificent building this Pueblo must have been. 

We explored Pueblo Bonito for quite some time and then walked down to the next Great House, which was smaller.  This one, Kin Kietso, had at one time 100 rooms and 5 kivas.  It was easy to imagine the people wandering around here, socializing, trading and celebrating. 

After exploring the ruins, it was time to go on a hike…. To the top of the mesa above the ruins… where the park ranger said there was a great view of the canyon and the pueblo ruins.  And she was right.  But…

She didn’t tell us that the hike was so steep or that it was a trail from an ancient trail to the top.  Talk about fear of heights!  Of course, I had imagined the trail going up would be like most trails we had hiked in the past and be a path to follow, well maintained and though steep, fairly uneventful.  And then I saw this…. 

And I told my husband there was no trail.  Really, where was that trail?  It was just rocks with no safety holds…. Ummm…. We started up.  It started off okay, there was a path to follow and then…..

When you see huge rock walls with cracks in them, you ask yourself when will the day come that that rock sheers off (and I was just praying today was not that day)…. and never think that oh, yeah, lets hike through that crevice in the rock….what?  And that is where the trail took us.  When we got to that point we stopped for a minute (I needed to figure out how I was going to do it, as my heart was already racing and my head felt light from the height and knowing that one wrong step, one loose rock and there I would go, falling down the cliff-side…).  While I was gathering my courage, we were joined by a young father with his kids.  He was from the Laguna Pueblo and had brought his children here to show them their ancestral heritage.  Today, Chaco Canyon is a sacred site that is revered and honored by the Hopi, Navajo and Pueblo Indians of New Mexico and they often come to learn and connect with their ancestors.  And that is what this young father was doing with his children.  He told us a little about his life in the Laguna Pueblo and a little of his heritage and then the five of us finished the climb.  My husband and this young man helping me and the children up and over the rocks, through the tiny crevice and onto the top of the mesa.  At the top we said goodbye to this nice young family. 

mesa top trail down

And then I looked at my husband and said there is NO WAY I am going back down that path.  NO WAY!  I was still shaking and had to sit a minute to calm my trembling legs.  We had forgotten to bring the map with us but we remembered that the map in the visitor center showed that there was another way down at the other end of the mesa, which would mean a longer walk back to the car but that was okay because it would be on flat ground. 

We had each brought a bottle of water with us, I had my camera and there was a marked trail.  Did I mention this was August in New Mexico?  In the middle of the day?  On top of a mesa with no shade on a bright sunny day? 

Off we went.  I was determined to find less treacherous, less scary way off of this mesa top.

The views were absolutely spectacular.  We could see forever.  And looking down on the Great Houses allowed us to see just how enormous they really were and the amazing architecture.  The view was worth climbing up to the top for!

mesa top are we going down yetWe followed the path….. and followed the path….. and began to wonder when we might start going back down…. This was pretty flat.   And then we came to a spot where we started to descend, it was a little scary but nothing like the climb up…. And then the descent became gradual…. And then we started to go back up again?  What?  Okay, we should be going down by now….

By this point I was hot!  The sun was beating down on us.  I had finished my water.  My husband still had some of his.  Good thing!

We continued following the path until we found ourselves right back where we had started… right back to the spot where I said I would NOT go down.  Crap!  It was the ONLY path down from this mesa and I couldn’t stay up there…. We had just finished my husband’s water but there was more water in our car, waiting for us in the cooler.

I began to panic.  I was shaking.  I was petrified.  I knew how steep that path was and that one wrong step would mean certain death…. But I had no other choice.

So with my husband guiding me down, we began the descent.  And YES, it was just as frightening as I thought it would be.  I was holding back the tears.  DANG, that was a long way down. 

And then we made it.  I wanted to kiss the ground!  But we were hot, sunburned and thirsty. 

Back to our car for some cold water and a look at the map to see how we missed the way down on the other end…. Oh….. there was no other path down.  Had we known that we would not have hiked the mesa top and then we would have missed the views and the fun we had.  I am glad we didn’t know before we hiked.  

We did learn that day, though,  to always take a map with us and to carry more than one bottle of water each when hiking in the middle of the day, in the summer in the southwest.  That could have gone terribly wrong for us.  God was watching out for us that day!  

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is worth the many miles it takes to get there.  To see ruins from more than 1000 years ago and to imagine what life was like back then, and to see the harsh environment was worth every step taken on our hike.  After visiting Chaco Canyon and learning about the Chacoan culture I can’t help but admire the people that lived there over 1000 years ago, their creativity, their strength and their resilience in such a harsh environment. 

That summer day in August, 2013, we went on an adventure to learn about the past.  We drove 6 hours round trip and spent 4 hours walking through the ruins and hiking atop the mesa.  At the end of the day, after hiking 5+miles, 17,000+ steps and up 39 flights of stairs, this girl was VERY sore, exhausted and sunburned….. It was an AMAZING day! 

We would love to go back again and see this amazing cultural center and piece of our countries history.   But I think I will stay firmly down in the valley next time….been there, done that and I don’t need to do that climb again!

And we checked another National Park off our bucket list!

 

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A Visit to Our Nation’s Capital

Last month my husband and I took 6 teenagers, his students, to Washington DC on a Leadership Fieldtrip for 6 days. Those 6 days were filled from morning until night with tours of historic sites, historic buildings, monuments, memorials, military sites, museums and a ton of walking. We were pretty worn out after that trip.

But it was so much fun!

And we learned a lot!

My husband and I had lived in Northern Virginia for 6 years and knew our way around so we were excited to take the kids to see our Nation’s Capital. Some of them had never been and some had been before but did not see all that we were planning.

The kids got to see and learn about the workings of all three branches of our government through our tours of the Whitehouse, Capital Building (where they also met their Representative), and the Supreme Court. These tours gave them insight into the way our government works and let them see for themselves what they had learned about in books in a classroom.

 

We took them to the monuments and memorials—for some of our Presidents, for our military and the wars fought and for historic figures who had great impact on our country. All of them moving, especially when toured at night. So many only see these sights in books or on tv….but to stand there in person, next to or inside these great monuments, well, the emotion overtakes you…..they really are a sight to behold, the inscribed words inspiring all those who have come after and those who are still to come….a reminder of our great country and those inspiring individuals.

We visited some of the Smithsonian museums, letting the kids explore and see what interested them.

We spent some time on an island in the middle of the hustle and bustle……an oasis that has long been one of my husband’s favorite places and a place that honors one of his heroes, Theodore Roosevelt. As we walked through the trees and down the paths, we could not help but relax and enjoy the time there together as a group.

We also stopped and toured our National Cathedral, a first for most of the kids and a first for my husband and I. And we also spent time inside the Library of Congress, one of the most beautiful buildings in Washington DC.

 

Midweek, after our tour of the Whitehouse, we went to the National Archives, where we saw the Declaration of Independence and our Constitution, the original oct 6 a Mt Vernon (4) copydocuments…..amazed to see the signatures of the very brave men who helped to establish our democracy and create our country. Our last day, before our flight, we visited Mt Vernon, home to our first president. These historic documents and the historic home of George Washington made the founding of our country, real. How wonderful it is that our country has kept so much of its history.  

We saw a lot while in Washington DC. There was traffic and tour groups to deal with. There was great food to be had. There was shopping. There were protests witnessed, reminding us of the freedoms afforded Americans. There were also more security screenings than we have EVER experienced! And yes, there was LOTS of walking!

oct 1 Air Force Memorial (4) copyAnd then there were the military sites—a cemetery, a battlefield, museums, the Pentagon and war memorials….all honoring our military men and women. The military sites were among the first sites we visited, starting with the Air Force Memorial, standing tall on a hill above the Pentagon with an amazing view of Washington DC. We had arrived in DC at 7am after a long night of flying, stopped for breakfast and then headed out to see some sites before checking into our hotel. It was only fitting that our first stop should be at the Air Force Memorial…..after all, these kids are part of the Air Force JROTC at their high school.

We then attempted to stop at the Iwo Jima Memorial, but it was closed for refurbishment and could only be viewed as we drove past it….so we instead went to the Pentagon 9-11 Memorial. The kids were all babies when the horrific events of that morning in 2011 happened, so they only knew it through the stories told to them…….unlike most of us, who remember it all, every moment of that morning and the days that followed. We solemnly walked around the memorial, stopping to read the names of those lost on the plane that morning and those lost inside the Pentagon. This was a sobering memorial, bringing to reality all those lost that day. The kids, as part of their AFJROTC group, participate every year in a 9/11 Flag Raising Ceremony and now they were seeing for themselves, why they do it, why they honor and remember those many lives.

Over the next few days we visited more military sites and memorials—The war memorials on the National Mall to those who fought and died in WWII, Korea, and Vietnam, and Manassas Battlefield, the site of the first major battle in a war that almost tore our country apart. We took the kids on a tour of the Pentagon, where they learned about all branches of our military. And we visited both Smithsonian Air and Space museums.

Our visit to Arlington National Cemetery was quite moving. We walked, rather than taking the shuttle, to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. We walked so that we could see the graves, read some of the names on those white headstones and honor those who have protected our country. Heroes, all of them buried here in our Nation’s Military Cemetery. And then we watched the changing of the Guard at the tomb of the unknowns. The kids all stood for the ceremony, watching as the Changing of the Guard occurred…..honoring the unknown soldiers buried there, the soldiers who gave the ultimate sacrifice for our country, including their identity. Words are hard to come by to adequately describe the Changing of the Guard, the reverence these Sentinels show for those entombed here. A solemn ceremony. And the kids watched. They absorbed it all…..the meaning, the honor, the sacrifice. And for the kids who themselves are part of the AFJROTC Honor Guard, this ceremony held even more meaning, showing them the highest honor for any Honor Guard member. Arlington was a very emotional, solemn place.

oct 1 National Museum of the Marine Corp (1) copyOur last stop on our first day before we checked into our hotel was at the National Museum of the Marine Corps. We were all pretty tired by the time we arrived here, but once we stepped inside our energy renewed and we were ready to tour the museum and learn about our Marine Corps. When we first entered the museum we noticed chairs set up for some kind of ceremony, one we assumed had already occurred. We headed further into the museum, enjoying the history of the Marine Corps from inception to current day. The kids enjoyed the interactive exhibits. The museum was a wonderful way to honor our Marine Corps. We came to the end of the exhibits and wandered back into the main atrium, ready to head into the gift shop, when we noticed the ceremony was beginning…the chairs were filled with those there to celebrate the Commissioning Ceremony for a Navy Sailor. And we stopped for a minute, noticing that the Honor Guard was preparing to present the colors. We watched as the Honor Guard moved to the front of the ceremony and presented the colors and then the National Anthem began…..and we all stood, facing the flag with our hands over our hearts. This was our flag, our anthem and our military. And then I noticed we were not the only ones. Everyone there in the museum stopped walking, stopped talking, stopped moving and hands over their hearts they, too, faced our flag and honored this Sailor and our country. There was only honor and respect being shown. Here in the middle of a museum strangers stopped and paid tribute to our country and our military….young and old…..male and female….all races……for a moment we were all a part of this young man’s ceremony, a part of a military tradition.

I was moved to tears.

And the kids were moved by the respect shown here on this afternoon.

Our trip to DC was filled with many opportunities to learn and to see firsthand the greatness of our Country…..how our government works, the history of our government, the honor of military service, the freedom we all have to express our opinions, and how inspiring and impactful one individual can be in making things better for others.

This was a GREAT trip for many reasons, but especially because of how meaningful it all was!