Aztec Ruins

The GRE is done! Horrah! I’m still waiting on the final scores but I can’t tell you what a weight has been lifted from my shoulders. So when it came time to decide what to do with myself this past weekend only one thought came to my mind: new. I want to go someplace new.

Considering my proximity to a huge number of very, very cool places, I’ve seen embarrassingly little of the American Southwest. I keep a list of spots I’d like to visit within driving distance, but I find myself easily intimidated by what always feels like too little time. Yes, I work in the National Parks (and consider myself very lucky for this) – but I’m still tied to 40 hour weeks just like everyone else (well, half the year anyway)! So when my precious weekends arrive I often spend them running errands and enjoying a somewhat civilized life, stuffing as many real-world activities into my days before I throw myself back to the wilds of my little canyon-bottom residence.

This weekend I found myself once again limited by time. Due to extraneous circumstances (aka: I needed new tires), I only had one day free. So I scanned my list of must-see destinations until my eyes settled on a very familiar name: Aztec Ruins.

Aztec Ruins is a National Monument about an hour to the south of us in New Mexico. It’s an Ancestral Puebloan site similar in style and period to Mesa Verde, so I spend a decent amount of time answering questions about it. Two seasons into my tenure here and I’ve yet to actually visit the place, which ultimately lead to the decision for A and I to plug the address into our GPS and hit the road.

Immediately upon crossing the border to New Mexico we were struck by how quickly the quality of the roads changed. The region where Aztec sits is poor country made evident by the conditions of its roads and road-side buildings. The monument itself is surrounded by some pretty shabby looking trailer parks. The clean adobe walls and Park Service insignia seemed starkly out of place in an otherwise grim setting.

But once inside the boundary it became clear that at one time this was a very rich place. The Pueblo village protected here once stood three stories tall and contained 500 rooms. Large, beautiful cottonwood trees loom over the trail leading to the site, and if you tilt your head at just the right angle the 1000-year-old walls hide the unfortunate vista of spoiled land beyond. Framing a photo in my mind I reached to my bag and realized I had forgotten my camera. This blog post began to form in my head, an instant incentive – I’d need to write if I wanted to remember.

Unlike other Ancestral Puebloan Ruins in the area, Aztec allows you to enter the rooms themselves – many with original roofs still intact. A and I shivered as we passed through ten enclosed rooms in a row, their doors lined up as to see the light far, far on the other side. We read that the purpose of these rooms was mostly storage, but that some served as tombs. The goosebumps prickling my skin made me anxious for the sun.

Soon enough my wish was granted with a sun so bright we found ourselves sweating on an otherwise mild day. We crawled through more doors – these rooms open to the sky – and marveled at the stark contrast in construction style from wall to wall. Aztec differs from most Ancestral Puebloan sites in that it was occupied for several hundred years (most were abandoned in only a few generations). In the walls of the ruin you can see the population and influence centers shift. Earlier construction is finer, Chacoan in style. During this time Chaco Canyon, fifty miles to the south, was the center of the Ancestral Puebloan world. Aztec was most certainly a heavily influenced outlier of this thriving community center, as the framework of the site bears an undeniable resemblance to the Great Houses of Chaco Canyon.

But after a brief period of little growth or obvious change (likely the dark period after Chaco’s fall), construction style changes to that of the more casual but still remarkable Mesa Verdeans. Kivas were altered to more closely adhere to the new, northern center’s standards, but the site still retained its Great House blueprint. Thinking about it now, I’m smiling at the story these walls told. Once you learn how to view them, rocks always seem to be the best time machines.

The climax of the short trail is a great kiva situated at the center of the site. It was largely rebuilt in the 1930s, but it stands in the same spot and is situated with the same layout as the original. Entering the kiva brought to life the vision I so often conjure to myself when looking across the 21 bare and open kivas of Cliff Palace. It felt familiar, if not heavily modified. A press of a button provided a soundtrack of beating drums pumped into the room by hidden speakers. I chuckled at the silliness of it, but appreciated the connection it tried to provide. And then I felt grateful for the connection I already had, the connection that existed without the modern replicas or the chanting tunes. A connection forged over two seasons of intimacy with an ancient great people. A people I had never heard of before that first fateful trip out west. And yet over the past few years these people have inspired me to change not just the course of my career, but my way of life.

Stepping back into the sun I felt calm. And happy. And grounded. And grateful.

I am one lucky girl.

Lately I’ve been finding myself wanting to interact with you, single reader, a little bit more. So please share with me, or at least contemplate on your own: What place has inspired you to feel grateful and grounded?

5 thoughts on “Aztec Ruins

  1. Every national park and monument I’ve ever been to have challenged me to learn, stretch, imagine, explore. Gratitude and groundedness are the results. Truly, truly, “America’s Best Idea.”

  2. Anyplace that the landscape offers to me a reminder of the original people of this land. I have felt it strongly in the motherlode areas of California in Mariposa and Tuolumne counties. Whenever I am out in nature and am visited by a dust devil or wild animal I feel the spirit of the life I have longed for since a little guy. You are in the place that has been callin me.

  3. The fjords of Norway; the glaciers at Glacier Bay; the sight of Denali; the ruins of Machu Pichu; rush hour in London; the jagged peaks of Grand Teton; the mountains of Glacier National Park; the Grand Canyon; a hike through Norris Geyser Basin at sunset; the minarets of Istambul at night; the Bears at Marigot Creek; diving in the sparkling waters of Cozumel; watching the manatees and the eagles at Weeki Wachee Springs; the cliffs dwelling at Mesa Verde; the contrast between all these places and many more that have become part of me through my memories.

  4. There’s a rock surrounded by aspen’s a little ways down from my family’s cabin in Colorado. I always go there to sit and listen. Marvoulous place.

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