I first visited Chaco Canyon in the summer of 2003. I had just graduated from high school and would be going off to college in the fall. My parents decided that visiting Chaco would be a good idea, since I had never been there despite having grown up in New Mexico. We went out there with a couple who are both old family friends and old Chaco hands; the husband is an archaeologist who worked on the Chaco Project and the wife is an anthropologist who did oral history work in the area around the same time. We camped in the campground, then spent the next day visiting the sites and hiking up to the Pueblo Bonito overlook on the Pueblo Alto trail. Our friends showed us around and pointed out things we may not have noticed on our own. It was a great experience, and I have many fond memories of it.
One thing I don’t remember is the road coming in. This may surprise many readers who have been to Chaco. For many, perhaps most, of the visitors we get, the road is one of the most memorable parts of the trip. After the turnoff from US Highway 550 it’s eight miles of pavement, then thirteen miles of heavily washboarded dirt. Most of our visitors don’t seem to be used to dirt roads at all, and they often enter the Visitor Center shaken, jarred, or even furious. Some demand to know why the road isn’t paved. Others, who generally have more experience with dirt roads, ask why it hasn’t been graded recently. Others ask if there is another way out of the park. (There is, to the south on NM 57, but it’s even worse.) Still others are too shocked to say much of anything, but it’s clear that they consider that road a nearly insurmountable obstacle to reaching the park. As, indeed, it is; Chaco gets many fewer visitors than most comparable parks in the area. Mesa Verde gets about ten times as many (and it shows). If the road were paved, visitorship would surely skyrocket, as would the fame of the place. To many visitors it is hard to fathom why this has not already happened.
Some other visitors, however, come into the Visitor Center and express their appreciation for the fact that the road still isn’t paved. These are generally people who have been to the park before, often though not necessarily people who live in the southwest, and they are generally pleasantly surprised to see how little has changed since they last visited. They understand that the road is the only thing keeping the crowds and the pink cement at bay, and they like that. The isolation that is one of the most notable things about Chaco is in some ways quite artificial, and it’s mainly the nature and reputation of the road that keeps it that way.
When people ask about the road, I often tell them that there’s talk of paving it, which there is, but that it’s a controversial issue, which it is. This surprises a lot of people who can’t seem to grasp the idea that anyone would not want the road to be paved. I often explain the situation as a case of some people wanting change and others not wanting it, and sometimes I go into more detail about the two sides.
There has been a big push lately by San Juan County, which maintains the road, to pave it; a couple of county commissioners are really pushing for it for reasons that are somewhat obscure. Unlike in the past, the pro-paving advocates now have many of the local Navajo residents on their side, and the Navajo Nation Department of Transportation is also in favor of paving. Although the Navajo Nation is not responsible for the road and doesn’t have any formal authority over it, some of the land it crosses is owned by the Navajo Nation, so there is a connection there. Recently the county got funding for paving and tried to push ahead with it without going through the whole mandated process for doing so, and the groups on the other side of the issue called them on it and noted that they needed to go through the required environmental assessments and such. As it turned out, those studies ended up using up all of the funding available. Then the economy collapsed, so it’s unlikely that the road is going to be paved any time soon.
So who are these groups on the other side? Well, certainly many of the local Navajos are still opposed to paving and the changes it would bring, but the most vocal opponents are the people who like the park the way it is and have been coming to it for years. They don’t want the crowds and the restrictions on access that they would force the park to impose, and they don’t see the road as nearly the obstacle that others perceive. As far as they’re concerned, Chaco is fine the way it is, anyone who really wants to go there can, and there’s no reason to mess with things.
And, indeed, they have a point. I certainly like the place the way it is and see no reason to change it. As I mentioned above, the road is not something I remember from my first visit. Growing up in the southwest, I would travel on so many dirt roads much longer and rougher than this one that it didn’t even register as anything unusual to me. It’s certainly a pretty good road as dirt roads go, and the washboarding is just the result of the amount of traffic it gets.
I’m not sure I’m totally on board with the paving opponents, though. While I think the road is fine as is, I don’t see the need to be so vehement in opposing change. Chaco isn’t perfect, and while I certainly wouldn’t want to work here if it got the kinds of crowds Mesa Verde gets, I think that kind of traffic would force some much-needed changes in the way the park is run that would ultimately protect the resources better. While it’s nice to be able to wander around the sites without needing to be supervised or on a guided tour, it makes it much too easy for visitors to do damage, whether deliberate or inadvertent, and the way the number of artifacts lying around each site varies inversely with the amount of visitation each one gets speaks to the amount of theft that goes on even given the generally responsible visitors we get. Clamping down the way Mesa Verde does would be a big shift, but probably ultimately a worthwhile one.
Not that I see any need to push vehemently for paving either, of course. Like I said before, I like Chaco fine the way it is and see no reason to change, despite the possible advantages of change that I just noted. Basically, I see no reason to care strongly one way or the other, so I take a position of studied neutrality and try to explain the situation in as balanced a manner as possible when people ask. This has the result of shifting visitors from the pro-paving to the anti-paving camps surprisingly often.
Not always, of course. There’s a definite sense of entitlement out there among a lot of people, a sense of outrage at the idea that the convenience of the traveling public is not everyone’s highest priority, a sense that National Parks and World Heritage Sites should be as accessible as possible. It’s a coherent and rational worldview, just not one that meshes well with the way things work at Chaco. There are actually not that many people who express this attitude strongly, but those who do will not be dissuaded from it, and I don’t try to dissuade them. In these contexts it becomes more of a live-and-let-live matter, and the most I can do is hear them out, which I do. It often makes them calm down, but it doesn’t change their opinions.
The irony of all this, of course, is that Chaco is also strongly associated with roads of a very different sort. The ancient Chacoans built an elaborate system of roads both within and beyond the canyon, traces of which can still be seen today (though generally not from ground level). While some of these roads were known from the earliest studies of Chaco in the early twentieth century, knowledge of them had been largely forgotten by the 1970s, when they were rediscovered with a vengeance. The discovery of the extent of the roads, which have been found not only within the canyon and radiating out from it but in the vicinity of many outliers as well, was a crucial part of the reinterpretation of Chaco as a regional system. The roads have been given a lot of emphasis in many theories about this system.
Up until the early 1990s almost everyone who worked on the roads interpreted them as a transportation network used for some practical purpose, perhaps transporting the vast quantities of wood and other materials from the outlying areas to the canyon or, in more ritual-based theories, facilitating pilgrimages to the canyon. Some theories combine different functions for the roads. The fact of the existence of the road network was a major piece of evidence for the strongly integrated, centralized system that most archaeologists envisioned Chaco to be, and the presence of roads was even used to define the extent of the system.
There are some problems with these interpretations, however, and by the 1990s some archaeologists began pointing them out. For one thing, the roads are massively overbuilt for any functional purpose. They vary in width, but outside of the canyon are typically about 30 feet wide. They are so wide, and so shallow, that they are usually not visible on the ground and have mostly been identified through aerial photography. In a society without draft animals or wheeled vehicles, it’s hard to see why a road that wide would be necessary for any practical use. They are also extraordinarily straight. Although there are a few examples of road segments that curve, for the most part road segments run on very precise bearings for considerable distance, and when they do change direction they do so with very sharp, angular turns. They also make little or no allowance for topography: when a road segment comes to a steep slope or sheer cliff, rather than changing the bearing or winding up via switchbacks it generally goes straight up via a ramp or staircase cut into the rock. This preserves the straightness of the bearing, at the cost of an enormous amount of work.
In addition, while at least two roads (the Great North Road and the South Road) have been determined to run more or less continuously for many miles, most of the roads actually consist of short, discontinuous sections. In most earlier theories it was assumed that this was just because parts of them had eroded away, and there is surely something to that, but there are also short segments, especially near great houses, that don’t seem to line up with any other segments.
These features of the roads suggest that they are either more or less than practical transportation routes. Some archaeologists have therefore argued that they served more of a ritual or ceremonial function, perhaps integrating the system in an abstract rather than physical way. The first to argue this was John Roney in a 1992 paper in which he pointed out the discontinuous nature of the roads and their greater elaboration near great houses. He argued from this that the roads are actually elements of the great-house landscape rather than long-distance routes, and that their main function may actually have been the integrative effect of community effort in building them. From a slightly different tack, Michael Marshall has argued that the longer roads may have been oriented toward significant landscape features, such as Kutz Canyon and Hosta Butte, rather than outlying communities, and that they served as grandiose elements of a ritualized landscape.
In any case, while the morphology of the roads has been fairly well established, debates continue to rage over their function. One consideration that does not seem to have received much attention in these debates is the widespread presence of road networks in Mesoamerica, which suggests that the roads might be another example of Mesoamerican influence on the Chaco system. Whatever the roads were, however, they certainly required a lot of effort to build, and while I think their importance to the meaning of the Chaco system has often been overstated, they are definitely a major aspect of it that bears consideration.
Past and present, in the minds of many, Chaco is about roads. In some respects, it would probably be accurate to say that the ancient roads were better than the modern ones. While in both contexts roads are not among the things I find most significant or meaningful about Chaco, they are certainly very important, and they will just as certainly provoke strong feelings of all sorts for a long time to come.