The tour guide for Pueblo Bonito gathers us in a half circle to share a story she will tell in pieces as we walk the trail to Chaco Culture National Historic Park’s greatest ancient pueblo of all, built from the ninth to the 12th centuries and then abandoned.
Our guide launches into a version of the story of the Hopi people’s journey from the fourth world to the third to the second and to the first world through the Sipapu—a hole in the sky.
As part of the story, she tells us of how the people sang a bird to life. Earlier in the day, a park ranger shared another story of the Pueblo people singing to the cliffs. They know from the way the song echoes and bounces off the walls where certain places are significant.
I’m struck by the singing out of the silence. I can almost hear a melody emanating from intricate masonry shaped into great rooms, kivas and high walls that once rung with the sounds of children and dancers and drummers.
Passed down through generations,the Pueblo tribes today carry the stories of their ancestors who once gathered by the thousands here where water is scarce and the sky is abundant.
Alternating between tours and walking alone in Chaco, I’m listening hard for the song of my youth, 38 years ago when I wore a National Park Service uniform and gave tours of Pueblo Bonito too. I was 18 and a Volunteer in Parks during the spring of my senior year in high school (I’d graduated early). The woman today was likely in her 60s and ever so much wiser.
Walking with her and our small group, I fell under the spell of her storytelling that she threaded with the archeological finds —from turquoise necklaces to elaborate pottery, feathers of tropical birds, and a ceremonial burial. While archeologists agree that Pueblo Bonito served as the center of the great Chacoan culture of the southwest, the mysteries of why they assembled in a dry land with unpredictable water, and why the people left remain as puzzling as in 1977.
What has clearly changed is the connection to the Pueblo people, a renewed respect for the oral history of their ancestors, and a renouncement of the term “Anasazi,” which is Navajo for “enemy ancestors.” The name of the park has changed too, from Chaco Canyon to Chaco Culture National Historic Park, recognizing its tremendous significance in the world.
What I remember most of my tour guiding at Pueblo Bonito was my first tour, the day I lost my way in the maze of doorways, the same day that a woman on my tour fainted in the heat. Would I find that maze again?
Had the Park Service closed off some of the passageways to protect them? Before joining this current tour, I’d taken my own solo trip through the past, enlisting help from the T-shaped doorways and kivas to revive the memories.
It’s possible not all is as it was, but I was thrilled to find you can still duck through multiple doorways and wander deep into the heart of Pueblo Bonito. Our tour guide even called it the maze. The main difference? The Park Service has added directional arrows.
Leaving Chaco after a day and a night camping that included an archeo-astronomy talk under a stunning sky where the milky way draped like a scarf and the constellations burst from billions of stars, I thought of my past there and about song. From the Pueblo people comes the gift of song as a means to bring a bird to life and of song to find the places of significance.
Songs are offerings, too, for the sun and the moon—so carefully studied that certain windows line up with the equinox and round kivas also contain perfectly aligned alcoves that serve as lunar calendars.
Sing this world to life. Listen to its singing in the tree limbs in the wind, the river flow and even the warm stone I touch with my hand.
I’m also pondering the maze. At Chaco, there are many petroglyphs of animals, birds, people, and shapes, especially the spiral. A spiral is not a maze—you simply enter from the outside and curve inwards to the middle, or perhaps you start in the middle and spiral out. The beauty of the spiral is the curve that keep you from being lost, yet reminds you of the circular nature of life.
A maze? The abrupt endings, turns and backtracks can be frightening. Panic can ensue. Life offers both —the maze and the spiral. Sometimes we just can’t choose which one we will face each day, but on those days in the maze, I believe that with a bit of singing the spiral will offer itself a clear passageway to the light.