The first time I visited Chaco Canyon, I was trespassing. Hidden under a smudge of thick black eyeliner, I looked like a girl out for trouble, not a hike around 900-year-old Native American ruins. At the time, I had only recently transitioned from the role of adrift, troubled teen to that of first-generation college student on the dean’s list.
It was a cold and gray mid-November, and I was four hours into a drive in a freezing truck. While I shivered in my army-surplus jacket, then-boyfriend Scott prattled on in his down coat, hat, and mittens about how Chaco’s buildings were constructed by crystal-wielding aliens from another solar system. Outside the window, sandstone formations rose like great golden ships on a sea of sagebrush and cactus. It seemed forbidding, yet I longed to walk deliberately into the powerful rawness of New Mexico.
At the highway turnoff, we passed a sign suggesting we tune to AM 1610 for park information. Hoping to pause Scott’s monologue, I tuned us in and was pleasantly surprised to hear the voice of Ricardo Montalban, steward of the mythical Fantasy Island, extolling the virtues and mysteries of Chaco Canyon. Somewhere ahead of us stood the ruins of a grand civilization that dawned more than a thousand years ago, thrived for two centuries, and then was abandoned. Today, Ricardo intoned, the place remains shrouded in mystery.
We bumped and tossed about a potholed, washboard road for an hour. All the while Ricardo’s enticing voice spoke of treasures still buried in the sand and hidden in rock caches. But not once did he mention the park’s being closed because of the 1996 government shutdown. Scott and I stood with mouths agape as we read the sign taped to the closed entrance gate, advising us of the closure and threatening trespassers with fines and jail.
The combination of the heinous drive, Ricardo’s grand presentation, and our sense of justice implored us to explore the park in defiance of said closure. We bushwhacked for a quarter-mile before we saw a jeep approaching and ducked into the sagebrush. Over a loudspeaker, the ranger demanded we emerge with hands held high. They escorted us out of the park, practically pulling us by our ears.
Fifteen years later, the adolescent waif had grown up, put herself through college, and enjoyed a life devoted to mountain climbing, biking, and backpacking, funded by a career as a research writer. I felt confident in my ability to prevail, or at least survive. Until I became a mother.
I was so clueless that before “it” happened, I was planning a two-week backpacking trip for just after my due date—as if the baby would definitely come by then, and right after giving birth I would simply hand the baby over to my husband, throw on a backpack, and trek off into the sagebrush.
Wasn’t I surprised when, instead, I dislocated my sacrum giving birth and found myself in a lot of pain! Rock climbing and mountain biking, which were my antidepressants, were verboten, so I found myself dealing with the newness of parenthood and recovery from a significant back injury without wilderness and adrenaline.
I had always thought of stay-at-home moms as people who just had no outside interests. Now I understood the pull between dedicating every atom of your being to the health and happiness of your family and the slightly more muted voices of your own ambitions. Those voices, though hard to hear over the roar of motherhood, were still insistent. I found myself yearning for wilderness even as I thrilled while watching Nila sleep.
In my search to understand what was happening to me, I read an article by the science writer Jonah Lehrer. We are a migratory species, he says. Exploration stimulated human evolution in part because we can work through challenges more objectively when we can attain some distance from them. There was more to my deep need for adventure than getting out of Dodge—it was an ancient form of grappling with life’s challenges.
We tried tent camping, but our wee one needed more than canvas between her and the great outdoors, so I found a 12-foot 1963 canned-ham camper and spent the winter restoring it. Guess where my husband (not Scott!) wanted to try her out?
Other than the tragic loss of Ricardo Montalban’s voice, little seemed to have changed in Chaco Canyon. Four-hundred-foot sandstone cliffs rose from the desert floor on either side of the road, extending into the distance.
Later that day I hiked, with my daughter on my back in a carrier, on top of sandstone cliffs overlooking Pueblo Bonito, the most impressive of Chaco’s Great House ruins. Nila blew raspberries into my ear and giggled. As the wind blew my hair away from my face, she laid her little head against my back and fell asleep.
Pueblo Bonito’s thick stone walls, mosaics of roses and suedes, had several floors, supported by thick timbers carried from mountains over 80 miles away. Temperatures can fluctuate by more than 60 degrees in a single day. And it’s very, very dry. I was staring into the remnants of an ancient society that not only overcame obstacles, but transcended them.
Nila shifted restlessly on my back as I set off toward Jackson Stairway, where an ancient road became a steep staircase etched in the side of a cliff. Suddenly, a sound erupted and a warm, putrid gel oozed down my back. My eyes grew wide as I remembered leaving the wet wipes and diapers on the front seat, where I’d be sure to grab them ... except I didn’t. I ran for the car, hoping to reach it before she awoke. I didn’t make it.
Back at camp, I swabbed us clean, then sang Nila a lullaby until she fell asleep. Stepping outside the camper, exhausted, I closed my eyes and turned my face toward the sun. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be a mother. I just wanted to be a mother and. I thought about giving up on and. But it had to be possible. Look what the people of Chaco went through for their wild canopy of stars.
The next day, an icy wind tore through the canyon. I bundled up, left Nila with my husband, and set out alone for Jackson Stairway under a crisp blue sky, windblown sand stinging my cheeks. The sole hiker on the trail, I was practically strutting as I reached the edge of the canyon. I stood across from Jackson Stairway, snapped a picture, and headed back to camp, the wind at my back.
Did I gain enough of Lehrer’s psychological distance to rec- oncile the desires of my heart? I want to say unequivocally yes and then explain eloquently in exactly what transformative ways that is true. But I can’t. Maybe someday. At this stage of the journey, I can only say that while life may not be easy, the effort it requires can be beautiful. Especially in New Mexico.
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