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October 8, 2013

Four Corners desert tells story of the Southwest

(Continued)

"That's a female hogan," Mark says, staring off into the distance like a poker player. "You don't see too many male hogans anymore."

My next question ("Are you pulling my leg?") goes unanswered, because we've finally arrived. We get out of the van and walk to Pueblo Bonito, the most impressive of Chaco Canyon's ruins. D-shaped and five stories tall, with 650 rooms, it was the largest of what archaeologists call great houses, and it was majestic in its time: Until the mid-19th century, it was one of the largest structures in the United States. It stands at the bottom of a cliff wall, part of which has since toppled onto it, and was built over the course of 300 years, using masonry that's three feet thick in places and wooden support beams made from ponderosa pines.

"Welcome to downtown Chaco," Mark announces. Theories abound, but Mark believes that Chaco at one point supported a population of about 4,000.

Because of the punishing road, we have the place to ourselves. As we walk through the rooms, we duck through small square doorways, trying not to bump our heads on 1,200-year-old wooden beams, and listen as Mark and Ricky go into great detail about what was found in each room, what each room was used for and what a typical day in a pueblo was like. Archaeologists (some professional and some not so) have excavated thousands of turquoise pendants and beads here, along with macaw skeletons, copper bells, and seashells from Mexico, hinting at sophisticated and far-reaching trade routes.

Most impressive in Pueblo Bonito are the Great Kivas, giant circular communal chambers/religious amphitheaters that were cut into solid rock at a time when digital levels and computer precision were still centuries away. I'm mesmerized by how perfectly round they are.

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