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October 11, 2013

Four Corners desert tells story of the Southwest

(Continued)

That the United States has been inhabited for a really long time isn't something that I'd ever thought about. A year earlier, I'd been in Ireland, where everything can seemingly be traced back to the time of the Druids — even the dive bars — and I found myself suffering from Look How Old Everything Is Compared to the United States-itis. Chaco Canyon is therefore a revelation. It's as intriguing as Stonehenge and as magnificent as the works of the Aztecs or the Maya.

Chaco would have been a tough place to call home. Then, as now, the temperatures could drop well below zero in the winter and routinely hover in the triple digits during the summer. And food and water was and is scarce. Which would explain why, when we sit down at a picnic table to eat lunch, crowds of curious and intrepid squirrels and woodchucks gather around.

Lunching in front of an audience of beady-eyed varmints at a time when the news is filled with the deadly hantavirus is a little disconcerting. So we eat rather quickly and decide that it's time to move on. But not before I get the answer to my hogan question. Mark tells me that male hogans, now out of style, were round, with a cone-shaped roof, whereas female hogans are octagonal, without the cone.

There's not a cloud in the sky, and the sun is beating down on the back of my head as if the large floppy hat I'm wearing didn't exist. We can see evidence of a wildfire in the distance, and skeletal trees litter the horizon like giant charred toothpicks. Occasional gusts of wind blow red desert dust into the air.

It's Day Two of our trip, and we're in the heart of Ute Mountain Tribal Park, part of the Ute reservation, far from the tourist sites, visiting a cliff dwelling called Eagle's Nest. Around 800 years ago, during a period of disappearing resources and increased conflict, the Anasazi, for their own survival, moved north to the Mesa Verde region of southwestern Colorado and began building their homes beneath the lips of canyons. From below, they look like oversize hornets' nests. From above, where I am, perching precariously on a sheer precipice, they look like death traps.

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