Landis Ehler, Interpretation and Cultural Resources Volunteer
February 13, 2011
As of this day I have been "in canyon" for exactly one month now! While this is just a coincidence of dates rather than a set goal on my part, this is a great opportunity to write down some thoughts and experiences from my time here at Chaco Culture National Historical Park.
Risking the cliché, the desert is home to such emotion-filled stretches of stark beauty! The sun, especially at either extremity of the day, dances across the canyon walls in ever changing golden hues, punctuated by the inherent shadow and crimson of the sandstone walls. This riot of living color is balanced by the night sky, a glorious profusion of infinite stars streaking across the heavens. Within the passage of night and day the various desert dwellers make their presence known, from the opportunistic soaring of the ravens to the chorus songs of the fickle coyotes.
Here in Navajo Land, the barren steppes and harsh hills are teeming with life in its cycles. The quiet box canyons shelter the stately herds of Elk, while the seasonal rains brings out the croaking of frogs long dormant. Water is everything here, and its mastery at Chaco brought forth a florescence of culture, human culture!
For thousands of years people have called this remote canyon home, farming the wash at its center and seeking shelter in the ever present sandstone. Starting in A.D 850 though, the pattern of life shifted, as the inhabitants began to build massive buildings, larger than anything seen before in what is now the US! As a volunteer I have the privilege to explore these masonry monuments with the tours I guide, wandering through the empty halls and plazas of ancient villages. The largest buildings encompass hundreds upon hundreds of rooms in of themselves, now filled by the awed shuffle of feet and the voiced inquiries of tourist and ranger alike. I don't think that I am exaggerating when I claim that Chaco Canyon is the premier archaeological site in the United States!
In addition to guiding tours, as a volunteer I also help staff the park visitor center, answering what questions I can and helping to collect fees for the site's continued upkeep. With my background in archaeology, I have also been blessed with the chance to assist the park Cultural Resources division. It is powerful to tenderly care for a pot that witnessed the same sun that the last emperors in Rome did!
There are many opportunities for volunteers at Chaco Culture or at other National Park units. It can be a very rewarding experience, as you help steward the national treasures of this country, alongside the very talented and motivated park staff! Beyond the professional reward, the American Southwest is home to many diverse and vibrant cultures, many descended from the original inhabitants of Chaco. Whether one encounters Chaco as a visitor or volunteer, the experience is definitely worth the visit!