Authors: Sandi Ault
Thursday, 0630 Hours
Steve Morella, Elaine Oldham, and I met in the parking lot at the top of Chimney Rock. The day was already promising to be a scorcher. The smell of smoke from the fire below us permeated the air. I gestured to a pair of men walking by and let them know the meals for the Native Americans were in my Jeep, and they promised to take care of moving and distributing the food. Elaine, who had not uttered a word yet, excused herself to use the ladies' room.
I turned to Steve Morella and said, “How long do you think the Native Americans will stay up here with the fire on the other side of that ridge?”
“They are afraid that if they leave, they won't be allowed to come back in for the completion of their ceremonies. So they will remain here, camping or whatever, until the Lunar Standstill.”
“Have you seen their ceremonies before?” I asked.
“Every July, over a dozen tribes send representatives to our social dances. It's really wonderfulâthey tell stories, perform dances, hold ceremonies. This year, because of the Lunar Standstill, they are performing special rituals to mark the rise of the moon between the spires. We have always welcomed them here. We believe this is their place, not ours.”
right in the path of the fire,” I said. “It might become necessary to evacuate them. The IC wants me to get them ready, but I hope it doesn't come to that.”
Steve Morella smiled. “I imagine if you try to evacuate, these people will refuse to leave. They feel pretty strongly about the sacred nature of the Lunar Standstill, and it only happens once every couple decades. Most of these folks are from southwestern pueblos. They can be pretty stubborn when it comes to their sacred rituals.”
“Amen to that,” I said.
“You have some familiarity with the Pueblo peoples?”
“Yes. I work as a liaison for the BLM to Tanoah Pueblo. And I have some personal experience with Tiwa people as well.”
“Tanoah Pueblo? Oh my, that's probably the most guarded of the pueblos. Even more so than Santo Domingo. Many of the Tanoah would rather die than give up anything about their culture.”
“Don't I know it,” I muttered.
We left the pavement, passed by the barely discernible rubble outline of a ruin known as the Parking Lot site, and hiked upward across a thin rim of rising ridge no wider than a few yards. Each side of the narrow causeway fell away sharply. I looked to the south and west of us and saw a swath of boiling smoke laced with red welts as Vulcan's child ravaged the earth. Directly to the west and northwest, a thick curtain of gray haze obscured the view. “Wow! You can see quite a bit of the fire from up here,” I said.
“Oh, yes. I guess our geologist brought the IC up here to the fire tower late last night. But what he wanted to see was right below, and that's one place you can't see well from there. They decided the view of the fire was better from over on Peterson Ridge, so they posted a lookout over there.” Morella stopped at a place where the path narrowed slightly. By then, Elaine was back, offering only a sheepish smile.
“There was once a round structure here,” Steve continued, waving his hand in a circle. “It's called the Guard House site, because originally the scientists who excavated the ruin looked at this slender ridge and thought that something straddling it across the narrowest point was built to protect those living above from intruders. It completely blocked the path from below to the upper mesa. But the evidence showed that there were no weapons or defense items inside. Instead, there were ceremonial objects.”
“You mentioned it was a round structure,” I said. “Was it a tower?”
“No,” Morella answered. “But there was a tower here. It was on the highest part of the east-facing cliffs. It's often referred to as the Sun Tower site.”
“I'm fascinated by the ancient towers. I've camped near some ruins above Tanoah Pueblo, next to what is almost certainly a guard tower. It almost has to be, by design and placement.”
“Well, we thought so about the Guard House for a long time. But since the Lunar Standstill was discovered, we have some different ideas about that. So you like towers? Have you been to Hovenweep out on the ColoradoâUtah border?”
“Yes,” I said. “What a mysterious placeâall those rock-block towers along an arroyo in the middle of the desert.”
“Elaine has worked there for many years.”
“Oh, you have?” I said, politely.
Dr. Oldham merely nodded.
Just then a young Native American man approached. “Hi, there,” Steve Morella said.
The man carefully skirted the area where we were standing. He didn't speak, but hurried around us and down to the parking lot.
“He's probably Navajo, or possibly even Ute,” Morella said. “Most of them won't go in the ruins. Probably wouldn't speak to us because we're standing in one.”
I thought of Grampa Ned's body lying near a mound of disturbed earth, the charred shovel. If what Morella had said was true, it seemed unlikely that Grampa Ned had been digging in a ruin.
We headed upward, climbing a series of rock shelves until we reached the Great House Pueblo, bordered on the side where we approached by a massive wall that looked like the same architecture as the majestic ruins I'd seen in Chaco Canyon. I could hear drumming and chanting somewhere above us. Steve Morella led, I followed, and Elaine Oldham brought up the rear as we traveled an upward-sloping path alongside the wall of the Great House. We came to the top, where a circle of people were seated atop a circular stone wall inside the Great House Pueblo, their legs dangling into the restored ruins of a great kiva. The music was coming from down in the center. Morella gestured with a finger to his lips for us to be silent, and we walked quietly past on the path.
Just above the kiva stood the fire lookout tower, only yards away. The mesa was so narrow here that rock walls extending six feet from either side of its base spanned the width of the ground, which dropped off abruptly on either side down steep cliffs. Beyond the lookout, a knife edge of sharply sloping shale led to the two stone columns, Chimney Rock and Companion Rock. Morella stood before an iron gate that blocked the single flight of steps leading up to the observation area of the tower. He turned to face me and Elaine. “This fire lookout was originally built in the 1930s,” he said. “It was closed in 1959. By that time, we were starting to use airplanes to get our eyes on fires. The Forest Service took the deck and cabin down, and only the original stone base was left. Later, they decided to rebuild it, as it had historic significance to the agency. They drove the last nail in the rebuild in 1987, and in 1988 the Lunar Standstill was discoveredâor I should say rediscoveredâby modern scientists. What we know now that we didn't know when it was being built is that this fire lookout stands exactly between the Great House and the two rock pillars, and the Lunar Standstill can't be seen except from the fire tower as a result. We also discovered during some of our observation nights up here that the Guard House site was probably the original observation site for the rise between the two rocks.”
“But what exactly
the Lunar Standstill?” I asked.
“You know how the sun seems to rise on the eastern horizon farther to the north in the winter and farther to the south in the summer?”
“Yes,” I said, watching Morella take out a ring of keys and search for the one to the large black lock on the gate across the stairway leading up to the fire lookout.
“Well, the moon makes the same journey across the horizon in only a month, not a year, like the sun. It rises from the most northerly point of its cycle to the most southerly point in the period between full moonrises. We call this interval between the two full moons a month. But, just like the sun, the moon begins its monthly cycle by rising at different places on the horizon throughout the year. The most northerly monthly moonrise occurs every eighteen point six one years when the moon completes a long journey across the horizon. There, it appears to rise at the same point, or âstand still' on the horizon, for approximately three and one-half years. Hence, the name âLunar Standstill.'” He unlocked the gate and swung it open. “Ladies first,” he said, and Dr. Oldham and I went up the long flight of steps to the deck surrounding the glassed-in fire lookout.
“And this”âSteve Morella swept his hand across the sublime view of the two spiresâ“is the only known natural observatory which documents this celestial event. The moon rises exactly between Chimney Rock and Companion Rock during the Lunar Standstill. And we are smack in the middle of the Lunar Standstill now. For the first six months of the year, the moon rises during the day. But in Julyâin fact, this Saturday morningâthe moon will rise between the rocks as a barely visible new moon. We will witness just the tiniest glimpse of her right before dawn. And each month from now until the winter solstice, the waxing moon will rise as it grows from a crescent to nearly full. Finally, the full moon will rise between the rocks on or near the winter solstice in December.”
“And this is important to the Pueblo people,” I said. “This is a sacred time.”
At last, Dr. Elaine Oldham spoke up. “This is a sacred time, and this is a sacred place. We believe that the ancient Puebloans traveled from miles away to come here to witness this very event. We also believe that the discovery of this phenomenon by the ancient ones permitted them to make long-term calendars. Before they saw the Lunar Standstill, they could only use things like the solstices and equinoxes, the monthly cycles of the moon. It made planning ahead very limited. And considering that we now think that Chaco Canyon was a place of great ritual pilgrimage, we have to think that the Chacoans had a means to determine when things would happen there so they could plan ahead. Some people might have had to walk for days to attend a festival there, or a ritual or a trade fair. Think about it: if you started even one day late, you could miss the whole thing. The people had to know how to plan for long journeys and great gatherings.” As she spoke, she seemed the perfect picture of a student of the ancients. Her skin, moisture-starved for years and roasted in sun-seared digs, was like tanned leather. Her long blonde hairâwhich she wore pulled back at the neck and dangling in whitened wisps from under her khaki hatâwas nearly stripped of its color by the same punishing solar rays.
“Well! The anthropologist has a voice!” I grinned. “That's the most I've ever heard you say.”
She smiled, embarrassed. “Don't get me started. I could talk your ear off about this stuff.”
“So if the calendrical calculations were done here, how did they get them to Chaco Canyon?”
Elaine Oldham's face grew animated. “That's the most exciting part of all. Right on this spot where they built this lookout, the archaeologists who first studied Chimney Rock found evidence of a massive fire pit. If you look right below here on this side nearest the pinnacles”âshe pointed to the ground below usâ“you can still see one of the large pieces of stone that was part of what they thought was a fire reflection box. And they also found great slabs of pyrite and obsidian, which they believed were used as mirrors.”
“Yes. Walk around here on the other side of the deck and look straight to the south. The atmosphere is smoky, but you can still make out Huerfano Mesa. See it?”
I looked at the pale blue mountain with the slender, flat top. “Yes, I see it. That has to be a long way from here.”
“About seventy miles.” Morella joined in. “And guess what they found atop Huerfano Mesa?”
But Elaine didn't wait for me to answer. “A fire reflection box with an obsidian reflector, aimed directly at Pueblo Alto in Chaco Canyon, another eighty or so miles to the south-southwest, but in direct line of sight.”
“That's mind-boggling!” I said. “They were transmitting the data by signal fires?”
“We're fairly certain of it,” Morella replied. Elaine nodded in agreement. “Chimney Rock was the Greenwich of its time.”
As I looked back at the two stone pinnacles, I remembered the storyteller with the eagle talon staff at the stone basin who had told the tale about the ancient ones telling the moon where to stand. “I'm guessing the person who figured out how to predict when the moon would rise between the pillars was probably pretty powerful in his day.”
“Exactly,” Morella agreed. “This knowledge must have provided tremendous power. There were probably priests or scribes who worked for the high chief at Chaco living here, watching the heavens and calculating the astronomical events. But the Great House up here was used mainly for ceremonies and pilgrimages, not to continuously house a lot of people.” Morella walked to the west side of the deck and pointed across the river. “Elaine is working on that ridge across the Piedra River to survey sites there that have never been excavated. From what we can tell, those are also aligned with events on the horizon. Look over to the east there, at the Continental Divide. Do you see how jagged the horizon is because of those peaks?”
I nodded my head.
“Well, that had to be very useful in marking the position of the sun and the moon at various times of the year. It offered a tremendous advantage to the timekeepers of this area. In contrast, when you go to Chaco Canyon, the priests or timekeepers there had to build a structureâthe sun dagger on Fajada Butteâto mark the solstices and lunar cycles. Or the windows at Mesa Verde, painstakingly built to align with the solstices and equinoxes. But this”âhe pointed at the two rock pillarsâ“was not built by the ancient Puebloans. It was created by the same force that made the sun and the moon.”