Thursday, November 16, 2017

Paquimé and Mata Ortiz

I have mixed feelings about tours and tour guides on occasion, in spite of being one myself. Commercial tours tend to be geared toward the interests of many and therefore don't delve into aspects of a place and culture like I would prefer. All inclusive tours feed you too much, spend too much time visiting stores (where often the guide gets a kick-back), and rush you through the sites you want to see in order to hustle you on to the next store. So it is a pleasure when you go on a tour and the guide actually makes an effort to find out what you want to see and then arranges for local experts to meet you there.

I am a docent at New Mexico's Coronado State Historical Monument. We give tours of our famous reconstructed painted kiva to visitors. A group of us, including a researcher and one of the park rangers, went on a fast 4 day trip to Chihuahua, and engaged the services of Luis Buenavidez, a guide who operates out of the Pink Store in Palomas, Chihuahua - right across the border from Columbus, NM.

Typical shape of the Paquimé doorways,
now the symbol of the site.
We met Luis on Friday and drove 3 hours south to Nuevo Casas Grandes, where we would be spending 2 nights in a very Mexican hotel. He took us to the ruins of an ancient pueblo, Paquimé. It is the southernmost city of the southwestern culture of the Pueblo people, the same people who built Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde. However, the Paquimé were influenced as much by people to the south as by those from Chaco Canyon. They had a ball court and a platform in the shape of a giant "+" with circles at each end, not unlike the Mayan cross found all over Chiapas. They also raised and sacrificed birds, specifically turkeys and the red scarlet Mackaw, also common in Chiapas. One of their more notable technological achievements was a water system that not only irrigated crops but delivered water directly to their homes.

(More on the Mayan Ball Game)

The tall spire is what is left of the corner of a 3-story building.

Classic example of a doorway

The site and its surroundings.

The museum is one of the better museums I've seen in Mexico. The displays are well done and all signage is in both Spanish and English. Their collection of Paquimé pottery is exquisite.

The following day, Luis took us to the village of Mata Ortiz. As docents at a historic site, we were interested in the ancient culture of the Paquimé and also the current culture of making beautiful pottery. In the 1960s, a man named Juan Quezada dug up old pots and was impressed with the artistry. He decided to learn how to make them. Over a decade of self-teaching about where to find the clays, shape the pots, make the paints, decorate, and then fire them, he finally came into his own as a potter. During the next few decades, he taught the people in his tiny village to make pots too. Now, 2 generations later, his tradition has evolved into some amazing works using the traditional techniques he developed, with a global sense of style. Mata Ortiz potters are famous around the world. 

Sr. Quezada with red clay from a riverbed
We were introduced to Sr. Quezada and then he personally guided us on a trek into the desert where he and his family still mine for various colors of clay. In rocky, prickly terrain, we watched him dig a shovel full of brown clay. He explained that the clay is put into buckets, then filled with water. Over a day or so, the rocks in the clay sink to the bottom and the organic material floats to the top. The clay can be easily scooped out and then dried somewhat to become the right consistency for making pots. All the work in his studio (shown below) was fashioned by hand. The paints are traditional paints created onsite and applied with human-hair brushes. 

Our guide Luis with Juan Quezada 

A young protogé with exquisite control, painting every
line by hand without the use of any kind of guide. 

Should you be interested in taking a tour with Luis, you can contact him through the Pink Store in Palomas, Chihuahua, or email him directly:

To read more about Juan Quezada:  

Or about the Mata Ortiz pottery:

Saturday, May 6, 2017

Canyon de Chelly

My first visit to Canyon de Chelly (pronounced "de shay") in Arizona was in 1986. It was a passing view, barely remembered, except I was impressed that this canyon was more beautiful than the Grand Canyon precisely because it's not so immense. It is intimate and inviting.

Looking down from an overlook.
Spring and fall are the best times to see this gouge through ancient deep red sandstone. But even late April didn't guarantee we would have great weather. It snowed lightly, rained, sleeted, and hailed those little snow balls that always remind me of Dippin Dots ice cream.

During the intervening years I had acquired more knowledge about geology, history, and archeology that enhanced my later experience. If you want to feel the power of the tragedies that permeate the walls of Canyon de Chelly, read Hampton Side's book - Blood and Thunder. It is a biography of the famous Kit Carson, frontiersman and army scout, who, in his later years led the round up of the Navajo people and forced them on a death march to Fort Sumner and a reservation called the Bosque Redondo: Navajo Trail of Tears

On Friday afternoon, in the rain and sleet, my friend Becky and I drove along the edges of the canyon to all the overlook points. We had planned to take a tour into the canyon, available only with Navajo guides in jeeps. But we cancelled it, hoping the weather reports would prove true and we'd have a better experience on Saturday. Unfortunately, in spite of great technological advances, weather reports aren't always accurate.

Saturday morning was bleak. My car was covered by pebbles of snow on top of a frozen skin of ice. We were the only tour participants and were given pink blankets and army rain slickers. Both of us wore every warm thing we'd brought on the trip, and still we were freezing. The 'jeep' was an Austrian army Pinzgaur, a six-wheeled all terrain vehicle designed for moving troops. Our Navajo driver, Harold, was excellent and we never got stuck, though we passed others who were. The river was running high, but not high enough to stop that machine from plowing through. We were peppered by rain in spite of the tarp overhead, and the pink blankets were caked with red mud by the end of the trip.

The tower in the middle of this photo has three
intact levels. Two skeletons were found in the
highest room, which gave the canyon it's name
Canyon del Muerto, Canyon of Death.
Ours was only the half day tour so we went into the north branch called Canyon del Muerto, as far as the Standing Cow ruin. It was named after a blue-faced cow painted by a Navajo artist on the canyon wall. Other ruins in that canyon included the Antelope ruins and the First Ruin, all buildings left behind by the Anasazi (a Navajo word for ancient ones) or as they are called by archeologists - the Ancestral Puebloans. The buildings were constructed of carefully fashioned sandstone blocks, fitted together so well that little clay was used to hold them together. Abandoned in the 1200s they still stand, some even have roofs supported by wooden beams. There are other ruins further up the canyon that can be seen on the full day tour, or from the overlooks. Canyon del Muerto (of Death) is so named because two women's skeletons were found in a tower-ruin and further upstream there is a cave where over 100 Navajo women and children were massacred by Spanish soldiers in 1805.

On the second half of our tour, the weather improved and the sun peeked out of the clouds on occasion. We drove upriver, sometimes in the river, to the White House, the most famous of Canyon de Chelly's ruins. It is accessible by foot from the rim of the canyon, and is the only one the public can visit without a Navajo guide. A huge ruin, it consists of a building on the ground and many in a cave above. At the height of life there, the lower building was three to four stories and reached up the wall to the cave buildings. The lowest walls are as thick as any castle wall in Europe, built specifically to support an enormous structure.

White House ruin

It was thrilling for me to come back to Canyon de Chelly after all those years, to experience it from the inside as well. The tours are a bit pricy, but worth every penny. The Navajo Nation also runs horseback and guided hiking tours and they allow backpacking and overnights in the canyon with a guide. During the summer months, many Navajos live in the canyon and farm. The sound of tractors and animals is all part of the experience.

The road into the canyon.

After rain and snow, little ponds form on the mesa tops.

Ancient red sandstone cliffs

The intimate canyon

Monday, March 20, 2017

White Sands for the Full Moon

My bucket list gets longer and longer as I age, and the items get knocked off the list at a slower rate than ever before. I am no longer able to travel freely and go where ever the winds blow me. So it was with great pleasure that I was able to head down to southern New Mexico to see the White Sands under a full moon.

My friend Evan came along and we shared the driving and the gas. On the way we stopped for lunch at the Valley of Fires, a fairly recent lava flow across the brown desert, now just barely covered with enough blown in sand and dirt to establish a bit of flora.

Another hour and a half drive, we entered the White Sands National Park and spent four hours hiking around, taking pictures under an overcast sky and waiting for the moon to rise over the eastern mountains. When it finally came up, the sunset cast a brilliant orange light on the thin overcast and the pics were quite spectacular. Clouds cleared in the east just enough for the moon to show up unfazed.

After dark we headed to Las Cruces to eat with Evan's son and spend the night. Arising at 4am we headed back for the sunrise and moonset. The park opens at 7:00 which was just right, it was dark enough for us to settle in on top of a dune before the sunrise. The moon was brilliant against a navy sky until the day got too bright. Hard pressed to decide which made for better pictures, we switched positions back and forth, east and west, trying to capture the essence of both before the sun made an eastern view impossible.

Here are the best of several hundred photos. Enjoy.

Moonrise over cliffs in the sunset glow.

Moon rising over dunes

Sunset with virga clouds

Moon in the last vestiges of the sunrise.

The dunes during sunrise