Chaco Culture National Historic Park, N.M. — AFTER a two-hour walk through a desert canyon, I spotted it: a blazing star painted on the underside of a sandstone overhang.
Beside the star, in the same dusky red paint, were a crescent moon and an outstretched hand. Below lay what looked like a comet. And swirling all around were questions: Did this star -- drawn by a culture that flourished in New Mexico's Chaco Canyon a millennium ago -- depict a brilliant supernova that appeared in 1054? Was the "comet" Halley's Comet, which illuminated the sky 12 years later?
Circumstantial evidence -- but no hard proof -- supports both conclusions. I'd gleaned that much from the previous night's ranger talk, which had included a slide of the "supernova pictograph." Immediately, I'd known I had to see it. Two days exploring the massive ruins and austere desert of Chaco Culture National Historic Park had piqued my interest in such mysteries, and the star was a beautiful unknown.
Of course, seeing it would take some effort -- a round-trip hike of seven miles that included lots of dust and virtually no shade. In some ways, though, difficult travel keeps the park what it is. To understand why, consider its allure: Besides a few pictographs (paintings on rock) and thousands of petroglyphs (etchings in rock), it contains a dozen "great houses" -- monumental structures that once rose four or five stories and covered acres.
So why are so few people here?
The consensus answer: the road.
After it leaves U.S. 550, the route to Chaco Canyon is paved for five miles. Then come 16 miles of bare, grated earth marred by teeth-rattling washboards and sizable ruts. The park itself is no luxury resort either. There is no food. The only lodging is a campground.
The county government has tentative plans to pave its roads. Park officials take no position on the project, but a flier at the visitor center notes that the rough ride keeps crowds small, protecting the ruins.
After wincing through the drive, I headed to the Gallo Campground.
Campgrounds are usually not places where I am seized with the ecstasy of travel. But the setting sun was burnishing the canyon gold and red as I nestled my tent next to a 30-foot bluff. The dark sky seemed to fluoresce behind the silhouetted canyon rim. Then the stars came out, sparkling from horizon to horizon, and there was no turning back.
Between about 850 and 1250, a complex civilization flourished in the arid lands of the Four Corners. Its center was Chaco Canyon, where inhabitants built huge, D-shaped building complexes now called great houses.
Marked by a rough symmetry and alignments with the cardinal directions, the largest of these great houses contained hundreds of rectangular rooms and dozens of circular, mostly subterranean enclosures, called kivas. They once were thought to be homes, but most researchers now think they accommodated only seasonal visitors, hosted religious ceremonies or were sites for trade.
What remains today are jagged, stone-and-mortar walls, which jut from mesa tops or hug the base of sandstone bluffs. Four major ruins are excavated and partly reconstructed, revealing walls that rise 30 feet, as well as the floor plans for kivas extending more than 50 feet in diameter. Best of all, visitors can see the ruins up close, walking through their rooms and plazas on designated paths.
The great houses constitute Chaco's greatest archeological attraction but not its only one. The park also contains the remains of earthen ramps, stairways carved into cliffs, and roads -- which may have been ceremonial as much as utilitarian -- that radiate toward buttes, mesas and the sites of outlying communities.
For reasons that are not entirely clear, Chaco's inhabitants stopped building great houses in the middle of the 12th century, gradually migrating away. They did not, however, vanish. Most researchers believe that the Hopi tribe and New Mexico's Pueblo peoples are their descendants. Along with the Navajo -- later residents of the canyon -- the Hopi and Pueblo peoples still consider the area sacred.
Even for an outsider, the canyon can evoke a sense of the mystical. Once, as lightning flashed over a distant mesa, a crow hovered above me, wings seeming to flap in slow motion, fanning the air with an audible whoosh-whoosh. It was probably trying to steal my food, but it felt like a spiritual visitation.
Then there's the effect of the ruins themselves. One evening, I climbed to the top of the bluffs overlooking Pueblo Bonito, Chaco's showpiece ruin. The view was stunning: a near-perfect semicircle of rock-and-mortar buildings beneath a 100-foot cliff. Standing in the warm evening air, I wondered what a pilgrim from the Chacoan hinterlands would have thought upon coming to this ledge for the first time. I could conjure only one comparison: the moment I first saw the Manhattan skyline.