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In Chaco, Just Where I Needed to Be

August, 2022

Dear Friends,

If you want to visit Chaco Culture National Historical Park, you're going to have to work to get there. Located in a remote corner of northwestern New Mexico, the park is reached by a road that's long, unpaved, and full of bone-rattling ruts and washboards. And once you're there, the weather is likely to be either frigid or blazing hot, with winds that blow the desert sand into every nook and cranny.

But all the aggravation is worth it because Chaco is one of the most remarkable archaeological sites in North America, a place of mystery, stark grandeur, and spiritual power. 

After wanting to visit Chaco for more than thirty years, in May I finally got the chance. I did research there for my new book on sacred sites in the U.S., and our car survived the torturous road (though with some wear-and-tear on its suspension system).

Chaco has almost-mythic status in the Southwest for a variety of reasons. From about 850 to 1250 CE, it was the center of a far-flung complex of sites linked by economic, cultural, political, and ceremonial ties. The Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this high desert valley bordered by sandstone canyon walls built "great houses" that are among the largest structures built in the Americas before the modern age. The Chaco valley has the remains of twelve of these houses, each with multiple levels, hundreds of rooms, broad public plazas, and dozens of circular underground kivas (a Hopi word meaning “ceremonial room”). In the surrounding Chaco-influenced region are more than 150 great houses of similar design.

The Chaco road system was nearly as remarkable as the great houses. Despite having no wheeled vehicles or beasts of burden, the people here built a well-engineered system of roads that radiated for 400 miles out from the canyon. The roadbeds were up to 30 feet wide and were bordered by low walls. Some almost certainly had ceremonial or ritual uses, such as parallel sets of roads, each 30 feet wide and separated by 50 feet, and other trails that led straight up the sides of cliffs.

The Ancestral Puebloans also incorporated solar, lunar, and astronomical alignments into their buildings and roads. While there are scholarly disagreements about the particulars, it’s clear that these people had a sophisticated knowledge of the heavens and worked to align their lives to the stars, moon, and sun. 

By about 1250, the people of Chaco had moved away from the valley to settle in places that included Mesa Verde. But the contemporary tribes who are descended from the Ancestral Puebloans, including the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Zia, still consider Chaco a holy site. They return here for ceremonies, because while the great houses are gradually returning to the earth, they believe that their ancestors still occupy this valley.

My experiences at Chaco have made me think more deeply about the concept of pilgrimage, a common theme in my work. Maybe some of my reflections might be useful to you as you plan your own trips to long-awaited destinations.

Here are some things I learned about pilgrimage from Chaco: 
  • If a holy site is calling you, answer the phone. 
  • The harder it is to get to a place, the more you're likely to appreciate it.
  • While you're there, expect to be inconvenienced and occasionally miserable. 
  • If you can't figure out exactly why you're there, you might be just where you need to be.
  • And finally, don't try to tidy up the experience in too small a box. It can take years to unpack a true pilgrimage. 
As we were driving away from Chaco, my husband Bob (fully recovered from his recent illness, I'm happy to say) said that the landscape wasn't nearly as beautiful as other places we've been in the Southwest.

"That's part of the point," I said, a bit indignant on Chaco's behalf. "If a pilgrimage spot is beautiful and comfortable, you're tempted to stay. And you're supposed to leave, because it's about the journey as much as the destination."

Back in the real world, we eventually got the sand out of our hair, clothing, car, and camper. But part of Chaco is still with me, tugging at my soul. Why did I go? What did I learn? It may take a lifetime to figure it out. 

My friends, I hope you can find your own Chaco Canyon. 

All good wishes,


(photo credits: Top photo of Pueblo Bonito, the largest great house in Chaco Canyon, is by the National Park Service; bottom photo of a great house interior is by Bob Sessions)

Recommended Reading:

In People of Chaco: A Canyon and Its Culture, Kendrick Frazier gives an engaging overview of the remarkable civilization that flourished in New Mexico a thousand years ago. 

Chaco Handbook: An Encyclopedic Guide by R. Gwinn Vivian and Bruce Hilpert is a reference guide to many aspects of Chaco culture and history.

Archaeologist Stephen H. Lekson argues for a new interpretation of the Chaco civilization in The Chaco Meridian: One Thousand Years of Political and Religious Power in the Ancient Southwest.


News About My Newest Book:

As regular readers of this newsletter know, I'm the author of the new book The Soul of the Family Tree: Ancestors, Stories, and the Spirits We Inherit. See my website for a full list of reviews and media, including my NPR interviews with Rick Steves (part one; part two). 

Interested in doing The Soul of the Family Tree in a book group? You can find discussion questions here

If you've read and enjoyed any of my books, I hope you'll post a review on Amazon, Goodreads, or other online sites. Your review will help other readers discover my work.

My Previous Books:

Near the Exit: Travels with the Not-So-Grim Reaper is about places that have helped me come to terms with mortality. 

“This book’s journey to spiritual places near and far is worth taking.” Library Journal (starred review)

Holy Rover: Journeys in Search of Mystery, Miracles, and God is a memoir told through trips to a dozen holy sites around the world.  

“Whether describing mystical visions or the rhythms of everyday life, Erickson turns the spiritual journey into a series of exciting transformations.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)



Lori Erickson is one of America’s top travel writers specializing in spiritual journeys. She's the author of The Soul of the Family Tree, Near the Exit and Holy Rover. Her website Spiritual Travels features holy sites around the world. 

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