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Largo Canyon, New Mexico
PUEBLITOS OF DINÉTAH
Secrets on Stones
As I wandered along a dry sandy wash, the scream of a red-tailed hawk lingered on the wind. I scanned the clouds for this raptor but saw nothing. I searched the high canyon walls for a nest on a gnarled juniper tree stretching toward the powder-blue sky. Still, I saw nothing.
I had just about given up on my search when I spied a peculiar shape nestled within the eroded niche in the sandstone bluff above me. I stopped my hike, unshouldered my backpack, and contemplated the sight. Curiosity overwhelmed me and I had to climb to this oddity.
I skinned my knee and pinched my finger on the rough edges of the rocks but I couldn't stop climbing. The closer I climbed, the more unnatural the shape appeared. Suddenly, I realized I had found something ancient as stacked boulders became walls, deep ledges became floors, and long logs became ladders.
"It's a pueblito," I thought. I had always heard about these small pueblos and began to ponder its existence. "Who made it? When? And why?" But those thoughts were soon overcome by a thought more profound. "It's beautiful," I whispered to myself, "It's art."
Built by Navajo and Pueblo people in unusual places for defense against Ute attackers, the Pueblitos of Dinétah are now structural museums. The pueblitos are scattered throughout the Largo and Gobernador river drainages east of Farmington in an area known by Navajo people as Dinétah. Navajos first lived in the area after migrating southwest from the far north and still consider Dinétah as their homeland with significant historic and mythic importance.
Although the pueblitos evoked deep-seated thoughts from me, I realized they were mostly forts to native people at one time. These were people who struggled to survive during a time of social turmoil and hostility that began with the Pueblo Revolt of 1680. While the Spanish hold on pueblo villages along the Rio Grande was broke during the revolt, the Spanish regained control only twelve years later. Pueblo people fled to the Navajo country of now northern New Mexico and the two cultures lived peacefully together possibly intermarrying.
I traveled back in time as I stood among the ruins and listened for the giggles of Navajo and Pueblo children playing games while the chants of tribal elders echoed in the distance. But nothing is more tantalizing than the architectural hints left behind by the people of Dinétah. Their carefully crafted and well-thought out structures stand precariously close to canyon rims or tower proudly over a single sandstone boulder. Almost all of the pueblitos have uninhibited views of the surrounding land and line-of-sight of nearby pueblitos as if to form a moat from the vast desert expanse.
Mostly multi-roomed masonry dwellings, the influence of Pueblo construction techniques is reflected in an artistic style of geometric shapes and contrasting materials. Square rooms are interlaced with round kivas while sandstone blocks are meshed with log supports. Beautifully woven thatched roofs meet roughly textured earthen walls for a natural blend that tempted the primitive side of me to throw my sleeping bag on the floor, build a fire in the hearth, and move in. With more than 40 pueblitos in the Dinétah area, I could sleep in a different house every night.
But I had always wanted to sleep in a Hogan and I discovered "forked stick" Hogans built by Navajos only a few yards from the pueblitos. Leaning three log poles together in tripod fashion and adding smaller poles to those until a cone emerged. Sadly, few remain intact but I found several collapsed piles of logs and put them together in my imagination as I wrestled with my tent.
Of the many Bureau of Land Management protected pueblitos in the area, eight stand out in my memory. They are the most interesting with individual characteristics like the weathered pole from a corner shelf in the Crow Canyon Site or a completely intact Spanish fireplace in the Hooded Fireplace Site. The 2-room Largo School Ruin perches on the point of a ridge while Split Rock Ruin straddles a cracked 40-foot boulder. The Tapacito Ruin is the earliest pueblito known, as Francis Ruin with 40 rooms is one of the largest. Simon Ruin is reached only by 20-foot ladder and along with Francis Ruin is detached from the Southern cluster.
My favorite site is the Shaft House; a 14-room, 2-level dwelling built deep within the recesses of a sandstone cliff. The ruin contains an amazing masonry tower not unlike something you would expect in a Medieval Castle. A short stairway leads from the tower into a long corridor that eventually ends with a small, soot-covered room. The design is so concealing and eluding that any attackers of these people must have been foiled.
As I sat dreaming in the comfort of the Shaft House overlooking Crow Canyon, I couldn't help but wonder why these people would leave such laboriously constructed houses with such expansive vistas. "If I lived here, I would never leave," I thought. But then I had to remember the times. These were tumultuous times and I later learned that Spanish missionaries, continual Ute raids, and a devastating drought drove the Navajo further west. I felt sad and wished for their return.
Although the pueblitos in the BLM region attract most of the attention from visitors, one state-managed pueblito in the Ensenada Mesa area is unmatched. It's the Citadel. Once again, a huge boulder acts as a foundation but the difference here is the pueblito's "V" shape. It curves around the contours of the megalith and offers a relaxing covered hallway. I could only imagine a native person sitting quietly beneath the log awning, sipping Mormon tea from a handmade bowl, and musing about the future like I was reflecting the past. The Citadel is truly a masterpiece.
While the Pueblitos of Dinétah are fascinating in their own right, Navajo habitation sparked the creation of numerous and elaborate rock art panels scattered throughout the Dinétah. Vivid depictions of corn crops and elk hunts tell an epic story of Navajo life in the 1700s. I had a hard time finding a rock without either a petroglyph or pictograph scribbled across its face. While a multi-colored pictograph illustrates the Navajo Night Way Prayer in Delgadito Canyon, a detailed petroglyph depicts a ceremonial figure called "The Big Warrior" in Crow Canyon. There are handprints, footprints, birds, and mammals as well as geometric shapes, and bows with arrows. They are all sketched harmoniously in enchanting scenes.
The Navajo were not the only people to leave their marks on the varnished walls of the Dinétah. Ancestral Pueblo People put their stories to stone. I found Pueblo human motifs with phallic stick figures contrasting Navajo human images with curvaceous legs and elegant headgear. Mysterious Pueblo lines and shapes mingle with Navajo lines and shapes creating impressive outdoor galleries. Despite daily chores to eke out a living in this harsh environment, these engravings and paintings speak fluently about cultures that devoted valuable time to artistic endeavors.
A place of never-ending wonder, it's unfortunate that the drilling for oil and gas litters the Dinétah with well pads, truck traffic, and a network of roads. But don't despair. The secret sites of Dinétah are yet to be compromised and the elk, badger, golden eagle, prairie dog, and ferret I watched frolicking throughout the canyon didn't seem to mind.
The Pueblitos of Dinétah and the incredible rock art panels that decorate the Largo Canyon region may have simply been a way of life for ancient people but to me it's like visiting the Louvre. Everywhere I looked, I found something so diligently crafted that it rivaled Leonardo da Vinci's Mona Lisa or challenged Egypt's Great Pyramid in beauty, style, and simplicity. It's an experience so moving that the next time I wander along the banks of a desert wash, I'll remember the prophetic scream of a red-tailed hawk drawing my eyes skyward to a pueblito in Dinétah. The next time, I'll keep a watchful eye for a work of art tucked carefully within the crevice of a distant canyon wall.
How to get there: If you are planning to travel through the canyonlands of northwest New Mexico, consider making a trip through Largo Canyon only 23 miles east of Farmington. The overall length of Largo Canyon is about 50 miles but side road excursions add scenic vistas, desert wildlife, and ancient ruins to the adventure.
Like many four-wheeling byways, the road through Largo Canyon was an important route followed by historic travelers including Spanish conquistadors and Native American inhabitants. Navajo and Pueblo people created a fascinating collection of pueblos and rock art sites in Largo Canyon that provide interesting rest stops along the drive. Later, homesteaders found an easier route to the adjacent Blanco Canyon by traveling through Fresno Canyon over Hollis Pass. Today, the road to Hollis Pass provides some of the most spectacular panoramic views of Largo and Blanco Canyons.
Follow the road northeast from the intersection of Ice and Largo Canyon to Ensenada Mesa and wander over rolling hills and through prairie dog towns toward Gould Pass. You’ll continue to find stone ruins and expansive overlooks along the road. Although no permits are required to venture in to Largo Canyon, you should visit the BLM office in Farmington to obtain information, check road conditions, and get maps for your journey. Camping is allowed anywhere on BLM land but you’ll need the BLM topographic maps for Navajo Reservoir and Chaco Canyon to check for privately owned parcels. BLM archeologists strongly prefer that you resist camping near archeological sites. Too many unrecognized wooden artifacts are incinerated in blazing campfires.
From Farmington, drive east on US 64 for 13 miles to Bloomfield. Gather supplies and gas in Bloomfield before traveling another 9 miles east to Blanco. Turn south on County Road 4450 located 1.5 miles east of Blanco. Pass a BLM sign and follow the main road. In approximately 4 miles, you'll reach a major fork. Take the right fork for about .5 miles where you’ll cross a one-lane trestle bridge. You’ll cross another one-lane bridge 3 miles farther down the road. From here, Largo Canyon awaits you for the next 40 miles. Traveling south just past La Parita Canyon, you will approach an intersection. Continue southeast to end your trip at State Highway 44 and the small town of Counselor or turn northeast toward the Lindrith Pumping Station for a straight road to State Highway 537. The nearest major cities are Bloomfield to the northwest on US 550 or Santa Fe and Albuquerque to the distant south along Interstate 25.
The dirt and clay roads around Largo Canyon can usually be negotiated with high clearance 2WD vehicles but beware of heavy rains. Downpours quickly turn packed 2WD roads into muddy 4WD roads and can cause roads to completely wash out or make river crosses impossible.
Unfortunately, large oil and gas reserves found in the area bring drilling sites and truck traffic so watch out for the big rigs while you tour the area. Remember that Largo Canyon is a large and isolated area so carry plenty of spares and supplies in case you become stranded and above all tread lightly! Contact the BLM at 505-761-4504 for more information.