Aztec, New Mexico: March 31 – April 4, 2012

Reminders: 1. Posts are in chronological order with most recent on top. 2. Pictures can be enlarged by clicking on them and then using the back button (not close) to return to the text.

Preface –something I’ve not done before.

I’d like to stick in a paragraph that has nothing to do with this stop; it has to do with our earlier exploration. I’ve talked a lot about the Atomic Age and covered it extensively in previous chapters. But I left out something that struck my fancy, and I don’t want to wait until Oak Ridge to present it. That something is Operation Paperclip. After V-E Day, the U.S. was dedicated to beat the Russians to the brain trust in Germany. It moved very swiftly and clandestinely to remove armament, including multiple V-2 rockets, spare parts, manuals and other tangibles that would help us understand their rocketry. But what of the intelligence that created it all? To outrace the Soviets to the spoils, the U.S. set up a scheme to bring the German talent into our country. Many German scientists, including Target #1, Werner Von Braun, had already favored the U.S. as a repatriated home. But he — and hundreds of others – were war criminals. The U.S. established Operation Paperclip as a subterfuge to circumvent existing regulations and bring the expatriates into our country before the Russians could get their hands on them. Circuitous routes and midnight tactics were employed, and the result was more than 1,600 brains now working for us. The name comes from the clip that was placed on the record of each candidate. Some were later deported for the heinous crimes they’d perpetrated during the war.

Moving on.

We had to go back down Rte 25 about half-way to Albuquerque to get over to Aztec. It was then almost 200 miles northwest, putting us close to the famous four-corner junction of NM/AZ/UT/CO.

Aztec is actually part of a tri-city triangle; it’s just north of Bloomfield and both of them are just east of the largest, Farmington. In fact, there is a single Chamber of Commerce for the triumvirate. The area owes its heritage to the same combination of Anasazi — first in pit houses and later in pueblos — followed by Spanish adventurers in the 18th century. Part of San Juan County land was included in the deeded Navaho territory in 1868. Shortly thereafter, Coloradans migrated south and established the roots of the “modern” city. It became a thriving farm and ranch community specializing in apples; in fact it remains a major U.S. supplier of a half dozen varieties today. The railroad came by around 1905, further enhancing its role as a marketplace.

Its 20th century enrichment stemmed primarily from the abundance of oil and natural gas beneath its soil. They seeped up for some time, but once the war effort and the evolution of the automobile enriched their value, the explorers and refiners moved in. Population grew tenfold, from 3,500 to 35,000 in 1950. By 1965, it busted, thanks in large part to OPEC. Today its strength comes from a combination of industries, including pipelines to California and new bootstrap initiatives.

Each of the three cities has its own secrets to share. To give you a clue, we berthed at the Aztec Ruins Campground. Less than a quarter mile away lay the revitalization of Aztec Ruins National Monument, an incredible Pueblo village with over 400 rooms. It was misnamed by the early Anglo settlers; the Aztec Empire post-dated this community, and, while they migrated into territory that is now New Mexico, I can’t find evidence that they were ever this far north. Instead, the community was built by the Anasazi between 1100 and 1300. It’s one of numerous Anasazi ruins all around us. The core site is in Chaco Canyon, about a hundred miles to the south, where the largest archaeological site, the Pueblo Bonito, is located.

The Ruins were designated a national monument in 1923 by President Harding. The central feature is the reconstruction of The Great Kiva. We saw the ruins of one of these community centers in Bandolier, and this one gave us the archeologist’s best interpretation of what a complete building would have looked like. Before we got there, however, we thoroughly explored many cells that surround the courtyard, some defined as storerooms, others as living quarters, and still others as small family kivas – typically square rooms with the circular requirement created inside them. Built first of stone and later of adobe, they were roofed by a combination of pine beams and split juniper.

The Great Kiva had a door entrance for today’s visitors, but original access was through the hole in the roof that also served as ventilator for the central fire. Adjacent to the fire pit were two large rings, believed to be drums upon which the musicians danced their rhythms. Seats all around accommodated the community of congregants. The concept of alcoves accessed by what appear to be ladders remains vague.

The Ruins re-jumpstarted our discovery of the Puebloans and made up in part for our lack of discovery earlier. And there was more to come. For now, however, we did not delay in poring over every inch of this site. We were aided with a wonderful Guide to The Aztec Ruins, which we purchased and will share upon request.

The following day was also exemplary. We started in Farmington, then came back to downtown Aztec, and finally moved our attention to the other apex, Bloomfield.

We continue to be wowed by the ingenuity and professionalism of local museums. There’s no better example than the Farmington Museum and Gateway Park. Shortly beyond the entrance, we came upon a simulator with elevator doors. Once inside, we virtually descended down an oil drilling shaft to see how it was constructed and operated. Our guide on screen encouraged us to sit tight as we plunged down the shaft, perforated it, and even fracked the surrounding landscape. Exiting on the other side, we were confronted by a well valve and plenty of information. Then we discovered the agricultural heritage and its feature crop, which, at its peak, included 150 varieties of apples. Today, six are still grown and shipped annually. Local lifestyle of both the Euro and Native Americans is amply covered, including lovely examples of Navaho weaving. On the way out, I found a very early resident, a model of a Pentaceratops and an actual fossilized part of his horn and skull.

From here we trekked back to Aztec, where we were the first visitors for the season at the Aztec Museum and Pioneer Village. The museum building itself is rife, as promised, with pioneer Americana. It’s in the heart of town, and the mural at left is nearby. While you could tell it was opening day, we were able to get our fill of its collections. Out the back door, however, was a village of a dozen classic buildings, each reconstructed there from the originals. It was a true slice of life: church, school, bank, sheriff’s office, jail, blacksmith, justice of the peace, post office, general store and homestead were all there, filled with timely artifacts. (The still, first row below, was in the sheriff’s office!) The village was augmented with an old red caboose, constructed on a narrow-gauge ore car, and an exhibit of oil and gas industry paraphernalia- oil rig, pumping unit, tools, doghouse . . . and the Gasbuggy, In 1967, the AEC set off a clandestine nuclear explosion 4,200 feet beneath San Juan county in an attempt to fracture the rock and release natural gas. The device, approximately twice as powerful as the Hiroshima bomb, created a huge crater and lined it with glass, created from intensely heating the silicate, and left the gas trapped. The “Rabbit,” a similar test device, is above, right.

From Aztec, we chugged on down to Bloomfield, the third apex and site of the Salmon Ruins. Peter Milton Salmon was born in Indiana in 1844. He and his brother headed west to seek their fortunes; while his brother went on to California, Peter stopped in Pueblo, Colorado. There he met and married Maria Archuleta in 1969, and they had two children, George and Ella. When the Indian territory in San Juan County was opened for settlement, Peter and family led the homesteaders. They had ten more children, of whom seven survived.

Peter erected a home that was more like a Native American Hogan than a pioneer cabin. It was fitting, since his homestead site included a late eleventh century Anasazi Chaco Pueblo. Its remains define the scope of the late eleventh century community and contain about 150 first floor rooms. It is estimated that the complex originally contained more than 300 rooms in three stories. Peter and George judiciously protected the site from all kinds of intruders for many years.

The Salmon Ruins were finally excavated in the 1970’s. About one third of them are now visible and tour-able. Over a million artifacts and archeological samples have been preserved. The site includes not only access to the ruins but to George’s home and reconstructions of other key buildings at the original homestead. The museum holds a combination of geological and archeological info and representative curios.

That was a big day! But there was more to come. The following morning, I drove the 80 miles up into Colorado to visit Mesa Verde National Park. Regular readers may recall that when we were in Colorado a year ago, we visited a reconstruction of Anasazi cliff dwellings in Manitou Springs, near Colorado Springs. Curious about their original location, I toured the originals and took lots of pictures, a sampling of which are shown below. The first row is the museum; the balance are field shots. The ride back was “dampened” by several inches of snow, which, fortunately, didn’t stick on the roads.

Aztec and its environs satisfied our needs for Puebloan history. It was our last stop in New Mexico. Now it was on to a different landscape, still incredible, to the west.

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