Creative Nonfiction: Road to Chaco by Lisa K. Harris

With the still-smooth sole of my hiking boot, I pressed the accelerator of our rented Ford Escort. In the rearview mirror, an empty two-lane, straight-as-a-Roman road unfurled. Ahead, blacktop shimmied in the late afternoon sun. All around, reddish dirt, scattered spindly sagebrush and saltbush, tufts of grama and sacaton grasses, and darker red mesas jutting from the basin floor, rock ships of Shiprock, New Mexico. 

Sixty mph. Seventy. Eighty. 

Peter, my then-boyfriend-later-husband, eyed the speedometer. Eyed me. 

Eighty-five. Ninety. 

We were flying. 

In the backseat, freedom: tent, sleeping bags, pads, nested cookware, packs, extra boot laces. Our last month’s paychecks—minus rent, utilities and grocery money—spent at Chicago’s Erehwon Outfitters, which was “nowhere” spelled backwards.

Which was where we were. 

In the backseat, too, were orange vests, bought at a local hardware store on day two of our trip, at the same counter that sold deer tags, so we wouldn’t be shot while hiking. Only hunters hiked the week before Thanksgiving. City slickers, too, who didn’t understand picture-perfect summertime campsites morphed come late fall. Mountain trout stream banks thick with warm-weather fireweed, paintbrush, hyssop, and golden poppies were now festooned with battered RVs, gutted deer strung from pinyon-juniper branches, their abdomens slit and entrails dripping plink plink plink into pails, shit loads of empty beer cans, boom-boom of target practice, and a dusting of snow in the night.

On a November camping vacation, we had driven most of the prior three weeks instead of hiking. We drove to drive, not to arrive, some days for ten hours. 

My toes pushed down until we bumped one hundred, but the car shook so I eased off. We were racing. Racing away from sixty-hour work weeks, corporate ladder bouldering, dress socks and pantyhose, blow-dried hair, dumb bosses.

The turnoff to Chaco Canyon should be next to one of the clumpy sagebrushes. “Look for a narrow dirt road among the vegetation,” the thick guidebook said. I glanced in the rearview mirror to see if I’d missed it.

A sheriff rode our ass, roof lights flashing. 

Pulling over, he sauntered with puffed-out chest to my rolled-down window, and after I handed him my Illinois driver’s license, he asked, “Lady, do you know how fast you were going?”


He flicked his mirrored sunglasses to the top of his head, surprise in his eyes. I held his gaze. I couldn’t pretend I drove within the speed limit, whatever it was. I didn’t care that we were about to be ticketed. We were young, in our twenties, and naïve.

The sheriff asked, “Why?” 

“It felt good.”  

Not the expected answer but one he understood. He let me off with a warning.

A mile or so later, the southern approach to Chaco peeked out from under a saltbush. I turned and idled. Ahead, a pot-holed dirt road. Clouds bunched against the mesas, and to our Midwestern brains, they were harbingers of rain, with a possibility of flurries.

“Will we make it?” I asked. It was Friday, CBS’s Dallas night, in a time before internet, cell phones, and on-demand programming. “Score a TV in time, if we go to Chaco?” 

Peter calculated whether or not we would find a vacant hotel room by the critical hour, an SAT-like math problem: given our current speed, distance to Chaco, distance back to a town with a hotel, taking into account our trusty guidebook’s suggestions to not underestimate road and weather conditions, and to factor in time for mishaps. 

Chaco had been Peter’s idea. “Risky,” he said. “It’s a shake-rattle-and-roll road. Maybe we’ll make it if our stars align. But we might not.”

The sheriff had scattered my stars, emptying my sack of lucky quarks. I had no energy to traverse Chaco’s road and then find a hotel room with TV reception. In two days’ time, we would return to O’Hare. I would then have to muster strength to yank on pantyhose, to shellac blousy hair, to mince-walk in pumps, to play nice to the dumb boss. To do all those things, I needed to refill my tank; I needed my comfortable Friday routine; I needed to watch another episode of extraordinary Texan characters living ordinary lives of back-stabbing, greed, and falling from grace. 

“I’m playing it safe.” I shoved the car’s transmission into reverse. 

As I turned toward Gallop’s Motel 6, which guaranteed a working TV, Peter said, “We’ll come back.”


The southern approach to Chaco is twenty miles of fence-lined dirt road, with two sharp turns, a right then a left. Twenty miles of washboard. Twenty miles of hard-packed dirt when dry, a sloppy mess when wet. A shake-rattle-and-roll road, Peter had said.

The National Park Service, which manages Chaco Canyon, strongly recommends visitors check local conditions before attempting. They do not mention detours. No mention of ditching the pantyhose and pumps and corporate America’s dumb bosses to move to Arizona. No mention of Peter’s metastatic cancer or my single-parenting of a girl-toddler: a white-knuckle road. No mention of marrying an alcoholic or birthing another girl child: a road crisscrossed with jarring cattle guards. No mention of divorce or breast cancer, twice: a road I hadn’t seen coming. 


Three decades later, when I try again to travel to Chaco, we suffer a flat at the get-go. It is the first cattle guard that does us in, a mile from the whopper saltbush at the dirt road’s turnoff, probably the same saltbush I’d idled at years before. Bending down, I examine the rented Mitsubishi Mirage’s deflated rear tire and wonder if I was ever meant to arrive. The gods of the ancestral Puebloan peoples who built Chaco more than eleven centuries ago had hurled another warning: remember, rough roads require fortitude. 

A Friday, three of us have driven from Grants. Jonathan, a work colleague, an archeologist with a PhD, has driven the Mirage. Ava, my youngest and soon-off-to-college daughter, and I have jostled along in a pickup truck. Our backseat is stuffed with gear: surveyor tape, hand-held Garmins, cameras, hats, five-gallon water jug, stuffed backpacks. 

Chaco had been Jonathan’s idea. We’d finished an archeological survey on the adjacent Navajo reservation, a head-down slow-walk in measured transects across a rocky slope, and had a free day in our workweek. “Chaco’s road is crap,” he had said as we photographed a black-and-white pottery shard Ava had found, a triangle the size of her fingertip, a remnant of a broken bowl, the memory of a long-ago tumble. “We can always play it safe and turn back, if the road’s too rough.”

Jonathan changes the Mirage’s flat. After tightening bolts on the spare, a donut meant for a sprint to a mechanic, he glances ahead at those bumpy twenty miles. He had lived once in the area for decades and driven the road multiple times. “Best not risk it,” he says. Meaning, we would limp to the nearest town, Grants.

“Let’s leave the car here,” he says. “I’ll jump in the back of your truck. Take it slow.”

Thumpy-thump. Jackrabbits skitter. Saltbush and dried-to-kindling grama grass bunches. Tires skirt truck-eating ruts. A rattler slithers across, its tracks an undulating line in sand. Hills and dips. Ten mph. Cattle guard jostles. A sharp right. More pipe rolls, then a left. A bridge crosses scorched earth. I slide into the park’s near-empty parking lot, and we walk the dusty path to Chaco’s Pueblo Bonito ruins. 

Tilting rock ruins of tiny rooms, jumbled. Jagged-edged viga wooden supports. Reddish sandstone walls against reddish sandstone cliffs. Dried-up wash and drought-stunted trees. Faded educational plaques. Dust and drying wind. 


How soon can I suggest that we be on our way? Fifteen minutes? Ten?

My gut twists and I waver. Not a sucker punch. Or the feeling of when an elevator jolts to a stop. Or the prick of ice cream’s brain freeze. It is none of those things, yet all of those things, and more. Standing on stone steps between a daughter Peter hadn’t fathered and a work colleague Peter hadn’t known, after nearly thirty years gone, when weeks, sometimes months slipped by with rarely any thoughts of him, the twist is a profound sense of his absence. And a reminder that I am not heeding his advice, given to me after he knew he’d die young: seize opportunities, don’t play it safe. 

Neither Ava nor Jonathan notices my wobble. Jonathan talks. Ava listens. He points to the nearest ruin’s support beams, dragged from forests hundreds of miles away; to the long, dead creek with its canals that I had missed. He speaks of how water had flowed, fed the “three sisters” of corn, beans, and squash to nourish Chaco’s people. I listen, listening for myself and Peter, too, because grief’s sting reminds me that I lived for both of us. I listen, also, so as not to cry, because I have arrived, and Peter has not.

We meander through three-storied structures, in and out of rooms. Jonathan points to missing rafters that supported floors and roofs, and to openings sealed, doors moved. To improvements and renovations made over centuries, detours and bridges to elsewhere. In the plaza, he points down to the kivas, round underground rooms with benches and chimneys, their wooden ceilings long gone. Rooms where ceremonies occurred, where raids and battles were discussed. He points to the cliffs, to stairways etched in the sandstone rock, divots sized for hands and feet. All abandoned, reasons unknown: the structures left to decay in the weather before Cortés and his conquistadors arrived on horseback from the south seeking gold. 

Jonathan sweeps his hand wide, across the buildings, wash, sagebrush. “What’s left are remnants. Imagine verdant irrigated fields, people coming and going, thousands of people, with markets and chatter. Hear them? You have to stitch it together, like the bowl from that fragment Ava found yesterday.” 

I see them, the people who lived here, ordinary people living extraordinary lives. I see, too, that with Peter, I hadn’t been ready for Chaco. A boy-man who had scored perfectly on the SAT math portion, he had failed to factor in time to explore or to imagine, in that long-ago brain-teaser when we drove fast. If we had come then, Chaco would have been a forgettable pause in our ten-hour drive, a bucket-list check-off. 

I had to learn to step from my comfort zone, to take risks, to find comfort in uncomfortableness. To slow-walk and be in the moment. I had to learn to stay when I felt I must go. To find shards, to appreciate tilting rocks, to see lushness in desiccated streams. I had to learn to revere rough roads.  

Lisa K. Harris (she/her) is a Pushcart Prize nominated author whose published more than 150 essays, short stories, and scientific articles about the environment, growing-up, outdoor adventure, and coping with speed bumps. Her work has appeared in Passages North, Black Fox Literary Review, Highlights for Children, and Litro Magazine, and has been anthologized in (M)othering (edited by Sorbie and Grogan, Inanna Press, 2022). Her writing has been shaped by attending Bread Loaf Environmental Conference and she co-authored an environmental policy book (Krausman and Harris, Cumulative Effects, CRC Press, 2011). Lisa splits her time between the Sonoran Desert and the Pacific Northwest working as an environmental consultant. She has two daughters, six cats, two desert tortoises, and a scruffy terrier named Lola.


Image: Photo by the author- 

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