April 20, 2015
Rising 300 feet from the canyon floor, Fajada Butte is a dominant landmark at the southeastern end of Chaco Canyon. Near the summit of the butte on a June day in 1977, Anna Sofaer, an artist, was recording one of two spiral petroglyphs located on a rock wall behind three upright slabs of rock. At midday, she noticed a dagger of light slicing through the spiral. This apparent “sun dagger” falls on the spiral during equinoxes and both solstices. It may also mark the major and minor standstills of the moon. There is a great deal of controversy among archaeologists as to the dating and placement of this “sun dagger” site. Also, because the site has become increasingly fragile over the years, tourists are no longer allowed to climb to the butte’s summit.
Standing beneath this pictograph, one can envision an ancient astronomer gazing up toward a star blazing next to a crescent moon in the twilight of dawn. What would the ancient one have thought, standing in what may have been a sun-watching station, on seeing an average, familiar star grow bigger and brighter than ever before, almost right before his or her eyes? This stellar event could be seen in daylight for three weeks. Adding yet another twist to the mystery is what appears to be a blazing comet etched into the rock wall beneath the “supernova” painting. The same sky-watching community could easily have added this feature with the visit of Comet Halley in 1066.
Though remote, Chaco Canyon is worth every bump and jolt on the rugged 17-mile dirt road that must be traveled to get there. Ladies, wear your sports bras for this ride. According to Cornucopia, “If you can get here, you can be here,” is the motto of the National Park Service, caretaker of this exquisite monument lost in time.
In any event, Chaco Canyon is a compelling adventure that will have you creating your own ideas of what the Anasazi were up to. To see all there is to see, plan to spend two or three days here.
“We were in the back of my pickup truck, buck-naked . . . having a good `ole time when about 11:30 the night of July 4, 1947, all hell broke loose.
“There was a big flash, an intense, bright explosion, with a noise like thunder, this thing came plowing through the trees, shearing off the tops, and then stopped between two huge rocks . . . the damn thing stopped about sixty yards from the pickup . . . we thought at first it was going to hit us!”
My traveling companion and I toured the museum and spoke with the delightful museum director Deon Crosby, who showed us pictures and gave us a map to the site where Roswell local Jim Ragsdale allegedly witnessed an alien spacecraft crash into the side of a mountain in 1947. We donned our X-Files, FBI-agent, Mulder and Scully hats and took the bait. It was, after all, just a couple months short of the 50th anniversary of the alleged “Roswell Incident.”
Following directions, we drove 51 miles west of Roswell on Pine Lodge Road toward Capitan and Boy Scout Mountains. The drive was beautiful as Capitan loomed ever closer in the late afternoon sunshine. After another five and a half miles or so on rugged dirt roads, we arrived at our destination. The boulders in question were easy to find because Crosby had shown us pictures of them before we left the museum.
The UFO supposedly crashed into the side of a mountain before slamming into three large boulders, stopping just short of Ragsdale’s camping site. One of the boulders was supposedly split by the impact. I’m no geologist, but I did meticulously photograph the boulders in question. Was the boulder split by an impact, or could it have been a more natural event, such as water seepage? The site didn’t appear extraordinary-apart from the split boulder, it was a lovely forested hill. Here and there we saw a downed tree, but no more than one finds on any camping excursion.
Not wishing to be a stick-in-the-mud, when I returned home I turned my photographs over to geologist Herman Bender of Fond du Lac, Wisconsin. His verdict? Though he stated that an on-site visit would be necessary for total confirmation, on studying the photos, he felt the crack in the boulder was a result of a natural process, probably seismic. The surface of the rock inside the crack, he thought, showed weathering and exfoliation in excess of the 50 years since the purported impact-more likely thousands of years.
Did an alien spaceship crash into a mountain hillside on a thunderous July night in 1947? Did the United States government confiscate that spacecraft and then undertake a monumental effort to cover up any leftover evidence? I’ll let you draw your own conclusions. For my part, I say no. But darn it all, I wanted to believe.
Roswell’s Real Flying Objects
Long before the famed alleged UFO crash of 1947, strange objects whizzed about in the skies over Roswell. There were 56 in all, each well-documented, each uncontested. Though the man behind these gizmos did most of his work in secrecy, it was hard to hide the blasts and contrails coming from the local desert. These were the rockets of Robert H. Goddard.
From 1930 to 1941, the Goddards and their crew of four lived at Mescalero Ranch, just outside Roswell. They constructed a launch tower and a crude control shed and went about making giant advances in the science of rocketry.
Goddard built the first liquid fuel rocket in 1925, filled it with Texaco gasoline and liquefied oxygen, and set it off from a cabbage patch in Auburn, Massachusetts. When a Boston Globe headline read “‘Moon Rocket’ Man’s Test Alarms Whole Countryside,” Goddard began to realize the need to relocate. Thanks to supporter Charles Lindbergh, he received a large enough grant from the Guggenheim Foundation to head to the open spaces of New Mexico.
While there, Goddard made major advances in rocket propulsion, stabilization, tracking, and recovery. Thanks to parachutes sewn together by Mrs. Goddard, instruments could be placed in the nose cones and retrieved after the flight.
When visiting Roswell, stop at the Museum and Art Center. Goddard’s launch tower sits on the front lawn, and a faithful recreation of his workshop waits inside. An extensive collection of rocket assemblies, patent applications, and documents spanning Goddard’s career compliment the fragments of his first flight, also on display.
Admission to the museum is free, though contributions are appreciated. Located at 100 West Eleventh Street “Eleventh and Main), the museum is open Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sundays and holidays, 1 to 5 p.m.
Mystical and magical, a stop at the world-renowned StarHill Inn is a vacation in itself. People have traveled from as far away as Singapore to experience the velvet black skies of the Southwest coupled with the warm hospitality of Phil and Blair Mahon, owners and operators of this star-gazing getaway. Nestled deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the northern part of New Mexico, StarHill Inn has provided an astronomical extravaganza for amateurs and professionals alike since 1988. But it charms more than just those who love the dark. Daylight is delightful, and the sun rises to the melodies of 300 or more bird species who call the area home.
With two national wildlife refuges (Las Vegas and Maxwell National Wildlife Refuges) and two state parks in the immediate vicinity, it’s easy to see why StarHill Inn provides birding workshops on its menu of activities. The inn also provides a map of birding spots in the area, and Blair is always willing and eager to share her birding adventures with others.
StarHill Inn is not only a birders’ paradise; hikers can trek for months without repeating a trail. And should you tire of StarHill’s 195 acres of ponderosa forests and mountain meadows, just drive to a trailhead in the Pecos Wilderness. More than 200,000 acres of woods, wildlife, and mountain peaks climbing to 13,000 feet are yours to explore. If the season’s right, areas to hunt, fish, and boat are just minutes away.
Don’t feel like observing? Simply relax in one of StarHill Inn’s seven extraordinary cottages for the evening. Impeccably decorated and immaculate, the Mahon’s love of this celestial retreat shines in each and every detail. All units boast a fully equipped kitchen stocked with staples (including a toaster-oven, coffeemaker, and coffee), a beautiful and distinct fireplace for those cooler nights, a private porch, and a lovely bath. When it’s time for bed, snuggle up under the colorful, fluffy comforters, turn off the lights, and gaze at the delicate array of stars painted on your ceiling.
Whether you take your family, a friend, or travel alone, there is something for everyone at StarHill Inn. Be sure to call for a schedule of upcoming workshops, including those on visual astronomy, ancient astronomy, and astrophotography. This retreat could easily justify an entire holiday, but it can also complement your vacation if you’re just “passing through.” Whatever you do though, don’t pass it by.