Archive » September 2013 » Columns

Tuesday, the Sept. 17, The Old Men of the Mountain met on a beautiful morning at the Country Café on Main Street in Schoharie.   Constant reminders of the floods of two years ago in Prattsville, Middleburgh, and Schoharie are around today.  With what the people in Colorado are going through right now, it seems like the world is full of one disaster after another.

At one time, Colorado must have thought it was the end of the world with the fires around Colorado Springs, and now the people around Boulder are looking for Noah and his boat so they can get on board.

One OF who went through the flood of Irene said he would rather have a fire than a flood. The way this OF looked at it was that, after a flood people, had mountains of cleanup to do and they tried to salvage this and that. In a fire, if the house burns to the ground, it is not necessary to worry about any of that, everything is all gone — just shovel up the ashes and start over.

How easy to say, how hard to do. Then again, one OF said, “Stuff is stuff, and it is possible to get more stuff, but mementos, keepsakes, and memories are impossible to replace.”

When going into the Country Café, on your left is a black sign with white letters mounted on the wall and a line on this sign marks the height of the water as it coursed through the village — that mark is shoulder high.

Righting the Costa Concordia

Continuing on with the water topic, the OFs discussed the righting of the cruise ship Costa Concordia that hit the rocks off the coast of Italy. The raising of this ship was quite an engineering feat, and cost quite a bit of money to boot.

One OF suggested that they should have used that money and made a tourist attraction of the ship on its side with possibly a plate-glass walkway under the water like Bush Gardens has the plate-glass walkway at SeaWorld.

They could charge admission and people could see the fish swimming in and out of the ship, and they could possibly put on a water show to go with it. One OF thought that would be gross because 32 people died in that accident and he didn't think that would be appropriate. Funny how two people can look at the same thing and view it 180 degrees apart.

This talk about the Costa Concordia re-floated the conversation on the aircraft carrier, and smaller ships like frigates. How these ships were constructed in the 1950s and how they are made now. Just more of last week — same words just strung together differently.

The smell of home

There was other banter back and forth as ideas come and go, like any ad hoc get-together. Some points were dwelt on more than others; one of these points was harkening back again to the memories of when the OFs were YFs.

This was the way life was then with the smells of new-mown hay, the orchard in fall, fresh-turned soil, a brisk early fall day with the fog on the ponds and coming off the creeks, the smell of horses and the horse barn, the hay mow, and the cows in the barn. These aromas were better than any florists, greenhouse, or $75-an-ounce perfume.

“Each house,” one OF said, “Had its own smell and each barn had its own smell.”

Another OF said, “Yeah, especially when the cows first hit spring pasture.”

Well, not all the smells were pleasant. One OF mentioned how no one seemed to mind at school if someone showed up with a little barn smell or if they were running late.

As a matter of fact, many of the farm kids did run late and the smells were not only accepted, but, for the most part, in the one-room schools or the bigger schools with two rooms and two teachers, the farm smells were natural and no one (even if they noticed) paid any attention.

Even today, each house carries its own character and smell. Some people try to hide the natural aroma of their home by burning candles and using all sorts of air fresheners.

One OG then remarked, “Ever notice, in the stores, how much aisle space is used on changing the odor of the air?”

Another OF said, “I can understand that if fish is being cooked, or some other highly aromatic food is being prepared, it is good to open the doors, and windows and add a little scent.  With all the sulphur water on the Hill it’s good to add some scent to cover up the sulphur smell when the water softener goes bad or the aerator does not work.”

“That is true,” another OG replied. “Like the other OF said, not all smells are sweet and what some think are sweet, others think are rotten.”

Harvesting fruit

One OF said his apple and pear trees have so much fruit on them this year that they are bending over with the weight. That was going to be his project for Tuesday after the breakfast.  He was going to go and pick the apples and pears.

This OF is not the tallest member of the group, and the OG said he will pick only what he can reach, which is smart because we don't want any of the OFs falling off ladders and out of trees.

What this OF needs is a rambunctious billy goat and he should try and get the goat to butt the trees and shake the apples out. This OF is only going to go and make applesauce and cider anyway. Maybe the OG can con his wife into making some apple pies and freezing them.

Scents that make sense

Going back to smells — the baking, and cooling, of an apple pie in the house is a great smell. So are bacon and eggs, hash browns, and an English muffin with honey and cinnamon. These are great house smells in the morning.

They make candles with all kinds of fragrances like essence of heather, or bloom on the lilacs, and stuff like that. The OFs want to know why don't they make scents that make sense like ham and eggs, sizzling steaks, hot coffee, spaghetti sauce, pizza, or essence of hot cocoa. Now there would be candles worth buying to improve the aroma of any home.

Those OFs attending the breakfast at the great-smelling Country Café in Schoharie and all enjoying the breakfasts coming out of the kitchen (when a mechanic comes home from work, he smells like gas and oil, but, when cooks come home, they smell like bacon and eggs) were: Steve Kelly, Dave Williams, Robie Osterman, George Washburn, John Rossmann, Harold Guest, Roger Chapman, Miner Stevens, Roger Shafer, Bill Bartholomew, Frank Pauli, Jim Heiser, Glenn Patterson, Art Frament, Bob Benac, Lou Schenck, Ken Hughes, Mace Porter, Gary Porter, Don Wood, Henry Whipple, Bill Rice, Mike Willsey, Jim Rissacher, Harold Grippen, Elwood Vanderbilt, Duane Wagenbaugh, Rich Donnelly, Joe Liebier, Bill Krause, and me. 

Chaco is important for more than its otherworldly scenery. At its base are the remains of buildings left by the Anasazi.

If the name “Chaco Canyon” is unfamiliar or unknown to you, do not be surprised.  I have found that very few people east of the Mississippi have heard of it.  For that matter, I have run into very few people west of the Mississippi who know of it, even in the state of New Mexico in which it is located.  (Of course, according to New Mexico Magazine, the number of people in this country who do not know that New Mexico is one of the 50 states is stunning — but we’ll let that go!)

Situated at the end of a bone-rattling 20-mile-long dirt road for which the expression “washboard surface” must have been coined, Chaco Canyon lies scores of miles west and north of Santa Fe, in a starkly beautiful stretch of desert.  Blisteringly hot in the summer, achingly cold in the winter, it represents a section of high desert plateau incised many millions of years ago by a great river at a time when that part of the United States was far wetter than it is now.

Find Chaco on Google Earth and you will see that long-vanished river’s meandering course.  Today the only water that runs through Chaco occurs when the heavy rains known as “monsoons” surge through the canyon in late summer, or when occasional winter snows melt.  Then a muddy little stream known as Chaco Wash may flow briskly for a while, a pathetic reminder of the great river that millions of years ago cut its way down through the ancient rock strata of the plateau.

But there are many such canyons in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah.  What makes Chaco important for more than its spectacular Martian scenery is the fact that a thousand years ago and before, it was the site of feverish building activity by the mysterious people long known as the Anasazi.

The term is Navajo and it is often translated as “ancient ancestors,” but it may also be rendered as “ancient enemy.”  These days, in some quarters, the term has been dropped in favor of the more politically correct expression “ancestral Pueblo people,” but, as the evocative name “Anasazi” occurs frequently in the archeological literature, it seems appropriate to use it in this essay — which, after all, deals with the enigmas of Chaco Canyon.

The strata or “rock layers” of Chaco date from the Cretaceous Period of Earth’s history, and are roughly 80 million years old.  They record a time when a vanished body of water known as the “Western Interior Seaway” covered this area.

It is a strange experience to hike the top of the plateaus surrounding Chaco Canyon and see fossils of corals, worm tubes, and shellfish in the rock layers that shimmer in the relentless heat of a New Mexican summer and to try to imagine the turquoise-blue sea that once covered the region.

And what would the ancient people have thought of them?  The strata are composed of sandstone and shale — the latter sometimes mixed with poor-quality coal, forming black bands in the stark cliffs.  Shales here as most everywhere are crumbly and brittle, but the sandstone is what geologists call “competent”:  It is hard and makes excellent building stone.  And here, starting in at least 800 A.D. and perhaps before, the mysterious Anasazi people settled and began to build.

Many United States travelers are familiar with Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, where the Anasazi built their magnificent cliff dwellings.  But there are many other such sites:  Hovenweep, Canyon de Chelley, Navajo National Monument, and the Ute Tribal Park, to name just a few.

There, in the shallow shelters at the base of hard sandstone cliffs, these ancient people ingeniously constructed their stone villages, carefully fitting shards of rock together with the precision of the finest masons. The rocky overhangs offered protection from the fierce Southwestern sun as well as wind, snow, and rain.

But their lofty locations also offered protection from intruders — at least until some time around the year 1200 when something catastrophic happened.  But more of this later.

What makes Chaco different from the other Anasazi dwelling places — and spectacular — is that here these people chose mainly to build sprawling free-standing buildings, some of them four stories high.  In  Chaco Canyon proper, there are at least a dozen such sites — and in the plateaus around it are many more.

Some of them are enormous, the largest being Pueblo Bonito, a great D-shaped structure featuring hundreds of rooms and dozens of kivas (round ceremonial pits).  At its height, it may have been home to over one-thousand residents.

Adjacent to it and in various other areas of the canyon floor and the mesas above it, are many more such structures, varying in shape and size and building techniques, but all of them constructed from the billions of flat-rock fragments that weather from the cliffs and the surface bedrock, chinked with mud for mortar.  They often form artful patterns, which in some cases may have been intended to mimic the patterns the Anasazi saw in the bedrock.

What is surprising is that the builders then apparently covered the walls with adobe, hiding their carefully crafted patterns. Perhaps they were motivated by the same impulse that drove the builders of Medieval cathedrals to insist on perfection even in those architectural details beyond the sight of worshippers on the grounds that they were intended for the eyes of the Almighty.

In any case, visitors to Chaco wander through the ruins in admiration of the sheer muscle power that must have been expended on their construction.  Even in their ruined state, they inspire awe.

The making of myth

But it is the very vastness of the ruins that raises one of the questions that have troubled archeologists since the first Spanish explorers stumbled upon them in the mid-Seventeenth Century:  For what purpose were these enormous buildings constructed?

The ruins in many of the other Anasazi sites were clearly occupied by extended family groups or tribes.  In some of these sites, dried gourds and desiccated fragments of squash, beans, and corn may be found still in the places where the occupants left them —apparently having abandoned the structures on very short notice.

But vast areas of some of the pueblos at Chaco — in particular Pueblo Bonito — show few or no signs of habitation, having been meticulously constructed but apparently never occupied or even used for storage.  And yet the ancient builders cleared an enormous network of roads stretching over 400 miles that radiate from Chaco, suggesting that this was meant to be an important hub of trade, religion, habitation — or perhaps all three.

And there have been additional discoveries that are disturbing.  Beneath the dirt floors of some of the ground-story rooms, archeologists have found human bones that appear to have been systematically butchered, raising the frightening possibility of cannibalism, though some Native American Indians have insisted that these are more likely signs of rituals aimed at suspected witches.  The issue is incendiary among modern pueblo people.

In addition, large quantities of jewelry and pottery have  been found buried within the ruins, suggestive perhaps of attempts to hide them from invaders.

Curiously, in the Chaco region and in many other Anasazi sites, nothing remotely suggestive of a cemetery has been discovered — puzzling for a location that could potentially have had thousands of inhabitants.

Or could it?  Given the fact that the land and climate a thousand years ago were not much different from those of today, farming would have been a daunting challenge; and, although the Anasazi were experts at what is known as “dry farming,” there are few areas of the floor of Chaco Canyon that show traces of the extensive cultivated fields of corn, beans, and squash that can be seen at Mesa Verde and other Anasazi sites.

There is some wild game — jack rabbits and some elk — but the sparse desert environment would hardly have allowed the existence of vast numbers of either animal.

So the questions remain: If the Chaco ruins were once occupied by great numbers of individuals, these people would have required enormous quantities of water;  what was its source?  How did the inhabitants raise or hunt enough food to survive?  Where did they bury their dead?  And what exactly drew people to Chaco from great distances along the broad roads?

One tantalizing hint comes from the so-called “Sun Dagger” site located on the magnificent outcrop known as Fajada Butte. Rising hundreds of feet from the floor of the canyon, the butte can be seen from over 20 miles away on clear days.

Though climbing  it is prohibited to visitors, on its upper slopes archeologists have found three enormous slabs of rock carefully placed so that at each of the solstices and the equinoxes, sunlight moving through a slit in the rock is cast in various patterns on a spiral sun symbol,  one of them  knife-shaped.

Moreover, a number of the ancient pueblos have central features that seem to be aligned toward positions where the sun rises at various times of the year, evoking Stonehenge.

Combined with other things hinted at in Chaco, it raises the possibility that the canyon might have been occupied briefly for trade and religious rituals at specified times of the year and then stood largely empty for long periods.

But one looks at all of that has been written about Chaco Canyon and sees the words “suggestive of,” “possibility,” “perhaps,” “hints at,” “could have,” “might have” — and realizes that there is much that is unknown, and that may never be known, about this and other sites of the ancient pueblo people.

They did not have a written language, and all that is known about them has been passed down orally from one generation to the next by tribal elders.  And, one-thousand years is a long time for historic events to become legend and then myth.

Mysteries of Chaco

Perhaps the most daunting question that arises when dealing with the Anasazi is why all of their meticulously constructed buildings were abandoned starting in the 1200s.

Tree rings record the onset of an extensive drought — but in addition to the fact that severe droughts are cyclical in the Southwest, this would hardly explain the apparent sudden abandonment of the ancient structures.  All the signs indicate that at Chaco, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelley, and elsewhere, a time came in which the people simply grabbed whatever they could carry, damaged or destroyed what they could not take with them, and vanished into the deserts.

One particular ruin called Chetro Ketl at Chaco shows a change that can be seen elsewhere in the canyon and in many other Anasazi sites: There is an imposing colonnaded  wall of a building that resembles features found in Mayan buildings far to the south in Mexico and was perhaps inspired by them.  But the spaces between the columns have been walled up.  And, as one explores the other ruins both on the canyon floor and on the mesas above it, one sees this process repeated: windows and doorways that have been subsequently filled with masonry.

Was this done simply for the purpose of strengthening the structures?  Or combined with other unsettling facts about the ancient people, does it suggest an increasing need for security from attackers?  Add these to the unanswered questions about Chaco.

Hike reveals more to ponder

One morning before the heat of midday came, along with a friend from Colorado, I set off to hike the plateau on the west side of the canyon.  Carried on the dry morning wind were the combined smells of sage and juniper — what some have termed “desert incense.”

Our goal was the ruin called Tsin Kletsin, which lay at the end of a mile-and-a-half trail that led steeply at first up a series of switchbacks on some jagged cliffs and then over a much gentler slope dotted with Pinyon pines and juniper trees. The only animal life we observed consisted of some buzzards circling overhead — perhaps they were hoping we would be their next meal — and a rather emaciated-looking jack rabbit.  We were glad we did not have to depend on wild game for meals.

For whatever reason, Chaco Canyon was nearly empty of visitors that day and we were the only hikers.  The landscape below us was — as is most of Chaco — starkly beautiful, with tawny-colored cliffs, enormous piles of talus at their bases, and great embayments in the mesas, in which were nestled many of the ancient ruins.

But Tsin Kletsin was built at the high point of a dusty, windy stretch of desert, its fallen walls brooding darkly against the deep blue sky.

Like many of the other ruins, much of it is still unexcavated, with only a few of the remaining tiers of rock visible to give a sense of its general outline:  rectangles and squares, covering thousands of square feet, and the inevitable circular kivas, all of them filled with shallow layers of dirt deposited over the centuries.

In places, small fragments of the Anasazi people’s distinctive black-on-white pottery lay amid the debris on the ground.  The stone walls were surrounded by miles of parched landscape dotted with sage and cactuses and occasional junipers or Pinyon pines, some of them long dead and  picturesquely twisted and blackened.  

And it was there that another of the mysteries of Chaco struck us:  Where did the builders get all of the stone to build Tsin Kletsin and some of the other ruins high on the mesas?

The pueblos on the canyon floor required enormous amounts of manpower, but at least the builders’ materials were lying everywhere at the base of the cliffs.  But both Tsin Kletsin and a neighbor called Pueblo Alto on the distant north plateau lie a mile and a half from an easily available stone source.

What political or religious ideal could have driven the ancient workers to carry to this remote location the thousands of tons of stone required to raise these buildings?  Yet another bewildering point to ponder.

Deep, dark skies

Chaco Canyon has always been known also as a place for lovers of the night sky, and, on Aug. 28, the International Dark Skies Association designated Chaco as the newest Dark Sky Park — a place where a viewer can get away from all artificial light and see the stars as our ancestors saw them.

The nights we camped in Chaco’s rather primitive campground we saw those fiery, cloud-flecked sunsets for which the West is celebrated, and we watched as the sky  turned deep azure, then violet, and finally a black unblemished by the haze of cities or the humidity of other climates.  Within it, the stars blazed brilliantly, showing shades of red and amber and blue.

The campground is situated close to Chaco Canyon’s north plateau, and at its foot are the ruins of two of the few actual cliff dwellings at Chaco.  They are small, no more than fifteen feet square, and they are empty and dusty.

But their walls reflect the pale light of the stars and somehow in the night the tiny pueblos seem to be of this time and not ancient: Through their dark window holes, one expects to see the glow of a cook fire.

But it does not appear.

From the plateau above come the occasional howl of coyotes and the cool evening air is scented with sage and other desert plants;  then the realization comes that one is experiencing the sights and the sounds and the smells of night just as the Anasazi did a thousand years ago.

And what had drawn them here?  And where and why did they go?  And what thoughts entered their minds when they looked up at the gleaming stars?

These and so many other questions frame the haunting mysteries of Chaco Canyon.

First, I have to get the weather and date out of the way. The Old Men of the Mountain traveled to Middleburgh again to have breakfast with Loretta and Patty, at Mrs. K's Restaurant in Middleburgh, on Tuesday, Sept. 10.

Our area of the country has had a decent stretch of nice weather and some of the OFs are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Pessimists. The OFs also commented that this is the year of golden rod and teasel. The fields are bright yellow with these weeds.

The village of Schoharie had its garage-sale days on Saturday, Sept. 7, and some of the OFs were there. No matter how old the OFs get, it seems they always need something "and want to get it ‘cheap’." Why not?

How much longer have the OFs got to use whatever it is — why buy "new?"

Right now, this scribe needs four wheels for something he is building; this scribe thought he had some wheels but can't find them, or they have already been used. So the scribe checked out old lawn mowers at the sale so he could take the wheels off the mower and take the rest of the mower away to the landfill in case some one needs a small engine. Couldn't find any.

Like one OF said, "That is what garage sales are for, aren't they?"

"No,” another OF said, “I use the dump — why even spend five bucks for something someone is going to throw away anyway?"

The Navy, then and now

Some of the OFs who were in the Navy sat alongside each other and began to tell us what it was like to have been in the Navy 50 years ago. One of the OFs just had a tour of a new aircraft carrier because one of his relatives is now in the Navy and is assigned to the George H. W. Bush carrier.

This OF was also on a carrier many years ago — the USS Wasp. So these old Navy guys who are now OFs compared the two time periods of then and now.

It must be said there is a difference. You can't stop progress. 

These OFs mentioned sleeping on canvas bunks that would stretch as time went on, so occasionally they would apparently gather the canvas bunks up, and throw them over the side and drag them through the water. This little maneuver would shrink the canvas so they were tight again and the guy in the bottom bunk wouldn't have the guy in the top bunk sleeping right on his face.

The new carrier (the Bush) has fiberglass bunks with mattresses and privacy curtains, each separated with a little bulkhead that has two buttons — one for heat and one for air.

The Wasp was a little over 300 feet long; the Bush is a little over 1,000 feet long and carries about 6,000 thousand people. The Wasp had no Ladies Quarters; the Bush does. (Now, there is a big difference, the OFs said.)

The Bush has a MacDonald’s, a Wendy’s, and a Starbucks. The Wasp had tin cups and beef jerky. The Bush has two nuclear steam engines; the Wasp had a paddle wheel. 

The OF said that the Wasp had F-4U Corsairs and Grumman dive bombers; the Bush has jets. The OF said those flying off the Wasp landed with engines cut and, if they missed with the hook, the plane flew into a big net and was then pushed overboard. The Bush has the newest jets and the OF said they land full bore and, if they miss, they just juice it and come around again.

One thing the OF said a couple of times is — the Bush has no guns. The OF did not elaborate on how the carrier defends itself.  It must have something like heat-seeking rockets, or something newer.

The Wasp had all sorts of guns and gunners, but maybe with the older, slow-flying prop planes, that was sufficient.  However, with jets coming at you at 600-plus miles per hour, training a gun on this jet would be a trick. In World War I the pilots would shoot at each other with pistols.

The OFs continued with their then-and-now conversation on being in the Navy. Being in the military means a lot to some because these OFs wear caps identifying the types of ships they were on.

Flooded with memories

Somehow, the OFs still talk about the floods (from tropical storms Irene and Lee) that happened in Schoharie County in 2011 and they remember so many different stories and how it is still incomprehensible that there was so much water pouring from the heavens.

The OFs were talking the water damage done with ponds giving way, and culverts and roads being washed out at elevations from 1,200 to 2,200 feet. It seems that, when the OFs visit the restaurants in Middleburgh and Schoharie, a memory of the flood comes up each time.

Like many of the OFs say, it is hard to realize that we are sitting in a restaurant where at the time of the flood the water would have been over our heads. It still doesn't seem real.

This prompted talk of unusual high water that the OFs have encountered in their travels in the west and Midwest.  Arizona and Colorado were mentioned specifically.

One OF said he was caught in one of these "gully washers." This OF implied that the water comes just like someone turned on the tap because, even though it might not have rained where you are, it may have rained high up in the mountains, and the water comes rushing off those mountains and into the gullies.

“Some road signs,” the OF said, “tell you to abandon your car immediately and climb to higher ground when water starts building up in these dry gullies.”

Reunions of all sorts

High School reunions were another topic brought up.  Why, this scribe failed to catch, but this particular topic did come up.

Some of the classes seemed to have kids in them with a good group of genes because one OF said his class was missing some members but not many. Another OF said his class was just the opposite, that, out of the total number of kids in his class, half are gone.

College was not mentioned.  Probably because the high school reunions seem to mean more since most of the kids graduated with whatever OF they grew up with from kindergarten. College was a melting pot; friends were made but it was rare that you even knew the parents.

Military reunions, again, are different for the reason that these guys and the OFs went to hell and back with each other and there were also some had friends who never returned. That makes for a different kind of bond.

Those attending the breakfast at Mrs. K's restaurant in Middleburgh where the Class of 1952 from Schoharie had its reunion (my goodness, that was 61 years ago) were: Robie Osterman, George Washburn, Miner Stevens, Jim Heiser, Glenn Patterson, Otis Lawyer, Steve Kelly, Harold Guest, Bill Bartholomew, Dave Williams, Mark Traver, Frank Pauli, Roger Shafer, Roger Chapman, Duncan Bellinger, Art Frament, Bob Benac, Don Wood, Ken Hughes, Gary Porter, Mace Porter, Joe Liebier, Duane Wagenbaugh, Bob Lassome, Rich Donnelly, Elwood Vanderbilt, Harold Grippen, Gerry Chartier, Mike Willsey, and me.


Alexander Ivanov, a veteran Grandmaster from Massachusetts, drew his last game against fellow Grandmaster Joel Benjamin to score 5-1 (four wins and two draws) to win the $1,500 first prize in the 135th New York State chess championship, America’s longest running chess tournament.