Anasazi Ghosts

We travel only as far and as high as our hearts will take us.

– Anasazi FoundationThe Seven Paths: Changing One’s Way of Walking in the World


I took this last-ditch star photograph in front of my tent while camping among the ancient Anasazi Indian ruins in Chaco Canyon. The squiggly light trail was completely unintended. I owe that to a young man with a flashlight who walked to his tent from a campfire mid-exposure. In my experience, things rarely turn out the way I expect them to. And yet I continue expecting and expecting. How  curious!

If you look carefully, you’ll see the top of Fajada Butte in the background. Of course, my intent was to have the butte in the foreground but again, things didn’t go as planned on a trip that was less about photography than it was about meeting new people and camping. I was the only person with a serious camera amongst six people and given the very short window of time I had to maneuver in, it was a challenge to get my Ansel Adams Act together.

Clearly, it’s more like the Carol Burnett Show around here!


You know what makes for a super fun camping adventure? Get ten middle-aged women to agree to share a group campsite in one of the most remote and hostile areas of northern New Mexico. This alone is more than enough story fodder, but when only six of us showed up and discovered the persons responsible for bringing the eggs, bacon, and coffee bailed at the very last moment? That, my friends, set the stage for a tension-baked story.

(Given the PG-54 rating of this website, I won’t repeat the words that echoed through the canyon when we all found out.)

Even before this camping newbie had a chance to pitch her tent, RULE #1 was scribbled in my Mental Camp List:

Always, ALWAYS bring backup COFFEE!!!

‘Twas an unspeakable horror to be sure, but somehow we soldiered through!

Aside from Kristie, my tent-buddy, I didn’t know any of my fellow campers. New People!!! Turns out that a couple bottles of wine, smoked salmon, hot dogs, chips, and a tub of guacamole tipped the balance into joyous–if not somewhat raucous–territory. You’d have thought the group of 20-somethings on the adjacent campsite would have earned the LOUD CAMPSITE AWARD, but no. We were a pack of celebratory coyotes.

Everything was going deliriously well, except for the part when the stars emerged and I pulled out my tripod.  

I had high expectations for some spectacular images of the butte under the starlit cosmos. What unfolded could be evidence of the depth of imperfection baked into my personal flavor of humanity, or I was hoodwinked by some trickster Anasazi ghosts.

I distinctly remember the kindly archeologist-park ranger who advised us to be respectful of the spirits who still linger in Pueblo Bonito, cautioning us not to linger past the closing time at 5:30.

Of course … I lingered.

The rays of the setting sun were just toooo delicious, as were the pair of buff rangers who came to fish me out at quarter till six!

Kristie apologized profusely to the lads. (Sorry… why?) I recommend losing track of time for this particular delight.

Perhaps my unapologetic attitude toward the cutoff time was an invitation for some good old-fashioned haunting. Chacoan spirits, it turns out, are much like a prehistoric version of The Borrowers.

All things considered, there were a ton of things I did remember to bring with me on this trip. One key item, however, was missing as I fumbled around with my camera in the ink black darkness.

Headlamp? Check! 

Tripod? Check! 

Empty cards and multiple fully charged batteries? Double-check! 

I even remembered my old-style shutter release cable! Checkity-check!  

Reading glasses? F@ckity-f@ck! I forgot my reading glasses? 

MY FREAKING READING GLASSES were nowhere to be found, leaving me with my regular progressive lenses that are a complete disaster when it comes to photography.

Did I mention that Chaco Canyon is one of a handful of locations in the world to earn an International Dark Sky classification?

It was Anasazi Indian DARK. Which was the whole reason I was there with my camera in the first place. (Under this whimsical, creative and thoughtful exterior I’m really a hungry lioness on the prowl for amazing pictures.)

I have no idea why my progressives failed me in my attempts to read the display on the back of my camera and on any other night I could have bumbled through. To make matters worse, my glasses seemed suddenly smeared with sweat, campfire soot, and dust from my pre-sundown crawl through the amazing maze of ancient doorways in the Chaco ruins.

Which begs the question: Which is more important? Shooting photographs or simply being present and enjoying your surroundings?

Shooting photographs, obviously!  😜

I quietly cursed under my breath while “cleaning” the mayonnaise off my lenses, accomplishing little more than smearing it around in more elaborate patterns. The more I tried the worse it got. At least it seemed to get worse–without my readers I couldn’t see diddly-squat.

Squinting, I tried my best to frame the shot and set a twenty-five second exposure, but the long exposure setting on the camera was not cooperating. It was soooo dark I could barely make out the butte, which was standing smack dab right in front of me.

“Why the hell didn’t I set this up ahead of time?” I wondered out loud. Except, I did set up the camera ahead of time..?

Magoo-like, I tilted my head back and almost fell over backward, dizzied from the blur of twinkling constellations bearing witness to all of my photographic shortcomings.

“What the heck is WRONG with me?” I gasped. “Get a grip. Take a breath. You just need to find a cleaning cloth and reset everything.”

And that’s when I remembered I’d promised this would be a quick picture. I wasn’t on an actual photography trip and Kristie was waiting for me in the parking lot.

Kristie, whose car I was reliant upon to get back to the campground, was waiting just across the road at the Welcome Center. We’d left the stargazing party at the tiny observatory about fifteen minutes earlier, and I imagined the rest of her friends, who’d opted out of peering through telescopes at The Great Globular Cluster of Hercules, were whooping it up back at the campfire. Probably with marshmallows.

SINCE WHEN does any woman in her right mind opt out of witnessing The Great Globular Cluster of Hercules?

But I digress.

There I was in the pitch black, alone on the side of the road with my headlamp stuck blinking in RED mode, silently freaking out, trying to see… something. I knew I had the focus ring right– just a hair shy of the infinity mark – but for the life of me, I could not make sense of the exposure menu. All the while feeling like the dork photographer who was stealing seventeen minutes from a friend who was surely tapping her foot 60 yards away from me. (Highly doubtful.)

My mind raced back two years prior when I took some amazing star shots of Shiprock. My eyes, two years younger than they are now, had yet to play jokes on me like this one.

Choosing stillness in the midst of chaos is the path toward living in peace. – Deepak Chopra

After one or ten thousand unbearably painful minutes of scorching internal narrative, I realized I had hoodwinked myself and was better off throwing in the towel. Clearly, it was not the right time and I knew it. Besides, the milky way was nowhere to be found! So I unlatched the camera and snapped the tripod legs shut. In plain sight of  Hercules and his Great Globular Cluster, I happily spit out the words, “F*@!K IT!”

Susan, get over yourself, was the silent whisper echoing through the haunted canyon. Within a heartbeat of hearing, the claws relaxed, my sword gently fell to the ground. The dust of an entire universe within me magically settled. With some help from some carefully chosen expletives. 

Looking back at this compensatory image, I love the way it tells me my story of unmet expectations. Although it won’t inspire thousands of likes on Instagram it will always remind me of an adventure I once took to an ancient city under a spellbinding sky in the company of Anasazi spirits.

And yes, I do believe it was ghosts playing tricks on me because in the morning light I found a pair of readers close at hand, right next to my neatly folded lens cloths.

Rest assured, this lioness is still on the prowl and making plans for a second pounce! I hope to arrange for contact lenses for dedicated use with my camera and am praying for clear skies upon my return to Chaco Canyon at the end of August, on my own or in the company of equally geeky photographers.

In the meantime, I’ll commit to creating the most perfectly imperfect photographs while crafting new and remarkable stories. Tales that teach me about myself, while bearing witness to a path that is choosing me and being chosen.

Because our best-laid plans do not tumble into the world the way we imagine, we have a choice of how to frame our disappointments. How high and how far will you go with the story you tell yourself?

Photo Credits:  Anasazi Ghosts, by Susan J. Preston, Chaco Canyon, NM © 2019, all rights reserved
Technical: Fuji XT-2 | 24.9mm (XF 16-55mm f2.8 R LM WR)| 25.0 seconds | ISO 12800
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