We were sitting around a fire, craning our necks to see the shooting stars in the brilliant night sky over a place where a rich, sophisticated, once-thriving civilization collapsed thousands of years ago. 

Our cellphones were useless, so doom-scrolling and Wordle competitions were temporarily suspended, replaced with hikes, bike rides and utter amazement at the kivas, the petroglyphs, the great houses of the Chaco Culture National Historic Park

After generations of Chacoans had painstakingly built the elaborate settlement that became the cultural and economic center of the people living in what’s now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado, suddenly it was abandoned. 

Obviously, no one survives to explain why, but theories abound.

The ancient political system failed. Economic pressures were too great. Conflict and disharmony upended a society. 

Archaeologists and anthropologists point to an array of factors.

They unearthed evidence of severe inequality across the culture with lavish lifestyles indulged by the wealthy Chacoans who lived in the great houses. They stored turquoise, sea shells and other luxuries of the time and dined on elk and deer meat while others struggled to survive.

The roofs of the structures inhabited by the upper classes were supported by huge pine logs that laborers carried 50 or 60 miles from the surrounding mountains. 

The workers’ families, meanwhile, scraped by on small game and what grains they could coax from the land, and lived in tiny spaces on the edges of the settlement.

Over time, Chacoans cleared forests to plant corn and squash, only to discover that without the trees, there were few deer and other wildlife. The resulting environmental damage was permanent.

Drought followed around 1100 and competition for scarce resources was rampant and brutal, leading to political and social upheaval. Mass graves reveal skeletons with clear evidence of blunt-force trauma, mutilation and burning of bodies. 

Now, the dry, windswept site is a place where the sky is a magnificent color palette at sunrise and sunset, darkness brings the vast universe to life, and the dirt beneath your feet holds secrets that we can only begin to imagine.

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It’s beautiful and foreboding.

For four days we walked that sacred ground, admiring the genius and ingenuity of the Chacoans and mourning their lost world.

Our vacation at its end, we loaded the cars on a frigid morning and rumbled over the bumpy road toward what passes for civilization circa 2022. 

Within minutes our cellphones were chirping news bulletins. The midterm election campaigns by now were running at a screech and the news vibrated with vitriol. 

While the war in Ukraine raged and oil companies and food store chains were reporting record profits, Republicans claimed it was Democrats who caused the inflation that ranges from an 8.2% rate in the U.S. to 10.7 % in Europe (where Joe Biden and Diana DeGette don’t even visit very often). 

In a clear sign of the apocalypse, Rep. Liz Cheney, member of a Republican dynasty from Wyoming for Pete’s sake, campaigned for a Democrat in Michigan and said a Republican majority in Congress would “not be good” for the country.

Republican election workers in El Paso County were summarily dismissed by party officials for saying the elections they had witnessed were all conducted properly and with integrity. 

We learned that while we were toasting marshmallows around a campfire, the richest man in the world was preparing to fire thousands of workers at Twitter and unleash racists, homophobes, antisemites and Russian bots to spread hate speech and crackpot conspiracy theories far and wide.

Apparently inspired by just such hate speech and so many crackpot conspiracy theories, a right-wing nut allegedly broke into Nancy Pelosi’s home in the middle of the night yelling “Where’s Nancy?” and fractured the skull of her 82-year-old husband with a hammer.

Then, instead of expressions of concern, several prominent members of the party that has been disingenuously campaigning on reducing crime responded to the attack with ridicule and glee.

And as if all that weren’t ominous enough, there was news that climate change has so ravaged the country, federal agencies are making plans to reduce Colorado River water allocations to downstream states drastically, and efforts are underway to begin relocating coastal communities that are being inundated by rising seas.

As the hours slip away before the election, candidates are saying it’s the most important election ever. Our future hangs in the balance. Our very civilization depends on our votes.

Who knows? Maybe it’s not just campaign hyperbole after all.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

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