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By John Harris
Special to The PREVIEW
“Hi, my name is John Harris. On behalf of the U.S. Forest Service and the Chimney Rock Interpretive Association, I’d like to welcome all of you to one of America’s newest national monuments.”
That’s how I greet every new group of tourists I lead on a tour of Chimney Rock National Monument. Our daily tours of the site offer a glimpse of the world as it existed a thousand years ago. Long before Columbus, the ancestors of the modern day Pueblo tribes farmed the land drained by the San Juan River and built their homes and communities on the mesa.
The northeastern most outlier community of the advanced Chacoan Culture (centered in Chaco Canyon, N.M.), Chimney Rock was not only a successful agricultural community supporting several thousand inhabitants, it was also a place of astronomical observation, inter-community commerce, and most likely a destination where other tribes came on pilgrimage for special ceremonies and celestial sightings.
Unlike many other national parks and monuments, the interpretive program at Chimney Rock is managed by the private nonprofit Chimney Rock Interpretive Association (CRIA), under the direction and with the cooperation of the U.S. Forest Service. As such, the people who perform many of the necessary functions at the site, from routine maintenance and upkeep to providing information to the public, are volunteers.
Like many residents of Pagosa Springs, I am not a native Coloradan and certainly not an expert on Native American culture. I chose to live full time in Pagosa Springs after retirement because I grew to love our little mountain home. I chose to volunteer at Chimney Rock to stay active and involved while learning more about the history of the area and providing a service to the community. Acting as a Chimney Rock tour guide has accomplished those goals and others which I hadn’t even considered.
Among the unexpected side benefits of volunteering at Chimney Rock have been the many personal relationships my wife and I have developed with some of the most interesting and accomplished people we’ve ever had the pleasure to meet. Volunteer activities seem to bring together optimistic, community-minded people who, by their nature, get along with one another. This has certainly been our experience with CRIA volunteers and forest service staff.
The tour guide position also has given me the opportunity to meet and interact with the public. National monuments like Chimney Rock appeal to individuals and families with an interest in the natural wonders of America, learning its history, and experiencing the great outdoors. These people come from all over the U.S. and around the world.
Because of this mix of visitors, each tour is unique. The questions asked and the interaction within the group and with the guide make for a spirited and truly enjoyable learning environment. Working with CRIA at the National Monument has been one of the highlights of living here in the beautiful San Juan Mountains. I recommend it to all who have the time and energy to give it a try.
My experience suggests the biggest hurdle to participating in a new activity is taking that first step. How much time will it take? Am I the right person for something like that? Where can I get more information before making a commitment? All are good questions and, in the case of CRIA, all have positive answers.
Getting more information before making a commitment is very easy. Start at the Chimney Rock website: www.chimneyrockco.org. Along with a vast amount of information about the history of Chimney Rock and the many activities occurring there, the site has a section dedicated to volunteer opportunities. Volunteer positions are described in detail and a volunteer questionnaire form can be filled out online and submitted electronically to CRIA.
Also available on the website are notices of upcoming CRIA activities including monthly potluck dinners which are open to the public. These events are an opportunity to learn more about the association and related volunteer opportunities. Potluck gatherings feature presentations by various guest speakers who are noted experts in some area related to Chimney Rock.
Please consider joining our band of enthusiastic Chimney Rock volunteers. CRIA will hold an open house at the Pagosa Lodge on March 28 and free two-day volunteer training will be April 25 and 26. For more information please visit our website at www.chimneyrockco.org or call 731-7133. Leave a message and you will be contacted by a CRIA representative.