Sunday, August 21, 2011

On The Trail Of The Ancients

There is no better time to tour the American
Southwest than Fall and Spring when the days
are comfortable and the nights cool enough
for sleeping.
There is a great hunk of the American Southwest that is commonly called canyon country, principally because major rivers like the Colorado, Little Colorado, and the San Juan have sliced it through, dissecting its red rock walls and amber mountains into a tangle of twisted canyons.

The Navajo who have long inhabited this rugged country say it is "the land of room and time enough." Some inventive Chamber of Commerce people named it Four Corners after the spot where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico, and Arizona come together. Geologists simply refer to it as the Colorado Plateau.

Whatever its title, this place of long horizons, rocky cliffs, hot sand, and thorny plants claims an unusual treasure: strewn across its many mesa tops and tucked inside its innumerable alcoves are hundreds of crumbling cities--sandstone wonders that are but the skeletal remains of an ancient civilization that rose, flourished, and then disappeared.

This is the land of the Anasazi. The Ancient Ones. A plateau people who walked softly across the land, going from the nomadic life of hunters and gatherers to the sedentary ways of farmers, artisans, and basketmakers. They were an inventive and adaptable people who devised intricate irrigation systems, coaxed vegetables out of desert sand, and wove baskets so tightly that even today they will still retain water.

But most of all they were builders in stone, laying down on plateau bedrock self-contained worlds that clustered close around rivers and streams. But they were never to last. In the end, the Anasazi mysteriously abandoned their homes, leaving them to the capriciousness of desert winds, parching sun, freezing winters, and the ghosts--silent sentinels who still walk among the rocks, keeping vigil over the great ruined cities.

The mesa top homes and cliffside dwellings have weathered well. Many are so finely preserved it seems their inhabitants have only just stepped out and will return momentarily. Others fall back into the earth from which they came, as hauntingly beautiful in death as ever they must have been in life.

Some are easily accessible; others require long, dusty rides over washboard roads. But all are unique and en masse they constitute the greatest collection of prehistoric archaeological sites in North America. Rich is the one who follows the trail of the Ancients, moving back through the years to savor the character of a people who in their own short time cast a giant footprint across the land.

CHACO CANYON NHP in northwestern New Mexico was the Anasazi's great cultural center. Within a 32 square-mile area are 2,000 prehistoric sites that once accommodated approximately 7,000 people. The park itself contains 40 small ruins and 12 large pueblos, with the most expansive being Pueblo Bonito, a Chacoan community that sprawled across three acres, contained 800 rooms and 28 kivas (underground ceremonial chambers), housed about 1,000 people, and in its time was probably the largest single prehistoric structure in the Southwest. The park is open year round and has a small campground.

MESA VERDE NP in southwestern Colorado is our only national park devoted entirely to the works of man. It was here that the Anasazi art of building in caves reached its highest level. The park contains many of the largest and most famous cliff dwellings in the United States--700 year old apartment houses that have survived the centuries largely intact.

Some of the ruins are self-guiding; others accessible only in the company of a park ranger. The cliff dwellings themselves are spectacular, though getting to them in often entails climbing down ladders bolted to sheer cliffs, squeezing through narrow paths hewn in solid rock, and crawling on hands and knees through slim-cut tunnels. Those not so ambitious can enjoy the mesa top ruins. The park is open year around and provides full services from May through mid-October.

NAVAJO NM in northeastern Arizona contains three elaborate cliff dwellings abandoned more than six centuries ago. Known today as the Kayenta Anasazi district, these ruins combine with those of Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde to form the third major area where the Ancients prehistoric culture flourished. The monument is open year around. Because all park ruins are fragile, they can only be accessed in the company of a ranger and reservations are required. Be warned. The trip down into the canyon is strenuous. This view is from the Visitor Center.

CANYON DE CHELLY NM in northeastern Arizona encompasses all stages of Anasazi growth, from the earliest Basketmaker pit houses to the masonry marvels called Pueblos. The steep-walled Canyon de Chelly (prounounced d' Shay) and its adjoining Canyon del Muerto contain several hundred prehistoric villages that date from A.D. 350 to 1300. A paved road along de Chelly's south rim leads to five overlooks as well as the trailhead to White House Ruin, the only self-guiding trail in the park. The park is open year around and maintains a small campground.

HOVENWEEP NM straddles the Utah-Colorado border and the 504 acre park contains some of the finest freestanding Anasazi stonemasonry still intact. The monument envelopes six ruin-clusters, each with a preponderance of square, oval, circular, and D-shaped towers that display expert masonry and engineering. Other than a few small peepholes, the towers are windowless and it has been suggested that their sole purpose was to confound those who came later. The name Hovenweep is Ute, meaning "deserted valley." The title is apt. Except for a few small trading posts scattered here and there, the scrub-covered terrain is largely uninhabited. The park is open year around and claims a small campground.

The Ancients carved images on rocks and
the petroglyphs are just about everywhere
you look. Some say they are maps, some
claim they tell of good hunting grounds. The
fact is, no one knows for sure. Defacing
them is a crime.

Although Anasazi villages stretched north to Glen Canyon and Canyonlands, west to Zion and Grand Canyon, and south to Petrified Forest, the Ancients were not the only prehistoric culture that walked the beige sands of the semi-arid Southwest. To the north were the Fremonts; to the south, the Sinagua. Southeast lived the Cohonino; southwest the Mogollon and Hohokam. Each culture followed much the same path as the Anasazi and whatever the reason or reasons, all began abandoning their villages about the same time, with most being completely deserted by A. D. 1300.

The dry, desert climate has itself acted as the preservative--saving for all generations a time-warp into yesteryear. Thousands of prehistoric Indian ruins dot the Four Corners states. Most are under the guardianship of the National Park Service and while every adult I know will enjoy the ruins, nobody has as much fun as the kids. My own kids loved visiting the ruins; my granddaughter, at age 7, just plain stood in shock with unbelieving eyes as she caught her first view of  Montezuma's Castle in Arizona. The fun for me was always watching them take it all in, knowing they'd never before seen anything like it. I still remember my granddaughter standing speechless, mouth agape, and finally asking "Grandma, how did they get into their houses? They built them so far off the ground."

Montezuma's Castle in Arizona stunned
my granddaughter into silent awe. It
was the first of the Indian ruins we had
taken her to see. She always claimed the entire
trip had been a great adventure.

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