Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Mystery attends the Anasazi peoples who lived in the Four Corners area from about 700 AD until they suddenly left in the 1300's AD. Who were they? Why did they leave? Were they killed, or did they migrate? Where did they go and what has become of them? Among the many theories proposed, the one I believe is the simplest and most convincing is that the Hopi and Zuni are the modern descendents.

Since I was a young boy, I have been fascinated by the anthropology and archeology of the early peoples in these lands. In college, I had the good fortune to take an introduction to anthropology taught by professor Jesse D. Jennings, the world authority on the Anasazi at the time. Later, in Alaska, I studied and worked with the finest archeologists on the peoples of Alaska. Now, later in life, I had found myself camping and climbing in the midst of the some of the finest archeological resources in the Southwest.

Last summer I discovered a new writer: Craig Childs, whose books on the Southwest were not only authoritative, but also works of literature. I read everything he wrote and dreamed of the summer months when I could follow one or two of his itineraries to the world of the Anasazi. After spending the previous two weeks rock climbing, my body was craving a rest, so I asked my good friend Chris if she was interested in a brief intermission to search for Anasazi ruins in Beef Basin.
Looking north from the Beef Basin road into the Indian Creek drainage

Chris had just spent the previous month on the San Juan river assisting her niece on a geological survey and was keen to go with me in search of ancient culture. Our other climbing partner, Noel had opted to take Chris' car and join the younger crowd who were climbing hard cracks in Indian Creek. We took my 'new' truck up the narrow dirt road the 38 miles into Beef Basin. At an average speed of about 15 mph over rocks, powder-dry dirt, and steep cliffs, it took us about 2 1/2 hours to reach our destination. We drove up to a wide spot in the road at the mouth of Ruin Canyon, parked the truck, and decided to walk the remainder of the road to avoid scraping all the paint of the sides of the truck. As we walked the few more miles, small granaries and dwellings appeared in the cliff bands above.
A small cliff dwelling nestled in the cliffs

Then we spotted "Hilltop Ruin", directly west and on top of a small knoll. We looked for a level spot, set up camp under a juniper tree at the base of the hill and headed up the trail in the late afternoon sunlight.
Hilltop house

As opposed to most of the cliff dwellings nestled in defensible niches among the cliff bands, Hilltop House sits out in the open on top of a beautiful forested knoll. It made me wonder if the function of this edifice might be more cultural or ceremonial than domestic. Many of the larger hilltop ruins in the Southwest have a ceremonial 'Kiva' attached, indicating some religious use for the building. The stones on more than half of this structure had fallen down and were laying around the perimeter, so I couldn't get a good idea of how the building all fit together.
Fallen buildings exist as a pile of sandstone blocks

Chris and I walked around the ruins marveling at the workmanship and detail still remaining at the site. Each of the sandstone slabs fit very closely without much trimming; no cement or mud was used to fill in between the stones, but it would likely have been quite a buffer against the wind, if not against the cold. The walls looked to be about 18" thick, two stories tall.
No mortar and still standing after 700 years

I wondered what my home might look like in 700 years if I just abandoned it. Likely only an overgrown cement foundation would be the only thing left. The panorama from the hilltop gave on a beautiful vista of cliffs, mountains, and canyons below.
Chris at Hilltop ruin

We walked around, checking every angle

Compare Chris to the height and thickness of the walls

Yours Truly at the ruin

We walked down the trail a few hundred yards to the camp on the lumpy sagebrush flat under a huge juniper tree. The sun had only an hour left before setting, so dinner would be next. I went in search of two rocks we could sit on. Other than hiking back up the hill several times, I found only two small ones for stools.
Chris at camp

Chris had volunteered to be the chef on this trip. So, dinner started off with a tin of tiny clams in olive oil on crackers, washed down with a red wine. Then a risotto with a spinach topping: quite the fare for a camping trip, all cooked on a tiny propane backpacking stove. Life on the trail is good!
Chris, the gourmet chef with fine wine and clams

After a cold night in my light summer sleeping bag, I truly welcomed the sun and warmth. We wandered across the sagebrush to find the first sunlight as it hit the slope a hundred yards to the west, clutching our coffee cups. Chris brought the stove, and using a tree as a cupboard, had us caffeinated in a few minutes. Within an hour it was T-shirt weather again. We picked up our camping gear, packed our packs, and headed back down to trail to the truck.

Driving west on the 10-mile loop around Beef Basin, we searched the cliffs and hilltops for more ruins. Since they are all visited regularly, every spur road seemed to hold some cultural artifact.
A small granary on the rim

We hiked to the top of another hill and found a small granary used to hold the corn (maize) for the winter months. They were everywhere. About half way around, I hiked up another hill which held promise of a larger ruin and found a long house-like structure, mostly fallen into the ground. It also sat with a stunning vista of the surrounding desert and mountains. Whether some group of families lived here, or whether this was a cultural center, I didn't know, but I could envision myself waking up, walking out to the porch and reading the morning paper with a cup of coffee. I wondered if earlier settlers to the area used these structures as camps while they herded cattle.
This large ruin is just a few feet above the road

The day was flawless. The sun was warm. The desert made me feel at home. It was tough to leave. Following the dirt road around, we drove slowly looking for more artifacts from the past. Mostly I looked at every inch of the road, full of huge rocks, slickrock, holes, and ditches ready to take the bottom out of a car. My truck was just the ticket for negotiating the place, but even in it, I rarely drove over 15 mph. We arrived back at the Pasture Creek Campground in Indian Creek just at supper time, having traveled about 80 miles. It felt like a thousand miles and a thousand years back.
You could almost put a roof on and move in

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