I sit in the sandstone ruins tucked beneath a Sierra Ancha cliff face as the sun dies, dabbing idly at the drip of blood on my arm. I put my finger to my tongue and taste the iron. It would make good paint — outlive me by 1,000 years — if I had a little prickly pear juice and some nice, crushed hematite.
The people who sat on this very spot 600 years ago and watched the world spin into dark, used blood to make the colored pigments they dabbed on the walls behind me — butterflies and leaping sheep and maybe aliens.
I’d struck out from Cherry Creek Road and hiked through the thick manzanita and catclaw to reach this hidden tomb of dreams — ruins left by people who flourished for a thousand years before vanishing mysteriously in the 1400s. The scrub brush tore my shirt, clawed at my skin.
But I could not fault even the catclaw — for it had silently protected this remarkable ruin from the gawkers and fools who have destroyed most of the frail cliff dwellings in the southwest.
I won’t tell people how to find this spot: I’m afraid for it, for us, for the prayers we’ve neglected.
So whenever anyone asks, I tell them to go to the host of wonderfully preserved and restored ruins throughout the region — Montezuma’s Castle, Tonto National Monument, Tuzigoot, Palatiki, Honanki and a rich host of other sites — all within an hour or two of Payson.
And it’s the perfect time to get interested, since all those monuments and museums and parks will stage a kind of archeological extravaganza throughout March. You can hike to little-known ruins in the Petrified Forest, make adobe bricks at Fort Verde, create stone axes at Wupatki, make pottery at Sunset Crater and get briefed on the latest effort to solve one of history’s most perplexing missing peoples cases at Riordan Mansion State Park in Flagstaff.
Odds are, you won’t have to go to too many of those events until you’re hooked on the mystery and the awe — and ready to rip through the catclaw to find a ruin such as this — the reeds in the thatched roof still fresh.
Ready to sit and listen to ghosts.
Ready to wonder at how they lived so well and so long — only to vanish.
Ready to sit on the cliff edge as the light fades and wonder whether we’ve learned the lessons they offer well enough to do as well as they did. Sometimes it doesn’t seem like it. They lasted 1,000 years in balance with the world that sustained them.
So I don’t mind the bleeding and the sweat and the strain of the climb if I can get a little perspective — sitting in the haunted remains of a lost world.
I stand — already stiff and sore.
Turning, I study the ruins in the fading light.
These ruins high up on the flanks of a deep, jagged canyon on the back side of the Sierra Anachas have puzzled archeologists.
Why build such a fortress high above Cherry Creek and their crops? Why, for that matter, did they leave their great mud cities along the shores of the Salt River — now mostly swallowed up by Roosevelt Lake?
Why leave great networks of irrigation canals and large towns to retreat into these high, hidden fortresses — built at such huge effort for a people without oxen or wheels or pulleys?
Some evidence suggests they fled invaders or civil war — some fierce struggle for resources in the face of drought or overpopulation.
Other evidence points to a clash of ideas or even religions, perhaps made more intense by famine or invasion.
The myths of the Hopi suggest those ancient ones left to find a place pure enough and harsh enough to hold them to their prayers.
We may never know, although archeologists have made a brilliant, creative, dogged effort to support their warring theories for a century now.
I like the mystery. I like to sit in the ruins and shiver at the possibilities.
But mostly, I like to sit still in the silence until I can hear the children playing. The hill drops off cliff like out the front door. I recall all the latches on cabinets and gates at the tops of stairs I installed when my toddlers were staggering like little drunks around the house — my heart in my throat every minute or so as I watched.
I’d have been a nervous wreck raising a kid here — despite the view and the sound of the birds and the way the final thrill of light has made the sandstone walls glow.
I peek inside the ruins, astonishingly intact.
On the back wall, two small figures dance, one white from a paint made of clay and blood — the other red, colored with hematite. They look alien — playful gods or aliens. One might have horns — perhaps a cross between a mountain goat and a man? One maybe has a tail? Cant’ tell, really. I think they’re dancing, bursting with life. But it’s possible they’re fighting, brimming with death.
I look closer to find fingerprints in the mud, left by Those Who Came Before.
I put my fingers in the impressions: A perfect fit.
The wind sighs outside, blowing up from the creek far below.
It carries to me the sound of children playing.
I should go look to be sure they’re all right. For life is frail and the drop is long.
CAMP VERDE AREA
Visit Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot National Monuments to learn about the Sinagua, who lived in the Verde Valley between 1100 and 1425 A.D. Programs include talks, hikes and demonstrations. Sponsored by the National Parks Service. Call Montezuma’s Castle 567-3322, ext. 21, or Joshua_Boles@nps.
• March 5 and 19 at 1 p.m.
Fort Verde State Park: Living History Presentations, 125 E. Hollamon St., Camp Verde. Call (928) 567-3275.
• March 12 and 26 at 1 p.m.
Fort Verde: Workshop: “How to Make Adobe Bricks. Call: (928) 567-3275.
• March 27 from 9 a.m. to noon)
Prehistoric Salt Mine Site field trip. Meet at the Verde Ranger Station, 300 E. Hwy. 260, Camp Verde and carpool to the Salt Mine, known to the Hopi as “Place of the Blue Salt.” Call for reservations: (928) 567-4121.
• April 16-18 from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m.
• V Bar V Rock Art Site Wet Beaver Creek: Learn about ancient Indian cultures of the Southwest by watching demonstrations of ancient technologies including fire by friction, weaving yucca fiber sandals, firing pottery, throwing with atl-atls, and flintknapping. Taste roasted agave and acorn stew, then watch the Yavapai Apache Bird Singers perform. From I-17 north, take exit 298 and turn right; go 2.5 miles on Forest Road 618. Go past the Beaver Creek Campground then turn right into site. Contact: (928) 203-2909 or email@example.com.
• March 8 at 12:15 p.m.
Riordan Mansion State Park: Lecture by Peter Pilles, forest archaeologist, Coconino National Forest on evolution of archaeology in Northern Arizona. At Visitor Center, 409 W. Riordan Rd., Flagstaff. Reservations: (928) 779-4395.
• March 20 at 7 p.m.
Riordan Mansion: “Excavations at Lizard Man Village” slide show with Neil Weintraub, archaeologist, Kaibab National Forest. Reservations: (928) 779-4395.
• March 3 from 10 a.m. to noon Wupatki National Monument: Flintknapping with an archaeologist. Sponsored. From Flagstaff, take US 89 north for 12 miles; turn right at sign for Sunset Crater Volcano and travel another 21 miles from this junction to the Wupatki Visitor Center. Regular admission fees apply. Contact: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• March 4 from 10 a.m. to noon and March 18 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Wupatki: Hike with an archaeologist. Hikes 2-3 miles, last 2-3 hours. Reservations: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or email@example.com.
• March 13 & 14 from 10 a.m to 4 p.m.
Wupatki: Native American Arts and Crafts. Call: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or cecilia_shields
• March 15 from 1 to 3 p.m.
Wupatki: Pinch Pottery Making with an archaeologist. Call: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or cecilia_
• March 11 and 29 from 1 to 3 p.m. and March 25 from 10 a.m. to noon.
Walnut Canyon National Monument: Hike with an archaeologist. Hikes cover 2-3 miles and last 2-3 hours. From Flagstaff, travel east on Interstate 40, take exit 204 south and drive another 3 miles. Meet at the Walnut Canyon National Monument Visitor Center. Reservations; (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• March 24 from 10 a.m. to noon
Walnut Canyon: Pottery making with an archaeologist. Call (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or email@example.com.
• March 27-28 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Walnut Canyon: Native American Arts and Crafts. Call: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• March 17 from 10 a.m. to noon
Sunset Crater Volcano National Monument: Flintknapping with an archaeologist. From Flagstaff, take US 89 north for 12 miles, turn right at sign for Sunset Crater Volcano. Travel 2 miles to Sunset Crater Visitor Center. Call: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or cecilia_
• March 20-21 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Sunset Crater: Native American Arts and Crafts. Call: (928) 526-0502, ext. 223 or email@example.com.
• Saturdays in March from 9 a.m. to noon
Petrified Forest National Monument: Flintknapping/Stone Tool Manufacturing with an archeologist. Located 27 miles east of Holbrook; take exit #311 off I-40. Contact Hallie Larsen, (928) 524-6228, ext. 274 or Hallie_Larsen@nps.gov.
• Saturdays in March from 8 a.m. to noon
Demonstrations: Native American Arts and Crafts. Sponsored by Petrified Forest National Park. Hopi, Zuni and Navajo artists will be highlighting their crafts and selling hand-made art. Artisans include traditional potters, carvers, weavers and jewelers, with different artists being featured each Saturday. Activities are being held in the Painted Desert Visitor Center courtyard area (weather permitting), 1 Park Road. Petrified Forest National Park is located 27 miles east of Holbrook; take exit #311 off I-40. Contact (928) 524-6228, ext. 274 or Hallie_
• March 6 at 1 p.m.
Petrified Forest National Monument: Tour prehistoric McCreery Pueblo on two-mile hike to a Chaco Great Kiva Meet at mile marker 8 on the Main Park Road. Suitable for children ages 8 and above. Call: (928) 524-6228, ext. 274 or Hallie_Larsen
• March 13 at 1 p.m.
Petrified Forest: Hike to Prehistoric Mountain Lion Mesa Petroglyphs. Rough hike — more than five miles. Meet at Crystal Forest parking lot. Contact (928) 524-6228, ext. 274 or Hallie_
• March 20 at 1 p.m.
Petrified Forest: Puerco Ridge Archaeological Hike, with sites spanning last 2,000 years. Extremely rough hike — more than five miles. Call: (928) 524-6228, ext. 274 or Hallie_
• March 27 at 1 p.m.
Painted Desert Visitors Center, Petrified Forest: Puerco Pueblo Petroglyph Hike. Easy, two-mile hike to prehistoric site and petroglyphs. Call: (928) 524-6228, ext. 274 or Hallie_Larsen@nps.gov.
Throughout March: call for times
• Casa Malpais Museum. Prehistoric artifacts from the site of Casa Malpais, a unique pueblo dating from 1240 to about 1350. 418 E. Main St. Call: (928) 333-5375 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
• Saturdays in March at 1:30 p.m.
Homolovi State Park: Take an easy stroll with a ranger to learn about include the archaeology of Homolovi and its connection to the modern Hopi people. Homolovi Ruins State Park Visitors Center, 1.4 miles north of Interstate 40, Exit 257, State Route 87 North.