I huffed along behind Roy Sandoval, sweating freely under the intense afternoon sun. He paused on the now-steep road ahead to let me catch up.
A delicate moment this: I’m tempted to hurry so he won’t realize how far behind I fell. But if I hurry I’ll huff harder and he’ll realize how far out of shape I’ve fallen. It occurs to me then that he’s hornswoggled me again — lured me up the steep hillside to make me sweat and gasp — with a sly promise of something wonderful at the top.
He insists that a great mystery lies atop this limestone cliff face. He calls it the Spanish Ruins. I’m figuring he’s just playing another of his little deadpan pranks, leading me to some ambiguous heap of stones.
Still, beats heck out of working for a living.
I’d already cancelled twice when some faux emergency came up at the office. This editor job has made my untreated workaholism flare up, so I always have some good reason not to leave early with a friend peddling an adventure.
But Roy’s one of those pleasantly persistent people with a deep affection for ruins and hikes, so he cajoled me up the mountain.
The journey to the Spanish Ruins starts where Doll Baby Ranch Road ends, in a little parking area amongst the cottonwoods at the gate that bars further travel down the road to a ranch deep in the canyon carved by the merger of the East Verde River and Pine Creek. The ranch presses the boundary of the wilderness area that embraces the flow of the East Verde all the way to its merger with the Verde River.
So we parked and hiked up the road that leads onto the ranch. The dirt road climbs quickly out of the canyon, a steep rise offering progressively more impressive views. The sweat stinging my eyeballs on this occasion somewhat mitigated the pleasure of the vistas.
But we finally hit the ridgeline and detoured to a limestone outcropping with a dramatic view of the meanders of the East Verde. I rubbed my sweat-stained eyeballs and commenced to enjoy the moment. The East Verde remains a little-known treasure, with its thick, leafy galleries of cottonwoods, sycamores, willows and a dozen other riparian trees. Once, such groves of trees graced most of the riparian areas in Arizona — essential refuges for 90 percent of the state’s wildlife species and flyways for the tropical migrations that stock all of North America with summer songbirds. But dams, water diversions and groundwater pumping have drastically altered or actually destroyed about 90 percent of the state’s riparian areas, opening the door to invasive species like Salt Cedar.
So as I caught my breath on that ridgeline, Roy offered, “We’re almost there.”
I blinked away the drying salt, trying to decide if he was mocking me. He didn’t seem at all out of breath.
“Hey. This is impressive,” I said, sounding as oxygenated as possible.
He turned and led the way back to the road and up into the brush on a thread of a trail following a barbed wire fence line. We went boulder hopping up the slope to the based of a wall of limestone covered with lichen, all fissured and layered. The wall closely resembled the 300-million-year-old sea bottom limestones that comprise the Mogollon Rim. Atop the wall, I looked north to to Rim itself across the gap chewed by the East Verde and a host of other streams.
Roy led onward along the top of the limestone cliff through scattered bristling, blooming agave, their giant stalks jutting skyward as nectar-laden come-hithers for their bat pollinators.
Preoccupied with not getting so caught up in the view I step off the cliff, I completely forgot to look for the little heap of stones we’re supposedly seeking.
But then Roy stops me. “There,” he says.
I turn, focus — and gasp.
I love ruins, fraught with mystery and thronged by ghosts. I’m used to mere traceries of stone, buried in a 400-year-old accumulation of sand and brush. I’m happy with the rumor of a wall and a shard of pottery.
But here stood a chest-high, unmortared wall, stretching out of sight into the underbrush.
“It’s huge,” I said.
Roy smiled smugly. “Wait ‘til you see,” he said.
So we hurried forward.
The massive stone wall lacked the delicacy and careful stonework of an intact, Mogollon cliffhouse ruin, like the mud-mortared ruins preserved at Tonto National Monument. But the stones had been carefully stacked. Maybe three or four feet wide at the base, the wall tapered a a foot thick at five or six feet tall. The wall we’d encountered was the outer wall of a complex, with an massive outer perimeter enclosing what looked like three rectangular compounds.
The front wall faced south on the limestone edge, offering a commanding view of the slope down into a shallow canyon on the backside of the limestone ledge. The cliff edge formed the north edge of the structure.
The huge rectangles enclosed by the stones had no trace of hearths, roofs or other habitation.
I’d never seen anything like it: The ruins offered my favorite thing — a complete mystery.
Roy said he’d heard that the Spanish built it — perhaps sometime in the 1500s or 1600s.
We scrambled over the ruins, careful not to disturb the walls, but probing into the enigmatic details. Roy said he’d been coming here for years — it settled him down, put things into perspective. He could do his deep thinking here — regroup from his defeats, ponder his path.
The strangeness of the site had me in a state of continual exclamation. Here was what looked like a drainage hole at the base of the wall — except it seemed like no water would go through it, given the topography. Here was a curious little outward bubble built into the wall — like a turret. Roy said it looked like the little extension would provide a way for someone to shoot down the front of the wall from a covered position.
Then he led me to a remarkable feature: A massive piece of sandstone maybe eight feet long and three feet wide set upright, with a base of fitted stones that looked like an altar. The sliver of sandstone served no discernable purpose.
Finally, he pointed out another strange feature. Someone had built an S-shaped entrance into the compound — like you’d see in the entrance to a corral.
Finally, he led me beyond the Spanish Ruins to a sandy spot with a splendid view with the scattering of stones I’d come to recognize as the remains of a 600-year-old Mogollon structure. Not far away, he led me to a slab of rock with four grinding holes worn deeply into its surface. Here, 500 years ago, generations of women had ground corn and mesquite beans while watching their children play on the slopes below.
After returning from that hike, I sought clues to the mystery. Tonto Forest Archeologist Scott Wood said he’s sure the Spanish did not build it. Archeologists believe that although the Spanish explored the region, they didn’t built any settlements or forts north of the San Pedro River in Southeast Arizona.
He said very early settlers reported finding the site — already so old that the lichen had grown on the rocks in place. None of the early accounts by settlers provide any clues to its origins, destroying my admittedly far-fetched theory that cowboys had built it as a corral for spring roundups as they combed cattle out of the surrounding hillsides after a summer of wild grazing. Truth be told, no cowboy would ever go to that much work to contain cattle.
The ruins remain unique — although they share some features with other hilltop ruins complexes found scattered throughout the region.
Wood’s best guess is that the Mogollon or some other group built it sometime before the 1400s as a ceremonial site. The ruins also have features suggestive of an astronomical site, with alignments of walls and nitches and notches designed to capture the rays of the rising or setting sun on the longest and shortest days of the year. The giant slab of sandstone seems irresistibly altar-like.
The evidence suggests no one lived in the ruins themselves — or ever put on a roof. That might account for the remarkable state of preservation. Roofs require wooden support beams — and they eventually collapse. This turns the whole structure into a great mound of stone. But the lack of mud mortar resulted in these massive walls and the cliff-edge location prevented erosion or burial under dust.
But frankly, said Wood, that’s all guesswork. The ruins remain a mystery.
So Roy and I lingered until the light grew long, savoring our ignorance and the long views.
Sitting with my legs dangling off the 200-foot cliff with the 500-year-old mystery at my back, I made firm decision: I really got to get out of the office more.