John Dryer’s voice fills any room he enters, backed by a personality bigger than an Arizona sky. He has lived in Tonto Basin for almost half a century, so when he promised to reveal an ancient mystery, I couldn’t resist.
“I can show you a cave with Indian ruins, a mine with an old log cabin, and some Indian paint pots carved in a rock,” he said.
He had me at “Indian ruins.” I’ve stood in the stone fortress of Wupatki, trying to visualize those ancient ones. What inspired them to build where they did? What was their life like?
For maybe 1,000 years, the Salado built irrigation works and stone cities along the banks of the Salt River in the Tonto Basin. They mingled with the Mogollon people who built their own settlements in the mountains overlooking the basin — scattering seeds and moving with the season. They all vanished mysteriously in the 1400s, leaving behind an empty landscape and an enduring mystery.
By contrast, I have lived in many places, rootless as a tumbleweed. I have always wondered what it would take to survive in such a place — to know all the stories that go with the landscape, to know all its secrets, to belong so completely. What could they have been like?
Now John offered me a glimpse of the ancient ones — with an extra dose of mystery at the prospect of a settlement actually built in a limestone cave. I’d heard of caves in the Grand Canyon where the bones of extinct giant ground sloths mixed with 1,000-year-old stone tools and even dolls made of twigs — but had never heard of a cliff house built inside a cave.
We finally mounted the expedition in October. Dryer insisted on a convoy, so at least one of us would survive — so I showed up with my editor as driver in his well-broken-in gun metal blue Jeep with an extra spare and Dryer’s own venerable combat-tan Jeep, stripped down to accommodate the backcountry. He also carries a spare tire, a cooler stocked with essentials like blackberry brandy and Vienna sausage and this green goo called Fix-A-Flat. He calls grab bars for the passenger, the “Oh S—t” bar.
I would learn about that later.
We started off down a well-maintained forest road surrounded by saguaro and cholla cactus, our elevation a little more than 2,200 feet. We chugged and switch-backed up to the line of hills flanking the basin at 5,000 feet stopping at the top to work off the road shakes. In a short half an hour, the landscape had changed from cactus to towering ponderosa pines and a high country chill permeated the air.
I wondered why we needed the Jeeps on such a good road, but then we crossed Malicious Gap. Suddenly, a gully cut across the road scarred by monsoon rains and heaped with boulders. Clearly, only Jeeps or ATVs could make it past the washout.
Shortly after the difficult crossing, Dryer honked us to a halt. “You have a flat. The rocks must have gashed the tire,” he said. “Here, let’s use some Fix-a-Flat.” The hairspray sized can filled the tire and plugged the hole. The stop reminded me of an account I’d read of Apaches on the run from troops. Each warrior had a sewing kit with which he could quickly fashion a new pair of moccasins together. Meanwhile, the perusing soldiers wore holes in their government-issued boots.
We trundled along until the road opened onto a glen carpeted by luscious yellow flowers and Dryer stopped us again.
“I haven’t seen this many flowers since the ’70s. All those monsoons made a difference. The forest looks great. Hey, didn’t I pick a good time to take you out?” he asked with a glint in his eye. As we wandered around snapping photos, Dryer’s faced glowed with joy while he looked out over the flowers buzzing with the background music of bees.
I envied him his delight — to see the normally dry and stony slopes suddenly awash in color. He knew every turn of that road, every bristling slope of yucca, every ancient alligator juniper — and the years of the great blooms of hidden flowers. It was glorious to see and share his joy.
Finally, we reached the real goal of the adventure: the cave with the ruins. Dryer pulled over in a wide spot I would have bounced right past. “Well, we’re here,” he said, then pointed to a stand of trees. “The cave is down there.”
I didn’t believe Dryer until he dropped into to a gap behind a tree. We crawled down inside and turned on our headlamps.
Along each wall of the cave, the Mogollon Indians 600 years ago had set brick-shaped slabs of sandstone in mud to create little rooms. At least eight different rooms lined a walkway into the cave. Black stains from campfires snaked up to the ceiling of the cave.
“Come here, you can see where they used their hands to rub in the mud,” said Dryer.
Just like Wupatki, the mud mortar in the gaps between the rocks had hand and fingerprints where the ancients had patted firm the walls of their homes.
I placed my finger where they had placed theirs and imagined building this home.
We decided the ancients that had inhabited this cave might have used it for a summer hunting and native plant harvesting spot. We agreed that the topography outside was too steep to support crops.
The stone walled rooms quickly ended as the darkness deepened at the back of the cave. The ancients must have relied on the dim glow of sunlight from the entrance to light their way.
Our modern headlamps allowed us to head back into the depths of the cave, where we discovered rooms with names and dates etched on the sides of walls going back through the 1900s.
Dryer knew most of the family names. He knew all the stories and blunders and triumphs that had unfolded in the course of his half-century here. He’d found his way to the Tonto Basin after serving as a Marine Corps air traffic controller on aircraft carriers off the coast of Vietnam during the war there. Here, he found the deep peace and sense of belonging — the things he’d fought for.
“Most of these families are the original settlers of Tonto Basin,” he said. “Right there are the names of two teenagers that decided to go steady in this cave.”
Back in the Jeep, I tried to memorize the spot — but knew I’d never find it again without Dryer on this endless road. Of course, he could never get lost here any more than the Mogollon would have.
“I’ll show you the paint pots next,” he said.
We meandered down the road until Dryer pitched off into a stand of trees. I didn’t even see wheel tracks. Dryer and my editor had to dip the Jeeps into their lowest gears as we crawled up the steep, narrow track through stretches of loose rock. Dryer knew exactly which tree to turn around to make it to the top. The brush flattened the mirrors back on both sides.
The path opened abruptly onto a tree-free pad on top of a hill with breathtaking views down to Roosevelt Lake to the west and Young to the east. Seems even the ancients liked a room with a view.
The hill held a village of ancient mud brick ruins and rock held together with clay mortar, but Dryer motioned us to a flat rock. Scraped into the rock were 13 depressions.
“Back in the late 1800s, a cowboy from one of the ranches found these paint pots and they still had pigment in them,” he said. “They figured the Indians might have used them for ceremonies.”
So, they liked views and made art colonies. More layers of the mystery revealed. I stood with Dryer then looking out across the forested landscape. He knew every fold and hidden hollow. I knew none of it — but still, somehow, felt like I’d found the place I was looking for all this time.
“We need to keep moving if we want to see the DuPont cabin,” said Dryer after we had tramped all over the ruins.
We crept, crawled, bounced and slid over miles of dirt road making our way home, as I clung to that “Oh S—t” bar in Dryer’s jeep. Sometimes, the jeep tilted at an alarming angle. Several times I squeezed my eyes closed, waiting for us to roll – but Dryer just laughed. He dispensed his myths, legends and memories without any hint of alarm. He remembered logs he’d winched out of the way, the monsoon storms, the search for the crashed airplane and the stories to go with a cabin built by a prospector 80 years ago, which now serves as an emergency shelter. Dyer left a can of Vienna Sausage there on a shelf for anyone waiting out a storm.
Dyer also scouted the road for repairs needed for The Lorraine Cline Memorial Poker Run, which raises money for local charities every April. Four-wheel drive folks come out in ATVs and jeeps to drive the exact route we were taking to raise money for locals, who have cancer and can’t afford groceries, need help with utility bills, or cover co-pays to doctors. The family started the run six years ago in memory of Lorraine, who died of cancer.
We stopped again on the last overlook before dropping down into the basin, with the shadows lengthening. We broke out the last of the Vienna sausage, home grown apples, cheese and blackberry brandy.
Dryer told us stories that made us laugh – and then the one about finding the wreckage of a missing airplane, with the remains of the pilot nearby that made us gasp.
Right then I realized, I finally understood the ancient ones, with their myths, love of the land and ability to survive the deep winters, long droughts and dark nights. They had never really left, but had come home after a stint in the Marines with a bottle of blackberry brandy, a beaver-pelt cowboy hat and a can of fix-a-flat.