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DESERT TIME -- A JOURNEY THROUGH THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST

Kangaroo Rat Tracks and Scurf Pea, Great Sand Dunes National Monument, Colorado

Chapter 2:  point of no return
Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado

When you come west out of the foothills of the San Juans the land rises like a prow and then like many prows, like stone aircraft carriers rafted together. The Spaniards named all this like shooting from the hip: Mesa Verde, the green table, which isn't an unlikely name, if you can imagine yourself looking up at a dining table from the perspective of an ant -- or, in this case, a man on horseback (same thing in this country). It does look as if it had been spread with a green cloth. No one bothered to get to the table's top for a long time after the name had stuck, and when they did the greenery proved to be a tapestry of pinyon, juniper, and oak.

From the perspective of the air, or on a topographical map, the mesa takes on again the image of clustered boats; a twelve-by-fifteen mile clutch of flat decks rising from the sea of the Montezuma valley. Back from those northern prows the whole business slopes steadily to the Mancos River; it's all a little down at the stern, so to speak. This canted land is clawed all the way by deepening canyons whose walls are as sheer as the sides of ships. In these walls are caverns, arcing caves, like portholes half opened.

The canyons drain cold air away and rainwater, too, when there is such a thing. The south-tilting surfaces absorb extra warmth like the tilted panes of a cold frame, so the growing season on the table's top is longer than you'd think; as long as it would be on flat-lying land that happened to lie two hundred and fifty miles farther south (near Socorro, New Mexico, say; breadbasket country of the Rio Grande, home of the chili pepper). This is like that.

More rain falls up on top than you'd think, too, from down below. Eighteen inches a year is what the mesa gets now, twice as much rainfall as the surrounding desert; and more than enough for dry-ground farming. Fourteen inches of rain a year is the threshold of farming possibility, as long as at least four inches of that falls in the summer monsoon. If the pattern and amount of rainfall are just right then corn can tassel, beans can fruit, squashes can fill out like ribbed balloons. You could farm on Mesa Verde now just fine, but no one does, though for eight hundred years or more, people did.

Then, suddenly, they didn't. What they did was up and leave.

It isn't hard to picture them leaving. Their leaving is as tangible as anything they've left, and they've left a lot.

There are more than a thousand of their dwellings in the caves of Mesa Verde's canyon walls. Many of these have houses that are three or four stories high; turrets and towers and squared rooms cluster in there like pueblo condos. There are over five thousand rooms altogether, tucked in the vertical sandstone. This is what's there in the half-open portholes of the mesa: houses, villages, towns, all of them deserted intact.

Most of them consist of rectangular rooms made of found or shaped sandstone, chinked and mortared. Roof beams are round whole tree trunks peeled -- and beam-ends jut from the walls a foot or so before the walls end. It's a familiar Southwestern style: everyone has copied it since.

Strewn among these houses are round sunken rooms called kivas. These are older still: developed from ancient pit houses built back when the people were semi-nomadic. Of all house forms these are the best adapted to the landscape, with its seasons of extremes of heat and cold. Underground, the earth kept kivas warmer and cooler than any surface dwelling could be. The kivas were solidly roofed and the roofs made handy outdoor living space, like plazas. They could be entered through a hole in the plaza center from which a wooden ladder went down. A ventilation shaft went down as well, along one wall, the air moving in through a square hole at kiva floor level. In front of this hole was a stone bailie and in front of the bailie was a fire pit, and beyond this pit there was -- still is -- a tiny round hole called a sipapu: the people's place of entry from their previous world. Air could come down the shaft, hit the baffle, and circulate around the room, exiting with woodsmoke through the central hole.

The central hole let in light, people came in and out there. The entrance hole echoed the tiny sipapu beneath.

Whether the kivas were cozy living space for all comers, or for extended families, or for clans, or clan elders only, no one knows. In other words, whether kivas had spiritual significance or whether they were secular, no one is sure. But I do know that our own culture is fairly unique in having separated one from the other, and that other people don't often try to keep secular and sacred as far apart as we do, and that this seems to be worth keeping in mind when one looks at a thing that another culture made. The question -- sacred or secular? -- may have no significance outside the here and now.

Most of the houses and kivas have mud grouting between stones and white or rose plaster smoothed over that. Many rooms have been replastered many times; you can see this, it's like looking at flaking paint; now and again the smoke-darkened walls were freshened up. The round wood rafters between house stories were layered with smaller poles and fibrous juniper bark, then slathered with damp adobe to make flat roofs, kiva plazas, balconies on jutting beam ends, floors for the rooms above. The living rooms have fireplaces and small windowlike doors that you have to cock a leg over to get through. These half doors kept warm air in and cold air out. Winters here are cold. Stone doors fit in a groove in the doorsill and were held in place by a stick poked through wooden loops embedded in the outer wall. Smaller unplastered storerooms have plenty of pegs in the walls, handy for hanging baskets, lengths of twine, bunches of drying corn. Stone turkey hutches fill spaces in the caves that are too low-ceilinged for living in or storing goods.

Some of the dwellings are only a room or two or three (hut, homestead, what they call nowadays a starter-house?). Others had more than two hundred rooms; these were towns. In the cliffs these huts, villages, towns didn't interfere with farmland, were protected by rock roofs from sun and rain, were kept more temperate by rock walls, and were easy to defend, since there were only so many ways to get down to them from the mesa above or up from the canyons below. Eight hundred years ago there were six thousand people, more or less, farming the mesa tops and living in those rooms.

When they went they left whatever they couldn't carry: bowls, mugs, baskets, blankets, belts, medicines, jewelry, bedding, clothes. They left eight hundred years' worth of trash: outmoded houses, worn-out sandals, corncobs, potsherds, shit, ash, bodies buried in fetal curls, used stone cores, chipped arrowheads, turkey bones, beads and baubles, axheads dulled beyond regrinding, broken griddles, pieces of hemp rope, bean pods, manos and metates for grinding corn.

There they go, over the rim. They are as small as I am and smaller, the same size as Europeans were too, back then. The men are about five feet four and the women mostly under five feet, the size of modern ten- or twelve-year-olds. The women carry baskets or ribbed pots bound with willow handles and filled with shelled corn and beans, pinyon nuts, yucca pods. A pair of half-made yucca sandals dangles from a bundle, wrapped in a hank of fiber. The men carry bows, coils of fiber snares, stone axes, sheaves of arrows tipped with arrowheads of flint, chert, jasper, obsidian, chalcedony, quartzite. A girl bends double under the weight of a rolled turkey-feather blanket that is bound to her forehead by a tumpline. A small boy carries a digging stick and is being softly rebuked for banging it on stones. He is being rebuked softly, because nobody is saying very much. An old woman, lean and arthritic, forty perhaps, walks in front of the others, dressed in worn buckskin, carrying a basket of herbs tied together and another basket holding medicine stuffs bound in buckskin tatters: shell and stone beads, turquoise, willow splints, quartz and galena crystals, loops of sinew, doghair yarn.

There are no babies with this bunch, and only a handful -- two, three -- old folks, which here and now means people over thirty-five. The boy with the digging stick has a barrel belly and limbs not much wider than the stick he carries. So one sees that the winter has been hard, and that it has not been the first hard winter, but the last.

The eyes of the young men -- fourteen, fifteen years old -- glitter and never stop moving from one thing to the next, maybe because they have seen too much of old men quarreling and women wailing over corpses of children, and their own mothers going grim and toothless, and their sisters and uncles coughing until they cough up blood and die. And this: raids and robbings by neighbors and even family until they've learned that no one can trust anyone else. They've grown into men without enough food in their bellies or peace anywhere and now the clan is going and they, anyway, are more than ready to go. They are the only ones here with any spring in their step. Oh, yes, and the two girls, there, thirteen-year-olds with the eyes of women.

Well, I see this very clearly.

***

The desert is alive. It moves, changes, comes and goes over the world, and is uninhabitable, unless you make it your profession. It wasn't their profession. They farmed.

Dry-ground farming depends on topography as much as rain. The higher one goes into the hills the more moisture there is, but the higher one goes the colder it gets, too; one climbs from shrubs and succulents of desert flats through sagebrush upland meadows into open groves of pinyon and juniper, and into Gambel oak, ponderosa pine, mountain mahoganies, up into firs, aspens; finally into spruce-fir forest and so on to tree line. To some extent this parade of vegetation is as much a function of moisture as it is of altitude, but neither moisture nor altitude can be divided from the fact of cold: that the higher one goes the shorter the growing season is.

Confusions abound, naturally, and Mesa Verde standing where it does and slanting as it does abounds in organic confusions; the canyons there hold spruce trees and shrubberies that belong, by rights, to the high scarps of the San Juans, perhaps because these canyons are shady and relatively moist; but one is likely to stumble out of a patch of mountain myrtle into a prickly pear or the knifelike spokes of a yucca. And the glories of this biotic tangle are a great distraction from the broad raw facts of life. Which are roughly these: farming here is possible only in a narrow band. The bottom border of this band is defined by moisture, by that fourteen inches a year coming at the proper times, and moisture increases as you go uphill. The band's top border is defined by length of growing season; by the number of frost-free days it takes for corn to tassel and squash to ripen; and the growing season increases as you go downhill. So there is this band, where you can farm. The farming band is the edge of the desert, where there is enough moisture and it isn't too cold.

This band wriggles and loops through landscape like any biological parameter. Now, here, it ranges from sixty-six hundred feet to about seventy-seven hundred feet in elevation. Look west to Ute Mountain and south to Shiprock and the Lukachukai range at the near rim of Arizona, and to the Manti-La Sals rising out there in Utah, and the San Juans bulking to the northeast (you can see all this from the high point in the bows of the mesa, where dry air puffs upward from the Montezuma valley and strokes against one's chin like blown spume) and take a mental paintbrush and color it in: the band. The strips and hollows of farming possibility.

Between A.D. 600 and 750 the band was much the same as it is now, but it didn't stay that way, any more than it will now, in spite of the thousands of acres of pinto beans growing on the flanks of the valley. The smell of ripening beans comes up with the wind as it must have done years ago, but won't always. The lesson being, here, on the desert fringe: trust nothing.

The climates of the past can be read in the record of the past pollens layered in montane bogs, fossil packrat middens, tree rings in old trees -- they are the bioequivalent of archaeology. And this is what happened. Beginning in A.D. 750 or so the rains thinned, drought squeezed the band from the bottom up. So in those days people moved their fields onto higher ground.

The drought went on for two hundred years. Then, slowly, it broke. By A.D. 1000 the winters were rainier, the summer monsoons more predictable (predictability in rain increases with amount of rain; a basic law of desert anywhere), and at the same time the weather warmed. The band swelled upward and downward like a happy balloon. Farms and villages with them grew as low on the slopes as fifty-two hundred feet. This was the Native American golden age, when cultural networks stretched from the Rockies to the great cities of Mexico and Central America; there was a flowering of population, technology, art. Then the drought came back.

In less than half a century, the drought came back. Summer rains thinned. Canals, dams, reservoirs were built among the corn, but less and less rain fell into them. Again the farmers moved to higher ground.

Then, in A.D. 1200 or so, it began to get cold. Families and clans moved into the cliff caves in a big way, building houses, villages, towns, to defend against the cold and against each other (one presumes; since there were too many people and too little food, and these were citadels, or could be), and the move to the cliffs left more earth on the mesa tops to grow what little grew; which wasn't enough, enough of the time, in the end.

In the end there is no defying climate, even with monumental architecture, even with farming techniques perfected over centuries, even with the pieties of dancing and prayer perfected too. And one can fairly assume that pieties came into it as they do anywhere when times are hard. And the cold continued to deepen and the rains continued to fade, crops froze in bloom, desert cobbles and dust invaded cornfields, the farmable band was squeezed in a vise of drought and cold that tightened more with every passing cycle of the seasons. In the late 1200s, the vise snapped shut.

By the end of that century the people were gone.

***

Just over a hundred years ago a rancher rode up on the mesa in winter looking for stray cows, and through the blowing snow he saw the ruins of a city in a canyon wall. That was the beginning of the mystery which is still a mystery: who were these people, where did they go, and why?

One evening, a park ranger took me down a cliff on an old trail. It was after work hours and the ranger had taken off his Smokey hat and wore jeans, normal boots, a flannel shirt. He was interested in the Anasazi -- the name we give these vanished people -- and in anything and everything to do with them. He kept a lot of data in his head, including the shapes and colors of things he may have seen only once: the sennet braid of a sandal sole, fingerprints in a smear of millennium-old plaster, the black-and-white zigzag patterning of a plate. We took a pack with rope and flashlights and water. We struck off through the junipers and pinyons, on no trail, but through the thick stand of solid trees. There were crushes of dry vegetation underfoot and tindery rustles of shed leaves, sliding gravel and slab, the crackle of boots over prickly pear, then the rounded shoulders of clean peach-colored stone at the lip of a canyon. At last, dodging trees, we found the trail. It went into the canyon down vertical rock and was made of spaced indentations -- toe and finger holds -- each the size of the top of a coffee cup. Below, like a whitecapped sea seen from the top of a mast, were treetops and stones of the canyon bottom. I lowered myself on faith. The trail was seven hundred years old at least and must have gone somewhere, then.

It led down fifteen feet to a ledge that sloped across the cliff. The ledge was half-plugged with fallen stones and with boles and branches of junipers, and was slippery with fallen needles; then it opened. It was like sidling along a wall and then coming to the door of a cathedral: a high arc, like a bandshell, one quarter of a sphere.

At first this seemed filled with nothing but dust, pocked here and there with water drips. Then: the jut of hewn stone, the right-angle corner of a wall, the curve of a kiva. We saw things in the dust: clots of old mortar, a corncob the color of dark honey and the size of my finger, a pinkish core from which projectile points -- arrow or spear heads -- had been chipped. The stones of the wall were marked with spaced dints: stones that had been carefully shaped, by someone. The ceiling of the arc was blackened by years of smoke.

Dusk came, stars sprayed and glittered. The dry air filled with the quiet that had settled in eight centuries before. This house -- three rooms and a kiva -- was preserved in the dryness and dust and in this windless place like a thing boxed on a shelf. The stars came out in sprays, in thoroughness, more stars than not stars; the Milky Way like a band of smoke, a stellar beam, a light source. Looking out from the arc was like being in an eye.

***

The next evening the ranger took me to the biggest town of all. It's called Cliff Palace. You get down to it by stairs now and not by those cup-sized finger and toe paths they used, carrying corn and firewood down those trails in baskets on their backs.

This town has been freed from its rubble, its walls have been shored up, there are pathways and interpretive signs so people can go through it all day long, but as soon as the gates are locked on those stairs the quiet settles in again as if it had been waiting to come back.

It's a real town, and silence is oppressive in it. I conjure back the smells of smoke, sewage, bodies, roasting corn, the dusty-feather smell of turkeys; the rhythmic crush of grinding stones, voices, the grate of ax heads being sharpened in these hollows in this rock, the snarl of dogs, the pad of barefoot steps up this alley, the quarrel behind the wall, the clink of shards as the potter -- the roof here is so blackened it has to be a potter -- lays her kiln fire of juniper wood and dung chips.

The conjuring is incomplete. The silence is too large. We go on looking into every room we can. Some rooms are tiny, space enough for one or two to sit or lie curled. Other rooms are larger, their windows framed in decorative pale plaster, their fire pits rimmed by copings. Finger marks are plain where pasty adobe was smeared around a lintel. There are crude walls, dry-laid walls, mortared walls, and chinked walls, walls blackened by smoke and walls freshly plastered. The town is on four stepped levels that climb back under the cave roof in a maze of corridors, family precincts, storerooms, spaces for trash. In the end the size of the place defeats us, dusk comes, and we are only halfway through; there are two hundred and seventeen rooms. There are twenty-three kivas. One of these, near the outer brink, has plaster the color of a Peace rose.

I found myself looking at that kiva with a kind of longing. At last I asked the ranger if I could go in, and he said why not. He said he never had himself but that Pueblo people had come, Hopis he was pretty sure they were, and they had gone in there like it was a church. He'd brought them in here as he'd brought me, after hours. They'd entered in single file and had sat down in the kiva and maybe said some things or made some motions, he said he hadn't watched, he'd turned his back, but he saw afterward that they had left a thing: a scroll of paper with a feather. There it was. The size and shape of a hand-rolled cigarette, but not a cigarette, on the dry stone floor. Unless some National Park functionary came and cleaned it up, there it would be in ten thousand years.

So I went down in single file with myself and sat by the sipapu, in front of the stone baffle that protected the fire and deflected the draft from the ventilator. Near the cigarette thing but not too near.

The kiva roof was long gone, much of the far wall was broken away. The place was round and a soft warm pink, and it had been underground, to be entered from the center, so I'd come in all wrong; from nowhere, through the vanished roof. The top of the roof had been the plaza for this part of town, the place where work went on and people lived most of the time, the communal living room. Anyway, once in I sat, and I began to see things right away.

There were a lot of faces in semidarkness, looking at me; they were curious, of course, and so was I. I stared right back. I hadn't seen them from the front before, only from the back as they were leaving: the thin legs, the bowed heads, the bobbing bundles. Now I could see that their skin was smooth and that their eyes were dark. Their skin was like polished chestnut wood. A few old faces were wrinkled: chestnut wood carved to look like riverbeds. Their hair was black and as straight as fresh wire with an almost white shine, like a black picture under glass. They were curious about where I'd come from, and I was happy to see that they had not left.

After a while I looked up over the ruined wall and there was the rim of mesa, the far rim over the canyon, a tabletop covered with its green -- now black with dusk -- forest. Perched on this rim was the thread of a new moon, curved like a silver bow. To one side was a single star. The star was right there as if it had just been shot due south from that still bent bow. There was nothing else in the sky.

So, you went south.

It was all very clear.

That's enough, I thought. What more can I ask?

***

I went south, myself, next morning, but not before I noticed that the stars had changed. I'm not sure I should tell you this. It makes me seem scatty or peculiar, but I'm no more peculiar than anyone, I have a reputation among my friends of being too level-headed for my own good; but the stars did change. I wasn't looking for anything like it, that's all I can say in my own defense. I came to this place with nothing but ignorance. I didn't expect much, I wasn't even sure it would be interesting. I'd never even heard of Mesa Verde till I saw it on my map. The word Anasazi meant nothing to me. It meant nothing to the people it refers to. Anasazi is a Navajo word meaning ancient foreigners, and Navajo weren't around when they were here, not as far as anyone knows; it's the Navajo who were foreigners, Athapascan nomads who filtered into the country later on. The Navajo were here when white men discovered the ruins and needed a name for the people who'd left them. Whatever name we give does not in the end matter much. Sitting in their kiva at dusk had done something to me, as if I were a compass needle loose enough to swing, toward some new center of planetary magnetism.

I didn't know that this had happened until we'd climbed onto the mesa again. I looked up then and noticed that the stars had changed. I thought this was nonsense at first; stellar format shouldn't obey the vortices of prayer.

Half an hour later it was still there, when I bedded down in my tent, oak leaves having joined the dune sand in there with me. The new pattern in the stars was still there. The center of the sky held a stellar bow from which hung streamers of stars: rays, tassels, feathers, pathways, fickle rain.

Anasazi Pot and Pattern:  This pot is in Keet Seel, an Anasazi village in Navajo National Monument in the Navajo Reservation in Arizona. The pot is a plain utility design without colored glazes and is much blackened by fire. It sits on a wall as if a woman had put it there after cooking breakfast eight hundred years ago. The black-on-white pattern framing it is taken from a potsherd found in the same place.

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