A GUIDE FOR THE INDEPENDENT TRAVELER IN THE AMERICAN SOUTHWEST
"With the completion of the Interstate Freeway System, it became possible to travel all the way across the country, from coast-to-coast, and never see a thing...." Charles Kuralt
THE ANASAZI, THE SOUTHWEST'S ANCIENT CULTURE
In the spring of the year 1300. Somewhere near where Lake Powell is now. We can only imagine this might have happened...
Up on the high plateau two men, one very old, one very young, walked through the clear and quiet of an already warm morning. It still should have been cool on this high place. At the cliff's edge they stood and stared down through the haze. A startled rabbit bounded away at the sound of the old man's voice...
"Back many, many seasons ago, when I was a child, all the top lands here and all the lands in the valleys below were green. And there were many crops, enough crops to feed all the families."
Squinting in the hazy, bright sun, the old man waves his hand around. "In this season the grass grew to my belly. But I began to notice that the grasses grew less and the land turned more brown and the rains came less. Now there is not enough crops to feed all the people...and they are going away. It is sad because our people, and all our people all the way back into the dust of our memories, have lived on these high places and down in the valleys and the land provided our needs. So now I think it must be the spirits doing something...and I don't know why."
The plateau sheers off in front of the two men and the land drops away, in steps of cliffs and steep slopes, nearly 3000 feet to a muddy river that over millions of years has cut a breath-taking course through red sandstone. Canyon tributaries emptying into it from the high plateaus are almost as awesome...narrow walls hundreds of feet high, snaking their bizarre, water-carved ways. In the far distance a great blue mountain dominates the skyline...
About the time our imaginary Anasazis stood and wondered why their crops were failing and the rains failed to come is about the time in Southwestern history when this culture packed their bags, so to speak, and moved away. A civilization that could look back into the "dust of their memories" perhaps as much as 10,000 years disappeared, leaving behind them an enigma for us in the 20th century to ponder: why did they leave, where did they go, what made them tick?
They were an enduring culture, first emerging more than 7000 years before the time of Christ. They were semi-nomadic hunting and gathering people who eventually became residents of villages and came to depend on farming to feed themselves. The first Anasazi were basketmakers living in crude pithouses. They ultimately developed into highly skilled architects and artisans who built some of the impressive pueblos that visitors to the Lake Powell area and the Southwest see today, many still in excellent shape after eight centuries of abandonment.
The Anasazi developed a sophisticated culture that included music, a complex religion, trade with other Indians as far south as southern Mexico and an apparent understanding of astronomy. The Anasazi knew to the day when the solar seasons began and ended. Vast areas of the southwest that we now look upon as relatively unpopulated were literally teeming with life in a fairly refined society.
They built great centers of habitation: Keet Seel and Betatakin, Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Aztec, White House, Hawikuh. All places that now rest out their time in the sun and the wind of the centuries. Silent rooms and halls of an ancient people who walked away; left behind only tantalizing echoes of themselves.
For the last 100 years we have studied the Anasazi with tools evolving from picks and shovels to computers and carbon dating and we know an amazing amount of stuff about them. We know that PROBABLY a combination of things decimated the Anasazis over a period of time. For all our modern, white man concept that Indians were joined with, and sensitive to, the stream of nature, they apparently overused the land and drought, collapsing trade and a general depletion of natural resources all combined to force a whole civilization to move. It is believed that the Hopis and other southwestern Pueblo Indians are the direct descendants of the Anasazi.
Some archeologists believe that in the 1500's there might have been a resurgence of Indian population that would have exceeded the 12th century height of their culture if it had not been for the arrival of the Spanish in the southwest in 1540, bringing with them exotic diseases, guns and a dominant military, a new religion and a way of life absolutely foreign to a civilization that had survived millennia...
I always try to imagine that old man talking to the younger one on a hazy, warm morning centuries ago. He might have been a medicine man, trying to figure it all out. As he stood on that high rampart I see him spread his arms skyward, throw back his head and shout at the sky..."I ONLY FEEL THE DUST ON THE WIND, YOU SPIRITS! I DO NOT HEAR YOU TALKING TO ME TELLING ME WHAT TO DO! I ONLY KNOW I AM SAD BECAUSE OUR PEOPLE MUST LEAVE OUR LAND AND I DO NOT THINK IT WILL BE GOOD..."
The old man waits in supplication to the sky and the vast landscape around him, but only the quiet of a day that grows warmer answers him...
The Anasazi went away. They left behind so much...yet so little...
This time of year is great for visiting Indian Culture sites in the southwest. Many of the sites will not only be of interest because of the Anasazi Culture they display, but fall foliage is starting into full change and the hill and mountain sides are a riot of color.
Some suggestions: Chaco Canyon National Historic Park in NW New Mexico; Bandelier National Monument NW of Santa Fe, New Mexico; Mesa Verde National Park in SW Colorado; Navajo National Park on the Navajo Reservation in NE Arizona.
There are numerous smaller sites that are just as interesting: Salinas Ruins National Park SE of Albuquerque; Aztec ruins in southern Colorado near the town of Aztec...only a couple of many.