In 1996 our family took a trip to Cortez, Colorado to visit the Crow Canyon Archeological Center under the guidance of Dr. Phyllis Pitluga, lead astronomer at the Adler Planetarium in Chicago. The center of our adventure was the study of the archaeoastronomy of the Anasazi, a native American tribe whose study of the sun and stars included landmarks that remain to this day. Those people disappeared more than one thousand years ago.
My own suspicions about their disappearance were never completely satisfied. There were hints of foul-doing in the burned wooden beams of their former residences and the small temples built from rocks and mortar. Perhaps they’d enjoyed a period of peace only to be wiped out by competitive tribes or worse, invaders from another continent.
Whatever the case, the legacy they left behind included a spiral carved into stone that was pierced by the morning sun on the summer solstice. The people of the region used signs like these to determine their schedule for planting and other tools for survival.
The morning we visited that site in 1996, we were accompanied by a trio of federal agents carrying assault-style rifles to protect us in the event that we encountered a pair of fugitives that had escaped into the wilds of Hovenweep National Monument after shooting a sheriff back in Cortez. Some things about the American West never seem to change.
In the moment
That was a distraction we were able to ignore as we arrived well before dawn with jackrabbits skirting ahead of us in the van headlights. We were all a bit sleepy as the group unloaded and walked to the rocky shelf overlooking the ancient spiral. Curious about what other wildlife might be around, I drifted into the surrounding brush only to be called back by the group manager. “The soil,” she whispered to me. “It’s cryptogamic. It takes centuries to build up. It’s best not to walk on it, please.”
I felt chagrined. My naivete about the nature of the desert was exposed. That said, I was rewarded with the song of a canyon wren ringing out from a nearby coulee when I rejoined the group.
We all stood with solemn concentration as the sun rose and its light crept across the face of the rock toward the carved spiral. It felt holy in its pragmatic virtues. This was a connection between the people of the present and those of the past. We could never hope to fully understand its significance, especially lacking the cultural reference and necessity of the solstice to those people, yet it felt important for once in life to bear witness to something beyond ourselves.
A bit later I did walk a hard rocky slope to do some birding. A gray vireo popped up, and rock wrens too. These western birds were surely present a millennia ago, and that felt like a connection too.
As we drove back to the ranch where we were staying that day, our guide explained that the funny-shaped rocks worn by wind and weather were called ‘hoodoos.’ Indeed, they created a mystique all their own. Apparently the people that once lived here crept among them and stored pottery and other artifacts in faraway places. Many composed of the pale clay and traditional criss-cross patterning like the photo at the start of this article still sit there one thousand years later. “Some people go out and take them,” she lamented. “But they have far more value as they were left there.”
We visited the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center for some deeper examination of the traditions and day-to-day lives of a vanished people. When the group took a break I went outside to sit in the white-hot desert sun. As I parked my butt on a hot rock next to the center, I looked down to see an apparition near my foot. It was a wildly colored variation of a common reptile called the collared lizard.
The colors were unreal, especially because I was tired form getting up so early, and my brain was not entirely engaged. Dreamily I sat looking at that beautiful creature. Then I absently reached out a hand as if to touch it. Instantly the lizard was gone.
Such is the timelessly ephemeral nature of the land of hoodoos and magic lizards.