Monday, December 13, 2010

Anasazi Strip - Chapter 15 - Part 1

Jenny Hatch accelerated the green government truck to 50 mph and the Ford half-ton leveled off on the washboard road, a trick known to all dirt road pros. Once the vehicle got going fast enough, the tires skimmed so quickly along the surface that they didn’t have time to bounce off the peaks and valleys, making for a fairly smooth ride. She knew she didn’t have to worry about somebody coming along in the other direction. Forest Road #66 was primarily a straight, north/south road, about 30- feet-wide, and a driver could see for miles. Jenny glanced in her rear view mirror and the dust spume reminded her of the smoke machine that was rigged to the rear of James Bond’s Austin Martin in the movie “Goldfinger”. She gripped the steering wheel tightly and howled like a wild dog as her long red hair danced in wind rushing past the open window of the truck. Goddamn, it was great to be a government employee!

House Rock Valley was the only way a person could drive north or south across the Arizona Strip without getting blocked by a mountain, a line of imposing cliffs, or the cavernous Colorado River gorge. Within hundreds of miles there was only this one, mile-wide valley cut, carved by the run-off from receding glaciers 10,000 years before. This drainage channel between the Kaibab Mountain and the Paria Plateau had been dry as a bone – except during the occasional rain storm – for the past 500 years. The Indians had used this pass as a travel route between the plateaus for at least 4,000 years before the Spanish started combing the Southwest for gold and stumbled upon it during the American Revolution. When the Mormons took over in the 1870s, they also used thevalley to travel between the Arizona and Utah Territories. In the early 1900s, the highway builders cut a steep, switchback road across the eastern end of the Kaibab Mountain, and the House Rock Valley Trail slowly faded from use and memory. Cowboys were the only modern people who could find any commercial purpose for this sun-baked no-man’s land. They used the dirt road to drive their herds into Marble Canyon and up onto the Paria Plateau.

Jenny was traveling through a spectacular world of rock. Paralleling the road to the left, The Paria Plateau rose sixteen hundred feet into the air, vermillion walls standing like a fortress in the clouds. Imposing, sheer-walled cliffs of Kayenta sandstone blocked access to the plateau. Gigantic chunks of red stone littered the floor of the canyon like mountainous building blocks. Some were bigger than a house. And some creative folk had occasionally even carved out cramped openings between a pile of immense boulders and called it home, hence the name House Rock Valley.

Jenny Hatch was one of the few people on earth who really knew the history of this remote and desolate valley. Most local knowledge was full of hearsay and inconsistencies, but Jenny had spent her whole life collecting every piece of written and oral history about the area she could find. She had interviewed many of the old Mormon pioneers, and recorded their memories. An old cowboy named Hualapai Johnny and the Mackelprang family had run their cows through the valley since the early 1900s, and they were ripe with old tales of adventure and loss. And some of the surviving Mormon widows were always happy to share their husbands’ harrowing stories of mining the Vermilion Cliffs. Few other cultural anthropologists or historians found the House Rock Valley and Paria Plateau of very much interest. But to Jenny Hatch, this area played the most intriguing part in the Arizona Strip’s rich and colorful story.

Nomadic Indians of the San Pedro Desert Culture had used the area seasonally, starting around 4000 B.C. By the time of Christ, there were Basketmaker Indians living atop the Paria in small rock overhang shelters and pithouses. Around 900 A.D., at the same time the people of Europe were coming out of the Dark Ages and starting to build small villages, the Paria Plateau underwent an incredible population explosion of almost urban proportions. Nearly fifty thousand Anasazi Indians constructed pueblo villages all over the top of the plateau. There weren’t that many people living in all of Southwestern Utah and the Arizona Strip today. Somehow, the Anasazi had been able to flourish in an arid land comprised of little more than rock. Archaeologists had barely scraped the surface of this prehistoric miracle, and Jenny was prepared to spend her entire life delving into the wonderful mysteries.

The first inhabitants had been roving bands of hunters who preyed upon the plateau’s thriving deer, rabbit, and squirrel population. The only traces of them were the stubby obsidian arrowheads which dotted the landscape like black flowers. The plateau had been a reliable source of meat for these people, but not home. Much later, the Anasazi had used House Rock Valley as farmland where they grew corn, squash, beans and rice grass. The structures along the valley floor appeared to have been used for storage, rather than habitation. It was on the plateau where the Anasazi built their houses, primarily rectangular-shaped, masonry-walled pueblos with anywhere from ten to fifty rooms. For three hundred years, these hardy people lived on top of the plateau in numbers which boggled the mind. Around 1300, there was a mass exodus and the entire plateau was abandoned, never ro be re-occupied again. No one knew why the Anasazi left so suddenly. Perhaps there was a plague, or they were conquered by marauding nomads. The prevailing opinion of the experts was that a combination of drier climate and environmental degradation was the key to the mystery.

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