Ruins and Umbral Shadows

On a bright summer morning in northern New Mexico, a rancher friend of mine asks her right-hand operations manager if he’ll take me to foot of canyon that leads to an unexcavated Anasazi site not far from where I am staying. I eagerly accept the invitation, and Toby takes me in a jeep part-way up a forested ravine, showing me the acequias he and his neighbors clear every spring so waters from the nearby mountain will continue to flow onto their centuries-old chile and alfalfa fields rather than into the main stream channel, where water rights apparently are claimed by thirsty districts in west Texas downstream in the Rio Grande basin.

The water is clear and cold, flowing out from a small aqueduct pipe slotted deep in the hillside where water percolates from the snowmelt and spring rains, and I fill a couple of bottles for the long hike ahead. A ways further the dirt road turns into a path and then peters out into nothing.

“Here’s where it starts,” he says, pointing up a steep hillside of young alder and piñon bushes. “You see the path?” he asks.

“No, I don’t,” I say nervously.

“Oh, it’s there,” he answers quickly, pointing in the same direction. “You’ll find it soon enough. And if you don’t, just head straight up, you know? And you’ll see a ravine, and then the mesa on your right. The kivas are up there. You can always find your way if you just go up that wall. And if you keep going straight on the path and get to some ponderosas, you’ve gone too far. Don’t keep going. You’ll fall off the other side.”

Hiking alone in a wilderness with no path and no clear landmarks, save a vague warning about ponderosas and sheer drop-offs is unwise.  But I may never be here again, never see this place, never have the chance to walk on a site like this before it is cordoned off by a federal agency, with a parking lot and a gift shop and access roads and a thousand tourists a day snapping photos of themselves in front of ceremonial sites and asking their camera-obsessed children “Wow, you figure they had bathrooms up here back in the day? Put the SUV over there by those tumbled down blocks? I want a Pepsi. Do you want a Pepsi? Is there cell phone reception here? I can’t read my messages. Who got eliminated on Idol last night? ”

I scramble up and up, the sun burning my scalp as I emerge from the trees and walk a path along the side of canyon that separates me from the mesa top. After a time, I see the tops of the kivas above the sandstone escarpment—thousands of pumice blocks lying akimbo. I don’t know how I am supposed to get up there—the canyon is deep and the escarpment is a vertical wall. But keeping Toby’s directions in mind, I keep going. Eventually, I see the ponderosas. Too far, I think. And despite his warning, I walk up to them, just to see what that drop-off is, and I peer downward at a stomach-churning plunge of 2,000 feet to a valley floor.

The ponderosas prove to be faithful guides; looking around, I see to my right a bridge over the top of the canyon where I can scramble up onto the top of the mesa. Now in mid-day full sun, I am walking through windows of sedimentary rock that have been worn down by centuries of human use. The path is etched in stone as if smoothed by water, but it leads in a purposeful way toward the kivas. I walk along it, thinking about what terrifying forces brought the Ancient Ones to this place, so far above where freshwater flows daily, and also so vulnerable to the storms that drop inches of rain and hail in the space of an hour. I marvel, thinking of Willa Cather’s Tom Outland in The Professor’s House, martyred in the Great War, who describes his wondrous discovery of Cliff City, an Anasazi site whose origins lie in mystery: “A people who had the hardihood to build there, and who lived day after day looking down upon such grandeur, who came and went by those hazardous trails, must have been, as we often told each other, a fine people. But what had become of them? What catastrophe had overwhelmed them?”

Flints litter the ground; every meter or two I see pieces of black and white painted pottery. I pick up the flints and an occasional arrowhead. They are warm, as if they have just been held in a human hand. I set them down where I find them, save one shard I guiltily put in my pocket for a time. The pumice stones lie where they fell from walls that once sheltered the people who spent centuries here, watching the stars move across the sky, comet to comet, the moon’s umbral shadow eclipsing the sun at sacred intervals, the Earth passing its shadow over the moon.

Pumice is a magnificent building material. A foot-long block is light enough for a child to lift, and yet is so strong that holds its form 1500 years after being shaped. The tools that litter the ground, I am told, came from a mountaintop a few miles away.  The pumice, however, was mined on the mesa where they stood. The builders took the material from shallow quarries they dug in precise circular fashion, leaving what appear to be ceremonial circles–windows to the heavens, perhaps, reserved for the oldest and wisest who knew from years of looking up what course the stars took through the sky.

It is day like no other, silent and ultimately frightening, as storm clouds threaten from the northwest. Being on top of a mesa where lightning will strike doesn’t appeal to me, and I am not sure I want the shelter of that ponderosa.

Getting down is treacherous. I have lost the non-path I arrived on, having traversed the length of the mesa looking for a shortcut that Toby also assured me was easy to find. I can’t figure out how to descend from the escarpment without risking limb and life. Storm clouds grow closer and more menacing. I hear thunder in the distance and see spouts of water falling on mesas in the distance. The canyon itself is a poor choice of exit, but taking it anyway, I skid down loose shale and get trapped every two dozen meters at sharp rock overhangs. I try scrambling up again to climb around and cut downhill through brush and boulders. I reach onto ledges above my head. I recoil when my hand descends on a beavertail cactus. I glance down and my hand now has a painful green fur of spines on it. I try brushing the hooked barbs out of my skin, then desperately pulling, knowing this will leave the barbs in the pads of my fingers. It hurts. A few minutes later, another short ascent in search of a way around a steep granite drop yields crumbly flint shale that tumbles menacingly on my head. I think next about the possibility of a rattlesnake or a scorpion greeting an outstretched hand on the next ledge, and remind myself not to panic.

Readers, don’t hike alone.

In silence, one’s thoughts wander to the question of what others sorting through 21st century ruins will make of us. Will we appear to a twenty-sixth century Tom Outland to be, as he put it, a fine people? As I puzzle over a mystery on the sides of the mesa: multiple carved-out boulders that seem to peer outward, away from the settlement but with no sign of oxidation or burial, I wonder if the boulders’ purpose is eminently clear but  entirely outside my grasp. Were these guard posts? Were there wars for this place, and for the precious water and hunting grounds below? Or was wilderness with its bears and wolves simply bigger than humans, and refuge seemed wiser than a battle of attrition with large mammals?

I wonder in this moment, will observers speculate that the shards of fast food restaurants on our excavated thoroughfares are temples? With their solid waste middens and remains of money and food, one might conclude that these were religious sites, with different brands and logos signifying competing deities? Would the logical conclusion of an extensive excavation yield the conclusion that the 20th and 21st centuries marked a transitional epoch, between a regional monotheism with figures like “God” and “Allah” and “Buddha” being set aside for an agile new liturgy of comparative valuism, with its attendant fetishism of “marginal utility” and “creative destruction?”

Perhaps, along with a Bible or a Koran, a copy Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson’s brilliant novel of 20 years ago, will survive and be decoded. Given what else the archaeologists would find, it would read not as science but as a latter day Herodotus—an embellished but epic truth. Certainly, it is closing in on prescient journalism in CE 2012.

In the novel, set in Los Angeles, but notably not the United States, which has shrunk to the size of a city-state and ceded nearly all its power to private organizations and companies, controlling warlords include a mafia-run pizza delivery service that spans a trans-Atlantic domain and liquidates drivers at will, but maintains a satisfied customer base by guaranteeing a pizza within thirty minutes or less. Mercenary armies compete for contracts and private guards preserve the peace for the wealthy in gated, sovereign housing developments, who drive on highways run by armed transportation firms. The less well-off live in storage facilities and occupy themselves working and playing in a computer-generated Metaverse, or worse, floating on gigantic islands of garbage lashed together in the Pacific Ocean under the thumb of a fiber-optics millionaire named L. Bob Rife.

As Herodotus’ Histories tells edifying stories of the Trojan War and the rise of Sparta along with accounts of oracles and a nonsensical description of Babylon, so too does Snowcrash trip ably from logical projections about the direction of real events to plot devices that are more fun than plausible. Twenty-seventh century Giddens figures will admonish twenty-sixth century scholars for their faith in Neal Stephenson’s description of Los Angeles freeways, arguing that he exaggerated and that he didn’t really know the place or live there.

It jives more with the world of Snowcrash than the golly-gee world of Good Morning America that thousands cheer in Tampa as Mitt Romney, the former head of asset-stripping firm Bain Capital, says without irony, “I am running for president to help create a better future. A future where everyone who wants a job can find one. Where no senior fears for the security of their retirement. An America where every parent knows that their child will get an education that leads them to a good job and a bright horizon.”

This absurdity of this was usefully pointed out by Matt Taibbi (and covered by Democracy Now on Thursday). Taibbi writes: “What most voters don’t know is the way Mitt Romney actually made his fortune: by borrowing vast sums of money that other people were forced to pay back….Romney is one of the greatest and most irresponsible debt creators of all time. In the past few decades, in fact, Romney has piled more debt onto more unsuspecting companies, written more gigantic checks that over people have to cover, than perhaps all but a handful of people on planet Earth.”

Fickle gods, bad leadership, and rising seas. Tom Outland of the future has much work cut for him. Meanwhile in the canyon, fat drops of rain fall while the sun shines.  A lone cloud empties its contents just above me as I descend, now with bloody knees and swollen right hand. Finally, I see the pipe leading to the acequia and the wide part of the canyon leading back to where I started. The rain stops and I marvel at a hummingbird moth hovering above a wild rose.

Heather Williams is an Associate Professor of Politics at Pomona College and can be reached at