Tom Ross: One man’s Puebloan ruin is another man’s motorhome
October 14, 2008
We spent much of the last week ogling relics in the Four Corners region where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah adjoin one another. There were relics in the canyons that drain the mesas, and there were some notable relics on the highways and in the campgrounds.
It was hard to escape the irony of seeing giant motorhomes in campgrounds at Hovenweep National Monument. It struck me that they were larger than the 750-year-old Puebloan Indian dwellings like the Twin Towers and Hovenweep Castle.
Hovenweep is a Ute/Paiute Indian term that means deserted valley. It first was applied to the network of canyons west of Cortez by pioneering documentary photographer William Henry Jackson in 1874.
In terms of physical stature, the stone masonry of the ruins in Hovenweep rank somewhere between the grand cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde to the east, and the modest granaries and dwellings tucked beneath cliff overhangs to the west near Blanding and Bluff, Utah, on Cedar Mesa.
I cannot fathom how the Puebloans succeeded in using mud mortar to build stone walls that would withstand desert climate extremes for eight centuries. And it’s remarkable to think that they turned their structures into astronomical observatories by positioning walls and windows to admit shafts of sunlight at the solstices and equinoxes. The buildings were, in effect, calendars that guided decisions on when to plant corn and squash, and when to harvest those crops.
However, there is a mystical quality to Hovenweep’s cylindrical and rectangular towers that goes beyond what I can perceive through the filter of my modern brain. I seldom visit Puebloan ruins without encountering a pair of verbalizing ravens. I don’t mean to say the birds speak English or German (the latter being the native tongue of most tourists in Southeastern Utah these days). But I always get a creepy feeling they are the appointed guardians of the antiquities and are warning me to behave myself.
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Santa Clara Pueblo Indian scholar Rina Swentzell said it better than I ever could in a few sentences posted outside the entrance to the Hovenweep visitors center:
“I think that Hovenweep is the most symbolic of places in the Southwest,” Swentzell wrote. “Hovenweep gives me a feeling similar to what I feel when I’m participating in ceremonies which require a tacit recognition of realities other than the blatantly visual.
“During those times, I know the nature and energy of the bear, of the rock, of the clouds and of the water. I slide into a place and begin to know the flowing, warm sandstone under my feet, the cool preciousness of the water, the void of the canyon and all the covering sky.”
During a typical day on Cajon and Cedar mesas and along the Waterpocket Fold, we hiked between three and eight miles. In the evenings, we returned to our tent and listened to the generators gently droning in the campgrounds, while howling coyotes reclaimed their rightful ownership of the mesa tops.
On one perfectly starry night, when my neighbor’s generator was particularly bothersome, we took a walk around the campground loop to do a little snooping. We wanted to find out what it was that made electricity so indispensable inside that land yacht.
I should have known. There was a satellite dish on top of the motorhome and a flat panel glowed from the inside. They were watching the presidential debates – precisely that which I was attempting to escape for a week.
I don’t want to come across as being sanctimonious. I, myself, have at times coveted a small camper – one light enough to be hauled by a six-cylinder hybrid vehicle, not one large enough to haul a full-sized SUV behind it. So, I cannot wrap myself in a green cloak.
However, that doesn’t prevent me from making this wager. Long after those giant dinosaurs have disappeared from American highways, the masonry walls at Hovenweep will remain standing.
Hey, one man’s ruin is another man’s motorhome.
– To reach Tom Ross, call 871-4205 or e-mail email@example.com