The Dry Valley

Once upon a time, rivers ran in Arizona and Native Americans lived along their banks. Now the water is drawn off to send to distant cities and to water broad fields of alfalfa and cotton, leaving only dry washes as evidence of what used to be.

I began driving my rented four-wheel drive car about a half hour before dawn today with the objective of reaching a small area of public land that I had selected using a topographic map. What made this particular area of interest was the fact that it lay between a certain river (dry now, but flowing before modern farmers commandeered it to water their fields)and adjacent highlands. Equally important was the likelihood that existing jeep tracks would allow me to get reasonably close to my desired destination (I don't believe in creating new ones, especially in arid regions, where the damage takes many years to heal).

As the sun was nudging over the horizon, I was turning off the paved road and onto a jeep track that was headed, more or less, in the right direction. Shooting the straights to gather enough momentum to carry through the occasional stretches of deep sand and braking sharply into the turns and gullies that crossed the track to keep the vehicle both moving and in one piece, I navigated by sight for the next half hour, switching tracks and gradually working my way closer to where I wished to go.

Navigating by sight is easy in most of Arizona, of course, where forests are limited to the higher elevations. But the landscape where I was headed this particular day was more reminiscent of some of the dry areas of the Hawaiian Islands than the Arizona of tourist brochures. Instead of cactus and sandy soils, I was driving across the shattered, black rock of a not so ancient lava flow, lightly dusted here and there with tufts of dry, yellow grass, and little more. But unlike the Hawaiian Islands, where vast cinder cones rise thousands of feet into the air and gently slope for miles in every direction, all here was random and jagged.

Eventually, I took a turn towards the edge of the plateau upon which I was driving, and the jeep track zigzagged it’s way sharply down a ravine eroded into the escarpment, taking me, finally, to a dry, gentle incline that ended at the flat valley below.

From the bottom of the valley, the edge of the lava flow looked like any mesa, except that the color of its face was a harsh, erodede surface of black. A mile or more across the dry riverbed, chocked with mesquite and underbrush, a much taller, but equally dark ridge of volcanic rock extended to the East for ten miles or more. Later, I found my way back along its base, and could see that the surface of the 700 foot tall ridge was an endless expanse of shattered black rock, with nothing growing upon it but a blush of dried grass, and at great intervals, an enormous, solitary saguaro cactus, perched hundreds of feet up on the impossibly steep, 75 degree slope and surreally raising its arms like a supplicant to the unheeding sky.

Once on the valley floor, I continued for another half mile through the dry mesquite, aiming towards a promontory of the same black mesa, and eventually came to a stop next to what I had hoped to find: a roughly triangular, flat-topped hillock, only a few feet high, and perhaps 25 by 40 feet in dimensions. Looking down at its side, I saw that it was liberally covered with bits of broken rock ? dark black, white, red and yellow, as well as shards of pottery. The top of the hillock was similarly littered with material that had been pushed to the surface over hundreds of years by kangaroo rats and other desert rodents as they dug their burrows into the sand.

What I was looking at was a ruin of a Native American dwelling compound, comprising four or five rooms, that had been abandoned perhaps 800 years ago, now completely filled and covered with wind-blown soil and sand, and serving as a kind of raised garden for scattered mesquite bushes.

I did not expect to find any arrowheads, knives or other tools here (and couldn’t have kept them if I did), although several days before I had indeed found a number of broken arrowheads at an older site at a higher elevation. Unlike that older hunter-gatherer site, the habitation I was now looking down upon was permanent, and dated to the agricultural period. Most of the meat consumed by those that had lived here would have come from domesticated turkeys and small animals (mainly rabbits) caught with snares, rather than from larger game brought down by arrows or spears.

Had I been 100 miles upriver, the pottery that was scattered on the ground would have been more colorful, with striking geometric patterns. Farther to the East and North, the color schemes would have been balck Anasazi designs on a white or red background. Across the border in Southwest New Mexico, the pottery left by the Mimbres people would show fantastic images of real and mythical animals. But here where I stood, the pottery was a simple, grey ware, tending towards black on the bottom, and a flat brick color on the inside. When the sun caught the inside of some shards, tiny pieces of mica used as “temper” to avoid breakage when the pot was fired glinted brightly.

Only a few pieces were more colorful ? a richer red with a softer tone, achieved by polishing the pot with a stone towards the end of its preparation. And every now and again, I’d find a piece of a *censored*le shell ? a fine section of the shell laboriously sawn free, and used as a bracelet ? trade goods from many hundreds of miles away.

The flakes and large pieces of broken stone that were liberally scattered about were of various types: white and yellow “sugar” quartz struck from the cobbles that lay about; a deep rich black stone from; white chalcedony; and a very few pieces of obsidian ? trade goods again, perhaps from Nevada or Mexico. A few pieces of broken basalt manos and metates ? the former a hand-held grind stone, and the latter the surface upon which seeds and grain were ground ? completed the lithic inventory.

All around, for as much as a quarter mile in any direction, similar material lay scattered about. Some pieces of pottery were larger than your hand. At one time, many people would have lived here, in settlements all along the wide, now-missing river for over a hundred miles. Crops would have been grown in fields watered by irrigation ditches, and small compounds of adobe-walled, single story houses would have dotted the landscape, looking out on the wide river that had cut this wide valley down through the black lava flow that stood proud in the near and far distance.

I nosed around for awhile, seeing if any of the adjacent pieces of pottery might fit (they almost never do), and determining the size of the settlement area and the elevation at which it began and ended. I also took a few pictures, and as always, tryed to imagine what it all would have looked like long ago, with children playing, women grinding corn outside their dwellings, and smoke rising from cooking fires. All of this would have overlooked carefully tended green fields stretching along the sides of the river, which itself would have been rimmed with reeds sheltering duck and heron. But now, like virtually every other river in Arizona, there was nothing but dust and a thick jungle of twisted underbrush in the valley botom, with pretty pieces of stone and plain grey pottery lying in the dust where those that had tended those fields once had lived.

Eventually, I climbed back into the car and left the silent mounds of mesquite-overgrown sand, and the parched and dusty valley whose river had been had piped and ditched and apportioned for the use of farmers far away, so that cotton could be grown for factories and alfalfa for feedlots instead of maize.

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