by Hank Leukart
February 20, 2010
A blizzard interrupts a visit to Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
Wendy readies a snowball for snowmageddon.
OMEWHERE NEAR CORTEZ, Colorado — We spend the next two days on a whirlwind tour of Indian ruins sites managed by the National Park Service. First, we hurry to nearby Montezuma Castle National Monument, an impressive Sinagua 20-room cliff dwelling overlooking the Verde Valley. We learn that the Europeans who discovered the Sinagua ruins in the 1860s assumed incorrectly that the ruins had been constructed by Montezuma and the Aztecs, and the Monument’s name is a misnomer. We start calling the ruins “Montezuma Castle (No Relation.)”
“I feel like a tourist,” Rich says disappointedly. We’re all staring at a National Park diorama depicting a scene of Sinagua living in the cliff dwelling, complete with a blind man being led around by his wife and a misbehaved child running around on a mud roof. The diorama’s “Audio-Program” sign and activation button looks like it time traveled to us from 1950.
I, too, feel less like Indiana Jones in Raiders of the Lost Ark and more like Clark Griswold in National Lampoon’s Vacation. It’s significantly more rewarding finding ruins hidden on the rim of an obscure Canyon than visiting a castle and diorama at the end of a path paved by the National Park Service. Montezuma Castle (No Relation) seems like moose stew made with grocery store beef.
We catapult ourselves during the night toward northeastern Arizona’s Canyon de Chelly National Monument, and at 7 AM, we begin hiking into the Canyon on the White House Ruins Trail. Unfortunately, it’s the only trail visitors are permitted to hike without paying a Navajo guide, due to a special arrangement between the Park Service and the Navajo Nation. Though the temperature is below freezing, we take our time enjoying the Canyon’s fantastic scenery: towering red rock mesas, mint-colored Cottonwood trees, snow covered valleys, and buttes made of stretched orange sandstone. There’s some not-so-attractive scenery too. At the bottom of the Canyon, we pass a pile of trash, lawn chairs, and jeep tracks left by previous tourists before we arrive at the White House Ruins. The chain link fence that keeps us far from the cliff dwelling punishes us for the misdeeds of our looting ancestors in 1900.
“The Anasazi built these cliff dwellings in the Canyon between AD 700 to 1200. Then, they mysteriously disappeared,” I, in middle-school-teacher mode, tell the group.
“Yes, yes, we know,” Wendy says. “But where the hell did they go?”
Kids today, I think.
We stand at the fence, staring at the ruins. My eyes run over the aging, cracked red rock and the dwelling’s strangely small windows. I see a few pictographs etched into the rock: one that looks like an alien wearing a condom on his head, and another that looks like a planet from another galaxy. I wonder whether the Anasazi were abducted by strange, condom-wearing aliens or were in fact aliens themselves. I don’t share any of my absurd theories with the group.
As we hike back to the Canyon’s rim, snow starts to fall. The oversized, cottony flakes come slowly at first, sprinkling our clothes and eyelashes. The air turns quiet, in the way that it always does during heavy snowfalls, and the sky and air become white and opaque. By the time we’re near the top of the Canyon, we’re walking through a full-fledged snowstorm.
“That may have been one of the most beautiful things I have ever seen,” Vik says about the storm as the four of us, covered in snow, pile back into the car.
By the time we get to the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado, we’ve been driving through what seems like an enormous bale of cotton for six hours. I learn from my iPhone that the media is calling the storm Snowpocalypse 2010. We’re surprised to encounter a closed, locked gate, and a Park Ranger stops us when we try to drive around it.
“The Park’s closed,” he explains. “Too much snow.” Doesn’t he know that we’re trying to fit a ten day road trip into four days, and we only have one day left to find out what happened to the Native Americans of the Four Corners? I think. He tells us that, if we’re lucky, the Park may open again the next morning.
“Quickly — to Hovenweep!” I urge my travel companions, hoping that we can squeeze yet another ruins site into our trip. As Rich drives away, Wendy programs the car’s GPS navigator to direct us to Hovenweep National Monument, the site of six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages. Forty five minutes later, we find ourselves driving through rural prairies, near the intersection of Road P and Road 18, somewhere not at all close to Arrida, Colorado — which is to say — nowhere. In every direction, we see seemingly infinite swaths of snow fields. The blizzard, which had let up temporarily, starts again, slowly at first, then intensifies. We see no Puebloan villages. The snow makes me wonder whether the Hohokam, the Anasazi, and the Sinagua fled the area simply because they couldn’t handle the cold and crazy snowstorms. The car’s GPS navigator appears to have tired of sending us to the ruins of ancient civilizations. We’re lost. Rich stops the car on the side of the road.
“Snowhere,” Rich says. “We’re Snowhere.” Without explanation, he steps out of the car and starts walking slowly across one of the snow fields. Vik then gets out of the car too and follows him, about fifty feet behind. As Wendy and I watch, Vik bends down, builds a snowball in his hands, and pelts Rich in the back with it. When Wendy and I get out of the car, she too grabs some snow from the side of the road and then throws it at Vik when he’s not looking. I, the eternal travel documentarian, take photos until thousands of falling snow flakes render my camera inoperable. I pack it away, join the group, and start throwing snowballs at Rich.
Orbs of snow and ice fly chaotically through the air. One smashes into Rich’s shoulder. Vik’s jeans soon become soaked with snow. Wendy’s snowball weapons become the size of human heads. One bombards me in the neck.
My middle school teachers never would have allowed this, I think.
It’s an all-out snowmageddon. We never make it to Hovenweep.
Ruins of an Anasazi cliff dwelling sit at the end of the White House Ruins Trail in Canyon de Chelly National Monument.
How to Take an Indian Ruins Road Trip
There are thousands of Native American ruins sites in the American Southwest. Amateur archeologists could spend weeks exploring them all. Here’s a driving itinerary including some of the best. View this road trip on a map.
- MONTEZUMA CASTLE NATIONAL MONUMENT: The Sinagua built this cliff dwelling, which, strangely, has (almost) nothing to do with the Aztec Montezuma. These ruins are impressive and easy to get to by walking a quarter-mile, paved loop. $5 per person.
- PALATKI HERITAGE SITE AND HONANKI INDIAN RUINS: These two quarter-mile hikes near Sedona take hikers to the ruins of the largest cliff dwellings in Red Rock Country between 1150 and 1300 A.D.
- CANYON DE CHELLY NATIONAL MONUMENT: Seeing this beautiful canyon will make you want to stay here forever. Unfortunately, due to a unique arrangement with the Navajo Nation, hiking or backpacking anywhere in the Monument requires a paid Navajo guide — except for the White House Ruins Trail, a 3.5-mile round trip hike into the Canyon to some impressive Anasazi ruins. Jeep and horseback riding tours are also available. View my hike on the White House Trail.
- FOUR CORNERS: This is the point at which Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado meet. Tourists pay $3 to stand on the exact intersection. I have no idea why anyone would want do this. We did it. You’ll do it too.
- MESA VERDE NATIONAL PARK: This fantastic park, called an Archeological Disneyland by some, boasts some of the most notable and best-preserved cliff dwellings in the US. In the summer, take guided tours to Cliff Palace and Balcony House; during the winter, take a guided tour to Spruce Tree House. No matter when you go, drive the six-mile Mesa Top Loop Road to see ruins from lookout points and try one of the park’s hiking trails. $15 per vehicle in the summer; $10 per vehicle in the winter.
- HOVENWEEP NATIONAL MONUMENT: This Monument allows visitors to see six prehistoric, Puebloan-era villages. $6 per vehicle.
- MONUMENT VALLEY NAVAJO TRIBAL PARK: Drive this 17-mile dirt road loop to see the gorgeous buttes and plateaus of Monument Valley close up. A high clearance vehicle is recommended. Definitely worth the $5 per person, especially if you enjoy photography.
- NAVAJO NATIONAL MONUMENT: See three Anecestral Puebloan cliff dwellings.
- OFF THE BEATEN PATH: There are many Indian ruins sites outside National Parks and Monuments which can only be reached with help from Native American guides or enterprising hikers. Dave Wilson’s Hiking Ruins Seldom Seen helps amateur archeologists willing to hike long distances find some of these sites.