Across the Southwest there are tens of thousands, and perhaps hundreds of thousands, of ruins of many structures, built anywhere from 500 to 1500 years ago.
Additionally, there are countless rock art panels, consisting of pictographs and petroglyphs, displaying symbols whose meanings shall never be fully known.
Then there are the millions of artifacts found and yet to be found, like pots, baskets, arrowheads, figurines, etc.
Fremont, Sinagua, Ansazi, Hohokam, Mogollon, Patayan are names ascribed to the Old Ones of the Ancient Southweste by scholars. Where they came from, why they abandoned the things they built, and where they went thereafter, are not known. There is mystery to these people. We inherit their lost world.
Now, my first encounter with the most iconic of ancient southwestern ruins, at Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado, didn’t impress me. I’d seen Rome. I’d seen Mexican pyramids. My visit caused me to relegate the Old Ones at Mesa Verde as insignificant in the greater scheme of world history. However, time has changed me. The Southwest has changed me. Those Ancient Ones are far more than a mere historical footnote. They fascinate me now.
They were here in the Southwest long before me. They were here in perhaps greater numbers than us now. They lived, laughed, loved, and died upon the land where I now live. Their understanding of time, place and culture was so different. I can’t help but to wonder how differently they saw the horizons. I can’t help but wonder what they and their descendants were like before the Spanish.
After all, the pre-Columbian world of the Americas is a mystery. One of the greatest questions in all history is what was the population of the New World before small pox. Unfortunately, we’ll never know. We’ll also never know the origins of Aztecs, Incas and Southwesterners. We’ll never know their ancestors’ languages, and all the subtleties of their cultures. And all these unknown mysteries are so inviting to wonderment, to passion.
How far does this passion take me? Not as far as some. Some have dedicated their lives to understanding the Old Ones. They’ve become professors. They’ve become authors. They’ve spent thousands of hours discussing the patterns found on ancient pots across the Southwest to get a better approximation of cultural epicenters. They’ve visited hundreds of ruins to study architectural styles so as to be able to distinguish Hohokam from Sinagua. They’ve done much to advance knowledge illuminating this mystery. Me not.
And that’s fine. This mystery isn’t for me to solve. But, by gosh, how wonderful it is to live vicariously through the books of those doing precisely this!
The Lost World of the Old Ones by David Roberts I’ll just quickly touch upon. It’s not the best book I’ve ever read. But it was good. It’s Roberts sharing his thoughts and emotions as he travels the Southwest to experience its ruins, landscapes and wonders. He does one heckuva job setting up why he goes where he does. He makes me want to go there too. His words fire my passion and wonderment.
For example, he talks about this huge rise southern Utah called Fiftymile Mountain. It’s part of the Kaiparowits Plateau overlooking Lake Powell from the north. I’ve seen Kaiparowits from Powell countless times. I’ve always wondered what it’s like up there. So did Roberts.
He sets the stage. Fiftymile rises above a road going south out of Escalante, Utah called Hole-in-the-Rock Road. There are tours down that road. He’s taken some. However, none of the guides have gone up to the top of Fiftymile Mountain. It’s a steep rise and requires a thoroughly planned expedition. Roberts makes the point that only a handful of ranchers know it’s top. Hikers go elsewhere.
Fiftymile’s always been quite unknown to Utahns and adventurers. He explains that, in 1923, there was a group of young men who were exploring the Rainbow Bridge, the world’s largest natural arch hidden between Lake Powell and Navajo Mountain of Utah. White men had only discovered Rainbow Bridge in 1909. From the bridge, a guide told one particular young man named Kluckhon,
“No one has been there” In the moment my eyes came across those words, my body was filled with the same thrill Kluckhon himself felt back in 1923. That thrill transported me beyond my crappy living room chair. It pushed away preoccupations. It made me forget time. For the next hour I sat spell-bound wondering how thrilling it would be to drive down Hole-in-the-Rock and experience the same vistas that Roberts saw adventuring up Fiftymile to look for remnants of the Old Ones!
And that’s the point. Reading has produced some of the most powerful joys in life. Yes, sometimes reading’s monotonous. Sometimes I want to watch mindless crap on television. But television can’t do what reading does. When your imagination conjures images from the words of a book, they are your images. Feelings attached to those images are far deeper and stronger. It’s all more real.
Reading touches your senses more. New thoughts occur. New motivations occur. This change of course in the mind can be as adventurous as the consequent change of course in life. Where these changes take you is unknown.
New knowledge, new passions, new lands, and more, come from books. I understand what a bookish adventure is. The Lost World of the Old Ones was one. While atop Fiftymile Mountain, Roberts’ words made me see heavens so blue and wide over rocks and fading pictographs from a thousand years ago. Here you can imagine better how those Old Ones saw their horizons. Here my passion grew. Roberts’ other books have been good to me too.
Truly, books dedicated to the Southwest have grown my passion to know more, and brought countless sweet hours to life.
So turn off your goddamn television and seek something new!