the desert cities
House of Rain by Craig Childs (Back Bay Books, 2006)
A few years ago my sister Alia and I took a road trip to visit some archaeological sites in the southwestern United States. I used to be a geologist and she's an archaeologist (although her area of expertise is considerably more Roman and more volcanic), so driving around the desert looking at ruins sounded like a good time to us. We went to Mesa Verde to tour the cliff houses (with—I kid you not—the most ill-informed volunteer ranger in the entire National Park Service), to Hovenweep to wander around among the towers, to Chaco Canyon to cling desperately to the barren rock with our fingernails while a windstorm tried to blow us away. Look, it was a really powerful windstorm. We couldn't even sit outside at our campsite because the wind kept blowing our beer bottles over, and that was beer we had backtracked twenty miles to buy at a lonely gas station on US 550.
But we braved the wind to see all the ruins we could see and did manage to visit most of the great houses of Chaco. I bought this book in the visitor center during one of our breaks from all that blowing. It's been on my bookshelf ever since; I more or less forgot about it after I got home. Now that I've read it I wish I had done so when the places we visited were fresh in my mind.
House of Rain is an archaeological travelogue in which author Craig Childs traces the rise, migration, and eventually dispersal of the people now known as the ancestral Puebloans, a.k.a., the Anasazi, a word that has fallen out of use for good reason. ("Anasazi" is borrowed from the Navajo—relative latecomers to the region with no relation to the Pueblo cultures—and can be translated as "enemy ancestors.") They never vanished, no matter what we were taught in school. Modern Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and several other groups are their direct descendants, and they haven't gone very far from where their ancestors lived.
Childs begins at the beginning, with Chaco Canyon and its great houses and its massive roads, then follows the historical migrating population chronologically as they moved north to the stunning cliff houses of Mesa Verde and Kayenta, north again to the odd stone towers of Hovenweep and the scattered hideaways in the remote canyons of central Utah, then back down to the south, over the Mogollon rim and into northern Mexico. Childs' journey is one that takes place largely on foot. He hikes hundreds of miles in the desert over the course of the book, sometimes alone, sometimes with one or two companions. He follows the ancient great white roads north of Chaco, climbs into slot canyons in Utah in search of tiny ruins, hikes to obscure mountainous sites in the dead of winter to observe astronomical alignments, tramps through blizzards and floods and thunderstorms and hundred degree heat to put together the pieces of the long story he's telling.
He clearly knows the land and loves it, and his passion and respect for the desert is one of the reasons such a meandering, unhurried travelogue works so well—most of the time. It's a bit too self-indulgent in some places, and in others proves true the stereotype of Southwest archaeology being All About Pottery to a degree that becomes a little bit hard to follow. That's a minor complaint, though, a handful of details within the larger scope of the story. The history of the Pueblo ancestors is one of ongoing migration and integration, several centuries of diverse populations moving to escape drought and a changing climate, sometimes peacefully and sometimes violently, sometimes leaving their magnificent stone cities only to return a generation or two later. The boots-to-the-ground, hands-in-the-dirt approach makes the story vivid even when there are more questions than answers.
It's a beautifully written book full of exhaustive research and unmistakable passion for its subject, but most of all, it makes me want to go back to those desert ruins to explore again.
Chaco Canyon, New Mexico:
Mesa Verde, Colorado: