The Old West is a lot older than gunfights, Tombstones and Boot Hills. For our journey back in time, we rode off into the sunset, and headed even further west.
South Central Arizona is generously sprinkled with ancient ruins left behind by the Hohokam, Salado and Sinagua peoples as they moved from one place to another following game or the rains. They lived throughout this area from over a thousand years ago until, for reasons still unknown to us today, they moved away in the 1400s.
We began our exploration at the big house, no, we didn't wind up in the slammer, we went to Casa Grande. Named by the missionary and explorer Father Eusebio Francisco Kino when he came upon it in 1694, this is the pinnacle of Hohokam society. By far their largest dwelling, it is thought to be the largest remaining ruin in America. But by the time the good priest stumbled upon it, the great house had long since been abandoned.
As much as we wanted to run straight over to the ruins, we decided to learn something first, so we took a look through the park visitors center. This is the first archeological site ever preserved by our government. President Benjamin Harrison set it aside in 1892, well before there even was a National Park Service. Later Woodrow Wilson designated it a national monument. The center is full of information and artifacts, but wanting to get up close and personal, we jumped in with a group that was being guided through the ruins by a park ranger.
The ranger explained how the giant structure is built basically of mud. As with most natives, the Hohokam used what was readily available for building material. Here in the Sonoran desert that meant caliche, the calcium rich local mud that works almost like concrete. These ingenious builders laid layer after layer of the mixture upon itself, tapering the walls from four and a half feet thick at the base to about a quarter of that on the top floor. Numerous smaller structures dot the desert all around the main building. Houses, storage buildings and ceremonial ball courts have all been uncovered, and many more still await excavation.
The next stop on our ruins ramble was up into the mountains at The Tonto National Monument. It took all of the restraint we could muster, but we managed to get checked in with the ranger without once asking him if he was “Lone” and we never called anyone Kemo Sabe, except maybe each other a time or two. Perhaps we are the Tonto, since it is actually the Spanish term for foolish one.
At Tonto, there are two of these villages tucked into the cliffs. The remote ruins are far off the beaten path, and as such, are remarkably well preserved. The upper dwellings are accessible only with a guided group and reservations must be made in advance. It went against our no plans philosophy, but in this case, a little planning paid great dividends.
Our guide led our small group up the steep mile and a half climb to the ruins, with plenty of information about the area, plants and history of the Salado. They were a branch of The Anasazi (the ancient ones) that came down from the north around eight hundred years ago. The Salado traded and interacted with the Hohokam, but formed their own villages higher in the mountains. By building high into the cliffs, looking out over the entire valley, they had natural protection.
After some time exploring the upper ruins, we climbed back down, much faster than going up, we must add. At the bottom, we decided to walk up the short, paved trail to the lower dwellings. These are open to the public without a guide, but unlike the upper site, visitors are not allowed to go inside the rooms. Still, they are definitely worth a look.
We began this leg of our expedition at Tuzigoot, pronounced 2-Z-goot, National Monument. Tuzigoot, meaning "crooked water," is an Apache word given to this sprawling pueblo that housed hundreds of residents covering a hill along the Verde River. Not much is left of the structures, mostly low walls, but there is a good collection of artifacts from the site on display.
The five story, twenty room cliff dwelling is stunning, although much of it is not original, having been restored several times. We could only gaze upon it from below, across the river, because visitors are not allowed in the castle. Up until 1951, people were allowed to climb ladders up to the ruins, but this practice was discontinued to prevent further tourist damage.
The well might be questionable as a drinking water supply, since the water contains a high concentration of carbon dioxide and a dash arsenic to boot, it would most likely bring on a pretty good case of Montezuma's revenge. Hey, maybe that's where it got its name.
Because of the chemical content, no can fish live in the well, but the spring is home to several species that cab only be found here. Tiny shrimp-like critters, water scorpions and leeches thrive in the fifty-five feet deep mineral rich water, as well as several interesting plant varieties.
For our last look into the past, we walked among the ruins of large pueblos around the outside of the “well” and climbed down for a closer look at the tiny cliff dwelling apartments built right into the walls of the sink hole. At the bottom, we got a close up view of the inside of one of the waterfront homes. A centuries old peek into the lives of the native societies that used this oasis to bring the desert to life.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com