Craig Childs - House of Rain
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House of Rain
Tracking a vanished civilization across the american southwest.

Missing Chapters

Looking to Kayenta: Cedar Mesa

Camp stood on a point drowning in wind. With Jasper and Regan asleep in a tent, I sat alone at the edge of an expansive, encompassing cliff, the moonlight strong tonight. Wind carried a change of season, warm streaks of summer threaded through winter's cold. Embers stirred from a ring of stones, our campfire gone out. Bright coals blew out of the ring and darted off the cliff into the night, lit for an ecstatic two seconds before vanishing into the moonlit gorge of the San Juan River thousands of feet below. Bands of desert flattened away to the south, an austere country of stone.

I sat with one knee propped up, a quarter of my attention back with Jasper and his mother asleep in a tent fifteen feet behind me. The rest of my attention followed the wind, wild eyed rider into shafts of moonlight, plunging through the gorge below where I could barely make out a reflective crescent of river. The remainder of the river was stolen by a tightly meandering gorge.

On top of my sleeping bag I had placed a thirty-pound hunk of sandstone, the only thing that would hold things down in the wind, keeping all of my night gear from blowing away, my sleeping bag from catching some two or three hundred feet below on a ledge, my thin pad from being flung like a kite to the horizon. I stood and walked over, kneeling, rolling the stone off so my body weight now held everything down. My sleeping bag flopped around me, trying to become airborne. We had been sleeping in the tent for weeks now, traveling around the high desert, and I needed just one night outside, out of the tent. The tent was making me nauseous, no view of the sky.

We had come to the southern edge of Cedar Mesa in southeast Utah, a monumental tip-off, cliffs falling toward the San Juan River and an open belly of earth beyond. No eternal reward would forgive me for not sleeping here on the edge tonight.

I stripped my clothes, stuffing their wad deep into my sleeping bag as cool air overtook my body. I slipped into my bag. The zipper came up for the night and I pulled the bag's hood over my head, sitting up, legs crossed, looking down where shadows leaned and pulled as the moon waxed into the west.

Nearly full, the moon illuminated cliffs below that laid against each other - or were they open plains of desert, an optical illusion in this queer and milky light? From my bag I looked across a gulf in the land, twenty miles over an exposed country of buttes and cliff tops, forty miles into far mesas of Kayenta with their enormous cliff dwellings, Betatakin and Kiet Seel, the hidden eye of Inscription House.

It was as much the view ahead of me that aroused my senses as it was the weight of the land behind. I was balanced on the very tip of Cedar Mesa, a place that is a circus of archaeology. Canyons strike through this mesa like lightning bolts. They are overrun with granaries and cliff dwellings. We had spent our day pursuing the largest of these sites, a complex of not quite fifty rooms bound to a sandstone ledge. The wood used in construction of this site, known as Moon House, had been cut in the 1250s and 1260s, the same dates for defensive kivas and dwellings built to the east in Colorado. What struck me at Moon House was a perfectly finished, geometric mural identical to ones I had seen in excavated sites around Mesa Verde. Meanwhile, half of Moon House's architecture was made of jacal - plastered adobe hung on a frame of woven branches - something much more common in sites south of here in the Kayenta region. The other half of the architecture in this cliff dwelling was stonework typical of the Mesa Verde area. This appeared to be a half-and-half site, two different cultural groups represented in one place.

The second group of Anasazi, the Kayenta branch, had its heart due south of here. I was staring into it from my sleeping bag, looking across this cast of moonlight. At the farthest southern horizon I could see a dark, high band in Arizona. There stand the mesas of Kayenta, like a mirror looking back at Cedar Mesa, the two divided by the twisting meanders of the San Juan River and sixty miles of desert.
       Kayenta people stand out as being different from those to the east. When Chaco was scattering its seeds of great houses and ballroom kivas in the 11th and 12th centuries, Kayenta held steadfast to its pit houses and old enclaves of alcoves. For two hundred years these people attentively kept themselves apart from revolutions in architecture. They were not the type to live in clunky, crowded pueblos; hunter-gatherers most of them, tenders of remote fields of corn and squash.

A researcher named Winston Hurst once told me he thought the Kayenta were country curmudgeons who would have no part of what was happening in New Mexico and Colorado. I had walked with Hurst in this area and he had showed me various pieces of Kayenta ceramics that at the time I could not differentiate from those of Mesa Verde. He had been patient with me on the matter. "It's more gestalt than anything," he had explained, holding a sherd in his fingers. "Sandiness to the temper, a sort of matte treatment to the exterior, something about its feel. Hard to say exactly. It's Kayenta, though."

I slowly began to recognize certain traits: D-shaped kivas of Kayenta; white outlines painted on their designs; red vessels. As soon as I could recognize them on the land I saw Kayenta people as populous and wide ranging as any, but with an enigmatic twist, never having fallen into the well of Chaco.

Slow learners, or keepers of the past, these Kayenta people held onto the early, seminal traits of Southwestern cultures. They laid the first of the elaborate burials here, a woman draped in the wings and breasts of over sixty golden eagles, and in another place a man and a woman buried in layers of keepsakes, numerous ceramic vessels and ninety-thousand black and red stone beads of superior quality - the manufacture of which would have taken fifteen thousand hours of scoring, drilling, and polishing.

Their attention to detail is reminiscent of certain Saharan tribes, the Tuaregs, and nomads still living on the outskirts of the Gobi, who manufacture astounding textiles in mobile camps. Their skills harken back to the Dorset culture of the Arctic in the 6th century A.D., artisans in heavy robes carving whale bones into clever and mystic heirlooms. The adaptation toward beauty is perhaps the result of a provocative and arduous landscapes, a level of industriousness required to survive there, and a pique of creativity and perseverance without which the marginal environments of this planet would have never been inhabited.

As one crosses westward into Utah from Comb Ridge, signs of Kayenta pottery increase amidst customary pieces from Mesa Verde. Up until sometime in the 13th century they had been regularly moving into here from the south, leaving signs of themselves mixed with people of Mesa Verde persuasion. In turn, certain distinctive pottery from up here has been found down in Kayenta. The movement was going both directions. Then, in 13th century when people retracted into cliff dwellings, cutting off trade with each other, the Kayenta receded to their southern heartland.

That was the last substantial movement of prehistoric people through here. They swept south, and this evening the wind poured in behind them, driving over the tip of Cedar Mesa. I perched at this last edge, resisting the press of the wind, staring into this gulf ahead. I once found down in that country below a carving on a rockface. It was a large and involved spiral making twenty very tight passages around itself. A couple inches into the beginning of this spiral were fine carvings of two bighorn sheep - what might have been a ram and a ewe. They appeared to me moving along the spiral to the center, the ram walking on all fours and the ewe ahead of him actually standing upright. They appeared to have just embarked on a very long journey across a dry plain of rock and I wondered if this spiral ever had an end.

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