The Family Route: Galiuro Mountains
Quiet conversations of water moved through a forest. Words chattered across smooth, black stones as a clear stream turned one way and then another, threading among jail bars of tree roots. Where the sun reached through a canopy of sycamores and alders, light etched the water, igniting stones at the bottom of the stream.
Aravaipa Creek is famous for scenes like this, but this was not Aravaipa. It was one of Aravaipa's numerous sisters, a small creek flowing out of the Galiuro Mountains in southeast Arizona, its water eventually bound for Aravaipa itself. This is one of the nameless places, overgrown and heaped with boulders.
I walked along the stream with my young son, Jasper, at my fingertip. He held on firmly, not yet able to walk on his own. He used his other hand to part grass in front of him, grass that grew well above his eyes. My wife and a friend had gone ahead, scouting up a side canyon in search of routes. Waiting for their return, Jasper and I strolled along the stream, following bends of moss and cobbles. I crouched under fallen lances of alder trees, twisting around to keep my finger available as Jasper led me through green shade and the mumble of water.
Places like this are secret and untroubled, like bits of legend scattered across the desert. Each of the Sky Island mountain ranges in southeast Arizona, like the Galiuros, lets out veins of streams, allowing life to flourish. A radio carbon test of some of this water revealed that it is 15,000 years old. It is left over from the last ice age, ancient water stored deep within the rocky cores of mountains, slowly bubbling up into daylight.
My son and I passed beneath mansions of sycamore trees, their leaves as big as hands. Branches of the larger trees covered half an acre of ground, fleshy bark knobbed with orifices - folds of wood and bark that looked like ears and nostrils, like fat-skinned wrinkles. Wild grape vines coiled up the trunks and hung from branches. Life piled on life, a single organism of forest. Even alder trees toppled by floods had spouted again, their branches turning vertical, sending leaves toward the meager skylight, and roots down through cobbles below, unable to resist another chance at living.
For variety, I turned us away from the stream. We followed a spur of a side drainage, its cobblestones damp with moss. Dark troops of oak trees gathered around us. We slowly rose into a field of cliffs, a huge canyon surrounding us, its walls weeping with springs. I hitched Jasper onto my side and climbed a little higher, reaching for holds through ferns and moss.
"Hold tight," I said and I felt Jasper's arms instantly pinch at my side, his little shoes digging like spurs into my waist.
Now we were in the forest canopy, edgewise to the half-acre branches, able to see birds as they piped and warbled from their perches, a yellow breast, one dashed with green, shoulders of red. I stopped and swiped water off a rock with two fingers and brought my fingers to my lips, wondering if this was rain or snow that had fallen in Pleistocene times, my lips the first to touch it since then. Jasper leaned his head out, reaching a curious hand, wanting me to touch his lips, too. I did. He tasted spring water fresh out of the Earth with a little grit of stone, the clean savor of ice long melted.
Jasper gave me a squeeze and a high pitched utterance, reminding me of his other needs. I pulled a strip of jerky from my pocket, chewed off its tip and then passed a sweet plum of meat into his mouth. He took it without response. If he had gratitude, it showed only in the way he continued to hold onto me. I padded my fingers in the spring water again and tapped them on his lips. He grinned.
A cliff dwelling was perched just across from us, a single room still intact, wood beams jutting from its walls. I gave Jasper a jerk into the crook of my elbow, hoisting him higher onto my hip.
A ledge led from the water across to a dusty alcove in the cliff. Just a bit of water seeped from its back corner, a dark stain in the dirt. I carried Jasper along this passage, seeing smooth bowls of grinding pits formed in the boulders around us. We walked into the disintegrated remains of a few other chambers. The only structure in good condition was a single room just ahead. It had one dark doorway. I saw right away that it was not a rectangular doorway. It was not a T, either. It was half of a T, a P-shaped entrance like some I had seen in Colorado, at Mesa Verde. I walked across fine blow sand to this doorway. I let Jasper down off my hip. His little shoes landed as if on a lunar surface. He put his weight onto his legs, gripping a fist of my pants so he would not fall over.
This was a simple building heavy on adobe, its sallow mud almost poured into place around the founding rocks. I wondered what this place might have been, a station along the migratory route, or the midway of a trading lane.
We were traveling along a key migratory route linking the Safford region to Tucson via a series of forested passes in the Galiuro Mountains. Beyond these mountains is the San Pedro River where migrant pueblos accumulated in the 14th century. Charles DiPeso, who had excavated one of these pueblos, called the people "a mobilized but sound social organization which could move as a unit on the slightest provocation." DiPeso unearthed a fortress site, bound on one side by insurmountable palisades and on the other by a narrow access of land, a bottleneck pinched closed by a masonry wall. Even the entryway through this wall is made by an offset gate so that one could not walk straight through, but instead had to weave left and right. The pueblo itself is enclosed into a continuous barricade of buildings. There was no easy way to attack this settlement. Each entry could have been easily guarded.
Inside of this pueblo DiPeso found classic orientations of northern peoples (especially those now seen among the modern Zunis: distinct blocks of rooms divided from each other, but well connected). He had believed five clans had taken up residence here, each aligned in a specific way to the other. Like the two halves of the Goat Hill pueblo fitting into one another and forming a whole, this was a similar interlocking of groups, but even more complex. DiPeso had seen in the architecture of this pueblo specific lineages arranged around one another, matrilineal families revealed in the way interior buildings faced each other. DiPeso wrote, "if the central house-row may be considered to represent the locus of the strongest faction, and the associated house clusters to represent other clans who were permitted to join this primary cluster in exchange for certain services, then the archaeological evidence would support [the] supposition that a Western Pueblo clan cannot exist as an independent unit except within a larger village structure."
A sophisticated political and cultural order from the north had moved down here wholly intact, a system of exclusive clan relationships bound into single pueblos. These were not lost fugitives scratching out a bare existence. Rather, they were Colorado Plateau people carrying salient customs of their civilization across worlds to reach this place. The pueblos they built on the other side of these mountains must have been beacons calling in the far clans. They had found a stronghold for themselves, setting an anchor of multiple pueblos for the first time in hundreds of miles. Coming down from the Mogollon Highlands, out of Point of Pines and along the creek with the cache of wooden flowers, then through Safford, the remaining obstacle before the San Pedro river is this mountain range. One must either take the protracted overland route around it and through the desert, or cut directly into its tangled summits and canyons. If the way through here is known, scouted and secure, it is a clean and well watered route.
This cliff dwelling where I crouched with my son was probably one of their sites, a breadcrumb they left behind.
I listened out the door for Colin or Regan, the sound of their steps through rock, a crunch of dry leaves, maybe a voice echoing, a call across the canyon to see if the other had found a way. But they were not here. I figured they must have found a route out of this canyon, otherwise they would be back by now. Maybe the route they found would go on as we hoped, taking them hours into the next canyon and the next after that, not bringing them back until nightfall. I listened for them, but heard only birds and the creek muttering below.
I imagined people seven hundred years ago coaxing children through these canyons, hauling along the most precious family belongings they could carry. Infants would have come along, moved day by day, or kept in the same camp for a week waiting for scouts to return, utilizing good hunting and fresh water where they could. I used to believe ancient people had moved with the leanness of wind. In my mind they had the camps of desert jackals, striking them in the morning as quickly as tying a sack over the shoulder. There was hardly weight to their steps as they crossed hundreds of miles. But now that I was a father, a envisioned something different. Now, miles came slowly, earned with careful planning, figuring how many diapers would be needed, staying along dependable water sources for drinking and bathing. I no longer imagined prehistoric migrants as sinewy travelers slipping like shadows across the desert, rather I saw them in provisioned caravans burdened with heirlooms and children. Baskets would have been heavily loaded, straining against tump lines drawn across sweating foreheads. It would have made sense to send scouts ahead to find the way.
Signs of people traveling distances in groups rather than as individuals have appeared on human bones. Joseph Ezzo's inquiries into bone isotopes revealed slight enough variations that he could tell at what age certain people had migrated. Some people's bones carried part of an isotope signature from one place and part from another, implying that they had moved to a new region, but died before their bones could fully absorb the local isotopes. In the case of four migrant women buried in one pueblo, he found that one had migrated after her mid-30s, another in her mid-20s, the third as an adolescent, and the fourth as a young child, perhaps an infant. This he took to be proof that people were arriving in family groups with a full accompaniment of ages.
They brought cliff dwellings with them, new features in this part of the world, arriving hand in hand with the stonework pueblos of northern peoples. I had heard there were cliff dwellings out here, but I had not seen one until now. There were rumors among archaeologists and wilderness travelers, a few surveys done, mention of T-shaped doorways here and there. I remembered having spoken to an archaeologist deeply immersed in the study of migrations, a man named Jeff Clark. He had told me that if I walked through the Galiuros I should look for signs of these northern interlopers, especially since very few archaeologists ever get deep into these mountains. I asked Clark what I should look for. He said pieces of Salado polychrome pottery, and a few others - the Maverick Mountain polychrome that had made a path for itself from Point of Pines into the desert, or geometric Tucson polychrome that came a little later. If I was lucky, he said, I might find part of a perforated dish.
After naming the pottery I should recognize, Clark had told me, "I guess the easiest thing to look for would be cliff dwellings. If you find cliff dwellings, it's a good bet these people were there."
Clark reminded me not to expect anything huge, nothing the size of Mesa Verde's cliff dwellings or the ones I had seen below the Mogollon Rim. Just some petite buildings, simple architecture, not meant for more than a family or two.
I crouched next to Jasper inside the ruin. Sunlight slanted across the floor, dwindling memory of a people who once lived in the protection of cliffs.
Later that day we all regrouped, and Colin and I set off to see what we could find. We were trying to grasp the lay of the immediate country, seeking routes that could later be traveled with a baby in tow. Colin was fast, and eventually I had to stop for a break. My feet were bleeding. We were wearing sandals instead of boots. Sandals proved better for making distance in this kind of country, getting in and out of water, sinking into wet sand and climbing out the other side. But they were not much good for protection.
I sat on a shelf of rock and pulled off one of my sandals. A splinter of a twig stuck out of the soft skin of my sole. I gripped it firmly between thumb and forefinger and pulled it out, eliciting a quick barb of pain. I hunkered down to a pool of fresh water where I cupped my hands and washed my feet, rubbing dirt out of a score of minor wounds. I reached up and pinched off a leaf of lavender from a powder blue shrub beside me. I rubbed the leaf until it was moist on my fingers and dabbed it into the fresh, red abrasion on the roof of my right foot. I was ready to go again.
We found the tributaries of Aravaipa deeply incised, winding down through canyons and cliffs restricting the number of routes. Just finding a way back to camp by dark was going to be a challenge. Colin and I reached a ridge to get a view, well above the forest, high desert vegetation surrounding us: agaves, mesquites, prickly pear, and beargrass shaded by gnarled thickets of scrub oak. From here we saw down into the next canyon, and the one past that, and one past that again. The sisters of Aravaipa are many. My heart was beating from the scramble, breath pushing in and out. I turned and looked behind us, seeing the same as what we saw ahead, bleached heads of stone standing up from canyons.
Colin and I trotted along the ridge until it gave out, and we embarked downward, hoping to enter the right drainage, the one that would lead toward our camp. We started running, taking advantage of the steep terrain. White-tailed deer bolted in front of us, flashing out of the brush and into sunlight. They sprinted along a slope beside us and we kept pace with them, breaking this way and that as we sank into the shadows of a new canyon, one we thought would take us home.
Water began to appear in the lower reaches, pools shaded by overhanging trees. Colin and I slipped into dim corridors right on each others heels, coming down along a stuttering trickle of water. We both stopped at something in the ground. A plank of basalt stood out of the earth, half consumed in moss. It looked like a tombstone tilted onto its side. Before even regaining our breath, we hunkered in front of it, both reaching out our fingers and sweeping them across the stone's surface. Down the middle it was as smooth as book paper. It was a metate, a grinding stone. I looked around for a lump of a building in the ground, but there was too much organic detritus. I saw only the overgrown stumps of oak trees.
I swiped the stone again. For grinding acorns, I thought. For ricegrass and fishhook cactus seeds, pulverizing them into flour, making peppery cakes as thin as rice paper. They had crossed here, I imagined. These people I was following had stopped and hunted deer, finding no reason to move on just yet. Maybe they never went ahead, a family deciding to stay, dissolving into decades, drifting out of the memory of their own civilization. Maybe they were a mile marker, a family left along a path ready with directions to give to the right people looking for the way through.
Colin and I left this metate behind. We pinched around ledges and waded through cauldrons of cold water. Toward the end of the day we were still trying to find a canyon that looked like it might lead to our camp, to Regan and Jasper. Cliffs staggered below us and we slipped through their passageways, enormous doors opening and closing around us. Our route narrowed. It became a steep worm of a canyon descending into evening, leading through choked boulders. In front of me Colin lowered himself off the handhold of one of these boulders, hanging to the length of his arms before letting go and falling into a sandpit far below. He landed and sprang to his feet in the same move, darting farther down the canyon. I swung around and climbed off the edge of the same boulder. I hung the way Colin had, to the full extension of my arms, but for just a few seconds longer than he had, looking down over my shoulder, nervous about the fall. I let go and dropped like a brick, my hands flying down and hitting the sand where I landed. I staggered up to my feet and turned to follow.
We moved quickly through dusk's somber light, lingering only where the holds were nothing but thin scales of rock. Gray tree frogs clung to the walls around us. Their long, high songs swelled into the canyon. As we neared them they each jettisoned, tiny cliff divers plunking down into pools of water far below.
These frog holes of water deepened, forcing us around smooth faces of rock immediately overhead. Our side canyon funneled into an even steeper plummet and I could not see below, looking over Colin's shoulders, unsure of whether this route tumbled helplessly into a dryfall or if there was a way.
Down in the last turns before the fall several deep wells of water were drilled into the bedrock, each one tiered lower and lower toward the last edge that we could see. We were hanging hundreds of feet over the canyon floor that would lead us back to camp, jammed up here into a plunge-hole. I paused, leaning against the cool stone walls, catching my breath, not sure where to go if this route failed. There were no trails, no signs. Colin took one last running leap, bounding over several of these water tanks. He spanned the last one, and landed on its dry lip, teetering for a moment, peering out.
"Does it go?" I asked, wondering if there was a route, or if we were going to have to turn back.
Colin looked straight down past the toes of his sandals, his arms stretched to both sides as if he were standing on a tightrope.
"Does it go?" I repeated.
"Dead end," Colin said. He had vaulted his way to a thin purchase of rock over a free-fall canyon.
I quickly scanned up the walls around me, seeing a few ledges I could use to climb out. Colin was an accomplished climber. I had seen him do things on rock I would have thought physically impossibly. He did not need my help.
"Good luck," I told him. "I'll see you down below somewhere."
I climbed ledge by ledge. From higher I glanced at Colin still standing at an edge below me. He was taking a few breaths to consider his options. I could see now what he was faced with. Balanced on a few inches of bare stone with a pool of water as dark as opal behind him, he was looking a couple hundred feet into empty space, the canyon dropping out from under him. Knowing he would manage just fine, I did not look back at him again.
After about ten minutes inching around wall after wall, I came into a slope of rock rubble. I skittered into a narrow crevasse, popping out the other side not far above the canyon floor.
Just as I expected, Colin was already ahead of me. He had found some backdoor route and had beaten me down, no doubt lost some skin in the process, his blood still hot with adrenalin. We slid and scratched through sharp edged rocks, setting some rolling, kicking up dust for ten, twenty feet. Toward the bottom the rocks became boulders big as washing machines. Below them were boulders the size of houses. We climbed cracks between them, descending into a canopy of sycamores.
When we reached the bottom, the dark was nearly on us. We found the same stream where we had started, one leading to our camp. We followed it, moving across beds of moss and broken tree stumps. With no more exposed rock, no more sudden falls, we walked with a lazy, exhausted stride, our feet painted in leaf dirt and blood. Sycamore trees sank into darkness as we felt our way along. We had headlamps in our packs, but we did not get them out. A last trace of light remained to show the way, a vaporous glow, as if a modicum of daylight had not been able to find its way out of the canyon.
A baby's cry lifted from the dark ahead. It was the call of my son's hunger. It cried, comfort, warmth, need, echoing among trees, muted by leaves and trunks. Just as quickly, the voice was quieted. In the night beyond us, in a camp too far away for us to see, Jasper had been given whatever he needed. My body relaxed, almost home.
My feet were bleeding. I had to stop.
I sat on a shelf of rock and pulled off one of my sandals. A splinter of a twig stuck out of the soft skin of my sole. I gripped it firmly between thumb and forefinger and pulled it out, a quick barb of pain. A couple of my toes were split at their tips, stubbed hard on rocks, a toenail broken. The top of my right foot had been scalded by oak bark that I had scuffed without paying attention. I looked up, seeing that Colin had stopped, aware that I was no longer moving behind him. With his back toward me he looked ahead to the next route, a fork in this high, shallow canyon. For someone with a broken leg freshly mended, he moved swiftly, almost too fast for me.
We were scouting, leaving Jasper and Regan behind this afternoon. Now Colin and I were far enough out that our choices were beginning to narrow toward the few routes that would get us back to camp by dark, a few hours away still.
I hunkered down to a pool of fresh water where I cupped it up in my hands and washed my feet, rubbing dirt out of these minor wounds. I reached up and pinched off a leaf of lavender from a powder blue shrub beside me. I rubbed the leaf until it was moist on my fingers and dabbed it into the fresh, red abrasion on the roof of my right foot.
Sandals were more convenient than boots in this environment. Getting in and out of the water all day, sinking into wet sand and climbing out the other side would have left me walking with squirming socks. The sandals did a better job, other than leaving my feet exposed to the sharp implements of rock and plant.