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

Missing Chapters

Persistence: Tucson

Behind a strip mall in a Tucson parking lot where the desert used to be, beyond a row of big metal dumpsters lies a canal employed to carry storm water off the streets. When I was there it was dry and choked with mesquite trees. Lumps of black plastic bags filled with lawn clippings piled on top of each other like corpses. Shrubs called desert broom grew up through the cobbled ground of rocks and broken concrete.

I came here with a friend and a pair of flashlights. When we entered this thick bosque of thorny mesquite trees, we lifted the beams of our lights. Spider webs blocked the way. Countless strands of silk hung from the trees nearly to the ground, filthy with little confetti leaves of desert plants.

"You go ahead," my friend said.

I looked at him, then back at the spider webs. I lifted an arm across my eyes and slid through. Within two steps my face was netted with diaphanous strands. Dry leaves as small as pencil tips dropped down my collar and into my shirt. I pushed branches aside, letting them swing closed behind me. My friend could clear his own way.

Silken ticker-tape sailed from my shoulders as we approached the sound of traffic. A city street's overpass ran in front of us, lifted atop what looked like a concrete hangar, a black rectangle opening into the city's underworld. Just in front of this dark mouth a shopping cart lay half buried like a shipwreck. We walked around the shopping cart and stepped onto a cracked concrete platform leading into a tunnel. A bit of greenish-blue water oozed out of the tunnel like syrup, drizzling down off its lip, disappearing into the earth, into Tucson's groundwater supply. We looked inside. One of the walls was lined with poor handwriting of a weekend graffiti artist. The words read GO BACK BEFORE IT'S TOO LATE and DO NOT ENTER. Just past that was a skull and crossed-bones in black paint.

My companion chuckled at the sight. "Poor bastards don't have anything better to do on a Saturday night than make cheap graffiti," he said.

I nodded and looked down the passage. We both lifted our lights into this concrete sluice box, an underground storm sewer. The lights disappeared into black distance.

"Let's see what's in here," my companion said, and he started inside. He was in his mid-forties, a merchant working strictly with artists indigenous to the Southwest. In north Tucson he ran a trading post filled with carved and painted katsinas, with finely crafted ceramic vessels, and shells inlaid with precious stones, high-end material. He had also been an archaeologist in earlier years, digging sites in Southwest Colorado, pulling up bones and pots. His trading post sold no such antiquities, reserved specifically for artifacts of the last century.

We were here because of his son, a young man who had gone "tunneling" beneath the city with friends. While down here he had found something of consequence. He was a photographer who developed his own black and whites. He had showed me a collection of images from his journeys in the underground and among photos of concrete silos and brazen spray-paint work I came upon a photograph of a piece of art done by hand with a brush and with many colors. It was the mask of a katsina, emboldened into modern art. When I first saw it, my imagination flashed. Someone from the north had been down there. A circular katsina face divided into quadrants of color was something I would expect on the Colorado Plateau. When the son showed me this photograph I had held it up like an X-ray negative. I hated to ask, but I did anyway.

"Do you remember how to get there?"

The son explained the way, a parking lot, a dry river of trash and mesquites, and an entrance into the underside of the city where we would follow a tunnel. From there, he said, it is a long journey through a tube deep inside the earth.

My companion's steps splashed into echoes, which turned steely along the length of the corridor. I followed him. The floor was gutted with debris. A stream trickled through, car wash water, leaking swimming pools, and the effluent of half-treated sewage. The circles of our lights beamed along the walls, following graffiti which became more skillfully executed the deeper we went. Words had been written in a lexicon of swollen letters, the English language pumped with spray-paint, serifs boldly overdone until they were a language in themselves.

The passage was wide enough that we could travel side-by-side, studying walls and then the contents of the floor before taking our next steps, passing over grocery bags, shreds of fabric caught on gravel bars, and cobs of human feces. Every now and then we crossed beneath a street, a corroded metal ladder rising to a manhole cover. The iron cover hummed as traffic passed across it, a sound high above us like an ocean surf.

Wild flares of graffiti erupted along walls farther down. Around the circle of an incoming drainage tunnel an open mouth and an adroitly rendered face appeared, the mouth vomiting out a dribble of street water.

There was another bedeviling warning: TURN BACK NOW.

Not to be taken seriously, but still, I cast my light down the passage. What does happen in here? Like a dog fetching a stick, my imagination bounded into the darkness and returned moments later with dead bodies and floods in its teeth, assortments of invented horrors. I remembered the young photographer telling me it would be a long walk. When I pressed him, he could not say how far. With a shrug, he had told me that you lose track of time and distance down in the tunnels. How far depends on what kind of person you are.

We came to a split. Two round tunnels opened beside each other. They were much smaller than the passage we had been following, a pair of shotgun barrels running into the black. They probably led to the same place, but we did not know. The directions we had received were light on details at this point. We split up, ducking into our own tubes of concrete.

I felt the pressure of the city, heavy shoulders of the earth, as I crouched my head under a low, rounded ceiling. My animal instincts boxed nervously around in my head, losing sense of direction, forward and back identical. I focused ahead on the vanishing circle of my light, thinking there could be no archaeological data to gain by walking through this storm sewer. On the other hand, all data does not arrive from academic review. There are bends in the path of study, turns down sudden and long halls of darkness that must be followed.

The image I had seen in the photograph had the basic layout of early katsina art, vaguely similar to faces painted on stone slabs at the prehistoric site of Point of Pines. It was the sharply divided face of a mask, the same kind of layout as in bowls of Sikyatki polychrome from around Hopi. But I was not looking for empirical evidence down here, no peerless connections along a prehistoric route. It was a lark, a fleeting notion that brought me here. A twist along this rabbit hole of ancient migration.

My own footsteps twanged ahead of me as if rapped on a tuning fork, the strange mechanical acoustics of concrete. I could not hear my companion. For all I knew, his path had turned long ago down another street and he was a quarter mile away by now.
       The world fell away after ten minutes of walking, no more sound of cars and passing streets. I had slipped beneath shopping malls, under rows of cookie cutter neighborhoods, and now seemed to be descending into something deeper. My light fell ahead of me like a voice shouted down a well.

How deep was I? The clean construction of this tunnel betrayed the stratigraphic levels of soil I was accustomed to, archaeological excavations taking out earth centimeter by centimeter. I figured I must have passed well into the dead zone by now, what archaeologists call sterile soil where no cultural remains are ever found. I was walking far beneath the inquires of human sciences.

Digging these storm sewers into the ground, workers had passed through tiers of buried Hohokam settlements, finding prehistoric ballcourts and canal networks. The modern city of Tucson lay atop one of the old guard cultures of the Southwest. I once spoke with a housing developer who built a desert subdivision between here and Phoenix. In laying down the infrastructure for his newly fabricated neighborhoods, his crews uncovered an ancient municipality complete with burials, kitchens, public plazas, and living rooms. Archaeologists were sent in ahead of the builders, quickly gathering whatever they could like pulling wounded off an active battlefield, digging up painted urns filled with cremations, dusting out walls and corners to make swift maps of the place with bulldozers waiting at their heels.

The developer had told me that he had a personal love for archaeology, showing me a few handsome, buff-colored vessels he had kept for himself on the mantle. He had done better than most at allowing researchers the time they needed, but in the end investors had to be paid, and deadlines needed to be met. Houses were laid down across the desert, rolled like sod over beds of ancient dwellings. The new residents would never know, this developer had told me. In a way, he said, this was archaeology in itself, one layer on top of the next, just like it has always been.

It is the law of superposition, the most recent elements laid on top of the older ones like pages in a book. Eventually, the oldest material virtually vanishes, all memory of it crushed by the weight of whatever comes after. But the story keeps going, carried intangibly from page to page, lifted out of the dirt, adding constantly to the next form.

Within this crush of ancient remains beneath Tucson are signs of migrants from the highlands. When 14th century migrants entered the desert of the Hohokam they came without the bravado they had shown at Point of Pines, at Safford, and along the San Pedro River. They were now faced with towns already inhabited by well-established populations. They found a thousand miles of irrigations canals linking many settlements, a carefully governed system that controlled water for thousands of downstream farmers. These Hohokam people had been water engineers, industrial farmers, and world class traders. Compared even to Mesopotamian settlements of a similar era, the Hohokam communities were more complex and contained higher densities of residents. With an economy dwarfing all other cultures in the Southwest, these were a formidable people.

Some scholars have said that the northerners finally vanished here, overwhelmed by the Hohokam. The flag of migration from the Colorado Plateau was lowered as these travelers seemed to sink into assimilation. Kivas were no longer built. Masonry construction disappeared. Many Hohokam archaeologists explain the presence of Salado pottery here as purely the result of trade, shiny trinkets brought in from the outside.

But if the surface layers of Hohokam archaeology are peeled back, and certain 14th century are sites opened for scrutiny, the disappearance of these wayfaring people is again revealed as an illusion. Out at the brink of the city, seven miles from downtown Tucson, one of the larger platform mound communities was excavated revealing the same style of pottery as what had been made at the Point of Pines enclave before it burned. Mingled in with that was a healthy quantity of Salado ceramics and plates with perforations around the edges. These had not been exotic artifacts traded into the Tucson area, rather they had been manufactured here. In fact, the site seems to have been a major production zone for Salado polychrome, a foreign ware being made and distributed from inside the Hohokam sphere.

I once spoke to an archaeologist named Patrick Lyons, a man who has studied many of the finer details of migration to and from the Colorado Plateau. Lyons suggested to me that pottery had been a key that migrants used to open the door into the Hohokam world. "That's their niche," he said. "When these migrants show up they don't have access to land, they don't have access to resources. How can they get a foothold? Pottery specialization is one way to do it, and it was something they were especially good at. I think these migrants acquired a reputation as the potters. It became part of their identity."

Look for masses of this pottery and you will find northerners. A close examination of certain rooms on a platform mound at the edge of Tucson reveals slab-lined fireboxes and bins for mealing grain, both of which carry strong northern signatures. Inside these rooms people had kept birds - hawks, falcons, eagles, domestic turkeys, and imported macaws - an uncommon assemblage among the Hohokam, but expected of northern groups, harkening all the way back to Chaco.

Wood from this site was recently analyzed for dating, grains of charcoal revealing their tree rings and the years they were cut, lab workers were able to set the first incontestable date for a major Hohokam settlement in this part of the desert. The burned wood, likely ceiling beams, had been cut no earlier than 1320 A.D., meaning that construction had occurred during the peak of migrations in the Southwest. It was a time when people were scrabbling across the hinterlands, building upon hills and buttes and then leaving them behind. Migrants covered the landscape with marks of their passage, while the Hohokam were supposedly being a stable and responsible people, staying at home.

Northerners may have bowed to the Hohokam system, taking on many traits of these low desert farmers, by they did not vanish here. On the contrary, certain attributes persisted with incredible vigor.

Patrick Lyons said to me, "These people replaced the local decorated tradition of pottery everywhere they went. I mean, everywhere they went."

The tree ring dates recently recovered from this large Hohokam settlement at the edge of Tucson suggest that everything happened at once. People of this desert burst into a new fruition in the same years that migrants were moving. In the mid-13th century the Hohokam built their largest sites, erecting massive platforms upon which they laid rich adobe settlements. Ballcourts were suddenly marginalized, set aside. Something radical had changed in the Hohokam heartland.

Burning seeds of migrants had been found in their ruins. Excavators had dug up the charcoal of torched roof beams, evidence of a familiar abandonment, the sort of final burnings that had been so common on the Colorado Plateau. There is much debate between Hohokam archaeologists and those pursing these migrants. Many of those who study the Hohokam have barricaded themselves against the oncoming scholars of migration, claiming their work to be an "invasion hypothesis," eviscerating it with every piece of data they can muster. Meanwhile a migration researcher boasted to me, "Hohokam archaeology is about to change. For a long time Hohokam archaeologists haven't wanted to use the "M" word. They've been much more comfortable thinking of Salado as a thin veneer over Hohokam, thinking it was just a few local folks getting this Salado pottery from the outside. They don't want there to be any northern immigrants running around in this part of the desert."

It is as if we cannot help replaying the old stories, mirroring the entrenchment of the Hohokam while steadily feeding in migrants from the outside. Both factions of research are to be wholly believed, though, even in their contradictions. It is reckless to assume there was only one story here.

Arriving as a migrant myself, traveling down from the Colorado Plateau and through the highlands to get here, I looked for signs of other migrations in the past. In hunting through collections of artifacts and the findings of many researchers, I found that the presence of these 14th-century migrants in Tucson had multiplied over time, even in the heart of what is now Phoenix, the very hub of the Hohokam system. Sorting through museums and basement collections I found the same compliments of pottery as was seen at Kinishba, at Point of Pines, at Safford, and along the San Pedro River. I saw perforated dishes, which had first appeared in the Kayenta region, now excavated from Tucson and Phoenix. Hohokam and migrant burials were separated within single villages, the Hohokam cremating their dead and burying them with red-on-buff pottery, while people from the highlands buried their dead whole, placing Salado wares into the graves.

Some settlements appeared with twin platform mounds. On one stood what seems to have been an adobe, Hohokam settlement, and on the other a pueblo layout with enormous roof timbers hauled down from distant mountains, a monumental ceiling much like those of the northern pueblos and the earlier great houses. But the pottery is the most clear indicator. Within a matter of decades, colorful ceramics of these migrants all but replaced the decorated wares that the Hohokam had used for centuries.

Perhaps it was not such a lark that had brought me into this storm drain. I was looking for the very emblems of migrants, marks that show the way through. I paused for a moment in the tunnel, aware of the weight above me, cities upon cities, ages upon ages. People had been asserting themselves on the land over my head for a very long time, cultures weaving in and out of each other like tree roots. I felt momentarily immune from centuries down here, traveling through a pipeway utterly devoid of distance and time.

This single concrete cylinder seemed to have no beginning and no end, a claustrophobic sense of infinitude. Frequent washings of floods had scoured the encircling tube clean, leaving it free of graffiti. The floor had no debris, a featureless curve passing under my every step with no telling of time, no reference between one thing and the next. I could have been walking alone for fifteen minutes or half an hour. I paused again and turned the flashlight to look behind, seeing the same disappearing rings of light, identical in every way to the path ahead.

I walked on and the tunnel opened into a concrete box, a larger room. Allowed the space, graffiti covered walls top to bottom. A mad, haunting face hung in the corner of a ceiling blazed with spray-paint. A concrete abutment was draped in black candle wax. Almond colored cockroaches skittered this way and that, startled by my light. There was no katsina.

My friend appeared from an adjoining tunnel, turning his light on the walls. He scanned the manifestos written there with fat ink pens. He read them out loud and they sounded like heavy metal lyrics, like suicide notes, fanatical and forlorn people wandering this gloom bin of a sewer. I asked my friend if he had seen anything and he said only a long concrete tube he thought would never end. We had not missed any junctures. We were faced again with another pair of tunnels ahead. And again we divided, quickly lost from each other down hollow pipelines.

I sank back into the echoing rhythm of my steps. My light appeared to bend in front of me, as if the passage were slowly turning, leading me into long loops. This was an illusion, like mirrors facing each other and bending forever. I turned the light off and kept walking in complete darkness. It was somehow easier to move this way, not straining my eyes for an imaginary endpoint. I traveled through a void until I saw a glimmer of light ahead. It grew until I could see the circular opening of this tunnel and a flashlight beaming on the other side.

I emerged into a vaulted junction room, my companion already there before me shining his light up along one of the walls. He looked like a spelunker who had come upon cave paintings, neck craned as he cast his light overhead. I looked up.

A mask was painted high on a gray-streaked concrete wall. It was the face of a Hopi katsina, not made with a spray can, but with brushes. It was the finest execution of graffiti I had yet to see down here, large enough that my friend's light could not encompass it at once. I turned on my own light, casting a beam along traditional slashes of eyes, and a black, horizontal band across a round, mask-like face. Three white feathers with red tips had been painted on one side of the circle, and on the other a single feather of the same colors.

It seemed to me that the design was definitely Hopi. If not made by a person of Hopi descent, then it was a clear case of emulation by someone else, a transmission of an image through layers of different cultures. Residue of a new civilization had been added to it. Blood dripped from a slash straight across the lower third of the face, red paint outlined in black running into colorless flames painted below. Small, anthropomorphic dancers lined along the forehead above a geometric headband painted in blue and black. I imagined a Hopi high school student coming down here, a young artist sent hundreds of miles off the reservation to live with family in Tucson, maybe fleeing from an adolescent distaste for living isolated on the Hopi Mesas. Now she or he was roaming the underworld, leaving an intricate tale of passage through here.

The painting had been made in detail, numerous motifs gathered around each other, a long snake with a scrim of blue paint on one side, a crooked geometric arrow on the other. A yellow sun rose out from behind the mask at the tail of the snake, and above was the image of a raptor, perhaps a hawk or an eagle. Maybe the symbology was strictly personal, lacking any tribal association. Or perhaps there was a traditional, numerical order to what had been painted here. Whatever its meaning, this sewer graffiti had grown out of a much older heritage. It was a design that originated on the Colorado Plateau, the same basic structure of masks found painted inside of 14th century kivas in the north. I had seen it carved into faces of basalt in the desert of northern New Mexico. My companion's store was decorated with similar images, katsinas, little gods of water.

Looking at this visage with our flashlights, I thought, it is Hopi, but it is also a distortion. It was almost terrible to see. I imagined that certain Hopis, the traditionals, would shrink back upon witnessing this, seeing their own death in this face. I thought of the elders I had met at Hopi, thoughtful and diverse expressions, skin puckered and wrinkled. Of them, who would turn away in silent terror upon seeing this? The image was wracked with the pain of assimilation, an ancient standard cast into the sea of a modern age.

It would not be the first time such a thing happened. No doubt certain people saw their first Salado vessels in the 14th century and stumbled backwards, the images too bold, too consuming. Such misrepresentation of the old ideals! Meanwhile, other people would have crowded in with admiration, as traditionals retreated, knowing that the end was coming, seeing it written on the emblazoned faces of clay vessels.

But the end did not come. It never comes. Old forms twist into the future, keeping some of their original designs while taking on new ideals. The kiva disappeared and platform mounds sprung across the desert just as black and white pottery had once given way to color. The past was sharply ingrained all the while, certain features of Colorado Plateau culture continuing through time all the way to here.

Beneath this painted mural, dribbling fingers of candle wax overlapped across a concrete platform, stumped with burned out matches. It looked like an altar, the worship of a transformed creature from the underworld, an ancient marker of people from the north. In the center of its forehead, the center, in fact, of this entire concrete wall in this underground junction room, was a finely painted spiral. It was the great Southwestern icon of migration, the busy and never ending circle.

Both of our lights met this spiral at the same time, hovering on it, making our own circle around it. The spiral consisted of four rotations tightly wound like a spring. Staring up at it, I considered the many so-called disappearances in the Southwest, wholesale cultures said to have completely vanished, cliff dwellers, builders of great houses, people of ball courts and platform mounds. Perhaps this is merely the nature of this country - there is so much change in the landscape, so many paths of migration, that everything seems lost. A cursory glance reveals constant abandonment and disappearance, words used like catastrophic and never seen again. But looking into the folds of the land, taking careful examination of those who have passed through, it is apparent that there was no disappearance, only movement around and around on a wheel of exchange and migration. Even stronger than the Southwestern spectacle of abandonment is that of persistence. In all of the miles traveled, in the years of contraction and expansion, these people held their identity.

Some early pottery of the Basketmaker era of Anasazi had been found around Tucson and Phoenix, well out of its 5th century range. After that, the 12th century was marked by corrugated vessels from the north passing through here. The 14th century saw Salado pottery. The 21st century now has this mural painted on a sewer wall. Hidden under the asphalt stockpile of Tucson, under the adobe ruins of Hohokam, an ancient corridor has yet to end.

We walked back out of the sewer. We returned to a capsized shopping cart at the mouth of the tunnel, emerging into a yawning world. As soon as we stepped out, my senses inhaled, filled suddenly with distances, with the far rumbles and hisses one always hears, downshifting of freight trucks, drone of an urban sky. We walked across the parking lot to my companion's vehicle and from there drove into fields of light, a ghostly city of the living.
       We went back to his house at the very edge of Tucson, out where the dark desert begins. I drank tea with him in his kitchen, and when my teacup was empty I left for bed. I carried my sleeping gear out to the land behind his house, passing through thick staffs of saguaro cacti, brushing against rakes of ocotillo. I carried only what I needed for the night, a light sleeping bag to ward off the cool, some water, a sleeping pad. I started up through huge, crooked boulders on the flanks of a mountain. I chose a tidy little wash in plain view of the city below and laid my bag in it, its sand soft. Paloverde trees gathered around me, and strokes of cactus black against the stars. Brilliant lattice of Tucson stretched across the land. It pulsed with sirens and brake lights, the swift artery of an interstate through the middle, flares of white light erupting from a university stadium.

I untied my shoes, pulled off my socks, and organized them up near the head of my bag where I could find them suddenly if need be. I sat cross-legged in a soothing bath of cricket song. The city below groaned without end. It winked and rushed like the synapses of a mechanical mind. Down in its subconscious, below the streets where few people ever venture, was a second landscape of grids and tunnels, an invisible layer where the mask of a contemporary katsina had been painted in a concrete crypt.

I looked out farther, beyond the city, to a larger landscape of invisibility. Tucson was ringed by planes of cadaverous darkness. Black banners of mountain ranges stood beyond the light. My imagination traveled out to where notches and passes marked the horizon. These were geographic gates leading in and out of here, passages to farther desert basins, and to mountains beyond. The migration had not ended here. Even as Hohokam began collapsing into its own smoking ruins, the push of the ancient diaspora of Anasazi continued southward.

It is unknown whether original bloodlines from the Colorado Plateau were present here in substantial numbers. Perhaps the Hisatsinom or the Lost Others had turned into more of a passing wind than an actual lineage. They picked up those willing to blow along, and left the unwilling behind. By now they had changed dramatically from people who once lived in a desert of severe landforms up on the Colorado Plateau. Patrick Lyons had told me that after maybe twenty years in a new place, these people seem to lose many of their signature traits, swallowed in part by local traditions, and also by whatever new culture had been created by their arrival. They were getting caught in their own ripples, becoming echoes of their own echoes.

"How long do they remain ancestral Hopi?" Lyons had asked. "How long do they remain Kayenta? We're talking about generations of people moving from place to place and mixing with local populations, marrying into other families."

What is the name for long distance nomads, people who stir through history, sending up spirals and gusts of change? Anasazi seems remote, inadequate, as does Salado. Such names are useful to archaeologists or to people writing books, but are inevitably hollow. These southbound people have no name that can contain them. They were People Who Moved. They carried their pottery and their shaped doorways through here as if traveling with a bag of precious seeds, scattering them across the ground as they went.

Sitting at the edge of the city, I looked out through dark ranges beyond, wondering, if you were carrying seeds, where would you go?

You would go out there to the farther places, out through gaps toward those black and quiet mountains.


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