This is part 4 of an evolving series.
Hovenweep National Monument was established in 1923. A lesser-known assembly of Ancestral Puebloan relics, it straddles the border of southwest Colorado and southeast Utah and is one of those hidden, out-of-the-way gems with enduring gravity, pulling us back repeatedly. Our fourth journey happened in early May of this year.
Hovenweep is composed of six different sites, thought to harbor approximately 2500 inhabitants between 1200 and 1300 AD. Five outlying communities are chiefly accessible by four-wheel drive dirt roads or hiking trails. The main attraction is known as Little Ruin Canyon and lies near the handsome Visitor Center built in an emblematic southwestern style that resembles the former pueblos.
A two mile hike allows relatively easy access to the round, square, and D-shaped towers characteristic of this locale. The route parallels the rim of the canyon, but also dips down into it. Legendary western pioneering photographer, William Henry Jackson (1843-1942), is credited for naming it Hovenweep, translatable as “deserted valley”, in the Ute/Paiute language. In 1874, he explored the region as a member of the famous Hayden Expedition which also enabled him to take the first photographs of Mesa Verde.
During our last two expeditions, we camped at the comparatively compact campground composed of 31 sites. A footpath connecting it to the nearby Little Ruin Trail encouraged repeat excursions. Ever since our first acquaintance, we have been enchanted by the local plants. Dark-green juniper and piñon pine, fragrant sagebrush, sword-like yucca, and colorful cacti were omnipresent and punctuated by smaller, more delicate wildflowers attractive to hummingbirds and other pollinators. A profusion of cliffrose dotted the rocky scenery and perfumed the air with their sweet scent. Despite the severity of the environment, the fauna was no less diverse than the flora: insects, lizards, birds, and mammals were amply represented.
During the Ancestral Puebloans’ era, every material usable for food, fire, and clothes was harvested. Yucca alone delivered food (flowers), fiber (leaves), needles (leaf tips), and soap (root). Cactus pads were eaten. Stringy juniper bark provided fiber, padding, diapers, and toilet paper. Pine seeds represented high-energy morsels. Whether or not the pueblo dwellers lived in harmony with the land is interesting to ponder. There is evidence that, even after building stone houses, they temporarily moved from one settlement to the next, perhaps to allow the soil periods of recovery by letting it lie fallow. It is likely that they rotated crops. I can’t help thinking that a civilization who read the heavens for celestial signs would have failed to heed the lessons of the earth. Was it a prolonged dry spell that finally overrode all foresight and planning, and resulted in their departure 700 years ago? The walls of Hovenweep alone know.
Lest we are left with overly romantic notions — life was harsh, life expectancy short. Hunger and thirst? Daily concerns. Armed conflict? Likely. Cannibalism? Possible. The Ancestral Puebloans were human beings with human foibles. But they also inspire and invite us to return time and again, and to immerse ourselves in this intriguing world still open to interpretation. Their exodus, their remarkable relics, their picturesque petroglyphs and pictographs raise more questions than answers, and their secrets survive.
Who were these Ancestral Puebloans?
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