A year ago on a bright summer morning in the Jemez Mountains of northern New Mexico, I took a break from a study on community water I was conducting to explore the countryside. All around me were the fields and orchards of Hispano ranchers whose Pueblo and Spanish ancestors had watered these lands for countless generations. A friend of mine among them, a builder and farmer and sometime engineer with the strength of a linebacker, said he’d take me to a trailhead of a place unlike anything I had ever seen, so long as I promised not to tell anyone exactly where it was. “We don’t want all kinds of people driving up and down the road, parking their cars, snapping pictures,” he said. I agreed, eagerly accepting his invitation.
On the way to the canyon, he told me the trail would lead me upward to the ruins of a village of the ancient ones, the ancestral Puebloans, who lived in this place for generations and left mysteriously about seven hundred years ago. Most speculate that they dispersed when the rains failed for too long, driving away game and drying up the springs that watered their crops. As my friend drove me to the trailhead through a forested ravine, I was struck by how fragile the water balance remains in the present era. My host showed me the acequias, or hand-dug earthen channels that he and his neighbors clear every spring so waters from the nearby mountain will continue to flow onto their farmlands downstream.
At the end of the road, we saw the source water for the channels below. A pipe drilled into the bedrock of a mountain slope yielded a bountiful flow of clear, cold water. I filled a couple of bottles for the long hike ahead. A ways further the dirt road turned into a path and then petered out.
“Here’s where it starts,” he said, pointing up a steep hillside of young alder and piñon bushes. “You see the path?”
“No, I don’t,” I said nervously.
“Oh, it’s there,” he answered quickly, pointing in the same direction. “You’ll find it soon enough. And if you don’t, just head straight up, you know? And you’ll see a ravine, and then the mesa on your right. The kivas are up there. You can always find your way if you just go up that wall. And if you keep going straight on the path and get to some ponderosas, you’ve gone too far. If you keep going you’ll fall off the other side.”
Hiking alone in a wilderness with no path and no clear landmarks, save a vague warning about ponderosas and sheer drop-offs, was unwise. But I decided it was worth the risk. I remember thinking that I might never be here again, never see this place, never have the chance to walk on a site like this before it is cordoned off and concreted, with a parking lot and a gift shop and access roads and crowds of tourists snapping selfies in front of ceremonial sites and then staring at their phones to see if friends had noted their latest entry in the cyber-feed. The valley farmers were determined to keep their village quiet, off the radar of tourists. But their grown children were not staying in the community, and that probably meant land changing hands, Hispano to Anglo. Jobs outside beckoned, farms failed too easily, and the state government had closed the local schools for lack of numbers and budgets. This would likely become another valley of hobby farmers, beds and breakfasts and moneyed professionals who could do their white collar job in finance or law or engineering remotely.
I scrambled up the slope, the sun burning my scalp as I emerged from the trees and walked a path along the side of the canyon that separated me from the mesa top. After a time, I saw the tops of the kivas above the sandstone escarpment. On the mesa, thousands of pumice blocks lay akimbo in a field that stretched for half a mile or more. I didn’t know how I was supposed to get up there—the canyon was deep and the escarpment was a vertical wall. But keeping my friend’s directions in mind, I kept going. Eventually, I saw the ponderosas. Too far, I thought. And despite his warning, I walked up to them, just to see what that drop-off was, and I peered downward at a stomach-churning plunge of 2,000 feet to a valley floor.
The ponderosas proved to be faithful guides; looking around, I saw to my right a bridge over the top of the canyon where I could scramble up onto the top of the mesa. Now in the midday full sun, I was walking through windows of sedimentary rock that had been worn down by centuries of human use. The path was etched in stone as if smoothed by water, but it led in a purposeful way toward the kivas. I walked along it, thinking about what terrifying forces brought the Ancient Ones to this place, so far above where freshwater flows daily, and also so vulnerable to the storms that drop inches of rain and hail in the space of an hour. I marveled, thinking of Willa Cather’s Tom Outland in The Professor’s House, martyred in the Great War, who described his wondrous discovery of Cliff City, an Anasazi site whose origins lay in mystery: “A people who had the hardihood to build there, and who lived day after day looking down upon such grandeur, who came and went by those hazardous trails, must have been, as we often told each other, a fine people. But what had become of them? What catastrophe had overwhelmed them?”
Stone flints littered the ground; every meter or two I saw pieces of black and white painted pottery. I picked up the shards and an occasional arrowhead. They were warm, as if they had just been held in a human hand. I set them down where I found them, save one bit of pottery I guiltily put in my pocket for a time. The pumice stones lay where they fell from walls that once sheltered the people who spent centuries here, watching the stars move across the sky, comet to comet, the moon’s umbral shadow eclipsing the sun at sacred intervals, the Earth passing its shadow over the moon.
Pumice is a magnificent building material. A foot-long block is light enough for a child to lift, and yet is so strong that it holds its form a thousand years after being shaped. The obsidian and quartzite tools that littered the ground, I was told, came from a mountaintop a few miles away. The pumice, however, was mined on the mesa where they stood. The builders took the material from shallow quarries they dug in precise circular fashion, leaving what appeared to be ceremonial circles—windows to the heavens, perhaps, reserved for the oldest and wisest who knew from years of looking up what course the stars took through the sky.
I luxuriated in the light and the quiet, watching a turkey vulture ride the thermals in the sky over the valley. Oliver Wendell Holmes’ gentle phrase came to mind: “And silence, like a poultice, comes to heal the blows of sound.” I would have stayed longer, but storm clouds threatened from the northwest. I eyed the charred halves of pines that had been struck by lightning in countless desert storms, and decided I should descend from the mesa.
Descending was treacherous. I had lost the non-path I arrived on, having walked the length of the mesa looking for a shortcut that my friend had also assured me was easy to find. My heart beating faster, I realized I didn’t know how to get down from the escarpment. Storm clouds closed in. Thunder sounded in the distance and spouts of water opened up on the mesa across the valley. The canyon itself was a poor choice of exit, but I took it anyway, skidding down loose shale and getting trapped every fifty feet or so at sharp rock overhangs. Scrambling up again to climb around and cut downhill through brush and boulders, I reached onto ledges above my head. Then, hot pain seared my hand as I reached above my head and found the surface occupied by a beavertail cactus. I glanced down at my palm, now covered in a green fur of spines. I tried brushing the hooked barbs out of my skin, then desperately started pulling, knowing this would leave the barbs in the pads of my fingers. A few minutes later, another short ascent in search of a way around a steep granite drop yielded crumbly flint shale that tumbled menacingly on my head. I thought about the possibility of a rattlesnake or a scorpion greeting an outstretched hand on the next ledge. As a sick feeling descended over me, I tried to remind myself not to panic.
As I descended, I passed multiple carved-out boulders. Clearly, human hands had labored to make these structures. They were big enough for one person to occupy, almost the size of a toll booth. The carved boulders faced outward, away from the settlement. There was no charring in them, though, no signs of smoke from fires, so I concluded that had not been windbreaks for cooking outposts. They also seemed too exposed to be burial sites. I wondered if the boulders’ purpose was eminently clear to someone who lived from this land. As an outsider, their intended use was entirely outside my grasp. Were these guard posts? Were there wars for this place and for the precious water and hunting grounds below? Or were they lookout places for bears and wolves, who for most of their history as a species held the trump card on humans, consuming them at will?
In silence, my thoughts wandered to the question of what others sorting through 21st century ruins will make of us. Will we appear to a twenty-sixth century Tom Outland to be, as he put it, a fine people? Would a clever archaeologist of the future speculate that the shards of fast food restaurants are temples? With their solid waste middens and remains of money and food, one might conclude that these were religious sites, with different brands and logos signifying competing deities. Would an extensive excavation yield the conclusion that the 20th and 21st centuries marked a transitional epoch, from a regional monotheism with figures like “God” and “Allah” and “Buddha” to an agile new liturgy of comparative valuism, with its attendant fetishism of “marginal utility” and “creative destruction?”
Perhaps, along with a Bible or a Koran, a copy of Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson’s brilliant novel of 20 years ago, will survive and be decoded. Given what else the archaeologists would find, it would read not as science fiction but as a latter day Herodotus—an embellished but epic truth. Certainly, it is closing in on prescient journalism in CE 2014.
The novel is set in Los Angeles, but notably not the United States, which has shrunk to the size of a city-state and ceded nearly all its power to private organizations and companies. Despotic warlords include a mafia-run pizza delivery service that spans a trans-Atlantic domain and liquidates drivers at will, but maintains a satisfied customer base by guaranteeing a pizza in thirty minutes or less. Mercenary armies compete for contracts and private guards preserve the peace for the wealthy, who live in gated, sovereign housing developments and drive on highways run by armed transportation firms. The less well-off live in storage facilities and occupy themselves working and playing in a computer-generated Metaverse, or worse, floating on gigantic islands of garbage lashed together in the Pacific Ocean under the thumb of a fiber-optics millionaire named L. Bob Rife.
As Herodotus’ Histories recounts the Trojan War and the rise of Sparta along with accounts of oracles and a nonsensical description of Babylon, so too does Snowcrash trip ably from logical projections about the direction of real events to plot devices that are more fun than plausible. Fickle gods, bad leadership, and rising seas. The Tom Outland of the future has much work cut out for him.
Meanwhile in the canyon, fat drops of rain fell while the sun shone. A lone cloud emptied its contents on me as I descended, now with bloody knees and a swollen right hand. Finally, I saw the pipe leading to the acequia and the wide part of the canyon leading back to where I started. The rain stopped and I marveled at a hummingbird moth hovering over a wild rose.
Heather Williams, Ph.D., is a professor of politics and environmental analysis at Pomona College and has written on social movements, food, water, labor, and migration. With her Peruvian colleague Javier Bojorquez Gandarillas, she co-founded the Suma Quta “Beautiful Lake” citizen monitoring initiative in the Lake Titicaca basin of Peru and Bolivia. Currently she is writing a biography of her local watershed, the Santa Ana River.
Illustrations by Alicia Brown