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Destination: Colorado : Ancient Mysteries at FOUR CORNERS : Where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah converge, hiking back through time amid the ruins and arid landscape of the Anasazi

Muncie reviews travel books for <i> The Times and is special sections editor for Travel</i>

The cliffs are the color of a sandstone rainbow. White, beige, light orange and, at the bottom, deep red. They wind through Sand Canyon like a snake. The trail snakes alongside, a pink squiggle across a brickyard.

My hiking companions this morning haven’t been faithful. The jack rabbit bounded away an hour ago, and the canyon wren hid in a juniper tree, though it left the liquid notes of its descending song. So I approach the huge alcove in the cliffs, and the stone ruins that center it, alone.

Though the sun hasn’t reached inside the alcove yet, I can see the ruin’s remaining walls are in surprisingly good shape, especially considering the builders left 700 years ago and never came back.

The builders are called the Anasazi. It’s a Navajo term with several shades of meaning, including “the ones who came before” and “ancient enemy.” By the time the Navajo showed up, the prehistoric Anasazi were long gone, so we don’t know what they called themselves. But we do know how they lived. There’s hardly a canyon in the Four Corners area (where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet) without vestiges of their villages or cliff dwellings or terraced fields.

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Sand Canyon’s a great place for vestiges--there seem to be alcove ruins everywhere--but it’s also a great place just to hike. On this recent warm fall morning, Sand Canyon feels like a theme park for nature lovers: Southwestland. There are sheer cliffs, pin~on-juniper forests, wild critters and panoramas, all in a seven-mile-long canyon. There’s a photo opportunity around every turn, and the cliff dwellings are the best op of them all.

The front walls of the ruin, about 40 feet above me, have fallen forward. A slope of debris, filled with bits of broken pottery, reaches the trail. One gray piece, about the size of a half-dollar, catches my eye. It’s made in what archeologists call the corrugated style. The Anasazi often built pots by pinching together coils of clay. They then smoothed the inside, leaving the exterior pinch marks.

The corrugations make rows of tiny shadows as I turn the shard over in my hand. Then the light catches a different pattern in one corner of the piece. It’s a 700-year-old thumbprint--a pinch frozen in time.

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Cortez (population 8,000) doesn’t look like the center of anything--except bean farms and alfalfa fields. But Cortez is the center of Anasazi country. Within a few hours’ drive are the Big Four of Anasazi archeological sites: Mesa Verde National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, Canyon de Chelly National Monument and Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

The park entrance to Mesa Verde, which attracts 800,000 visitors a year, is just nine miles east of Cortez. The town’s main street is pocked by budget motels catering to the Mesa Verde crowds. Cortez’s location has made it a center of Anasazi study. Just outside of town is the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, a kind of mini-university for Anasazi research. The Anasazi Heritage Center, a museum and study facility run by the federal Bureau of Land Management, is in nearby Dolores.

It’s tough country. Arid plateaus and rugged canyons dominate Four Corners. The weather can be extreme: The summer is scorching, but no one is surprised when there are snow flurries on Halloween, as there were this year.

Yet the Anasazi thrived. Beginning as nomadic hunter-gatherers, they gradually became more dependent on agriculture. Sometime around 500 BC, they settled down enough to start the Anasazi era. They grew corn, squash and beans; they traded for parrot feathers with the civilizations of Mexico and Central America; they made beautiful pottery.

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Their homes evolved from partially sunken “pit houses” to multistory pueblos of stone and mortar. Around AD 1125, as many as 12,000 Anasazi may have lived in the Cortez area--about the same number of people that live there today.

The Big Four sites have been extensively studied and at least partially restored. Mesa Verde contains Four Corners’ largest collection of cliff dwellings and has been the focus of excavators since the 1890s. Canyon de Chelly’s cliff dwellings and pictographs share billing with dramatic canyon walls and a bloody history. The monumental pueblos of Chaco Canyon, unprotected by cliffs, stand in a dry, barren wash, looking mysterious and alien. Stone towers and crag-top walls make Hovenweep seem like some forgotten medieval fortress town.

I’ve visited them all a couple of times, and will doubtless return. But for a real feeling of Anasazi country, I prefer Sand Canyon. It’s little known, except to local hikers. Nothing is off limits, and there’s no entrance fee, no visitor’s center, no rangers and no bus parking. All you get is a small sign by a country road, an easy trail and a sense of discovery and adventure.

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There are three sets of tracks in the mud by the water hole. They look fresh. A deer must have made the narrow hoof marks; perhaps a raccoon or a skunk left the scattering of little depressions. But what about these big paw prints? A bobcat?

I sketch the print in my notebook--there are five distinct pads, four accented with a claw scratch--and measure one with my pencil. It extends from the end of the eraser to the “d” in Ticonderoga--3 1/2 or 4 inches. A mountain lion?

The water hole was filled by recent thunderstorms, which are far more frequent here than long, soaking rains. To keep their small fields arable, Anasazi farmers often used check dams--just small heaps of stone a couple of feet high--to stop storm runoff and allow rainwater to soak in.

With such untrustworthy rain gods, the Anasazi were never completely sold on farm life. Fortunately, places like Sand Canyon were supermarkets for hunter-gatherers. Pin~on pines provided nuts (and squirrels); the fruit of the narrow-leaf yucca was cooked and eaten and its stalks used as a kind of sugar cane; a vast number of green things were used for medicinal or soothing teas.

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Hunting-gathering makes a lot of sense on a day like today. At 6,500 feet, the air is clear; a light breeze carries the aroma of junipers. Who cares about the corn patch? The trail dips down below the cliffs. For a while it’s shaded by acorn-loaded Gambel’s oaks(attention, Anasazi shoppers!).

Reaching Sand Canyon’s creek bottom, I notice the snake weed is matted down and all the yellow blossoms are caked with dried mud. Under a sky of the most piercing blue, I start thinking about thunderstorms and the rain poncho I forgot to put in my day pack.

Sitting in comfy chairs in Crow Canyon Archaeological Center, Bruce Bradley and I talk about Anasazi life in Sand Canyon. For 10 years, Bradley, 47, a senior archeological researcher, helped direct the excavations and study of Sand Canyon Pueblo, a huge Anasazi complex at the head of Sand Canyon.

Both pueblo and alcove people were latecomers and short timers. While people have used Sand Canyon for at least 5,000 years, the Anasazi started building cliff dwellings there no earlier than 1240. By 1300, they were gone, not just from Sand Canyon but from the entire Four Corners.

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Was their disappearance the result of a single catastrophic event, as has been theorized? Tree-ring data show that Four Corners was hit by a 20-year drought that ended in 1299. In such conditions even the Rio Grande becomes a trickle. But Bradley throws cold water on the drought theory. “Even in the worst drought we had --between 1135-1185--we actually see areas where the population was growing,” he says.

In fact, the population ebbed and flowed dramatically throughout Anasazi history. For example, the Anasazi culture in Chaco Canyon, 100 miles south of Cortez, sputtered abruptly after more than a century of expansion. Chaco’s pueblos were nearly empty by 1150.

The cliff dwellings themselves may contribute to the big drought theory. They seem so permanent, you figure that only something catastrophic would have forced the Anasazi to leave. But Bradley knocks over the permanence theory too. Apparently, the builders didn’t have long-term mortgages in mind. “It’s really what we think of as ‘organic’ architecture,” he says. “It was built by a generation to serve a generation. The fact that some of it is still around is because of the nature of where they built--in the alcoves. So it’s protected from the weather.”

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Chaco is one exception to the impermanence theory. There’s nothing “organic” about its architecture, Bradley says. Chaco Canyon’s massive four-story pueblos were built to last. Such monumental buildings as Pueblo Bonito survived the centuries far better than Sand Canyon Pueblo--even discounting 20th-Century reconstruction.

In any case, the Anasazi didn’t disappear from history. Some moved southwest to become the Hopi. Some moved southeast, where their descendants live in Taos, Santa Clara and other pueblos in the Rio Grande Valley around Santa Fe, N.M.

Still, something made them leave the Four Corners. Bradley is working on a theory that suggests reactionary, fundamentalist movements, “going back to Chaco as their model of the good old days,” destabilized the culture.

Whatever social and environmental factors were involved, Bradley is sure they were just as messy and complicated as those facing people today. “Folks is folks,” he says.

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By 11 a.m. Sand Canyon has warmed to the mid-70s. Grasshoppers whir out of my way like miniature Vespas.

I’ve snooped through four alcoves so far. All told, there are about two dozen alcove ruins in the canyon. All were built in south-facing cliffs (the Anasazi were experts in passive solar heating). Most were single-family homes. The rooms are small (the Anasazi were Little League, not NBA size); some were for storing piles of corn cobs or dried beans.

I like that the Anasazi architects used the cliff face as the back of each building. One less wall to worry about. It’s exactly what I’d do if I were hacking out building blocks with stone tools.

A series of switchbacks takes me 700 feet from the creek bed to the top of the plateau. An hour later I’m eating lunch at the site of Sand Canyon Pueblo.

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The pueblo boasted 420 rooms and 100 kivas (a kiva is a semi-subterranean room, probably used for special, even ceremonial, occasions). Mesa Verde’s famous Cliff Palace ruin, by comparison, had 250 rooms and 22 kivas.

To my eye, the pueblo site is far less dramatic than the little ruins below. Unprotected by alcoves, the pueblo’s walls have long since collapsed. Pin~on pine, junipers and sage cover the kiva depressions. The building blocks are mottled with pea green and bright orange lichen. Only a maze of dirt paths, some small excavations and a bunch of up-turned wheelbarrows reveal the years of archeological activity.

The alcove buildings and the pueblo were all built between 1240 and 1285. The two groups interacted, though Bradley thinks the center of alcove life probably was a small pueblo at Castle Rock, where the Sand Canyon trail now begins. The entire Sand Canyon population peaked at perhaps 400-500 people. By 1300, both communities were gone.

It’s time for me to go too. I pull on my pack and walk to the trail. My shadow falls northeast. It’s 1:45 in the afternoon.

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Liz Klarich sits by a partially excavated pile of rock holding a mauve three-ring binder that almost matches her pants. “I’m contemplating the deeper meaning of check dams,” she says, smiling. Klarich, 22, is a student at the University of Chicago; she’s working at an Anasazi excavation called Woods Canyon--one of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center’s current projects.

It’s the day before my Sand Canyon adventure and Lynn Baca, a member of the center’s support staff, is my excavation guide.

Klarich’s interest is scholastic and professional, others at the site are volunteers. The center offers an elaborate, year-round series of programs that give amateurs the chance to pay for hands-on experience.

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“It’s what I call Gucci digging,” Baca says. It’s a good line, but she’s not serious. Volunteers are at the heart of the center’s mission: to teach and to learn. Cumulatively, volunteer work has added significantly to the archeological data. The Sand Canyon Pueblo excavations used volunteers for years.

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Several excavators are old hands. Elayne Weinstein, 65, stops sifting dirt through a metal mesh to explain why she has returned for a third summer. “I have to get back to the earth,” she says, “I’m a city girl.” Weinstein’s city is Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where she’s a dental assistant.

She makes a gesture around her with her gloved hands, and adds: “Where else in the world does it get this quiet? I wanted to hear the silence.”

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A hawk cuts compulsory figures across a sky that’s now half-filled with clouds. If there’s a storm I know what to do--get back into an alcove.

I feel a bit guilty about it, however. I’ve just climbed down from a small ruin whose walls and window openings were perfectly preserved. I was careful not to lean on anything, but I know every visit causes some damage.

“Just the mere act of going in and out of an alcove has a major effect on it. Just the movement of the soil,” Crow Canyon’s Bradley says. “It’s a real dilemma, because if you stay away from it you never get the experience, but if you go into it you destroy that experience.”

I think I know what experience Bradley is talking about. Walking through Sand Canyon is not just about walking back through time, it’s about connecting with something fundamental. A hiker can’t help but imagine living in Anasazi times, a life stripped to the essentials.

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Bradley says this connection is genetic. “We’re programmed to make stone things,” he says. “It’s in all of us and that’s why we’re fascinated with arrowheads.” Meanwhile, I brush walls lightly and put back each piece of broken pottery.

The day advances but the clouds don’t. At 4:30, the temperature has dropped to the 60s. The yuccas look hyper-green as I walk back through the red soil.

Just a mile from my car, I finally meet other hikers--two women with a yappy dog at their heels. The dog’s tracks look just like the “mountain lion” prints I saw this morning by the water hole.

Any Anasazi would have known better. I suppose I have a lot to learn before I reach their level. Sand Canyon is a good place to start.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX / INFOGRAPHIC)

GUIDEBOOK: Anasazi Country

Getting there: Cortez, the center of Anasazi country, is located in the southwest corner of Colorado, 30 miles west of Durango. United and America West airlines offer service to Durango, connecting through Denver or Phoenix. Round-trip advance purchase fares start at about $300.

To get to Sand Canyon from Cortez, drive 2 1/2 miles south on U.S. 666; turn west on McElmo Canyon Road (at the signs to Hovenweep National Monument). After 12 miles the pavement ends; continue for about 100 yards. On the right is a parking area for Sand and East Rock canyons. The trail is maintained by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s about 6 1/2 miles to Sand Canyon Pueblo. The first four miles are fairly flat; light hiking boots are sufficient. Bring water. Hiking is best in spring and fall, though generally good all year. Winter mornings can be frosty.

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Mesa Verde National Park: Drive 10 miles east of Cortez on U.S. 666; turn right into park; $5 entry per vehicle. Visitors center is 15 miles from highway. The campground, open mid-April to mid-October, is $9 per night for tents, $19 per night for full RV hookups. Information: Superintendent, Mesa Verde National Park, CO 81330; telephone (970) 529-4475 or (970) 529-4461.

Hovenweep National Monument: Drive about 40 miles south on U.S. 666; turn west on McElmo Canyon Road (paved road, except for a 12-mile stretch of fairly good dirt road beginning around the Sand Canyon parking area); free entry to park. Campground is $6 per night, but may be closed next year. Information: Hovenweep National Monument, McElmo Route, Cortez, CO 81321; tel. (970) 749-0510.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park: Drive 120 miles southeast of Cortez on U.S. 666; east on U.S. 64; south on New Mexico 44. Turn right at Nageezi on San Juan County Road 7800. Drive 11 miles to New Mexico 57, turn left. The visitor center is 15 miles ahead. The road from Nageezi to the park is mostly dirt (bumpy at spots), but is OK for normal vehicles. Park roads are paved; entry $4 per vehicle. Campground $8 per night. Information: Superintendent, Star Route 4, Box 6500, Bloomfield, NM 87413; tel. (505) 786-7014.

Canyon de Chelly National Monument: About 140 miles southwest of Cortez on U.S. 666 to Chimney Rock; right on U.S. 160 to Mexican Water, Ariz.; left on U.S. 191 to Chinle, Ariz. Park is three miles east of town. Entry and camping are free. There are three motels near the visitors center. Canyon de Chelly is on the Navajo Reservation; you can only visit White House Ruins on your own. For other sites, the park offers a variety of guided tours, averaging three hours each ($30). Information: Superintendent, Canyon de Chelly National Monument, Box 588, Chinle, AZ 86503; tel. (520) 674-5500.

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Crow Canyon Archaeological Center: The center offers numerous cultural and archeological programs from one to 14 days, including excavations, teacher workshops, river-raft trips and cultural field trips throughout the Southwest. A one-week dig program costs $795; programs start next May, but reservations are taken now. Fees cover tuition, food, lodging (in Navajo-style hogans) and transportation in Cortez. Information: 23390 County Road K, Cortez, CO 81321; tel. (800) 422-8975.

Anasazi Heritage Center: A compact museum crammed with hands-on exhibits. Of particular interest is the meticulous recreation of an Anasazi pit dwelling (circa AD 850) excavated nearby in 1980. On the grounds are two 12th-Century Anasazi ruins, the Dominguez and Escalante pueblos. Free entry. Information: 27501 Highway 184, Dolores, CO 81323; tel. (970) 882-4811.

Where to stay: Cortez has many motels, a number in the budget range (some charge more in summer). A selection:

Arrow Motor Inn, 440 S. Broadway; tel. (970) 565-7778; winter rates $28-$32 per person, double occupancy. Aneth Lodge, 645 E. Main; tel. (970) 565-3453; $31-$33 per person, double occupancy. Comfort Inn, 2321 E. Main; tel. (970) 565-4528; November rates $59-$69 per person, double occupancy. Holiday Inn Express, 2121 E. Main; tel. (800) 626-5652 or (970) 565-6000; $72-$78 per person, double occupancy.

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Where to eat: Basic American grub--nothing fancy--is king in Cortez. Homesteaders Family Restaurant, 45 E. Main, has steaks, burgers and salads in an open-beamed, country barn atmosphere; entrees $7-$14. Main Street Brewery, 21 E. Main, offers pasta, burgers, salads, steaks, some Southwest specialties, and features very good house-brewed beers; entrees $7.25-$14.

--J.M.


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