Digging the Scene at an Arizona Ranch

Digging the Scene at an Arizona Ranch
In the alpine country of eastern Arizona, the X Diamond & MLY Ranch offers riding, fly-fishing, guest cabins and an archeological dig. (DON B. STEVENSON)
The sun baked our hats and seemed to burn through our sunscreen as we knelt in the dirt scraping away at the compacted soil. I could sense Sam's thought: "Mom took me on vacation for this?"

Archeology has been my semi-secret passion since I was 11, Sam's age, and swooned over "The Source," by James Michener. But aside from occasional weekend stints at generally unrewarding local digs, this would-be Indiana Jones had been stymied. Volunteering at most digs requires a hefty time commitment and is often expensive. Digs that allow kids are virtually nonexistent.

One exception: the X Diamond & MLY Ranch in the White Mountains of Arizona. A working cattle and dude ranch, it also has a stone-walled Native American house dating back more than 1,000 years. Guests are welcome to join the dig for a day, or even just part of one, no experience required--and kids are welcomed. As it turned out, this little archeologist-for-a-day experiment, combined with horseback riding in Apache National Forest and fly-fishing in a nearby river, made the long trip to the ranch worth the effort.

Early on the Friday before Memorial Day, Sam and I flew off for our mother-son adventure to the 100-degree heat of Phoenix, leaving my husband home with the girls for four days. (The preschooler would have broken all the pottery shards into even tinier pieces, and the teenager is mainly interested in what she can dig up at Banana Republic.)

The ranch is near the Apache and Navajo reservations, a few miles from the New Mexico border. This meant a 230-mile drive from Phoenix, much of it scenic and some of it breathtaking. Even Sam, not given to cooing over scenery, was agape at the outcrops of rock and dramatic drops of Salt River Canyon, about halfway through the drive. The ranch sits at an elevation of more than 7,000 feet in a region usually at least 15 degrees cooler than Phoenix; average highs are in the mid-80s, even in summer.

We stopped for kitchen provisions in Springerville, then drove about 10 miles farther to the ranch, spotting occasional antelope bounding through the meadows. Rubes that we are, we didn't realize that you don't check in at the X Diamond ranch house. You just stop along the road at your cabin. The doors are unlocked. The keys, which few people seem to use, are on the table.

The ranch, along the Little Colorado River, is still owned by the descendants of its 1879 founders, and it still raises cattle. It turned dude ranch about 10 years ago, though that aspect is understated. The X Diamond has only seven units, most of them recently built log cabins secluded along the road. All have full kitchens--practically a necessity because the nearest restaurant is back in Springerville. Prices range from $48 to $175 a night, depending on the season and accommodations.

Sam and I were in the Phobe, a $95-a-night renovated 1890s log cabin named after its first resident. The Phobe is a homey little place, each room a slightly different age, it would seem. Board games are stacked in a cabinet, and big windows overlook a meadow and canyon wall. The river is down there, too, hidden by shrubbery. Sam fell in love with the sleeping porch and immediately tried out the climbing tree in the sideyard. The cabin is one of the few with a phone and TV. It also has a master bedroom, a paneled living room, an eat-in kitchen--and no other buildings in sight.

Achy from sitting all day, we hiked until dinnertime. Sam befriended the ranch dogs and horses, and we came across a couple of beaver dams along the river. I wasn't up for cooking, so we drove to another nearby town, Greer, and ate at the Rendezvous Diner, where it took a long time to get a meal (no one seemed to mind) but the chili was good.

Saturday was to be our big adventure. After breakfast overlooking what I soon thought of as our personal meadow, we headed to the ranch house to meet Charles Rand, the site archeologist. Rand is a passionate amateur, a former youth counselor from San Francisco who retired to this area to learn about and pursue Native American digs. For no pay, he works the so-called Little Bear site at the ranch, aiming to restore the 25-room house. He has a long way to go. Just a few of the rooms have undergone significant excavation.

The word "house" can be misleading when it comes to ancient ruins. The main sign that people lived here are the rocks found scattered in mounded lines, roughly delineating the rooms. Uncovering the walls means digging several feet down.

Rand handed us buckets, each containing a kneepad, a trowel, a dustpan and brushes. Experience had taught me to bring shade hats, gardening or work gloves, cold water and sunscreen. Neckerchiefs are a good idea, too--one soaked with cold water and kept around the neck or on top of the head.

We got a short lesson first: The site, Rand said, dates from AD 600 to 900 and was inhabited for a time by people he identified as ancestors of the Hopi and Zuni.

Then we were put to work, each assigned a section of earth about a yard square for digging in the house's "Room 10." We used the trowels to scrape hardened soil into dustpans, and from there into our buckets. Once the bucket was about a third full, we dumped the contents into framed screens, which sifted out the earth. The remaining lumps were examined to sort stones from bits of clay pottery, or perhaps tools or beads. Finds went into a plastic bag labeled with the grid number and the depth we worked.

The dirt was laden with finds, mostly pottery shards, all of which must stay at the ranch. Many were painted with striking patterns of black on white or reddish backgrounds; a few pieces showed fine black lines just millimeters apart, tiny bits of artistic wonder.

Rand loves to be asked about the site and about the time he spent living with the Hopi and learning their language. He talked about the abundance of pottery filling these rooms and shared theories about the many ancient sites in Arizona and New Mexico that were suddenly abandoned.

Romance aside, this is hot, dirty, repetitious work. Despite our initial thrill at touching the handiwork of people who worked and worshiped right here more than 1,000 years ago, Sam and I eventually tired of scraping, filling and screening. So after a few hours, as the sun climbed overhead, we went back to the ranch house, where we were given a bag lunch. (The ranch charges $40 plus tax for an adult dig, lunch included; kids under 12 are free.)

We took our finds to a barn that doubles as Rand's lab, washed them with toothbrushes, sorted and labeled them, and filed them away in drying racks.

We didn't have time to rest before our 4 p.m. trail ride. I picked the "Tenderfoot," an hour ride that costs $25 per person. Choices extend up to daylong rides with lunch for $125; some let you do cowboy work for a half or full day.

We followed a trail that went up into ponderosa pines, part of Apache National Forest above the ranch. The air was so clean and lightly scented by the woods, it was a pleasure just to inhale deeply. An outgoing guide used the word "cowboy" as a verb ("My dad cowboyed all up and down this canyon"), called little girls "Sis," regaled us with the land's history (Geronimo and the Clanton gang hid out in this forest) and told us of current concerns about a developer's plans to build on nearby state land.

By the end of the ride, my "Tenderfoot" knees were killing me. We staggered off to the Phobe and cooked dinner. Sam was so filthy he actually offered to take a bath, and we fell asleep to the sound of the river rushing through "our" meadow.

There's fly-fishing along the river, and the ranch offers lessons and equipment rentals. But that was too sophisticated for Sam, who on Sunday morning wanted to drop a line in the water. The ranch owner, who didn't know I was writing a travel article, loaned him an old rod and wouldn't accept a rental fee. All we needed was bait and tackle, which we picked up in Springerville.

Sam got a nibble, but the fish got away with the worm, and after a couple of troutless hours, we were ready for something different.

We found it at Casa Malpais, an 800-year-old stone ruin in Springerville. With its astronomical observatory, underground burials and spectacular cave petroglyphs, it's an extraordinary site, one considered sacred to its former residents as well as to modern Hopi and Zuni. Its best spots are mostly off-limits on the 11/2-mile tour. But the trip is worth it just for the observatory, a low, circular wall with doorways, petroglyphs and other markers that align with the rising and setting sun of the solstices and equinoxes.

The Phobe wasn't available for our last night; I knew that when I made the reservations. But the ranch gave us its most expensive cabin, the $175-a-night Fisherman, at a reduced price. It was spectacular, with a vast great room overlooking the beaver dams, and two large bedrooms, each with an elegant adjoining bath.

Sam was dying to ride a horse again, though we had to leave early Monday. Kym Johnson, the stable manager and a lifelong ranch resident, offered to take him out first thing in the morning. So at 7 a.m., the pair took off along a different trail that rose to nearby petroglyphs. I threw our bags in the car and settled in our cabin with coffee to watch the river. In its own nook among the hills, the ranch felt like a self-contained world; though we had only been here a few days, Southern California seemed like a place where I had lived long ago. Then Kym delivered Sam, still on horseback, to the cabin door.

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Karin Klein is an editorial writer for The Times.