Houses of Stone and Sand
The dappled sky and light breeze of summer have beckoned me to return to those ruins in the desert, standing on their canyonsides and promontories, gazing sightlessly at the changes of a thousand years: Wupatki, the Tall House; Wukoki, the Big House; and Lomaki, the Beautiful House; each calling to me through the afternoon light as it played across their warm sandstone walls. As I passed the tall pines at the foot of Sunset Crater the scent of the place flowed through my car, black cinders and jagged lava waiting for another day while I drove north towards the shining vista on the horizon. The transition from ponderosa forest to volcanic moonscape to arid desert happens quickly, each sliding seamlessly into the other as the elevation drops.
The winding road led me first to the Wupatki ruins, namesake of the monument and impressive in their size and complexity. I picked a good day, as there were only a couple other visitors like myself, lending the silent walls an appropriate air of solitude. I was advised by a park operator to keep an eye out for the single known petroglyph near the ruins, a small spiraling snake carved into the bottom of a boulder overlooking the shallow valley. Without the tip I never would have seen it, hiding like its inspiration at a fork in the trail.
A short path gave a classic view of the complex, its multi-storey rooms tapering down to the second group, the circular community room, and the distant ballcourt. It is the view memorialized in many photographs and publications, and I felt in good company capturing it in my own way (see top of post). Following the trail along the western edge I got a glimpse into several rooms whose purposes were evident and others still mysterious, the organic form of the sandstone foundation intruding and supporting in a purposeful, artistic way. It reminded me somewhat of the descriptions of large stones carved by the Inca and their ancestors in Peru, accentuating the natural forms in places and in others leaving the surface rough, working toward some intriguing vision that suits its setting perfectly. Such is the impression given by all three sites I visited, and maybe it is for that reason I find myself returning here so often.
Rounding the end of the second group gives access to the east face and the community room below, partly reconstructed from its remnant foundations. The eastern side of Wupatki shows in more detail the intricate conjoining of rock and masonry, walls starting and stopping and building around the weathered, unearthly shape at their heart. I have yet to take a picture of this which does it justice, though it is one of the more intriguing aspects of the ruins. The community room is a circular courtyard enclosed by a low stepped wall with a door at one end, perhaps made to simulate a ceremonial kiva though it never had a roof. The reconstruction work completed and squared off the walls so that they look as they might have when the room was built, placed to give easy access to every inhabitant of the pueblo. To its east a broken sandstone cliff rears up, showing an uncanny resemblance to the stonework it faces.
Continuing downward gives access to two outstanding features of Wupatki; its ballcourt and the natural blowhole. The blowhole is a small opening in the ground which vents from an underground chamber, blowing cool air out during times of low atmospheric pressure and drawing air in during high pressure conditions. The day was luckily one of low pressure, as an angled breeze smelling of dark earth blew steadily outward. This was no doubt a treasure to the Sinagua living here, giving welcome relief during the long, hot days of summer. Near the blowhole stands the ballcourt, the northernmost echo of a mesoamerican legacy. Hundreds of ballcourts have been found in Mexico, most famously at the Mayan city of Chichen Itza, upwards through southern Arizona to culminate with this single small oval in the high desert. Its inner walls have been reconstructed but their thickness and end doorways lead one to figure this was a two-team sport, cheered by spectators rimming the court. Surely the rubber ball needed for the game was protected as a priceless artifact, drawn and hardened from the rubber trees of the southern jungle and carried north by a succession of merchants and traders. I was given a special surprise from the recent heavy rains, which filled the ballcourt with still water reflecting the sky above. Looking across to the far end showed a mirror image of the tapered doorway curving around to where I stood, the low hill with its small ruin behind shading the background. It was a lucky sight, this pool of water sheltered in an arid landscape, one that does not occur often but shows the dynamic seasons even here in one of the driest, most quiet of places.
With this gift in mind I climbed back to the main ruins and took a last look around before heading onward to my next destination. To truly experience the duality of man and nature here you must see it for yourself, as even the bare rock has a story to tell. Every ridge and pockmark speaks to great age, yet the unchanging desert has preserved the stones and walls so that they appear, though diminished, much as they would have to those who made their home here.
Following the road out to isolated Wukoki serves only to enhance the feeling of solemnity under an arching sky, the ruins first appearing as a small tower in the distance and growing until you are at their feet and realize the small one is you, gazing up at what was a multi-level dwelling standing on a lone rock. The approach leads past some of the warped sandstone so prevalent and yet so unique to the area, some rocks looking as though giant fingers had dug trenches from them and others made of impossibly thin plates piled atop one another and curving down into the swirling sands. When the sun is low in the sky and there is no one else around this becomes a place out of time, set apart and anchored to that square bastion in the center, drifting through fluid earth and architecture and blurring the lines between the two past recognition. Entering the old pueblo gives you unrestricted access to its three rooms and spacious courtyard, each with commanding views of the sweeping desert. The doorways from space to space are low and narrow, humbling as you crawl under the mass of stone resting on their lintels, until you enter the enclosed vault within the tower itself. Eye-level windows open to the west and south, with the entrance on the north wall and a second-floor doorway facing east. The sun was creeping ever higher on the walls as I stood there, an early twilight filling the chamber with only the breath of wind through the windows to break the spell. Walking to the courtyard based on the natural plinth of rock I found another snake petroglyph, clinging to the north dropoff as if to tease me for finding its sister at Wupatki. I must have overlooked it during my previous visits, but there it has sat for centuries under the sun, rain, and snow, marking an encounter with the real animal, possibly a family crest, or a final farewell before the pueblo was abandoned. Some twenty feet below the sand had been washed clean by the rain, erasing footprints as the water raced through shallow washes and gullies to some distant destination, possibly the Little Colorado River itself far to the east.
Circling back down and around the base of the ruins brings to light just how deeply the tower is connected to its rock. Its foundations rest perfectly on the absurdly square base, rounding its curves and angles to be more like a thing grown than a thing built. Observing the surrounding ridges and hills only heightens the similarity, likened again to those Inca boulders except for the fact that these are carved by wind, water, and time, and by no work of human hands. In one secret place a cavity gives way to a cluster of small standing stones, looking for all the world like a shadowbox scene from Montezuma’s Castle or Mesa Verde recreated not by the people, but by the very place they chose to build in.
I could rest in this familiar yet alien place no longer – the sun was creeping ever lower and I had one last stop to make before nightfall. Just as I began the trail back I turned and saw the sun align with an arched opening in a lone wall, which according to the various illustrated plates narrating the scene is thought to be the original front door. The sun, it seems, was bidding me farewell from Wukoki, and so I left for the long winding drive out to my next destination.
The pueblo complex of Lomaki sits around a box canyon some ten miles from Wupatki, seemingly alone out on the Antelope Prairie, but in reality the open portions are only a fragment of a large group of settlements in the area. Surrounding the canyon are several mesas, each with their crown of crumbling stone walls, some quite striking like the neighboring Citadel and others nearly forgotten in the waving grass. The Lomaki trail first passes two small ruins facing each other from opposite rims of the canyon, their interiors filled with tumbled rock from ancient walls. It is thought that the canyon bottom was used for farming, the occasional flood providing water for hardy crops. There is little surface evidence of that now, only the pale stone squares gazing across the rolling hills. The box canyon, formed by fissures in a tormented earth rather than by the flow of water, makes a striking foreground to the distant spires of the San Francisco Peaks, tallest Humphreys out-shining the lesser summits.
Climbing the trail out of the canyon leads to Lomaki proper, a larger ruin without any reconstruction save that which is necessary to stabilize its tall walls. It, too, is perched on the side of the cliff, a common theme which must have had a dual purpose of beauty and defense. Aside from two of its rooms filled with broken masonry it is free to explore, the trail winding through a room with two doors and a third with a dangerously bulging wall, backed by the remnants of a second storey. One of the doorways is built in the iconic T-shape so familiar throughout the southwest, and yet apparently absent from the larger ruins around Wupatki. Seen from the east while standing in an open room, the doorway makes a stark contrast to the wide prairie and the distant peaks, as though something which was hidden has been found and lost again, leaving only a memory of its passing.
After exploring the rooms and surroundings for a while the sun blazed against a standing wall then set completely, marking the hour to return home. As many times as I visit, these houses of stone and sand keep drawing me back, tempting me to see them in all their seasons and moods as ancient things grown of the earth. Their crumbling walls and empty windows cannot cover their pride and strength, surviving a thousand years and perhaps a thousand more, becoming part of the landscape rather than an intrusion upon it. Once the first hill is crossed the little pueblos fade to a remembrance only, persistent specks of dust against the unassailable vastness of the open plains. Too soon the tracts of green, yellow, black, and red give way to the highway, blazing its trail back toward modern civilization as though unaware of what lies a few short miles eastward, waiting on the rocks and canyonsides for the next dawn to grace their faces with the colors of birth even as they sink ever farther into the mists swirling about their feet.