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House of Rain

Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across The 2006 American Southwest

by Craig Childs

Hardcover, 496 pages, Little Brown & Co, List Price: $24.99 |


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Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across The 2006 American Southwest
Craig Childs

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Book Summary

The greatest unsolved mystery of the American Southwest is the fate of the Anasazi, the native peoples who in the eleventh century converged on Chaco Canyon (in today's northwestern New Mexico) and built a flourishing cultural center that attracted pilgrims from far and wide, a vital crossroads of the prehistoric world. The Anasazis' accomplishments—in agriculture, art, commerce, architecture, and engineering—were astounding, as remarkable in their way as those of Mayans in distant Central America. By the thirteenth century, however, the Anasazi were gone from the region. What brought about the rapid collapse of their civilization? Was it drought? pestilence? war? Naturalist Childs draws on the latest scholarly research, as well as on a lifetime of adventure and exploration in the most forbidding landscapes of the American Southwest , to shed new light on this compelling mystery.—From publisher description.

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Tracking a Vanished Civilization in the Southwest

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: House Of Rain

House Of Rain

Little, Brown

Copyright © 2006 Craig Childs
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-316-60817-6

Chapter One



It happened quickly, as if a diviner's staff had struck the ground. Water flashed onto the dry earth. Its dark and wringing hands plunged over cactus and sage, welling around the trunks of sparse cottonwood trees. The desert groaned as its thousand parched mouths opened to an empty summer sky.

Two of us looked down at this flash flood from atop a safe, high bank. Below us water funneled into Chaco Canyon, passing through a set of mustard-colored cliffs in the barrens of northwest New Mexico. The water smelled as ripe as garbage. It was incense to me, a lurid scent that I have encountered only select times in my life, brief hours of the desert erupting into sudden and monstrous floods, where everything living and dead is channeled into a single slot. It smelled like creation itself.

The flood thundered past buff-colored boulders that had fallen from the cliffs into beds of withered greasewood and cracked clay soil. My companion, a man named Adam, had never been to this part of the desert. Standing above the flood, he glanced at me, astonished. It seemed there should not be water out here, ever. I told Adam that we were very lucky. You can wait years and not see something like this. Or you can walk out on rattleboard roads that no one has driven in years, and where you expect yet another dry wash, you find a bestial river heaving with broken trees.

Adam stood with his arms draped at his sides. His face was red from the heat. A tall man, Adam has a graceful manner, his hair long and dark. He studied the water, which was actually more mud than water, and then looked up at the sky. There was not a single cloud, no possible source for this flood as far as he could see. The blue overhead was bereft of any moisture.

One small cloud had passed while we were out walking earlier in the day. It had dragged a quarter acre of shade across the desert, and we had set off chasing it, sprinting to catch up so we could get under its shade. Before we got there, the cloud lifted its skirt and sailed off, evaporating into nothing. We were left empty-handed, my oiled hat brim wilted in the sun.

Most people think this must have been better country to live in some thousand years ago, back when an indigenous civilization of hunters and corn growers assembled in a geographic province known as the Colorado Plateau. The climate is no different now than it was then, however, just as dry at times and wet at others, and prone to the same scales of flooding. Rainfall has always been unpredictable in this desert. Farming seasons expand and contract like an accordion, leaving only slim margins for planting and growing.

The Colorado Plateau is the very edge of where one can even partly subsist on agriculture. It is a 150,000-square-mile blister of land that rises across the dry confluence of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico. Its surface is incised with countless canyons and wrinkled into isolated mesas and mountain ranges that stand suddenly from the desert floor up to 13,000 feet in elevation. The combination of irregular topography and infrequent rainfall gave rise to the Anasazi, an indigenous people who knew how to move. Small family groups and clans readily skirted around climate changes, transferring their settlements to high, wetter mesas or down to the sunbaked lowlands whenever the need arose.

In the late centuries B.C. and the early centuries A.D., the Anasazi lived in small villages of semi-subterranean pit-houses made of earth and wood, clusters of tiny domes the color of local soils. They occupied any one settlement for no more than ten to twenty years before moving on. Rarely would a person have been born, grown old, and died in the same place. For more than ten thousand years, the Anasazi and their ancestors walked the climatic tightropes of the Colorado Plateau, chasing the rain, leaving their camps and settlements behind. Sporadic farming began some four thousand years ago as corn and other subsidiary crops slowly made their way up from southern Mexico. But even with the onset of agriculture, the Anasazi remained a wayfaring people. Farming came to a head about a thousand years ago, and the Anasazi rose with it, reaching the civilized heights of imposing public architecture and industrial farming. Though still in motion, they began to settle in places for longer periods of time, making their homes sturdier, more permanent. Populations rapidly increased. Architecture flourished. Then suddenly they were gone.

I glanced upstream, where the scalp of a thunderstorm barely peeked over the eastern horizon. The flood had come from there, maybe thirty miles away, and had picked up everything it could carry along its way. It hissed with sand and mud, hauling across its back bobbing clods of horseshit. A car tire rose to the surface and then sank like a drowning ogre. Countless tiny moons of juniper berries nodded up and down alongside aluminum cans with their identities sanded off. We had to cross to get where we were going.

Could you swim it? I wondered. I knew better. I had once made an academic study out of flash floods in the desert, adding my own arcane contributions to the fields of hydrology and geomorphology. I knew very well how nasty floods can be, full of chaotic undertows and unexpected obstacles that may or may not break the surface at any moment. But I felt pulled toward the water.

We were heading for an archaeological site on the opposite side of this shadeless canyon about five miles downstream. The flood was going in our direction.

I carefully studied the water, my eyes tracking its fleeing surface puckered with whirlpools. There was a specific grit to the sediment and softness to the bedrock that spoke of how water travels in this region. The way shoreline plants were arranged in tiers and the scales of the terraced banks told what it might be like to hitch a ride downstream. I concluded that we had a good chance of surviving as long as we encountered no boulders along the way, no unanticipated waterfalls. Sometimes floods sing with catastrophe, but this one seemed safe.

Without looking at Adam, I said, "Let's swim it."

Adam did not look at me either. He nodded slowly, watching as chunks of shoreline crashed in, sucked immediately beneath the muddy froth.

He smiled wryly, unable to take his eyes off the water, and asked, "So this is what you do in the desert?"

"Only when you get lucky," I said.

Much of northwest New Mexico is a landscape of oblivion, an arid sink bowing into the Colorado Plateau. Ochre- and straw-colored washes loop in and out for hundreds of miles, many seeing running water for no more than a day or two each year. In some places dusty sagebrush steppes extend as far as the eye can see, and in others scabs of badlands lie naked under the sun, completely devoid of vegetation. Occasional black monoliths are visible in the distance, wind-struck jags of rock standing several hundred feet tall like lost chess pieces. Chaco Canyon lies here, in a basin a hundred miles across.

Of the deserts I know, this barren quarter of the Colorado Plateau is the most unfortunate. During freeze-dried winters, the snow blusters about like dust, and temperatures can drop to twenty below zero. Summers leave every stone hot to the touch. Looking for remains of ancient cultures, one might expect only sparse ruins, if any, ramadas of scavenged wood and impoverished households where residents tied reed mats across doorways to keep out the incessant wind. But the Anasazi left much more in their wake. Reaching a feverish peak in the eleventh century A.D., they built scores of masonry buildings, their floor plans as sizable and geometrically abstruse as crop circles. Thousands of chambers, with ceilings weighing up to ninety tons each, were constructed in Chaco Canyon. To support these structures, 250,000 trees were felled in mountains fifty miles away and hauled across the desert. The timbers were not dragged. They were hoisted and carried in procession to this canyon.

At the time, much larger population centers arose elsewhere in the Americas. The Mound Builder culture erected earthen pyramids with ramps and flattened tops along the Mississippi River. In what is now Illinois, the ancient city of Cahokia reached a population of 15,000, while in southern Mexico the stone temples of Chichén Itzá broke the jungle skyline with monolithic stone facades. The gridded avenues and pyramids of Teotihuacán near modern-day Mexico City hosted about 150,000 people, while 350,000 lived in an urban center at the south end of Lake Titicaca in Bolivia.

Chaco, on the other hand, had a relatively small year-round population. Estimates range between a couple of thousand residents and only a few hundred. In the larger cultural picture of North, South, and Central America, Chaco was a relatively minor place. In the sparsely populated Southwest, however, it was the preeminent center, a shining anomaly of broad, clean streets, or processionals, and ceremonial buildings that once stood like cathedrals in the desert.

A traveler in the eleventh century would have approached Chaco Canyon along one of many scrupulously engineered roads. Where roads entered the canyon, stairways had been carved straight into the bedrock walls to get from the surrounding desert down to the canyon floor. There one would have found an oasis of curve-walled temples and blocky residential compounds. Housing was built on the south side of the canyon. On the north side stood public buildings two or three times the square footage of the White House in Washington D.C. Nothing like these buildings existed anywhere else in the Southwest.

These stately structures, now called great houses, were not residences per se. More likely they were monuments, temples, or palaces. Many of them had as few as ten residents for every fifty rooms, and most of the rooms, by the nature of the artifacts found in them, seem to have been used for religious or ceremonial purposes. Deep inside catacomb-like chambers within one great house, excavators have found the most highly decorated burials in the Southwest. Two richly dressed skeletons were discovered lying on a bed of fifty-six thousand pieces of turquoise, surrounded by fine ceramic vessels, and covered by a sheet of ivory-colored shells imported from the ocean six hundred miles away.


Great-house stonework was painstakingly created, as evidenced by straight corners and geometrically perfect circles, which were then washed with a glaze of plaster, resulting in an arresting, lofty appearance. These buildings would have looked like multistory thrones set along the promenade of Chaco Canyon.

During certain times of the year-perhaps on the winter and summer solstices, or at the beginning of lunar cycles-people traveled great distances to reach Chaco. Based on skeletal remains, these people were physically distinct from one another, and based on languages descended from that time, they probably spoke a variety of disparate tongues. People from different regions would have been recognizable by their manner, their facial features, and the weaving patterns of their robes, sandals, and skirts. Perhaps these visitors came to Chaco for religious reasons, attending festivals, partaking in celebratory feasts during years of plentiful crops, or offering their labor to help construct great houses.

In the middle of the eleventh century, the stonework alone at each great house required hundreds of thousands of man-hours. Masons broke rocks into thin, workable tablets, laborers hauled baskets of wet mortar, and woodworkers stripped timbers and evened off their ends with stone axes before setting them into place. Parts of older great houses were demolished to make way for expansions, and thousands of tons of rubble went into the new foundations. At the same time, adjacent land was cleared for future construction.

Most of this activity took place in an area of about three square miles, known today as Downtown Chaco, a term coined by archaeologist Steve Lekson. It contains a couple of dozen residential compounds facing half as many great houses, as well as tidy processionals leading toward the center. Ten miles in all directions lies a looser halo of ten more great houses and numerous contiguous living quarters. Chaco, or at least parts of Chaco, keeps going from there. Ancient roads radiate from the canyon outward to meet satellite great houses scattered across the desert. The place was built like a web, drawing people and their artifacts to the center, Chaco Canyon.

Whether people living elsewhere on the Colorado Plateau were directly involved with eleventh-century Chaco or not, they could not help being deeply affected by it. Year after year more travelers came from the hinterlands. They left tracks of broken pottery along the way-countless ceramic water pitchers and painted ollas dropped and shattered across the desert. The roads they stamped into the ground can be seen to this day from space. Chaco became the cultural center of the Colorado Plateau, and thus it is the appropriate place to begin the story of the Anasazi.

On the clear summer day when Adam and I visited, a mass of mud and water shouldered through Chaco Canyon, taking no notice of the toppled great houses standing on the dry banks above. The flood had its own business more pressing and ancient than human civilization, proud heaves of water undercutting the banks and dragging away dead and dying cottonwood trees. The floodwater ran down a wash in the middle of the canyon where we walked with accelerated hearts. We felt the anxious intoxication I imagine skydivers feel the moment before they jump. Quickly now, who knew how long the high water might last? It could drain out from under us in half an hour.

The canyon floor was about half a mile wide, leaving plenty of room for us to get away from the flood, which ran less than a hundred feet across. We headed right for it, walking through greasewood and saltbush until we found a place where we could get into the water. We had gone back to my truck and picked up a watertight ammunition box that Adam now carried. It was army surplus, about the size of a lunch pail. Adam knelt and popped it open. We stripped off our clothes and stuffed them inside, along with a pen, a journal, and a bottle of drinking water. We left on only our boots to protect our feet from whatever lay on the floor of this flood.

The sun burned our bare shoulders as we slogged through soaked clay to the flood's slipstream edge. I nervously rubbed my hands on my thighs, glancing along the corridor of the canyon. Certainly, the Anasazi had done the same, I thought. A thousand years ago someone taking a message from one compound to another must have hopped into a flood to speed the journey-or just taken an afternoon dip in the cold water, joyous over its startling appearance in this landscape where water is the rarest commodity. Maybe people used to flock to these infrequent floods, running with baskets and pots to gather mud, which they could use to make mortar or farming soil. Indeed, earthen and stone-lined canals, where water would have been diverted from the main wash toward nearby storage areas, have been detected all around Chaco. Buildings went up in fits and starts, perhaps matching sporadic flood cycles as millions of gallons of mud were suddenly available for construction. These floods also brought down precious water to be distilled for drinking. An event like this would have been a wonder and the cause for celebration.

Adam and I continued along sloppy mud banks and through cold lagoons where the flood swelled into the surrounding desert. The water had the chill of freshly melted hail. Parts of trees spun downstream in the froth. We waded in up to our thighs, and the current began to pull on us. Just before it swept us off our feet, we dove forward. Like busted rams of cottonwood trees, we were carried off.

Several million tons of sediment depart from the Southwest every day, carried in warm, muddy rivers toward the nearest sea. The entire landscape is falling apart, too dry to hold on to its soil, too weathered to remain solid. In 1941 a 300,000-ton slab of canyon wall toppled into the back of the largest of Chaco's ruins, crushing numerous rooms and throwing boulders into ceremonial chambers, where they remain today like rough-edged meteorites. What you see in the Southwest is temporary, everything caught in motion.