Ongoing lessons found in parks
I like to think of my recent trip as an adult education class. It was like a new history or science lesson every day for a week as I traveled to seven national monuments and two national parks, all in Arizona. Although all the sites were in the northern and central areas of Arizona each was extremely different.
I have written about my intention of visiting every national monument and park in the United States in this lifetime. Three years ago, when I moved to Utah, I set a goal of touring 10 new areas every year. I thought I would kick off 2005 with a sweep through Arizona and was able to get nine more areas checked off. This brings my total to 47 with over 300 left to go.
I traveled down U.S. Highway 191 and began the adventure in Canyon de Chelly and then headed south to Hubbell's Trading Post and the Petrified Forest. From there I drove west along Interstate 40 and was able to visit three sites near flagstaff. I saw Walnut Creek during a snow storm but was able to wait and tour Sunset Crater Volcano and Wupatki after it cleared up. I watched the sun set and rise over the Grand Canyon and finished the trip with a loop through the Verde Valley catching Montezuma Castle and Tuzigoot.
Although I grew up and lived around some of the most spectacular National Parks in America, such as Yellowstone and Glacier, I had no idea the history and knowledge that could be gained by exploring and studying the individual sites. I have to admit I understand more about geology and the history of our ancestors after three years of traveling adventures than I did during all those classes in high school and college.
Millions of years of land uplifts and stream cutting created the colorful sheer cliff walls of Canyon de Chelly. Natural water sources and rich soil provided a variety of resources, including plants and animals that has sustained families for almost 4,000 years. A red-tailed hawk casts moving shadows on the sheer walls as it floats high above the canyon. This canyon is the only area that I visited this trip that is still home to native Navajos, who raise corn and squash in the lush meadows, while cows and horses graze the river beds. A family at Spider Rock Overlook marveled at the 800-foot free-standing spire and the quilt of colors far below. The fresh blanket of snow left the red and brown cliffs with a thin liner of white, while dirty water rushes through the green meadows, with stands of junipers shivering in the winter air.
My Indian guide spent his entire 65 years in the canyon and tells story after story about his family and their crafts and methods of farming as they added their own designs to the walls of this ancient gallery.
Reservation trading posts were often the only direct point of contact between Native and non-Native Americans until well into the 20th century. John Hubbell's contribution as a trader was significant and his legacy a few miles south of Canyon de Chelly still stands today. Explorers, artists, writers, and scientists enjoyed the atmosphere at Hubbell's trading post and the hospitality of Hubbell himself. Rugs, baskets, jewelry and Kachina dolls still fill the shelves of the oldest post still in existence dating back to 1876.
Best known for its vast deposit of petrified wood, the Petrified National Park is actually two parks in one. Petrified wood is only one type of fossil that I found in the park. Giant reptiles and amphibians, early dinosaurs, fish, ferns, cycads and trees represent an entire ecosystem. From the layers of the often colorful Chinley formation, scientist continue to put together the story of the past.
Walnut Creek, Sunset Crater, and Wupatki are three national monuments with very different landscapes. All within a few miles of Flagstaff, Ariz., the three monuments all portray the earth's varied geological past. The landscapes were shaped by the violence of volcanic eruptions and by the slow erosion of older rock layers, which in turn reveal evidence of ancient seas and sand dunes. Two of the sites show pueblos at Wupatki and cliff homes at Walnut canyon. I was able to experience things about the lives of people here, their migration, living conditions, conflicts, cooperation, ingenuity and achievements.
Of course the grandfather of all parks is the Grand Canyon. Perhaps no landscape on earth is as surprising as the vast yet intricate face of this spectacular park. I watched the sun set as I hiked up from the bottom on South Kaibab trail and then the next morning I caught the early morning colors dance through the canyons below as yellows, reds, oranges and browns changed by the moment. Although it was cold, and small drifts of snow hung on the top rims of the canyons, this is a perfect time to visit the canyon: lower rates, less people and vivid colors. The awe-inspiring views of the canyon have been topics of hundreds of books and magazines and its beauty and size humbled me every time I glanced down. Its timelessness provoked a comparison to our short existence and in its vast spaces I often wondered what life was like in the canyon 200 or 300 hundred years ago.
The final leg of the trip was south as I toured remnants of two distinctive cultures that once flourished in the Verde Valley. The first permanent settlers here were the Hohokam, They were a skilled farming people that moved into the valley over 1500 years ago and grew crops of corn, beans, squash, and cotton and watered them by irrigation. The other group of people were the Sinagua, (Spanish for without water) who inhabited the nearby foothills. They left their imprints with pithouses, and above-ground dwellings.
The questions that seem to still be asked is why and when these tribes abandoned their villages. Although there are plenty of speculations, which range from drought to conflicts, it is clear that there were no tribes living in the area around the mid-1500's when the Spanish arrived.
It was an incredible trip and I still marvel at the sights as I look at the photographs I took. History and geology keep changing and I am grateful that I can learn a bit of the past by traveling through our many yesterdays.