Hovenweep: Garden of Ghosts

HovenclusterHovenweep, as a falcon flies, lies west of Mesa Verde, straddling the Utah and Colorado boundary lines. Despite its proximity to Mesa Verde, tourists often overlook this nearby ancient village. “We get a crowd only when Mesa Verde is burning,” ranger Todd Overbye says with a sigh. Nearly invisible, difficult to reach, blended into the landscape–that’s just how the original residents planned the site. And that’s how it has remained.

In about 1230, a group of 300 Native Americans built the stone, mud and log structures in a small canyon. At the bottom of the canyon, a series of springs supplied water. Netleaf hackberry trees line a seep that runs along the canyon floor today. Although archaeologists have found no evidence of battles or intruders to Hovenweep, the original architects designed the structures nearly invisible to the naked eye.

Hovenweepterrain“When you drive in, you can’t see anything until you get here,” Todd says. Chipping out the canyon walls and making entry or exit paths devilishly tricky hid Mesa Verde from those who did not know their secrets. Hovenweep residents also used sleight-of-hand methods by blending with the landscape. Buildings atop the canyon stretch down the walls and continue along the bottom. “They compensated by building in a little hidden valley. If they did have enemies at Hovenweep, these buildings would be hard to locate and the residents would have plenty of time to be prepared,” he adds.

HoventrailDespite the bounty of spring water and safety in isolation, Hovenweep residents did not stay long–just two generations before they moved on. A few baskets and pots were left behind, but Hovenweep has not been as intensively excavated as other ancient sites and remains intact.

Today Hovenweep consists of a two-mile looped trail that skirts the canyon walls, weaves around the ancient buildings, heads into the canyon and across the floor, before returning to the trail’s beginning. On most days there’s not more than a few tourists walking the loop. The ghosts from the past outnumber the tourists and that gives Hovenweep its haunting stillness. Lost in solitude, with nothing on the horizon as far as the eye can see–Hovenweep is an ancient neighborhood with only the wind for sound.

HovencircularAs archaeologists have mapped ancient towns in New Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and Utah, they’ve noticed the sites comprise a loose circle around Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. “Mesa Verde, Canyon de Chelly, Navajo National Monument, Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot, Bandelier, Aztec Monument—they may not make a true circle,” Todd says, “but they have some sort of straight line to Chaco.” The coincidence is too great for scholars of archaeology to dismiss. All ancient roads led to Chaco, they believe, which may have been both a trading and spiritual center for these agricultural people.

Hovenweep is cast into this geographical circle. And while the stonework is remarkable, it doesn’t match the quality of Chaco, Todd says. Chaco may have been central to all the inhabitants of these early cities, but residents moved on, leaving pockets of their descendents among the Pueblo people of today. The Zuni, Hopi and Pueblo Native Americans are grouped together as Pueblo, and rangers like Todd no longer use the term Anasazi. DNA evidence indicates that the Anasazi did not disappear. They established villages elsewhere and live among us today. Ancestral Puebloan is the term rangers now prefer to indicate an unbroken link from past to present.

HovenfortressHovenweep dwellers were farmers, planting corn, beans and squash. They may have harvested cotton, too. Perhaps they mixed their mortar of mud and grass on the outside of their buildings similar to adobe homes today. Certainly they mixed a mortar to hold their bricks together and improvised a large sledgehammer to break rocks from their quarries and smaller hammers to shape rocks into bricks, as did the builders of Chaco. They also shared a system of cosmology with those at Chaco.

As farmers, the Hovenweep residents relied upon the changes of the moon and sun to dictate planting cycles. Vertical windows in the stone buildings allowed the sun to mark time on an indoor calendar.

“The calendar was a symbol on the wall inside these structures,” Todd says. “It was the light, itself. Little holes on the outside acted as the entry for the sunlight. During the summer solstice, at a certain point, the sun would shine through the window, strike a petroglyph at the back of the room, usually a circular symbol. It will aim correctly only when the sun is at its highest. That’s when they would know it was the longest day of the year. They would get ready for their first harvest and plan the last planting of the year.”

HovenoblongtwoThe measurements of sun and moon also coincided with ceremonies, often linked to harvests. “The moon is associated with fertility in humans, animals and plants,” he adds. Many of these ancient relationships exist today among the Pueblo peoples. But not everything translates so literally. The kivas at Hovenweep were used for spiritual purposes. They are round structures dug into the ground rather than the raised structures above the ground to be found in other ancient sites. Kivas still exist today for ceremonial purposes. But among the Hopi, the kivas are square and not round.

Despite all the research and study of these ancient people, no one really knows why they moved. The current theory centers on evidence of a drought. Contemporary Pueblo people live more closely to major sources of water today, which fits that interpretation. Hovenweep exists in an arid landscape, populated by midget-faced rattlesnakes and lizards. Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis), used as a laxative by earlier pioneers, joins other drought-tolerant plants like the prickly pear cactus (Opuntia erinacea), the cliff-rose (Purshia mexicana), Utah juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and big sagebrush (Artemsia tridentate). Any signs of corn, beans, squash or cotton have long disappeared.

HovensquaretowerDotted alongside the trail are crusty black spots composed of micro-organisms. Similar to fungi and algae, these spots hold water and nutrients for the sparse population of plants. It’s a landscape of scarcity, astonishingly fragile, with a tentative hold on survival. Only the desert-adapted plants and animals have succeeded. Humans, with a capacity for travel, may have decided to take their chances elsewhere.

Where the Hovenweep residents came from is a mystery, too. “There’s a macaw on a petroglyph,” Todd says, which invites speculation that the Hovenweep dwellers either traded with Central America, or had arrived from Central America. Since macaws are not found in Colorado, the bird they chose to domesticate was the turkey—perhaps more important as a pet than for food. Whatever secrets surround the ancients, we are transported to a timeless beauty. Todd says he loves the solitude and exquisite vistas. Everyone who works at Hovenweep feels fortunate to work in the park. “It’s so serene,” he says, “you don’t get that very often.”

HoventwoseparateFor visitors, the best times to visit Hovenweep are the months of September and October, when the heat of summer has passed. A second choice is in the spring, during the months of April and May. Although unpredictable snowstorms may dampen the zeal to drive such lonely stretches of highway, spring is always beautiful in a desert location.

Hovenweep also hosts a simple campground best suited to tent campers. It’s not good for large RVs, Todd says, because there is a limit of 28 feet. At night, prepare to thrill to the heavens just as the Hovenweep residents must have hundreds of years ago. With no close city in sight, the moon and stars take over. They whirl along their heavenly tracks as if watching over an ancient city whose people once embraced celestial bodies as if they were just barely out of reach.

Hovenweep National Monument, McElmo Rte., Cortez, Colorado, 81321; 970-562-4282;www.nps.gov/hove

Canyonlands Natural History Association, 3031 S. Highway 19, 1 Moab, Utah, 84532; 800-840-8978;www.cnha.org