THE THREE OF US

You shouldn't get the wrong idea; it wasn't always just Suzie and me. Phyllis put in a lot of miles on the back seat of various bikes, even the old GT380. It was just that for various reasons she usually came along either on relatively short trips or else for family visits and the like, of interest only to those involved.

But in the spring of '88, as we were planning to go out to see her mother in Phoenix, she mentioned that even though she was born and raised in Arizona, she'd never seen the Grand Canyon; and so we decided to add a little side trip.

It was damn rough for much of the westbound ride; the wind was brutal all across Texas and most of New Mexico - and harder to deal with, with the added wind-catching area of a passenger - though it eased up when we got into the mountains. We stopped in Globe so she could check out some childhood haunts, and then we went on down to Phoenix.

Heading north, a few days later, I didn't even consider camping at the Canyon; I remembered what a ripoff it had been back in '83 and it could only be worse now, after another five years of the Old Ranger and his disciple James "Kill A Tree For Jesus" Watt. Instead we got a site at a place called Sunset Crater National Monument, just a few miles outside of Flagstaff, and figured we'd use that as a base of operations.

It was a pretty interesting place in its own right; apparently there had been a monster volcanic eruption, or series of eruptions, back about a thousand years ago, resulting in the destruction of a promising prehistoric culture that had flourished in the area - a kind of aboriginal Pompeii. You couldn't go up to the top and look at the crater - the trail had been closed because of erosion - but for miles around you could see areas of volcanic rock.

The campground was nice if basic, and not crowded. Big fat squirrels scampered all over the place, looking for handouts or insufficiently guarded munchies. At first they were fun to watch, until one night one of the little bastards chewed his way into the tent and raided the groceries.

It was chilly up on the plateau, especially after Phoenix; and it got seriously cold at night, enough to freeze the coffee in the coffeepot. Phyllis somehow contrived to steal my sleeping bag - I'm not making this up, I woke up at two in the morning freezing and uncovered and there she was wrapped in double layers - and acted utterly innocent when confronted; she must have done it in her sleep. Uh huh, right....

Next morning we set out for the Canyon, but the wind was really bad, a great icy river flowing across Highway 89, groping for vulnerable spots in our heavy clothing, trying to push Suzie off the road. At one point we stopped to talk with some Navajos and Phyllis asked, "Does it always blow like this around here?" and one guy said, very seriously, "No - sometimes blows the other way."

It was just too much, and we said the hell with it and turned off instead on a narrow side road in the hope that it would offer a more sheltered route back to the campground.

It was that, but much more. It took us through an area of astonishing ancient ruins, not fenced off or guarded by uniforms demanding tickets or overrun by tourists, but just standing around out on the open plain, looking not so much ruined as unfinished, as if the construction crew had knocked off and gone into town for lunch.

It was a fascinating place but very strange. I was glad Phyllis was along; I'm not sure I'd have been comfortable poking around those old houses alone.

It certainly did adjust some mental pictures for me; I'd known, from books, that there had once been an extensive and advanced native society in these parts - spread out over a vast area, bigger than some states, and connected by a network of well-laid-out roads - and I'd seen bits of what they'd left, at Bandelier and Canyon de Chelly. But this was something else; suddenly the whole thing came alive for me. I found myself thinking of Pyrrhus's words when he first saw a Roman army in the field: "This is a very un-barbarian lot of barbarians."

These ruminations were interrupted by the arrival of a local resident: a half-grown pronghorn, who came walking right up to us like a friendly pony. Obviously he found us fascinating; he didn't even shy away when we walked toward him. I think I could have gone up and petted him, if I'd moved carefully...but of course it was no good encouraging him to think of humans as his friends; that would just make him an easy target for some son of a bitch with a rifle, and no way even to guarantee that it would at least be a Navajo with a hungry family to feed.

So I tossed a few rocks in his direction, not hitting him but coming close enough to startle him; and he did a kind of double take and turned and bounded away. "We love you," Phyllis called after him, but by then he was halfway to Tuba City.

It would be very pretty to imagine a peaceful world of happy proto-hippies, but it's quite obvious that things weren't quite that rosy. The smaller homes might be scattered about the open country, but the bigger ones quite obviously had been laid out, and their locations chosen, with an expert professional view of defensibility.

There seems to be a connection, incidentally, with the Sunset Crater disaster: it is believed that the survivors moved up here, and in time developed a sophisticated culture, with such advanced ideas as not living next to volcanos.

Farther on was the most amazing sight of all. Wupatki Pueblo, the little signs called it, but it didn't look like any pueblo I'd ever seen. "It's like a castle," Phyllis said, awed.

According to the little signs the building complex went back to the twelfth century or thereabouts - around the time Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine were getting hitched - and people lived here for a century or two before their world fell apart and the communities were abandoned. Nobody knows why things went to hell, though there must be some significance to the propensity of the last generations for living up on inaccessible cliffs; they didn't do it for the view....

The circular structure is, of all things, a ball court, of the kind common in the ancient cities of Mexico, where the game was considered a sacred ceremony. Now what the hell is it doing here? These people did trade with Mexico - I read somewhere that parrot feathers had been found at some sites - but this suggests something more than mere trade. Well, at least they didn't pick up the Mexican addiction to human sacrifice.

Somebody told me they've got it all fixed up now with a visitor center and admission fees and all that, but we didn't even see anybody in uniform. There were a few explanatory signs here and there, and some footpaths, and it was obvious that there had been some restoration work, but otherwise Your Friendly U.S. Gubmint wasn't in evidence. I'll always be glad we got to see it while it was still like that.

Back at the campsite, I apologized for not making it to the Canyon. "We'll try again tomorrow," I told Phyllis. "I know a different way we can go, shouldn't be as windy."

"That's all right," she said. "That was really interesting. I'm enjoying this."

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NEXT: The Canyon

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