Whispers from the past
Sitting atop one of the many rocky outcroppings overlooking one of the rugged canyons in the Vernon area, many people might feel alone in the solitude that hiking and exploring the seemingly remote and trailless canyons and draws surrounding Vernon provides, but I feel, more than hear, the whispers from the past and wavering shadows of the peoples who came before me.
At first, the silence is an almost electric feeling of the absence of sound and then as I wait, still and quiet, I begin to hear small rustlings in the leaves and birds chirping. As I allow myself to relax and let my mind wander, I begin to hear the nearly imperceptible sounds of chipping rock as Paleo Indians create tools and weapons from stones brought here from other locations. I hear the faint far off laughter of Anasazi children playing in the empty spring below me and conversations between Hohokam women sorting pinons on large flat rocks. I hear Sinagua hunters calling to each other while returning to camp with a slain deer and the sounds of workers in south-facing terraced garden areas below the stone-walled village. There is a group of Mogollon women creating pottery from local clay sources and some visiting traders coming from the coast with parrot feathers and seashells to trade. Next I hear Apache scouts calling to each other as they patrol their territory and soft blowing and snorting from calvary horses passing through. There are muted sounds of sheep with their Basque shepherds calling to them follow, and Mexican vaqueros softly singing as they herd lowing cattle. Far off in the distance I hear the sounds of huge pines and firs falling to the axes and saws of timber crews and the braying of working mules transporting logs to the various railroad spurs located throughout the forest. I hear Mormon pioneers busy at work tilling the fields around me, building log cabins and clearing rocks. Some of the pioneer children play in the same pools where natives, centuries before, left intricately patterned petroglyphs. Then, in a full circle back to the present, I hear a 4-wheel drive truck breaking the silence as it drives past in the distance.
The earliest human inhabitants of this area were Paleoindians dating back 12,000 years ago. Evidence of their existence is mostly in what is called “lithic scatter”, areas where non-native rock chips are found. The Mogollon, Sinagua and Anasazi peoples inhabited this area from approximately 1100 to 1400ad. These people left behind an amazing variety of pottery, both locally made and traded, shells, parrot feathers, rock walls, berry fields and farming terraces. This area was a major trading center for early people, connecting native peoples from the south into Mexico and beyond, the west to the coast, the north and East to the plains. Apaches arrived in the area between 1300-1500ad and displaced/replaced the earlier native inhabitants. Spanish and Mexican settlers arrived in about 1700 and loggers, ranchers and shepherds in about 1894. Mormon settlers and logging companies arrived at about the same time, and built up communities focused around farming, ranching and logging. The Vernon “Land of Pioneers” is one such community made of dispersed cabins and outbuildings with associated fields and animal pens. As the big timber ran out, and long-term drought set in, the logging companies moved away and pioneers moved on to other pursuits, leaving the land to recover and regrow.
If you want to find evidence that you are not alone out here, just look for areas that are unnaturally cleared and you will find small pottery shards and worked rock. Pay attention to lines of rocks that are unnaturally straight, and you will often find that there is a 90o corner, then another and another, outlining an ancient room foundation. You may see lines of rocks terracing a south-facing slope, this is the remains of native farming activity. Look on the vertical walls of cuts and canyons and you will often see spiraling petroglyphs, especially near reliable springs or other perennial water sources. Look for unnatural clumpings of berry plants or agaves and you will see that they are often either in lines or have squared off corners, these are remains of human-initiated planting. I found one such clumping of bushes and upon closer inspection, found a rock hoeing tool left behind nearby. Look for groupings of circular ground-out depressions in large flat rocks, these are grinding holes. Look for rocks that “don’t belong”, you may find manos (grinding stones), flakes from tool or arrowhead making, or the actual tools themselves. I spent many summers searching for archeological remains for the USFS and learned that there is virtually no place here that you cannot find evidence of native inhabitants; lithic scatter, rock walls, pottery shards, arrowheads and spearpoints. Please keep in mind that these artifacts only tell a story when they remain where they were left all those years ago. Once removed, the storyline is broken and the voices effectively silenced. Please practice “catch and release” artifact hunting so that others can hear the whispers from the past for centuries to come.
Look for old cans and glass bottles and milled wood to find where early settlers and timber crews were- we have found everything from old baby carriages to stoves including boots, rocking chairs, farming equipment, bedframes and old vehicles in places you would never imagine people with families to be. Look for what look to be mounded up roadways, this is probably an old railroad bed and you should be able to find a rotting railroad tie or two and maybe even a track rail or spike. Look for unnaturally straight drainages across the land. These are probably irrigation ditches cut in by settlers, and likely lead to a field or homestead area. Look for piles or lines of rocks at the edge of clearings. This is evidence of the hard work it took to clear fields for planting. Smaller rock piles in lines or squares show where pole barns or fences were put up in this land of nearly impenetrable ground. The White Mountains is littered with remains of abandoned rail lines, lumber mills, corrals and log homes or storage buildings. Again, the voices of the pioneers and settlers who preceded us should never be silenced. Please leave artifacts where they were found.
The evidence is all around, we are not the first nor the last to live in this land. Respect the past and enjoy the present. Happy exploring!
More information on history of the settlement of the White Mountains can be found at the Springerville Heritage Center. This is an excellent collection of museums highlighting native culture and artifacts from Casa Malpias as well as displays and information on the further settlement of the White Mountains. You can also get a docent-led tour of the Casa Malpias Ruins and arrange for tours through renovated and fully furnished historic buildings including a school house, a pioneer home, a ranger station, a sheep herder’s wagon and a store. A trip here is a full day experience for the whole family and well worth the time spent.