I didn’t expect to have my heart pierced by an ancient Sinagua Indian arrow when we inadvertently stumbled upon their ancient cliff dwellings at Beasley Flat, but indeed, at least figuratively, that is what happened. I would be remiss if I did not share this story with you. If you’ve ever spent time in the great American Southwest you would be well aware of Arizona’s rich and abundant Native American history. Arizona proudly boasts of many state and national parks with ruins from past civilizations available for public viewing, but I daresay that perhaps none can rival the incredible surprise we have in store for us when we embark upon this adventure.
Our mission this day is actually to kayak the Verde River (read about kayaking the Verde at http://kaijabeishline.com/2016/09/04/8178/). When I pull my car into a parking spot at Beasley Flat on this glorious Arizona day, my attention is drawn immediately to the mysterious looking caves perched on the towering cliffs across the Verde River. My first thought is that perhaps they are ancient cliff dwellings, a long lost settlement of human existence. My suspicions are soon verified when our kayak tour guide tells us that indeed these are old Indian ruins.
The guide points towards the caves as our bus bounces and clatters along the potholed road from Beasley Flat towards our kayaking launch point. I can hear her tell us that it’s possible to park our kayaks on the other side of the river at the end of our kayaking trip, and hike up to the dwellings. However, she is sure to warn us about the dangers. She had been chased out of there one time by Africanized killer bees. Personally, I would be more worried about mountain lions, but that’s just me. Or how about rattlesnakes and scorpions and Gila monsters and the like?
Our awesome kayaking trip down the Verde River takes us nearly three hours. As we approach the cliff dwellings we can’t find a good spot to stop with our kayaks The riverbank is too thick with bullrushes, and soon we find ourselves at our takeout location. We have gone too far. We pull our kayaks out of the water as instructed, hop into our car, and drive maybe 1/2 mile upstream to the farthest covered picnic area. This is where we leave our car and make our way down the embankment to the river.
I’m not sure if we are going to need to swim to get across, or if we will get dragged away by the current, or if I will twist my ankle in the middle of the crossing, or if I will drop my camera into the water. I have crossed the Verde once before when I went to a hotspring, and my little girl nearly got swept away by the current.
I inch my way across the mighty Verde, unable to see where I am stepping in the muddy water. I stub my toe on a boulder, slip a little, stumble and lurch forward and backward, all the while the water tugging at my legs threatening to throw me completely off balance. I make it across alive and well, and my husband follows suit. You may remember we are out here on the Verde River with two of my friends. One of them is hesitant about crossing the river, and plans to wait in the car. With much cajoling she dares to make the crossing.
Once we are safely across we need to bush whack through thick stands of bullrushes, our feet slipping and sliding as we rise up the muddy embankment on the other side to higher ground.
The grass grows thick and tall, tickling my bare legs as I forge my path towards the caves. I step gingerly, acutely aware for rattle snakes and other unknown dangers lurking in the thick vegetation. A branch with thick barbs scratches my ankle, drawing blood. I should have worn long pants on this one! Very fortunately I am wearing my awesome new hiking boots that are perfect for this rugged riparian environment.
As we approach the caves we see a rustic arrow pointing the way.
But rather than follow the direction of the arrow we find a shortcut. It involves climbing over a big rock…..if you’re Mr. Big & Tall….
…..and crawling under a fence if you’re Mrs. Short & Small……hopefully I don’t get snagged up on the barbed wire….
Our excitement grows as we approach the caves, but first we must maneuver ourselves up the cliffs. We carefully pick out a pathway and inch our way up the face of the cliffs towards a large opening in the wall of sandstone before us. The stone is brittle and dry, and little bits and pieces break away sporadically, causing our feet to slip in response. I feel an incredible sense of awe that I am here in this remote historic place. I feel like an explorer of a bygone era.
A little research reveals that these cliff dwellings are named the Mindeleff Cávate Lodge Group (super awkward name), or otherwise in modern terminology known as “the caves at Beasley Flat”. Mindeleff was an American archeologist commissioned by the Smithsonian to study and map out prehistoric homes of American Indians in the southwestern United States. The Sinagua Indians lived in this region between 700-1450 A.D. Personally, I am not too sure why these dwellings aren’t named after the people who lived here rather than the explorer who studied them, but I digress.
The first hollowed out home we come upon has us spellbound. We peer into the cavern for many minutes in awe, marveling at the simplicity, yet the sophistication of this ancient cliff dwelling. All our senses are keenly engaged. Dare we go inside?
In the back of the cave there are several smaller little openings, presumably which are bedrooms or perhaps storage space for vital supplies and food. Maybe there’s a mountain lion lurking back there…..
We can’t resist the temptation, and soon find ourselves inside. As our feet stir the dust upon the floor an unfamiliar scent wafts upwards and fills our nasal passages. Mountain lion urine? What is it?
We look out across the way from our little cliff dwelling, the pungent smell of presumed mountain lion urine burning deep within our nostrils. The view is incredible! Our eyes focus on the large opening ahead of us, and we decide we must make our way to that cave!
As we make our way along the cliff edge we find a section that has collapsed, large boulders piled in heaps upon the ground. It halts our progress from one dwelling to the next, as we can’t find a safe way to make it to the neighboring dwelling. We need to turn back.
I find myself wondering if these cliffs crumbled unexpectedly upon the ancient inhabitants so many years ago. Were any of the people who lived here crushed or injured by falling slabs of limestone rock? Perhaps some are still buried here, a mere heap of bones remaining under a pile of rubble and rock.
What secrets lie herein? What stories and experiences and wisdom could these caves impart if they could tell the tales of yesteryear?
I often think how amazing it is that the human lifespan is so short. We as individuals are but a minor bleep on the radar screen of eternity. What is the meaning and purpose of our existence, which in the whole scheme of things is quite unimportant despite our own perceived self-importance? We live. We die. One or two generations later we are completely forgotten. To add insult to injury we often are subsequently hailed as inferior people of a less sophisticated time in the minds of many generations that follow.
We make our way from one cave home to the next through a narrow opening. It is simply super amazing to be here in this remarkable place. How crazy is it that we are walking upon the same grounds and crawling through the same openings that the native Americans did so many years ago?! Would it not be incredible if it were possible to go back to that time, to be here to experience the lives of the Sinagua Indians here in the Verde River valley?
Who needs a mortar and pestle when you have a hole in the rock within which to grind your maize?
I run my fingers over the malleable limestone walls. The rock is dry and brittle and porous. As I lightly brush my fingers upon it a layer of coarse dust falls to the ground.
My eye is attracted to a fossil in the making.
We see a few shards of pottery, which we leave in place.
My friend is truly enjoying the beauty of this moment.
We make our way across the valley to the large cave that caught our attention. This cave has what appears to be a big fireplace.
Even Big Daddy can stand up in here. Perhaps this home would be a little cold in the winter, but surely the breezes blowing through in the summer months would be very welcome. I should think I would pick this unit for my home from the 100 or so caves that are here.
The cliff drops off sharply. I can’t imagine that a family with young children could have lived in this apartment. You would constantly have to chase your child to make sure they didn’t fall into the abyss beyond.
I gaze down towards the Verde River. I find myself wondering why the Sinagua Indians abandoned their home here. I remember from a class project I once did with my son that nobody really knows what happened. Surely the Indians here so many years ago must have planted some kinds of crops for their subsistence. Did they run out of water? Did they run out of wild game? Did they suffer from diseases?
In my mind’s eye I imagine a young woman with a small child strapped to her back, squatting low in the relentlessly hot sun. She is attempting to pull a few meager crops from the field. She feels an urgent need to feed her hungry youngster. Her lips are parched, and her ribs jut sharply beneath her ragged clothing.
She knows she needs to carry water from the life sustaining river to moisten the crops, just as she had done all her life, but the summer months had been dry. The monsoon storms hadn’t come this season, and the river water is but a trickle now, thick with mud. She takes a small sip of the water, and can feel the gritty soil grinding between her teeth as she swallows hard. She had heard the elders speak that the gods were angry, and that the river would run dry soon. Despite their many ceremonies and sacrifices the skies did not open up.
In her heart she hopes that the rains will come soon, but she knows it will not be so. She senses that this beautiful home will have to be abandoned. Even the wild game has left the area, seeking green grass and fresh water. The traders had ceased coming, for the village had no wares to offer.
These cliff homes are all she has ever known, and her heart is heavy with fear of the unknown. The community had gathered on many an occasion to discuss a plan of action, and each time the peoples’ faces were thinner, the eyes duller, the energy decreased, the jutting ribs more prominent. Each time the people resist leaving, for their home is beautiful and safe, but there is not an option. They must leave. Perhaps one day they can come back. A recent traveler had given news that there was plenty of water to the north, high up in the mountains. That is where they must go.
She plucks the last small stalk from the parched garden. She can hear the wails of a hungry child upon the cliff face, increasingly more desparate and shrill with each passing moment. The child’s mother is kneeling in traditional prayer in the large cavernous opening, a strong hot breeze blowing her long black hair this way and that. The wails from the child are a hopeful sign, for many of the children had stopped wailing and soon were unconscious, wielding to the ravages of the heat, and lack of nutrition and fresh water. Her own child, the one she carries upon her back, is listless and silent as she trudges back up the cliff face to her dwelling.
When she enters her cave she is breathless and weak, but she sets about right away to gather her family’s meager belongings. Her hand brushes up against the limestone wall when she reaches into a small storage space that she had gouged out of the rock just a few months ago in anticipation of this year’s crop. The brittle limestone crumbles a little to her touch, and she can hear the tiny sandstone pebbles fall upon the ground, a small cloud of dust stirring in its wake. She picks up her bow, and after checking it carefully she sets it with a dozen of her sharpest arrows next to her little bundle of belongings. She can feel hot tears pouring down her face, leaving salty white marks upon her dusty cheeks.
Tomorrow……tomorrow is the day that she is leaving. She is taking her child to a new life somewhere yonder. Perhaps the others will come with her, she doesn’t know, but she will no longer stay here, for to stay here is to die.
She had often heard the elders speak of how their forefathers had traveled before they found this beautiful home, how they had hunted and gathered, and moved from place to place. She had heard the stories many many times, and each time she had rehearsed in her mind how she would someday do the same. She had secretly practiced the many skills she had heard about, and knows in her heart that she could survive. It is as though she had already lived a nomadic lifestyle, even though she had lived here her entire life. Perhaps she would die in her attempt to flee, but she was doomed here with no crops and no water, as were they all.
She can hear her child whimper. She sets about to nurse the child with what little she has to offer. When she looks up she sees the child’s father standing quietly in the cave opening.
“Tomorrow,” he says. “We all go tomorrow.”
She nods her head, and the tears rain down upon her nursing child. She closes her eyes, for she dare not look out upon the beautiful valley framed by mountains, or the river that is no more.
I open my eyes and look up to see my husband standing in the opening of the cave. “We must go,” he says. “Our friends are waiting.”
As I stand up my throat feels parched and beads of perspiration trickle down my forehead leaving salty white streaks upon my dusty skin.
And so we make our way down the cliff to join our friends.
The sun is bright as we make our way back over the Verde River. The water tugs relentlessly at our legs as we cross, just as it had done on our way in……just as it, no doubt, had done centuries ago whenever the mighty Sinagua people crossed this waterway…..the natives who owned this land…..the natives who loved this land….the natives who cultivated this valley…..who gathered the crops…..who hunted the game…..who fished the river…..who worshipped their gods…..who loved one another…..who created one generation to follow the next…..who nursed their babies and raised their children…..right here on the banks of the mighty Verde River…..in their homes that they carefully carved into the porous and malleable sandstone cliffs that proudly stand to attention centuries later next to this vital life-sustaining waterway.
Perhaps they all never really left. Perhaps the woman returned. Perhaps some spirits still stand high upon the cliff in the cave openings, keeping vigil upon the green valley below.
It’s as though I can feel their keen eyes trained upon my back as I wade through the river. I can envision a woman’s strong brown arm reach over her shoulder, her fingers tighten around an arrow within the quiver upon her back. Deftly the arrow is positioned upon her bow, the string drawn back tight.
I can hear the whistle just a split second before I feel the thump as the arrow pierces my heart. As the arrow sinks deep within me, my heart burns with a love for this wild place….this wild country….this beautiful home of the ancient Sinagua….I can feel the love that the people had for this place….the love that they had for their children just as I have for mine….I can feel their pride for their people….their daily struggles….their religious ceremonies….their hope for the future…..their fears…..their passions…..their joys…..none of which, incidentally, are much different from mine as I stand here centuries later.
I feel an incredible sense of peace. I feel an awesome sense of happiness that I could share this brief moment here with the ancient people from so many moons ago who made this place their home. I leave the arrow that pierced my heart in place, and I know that for as long as I live a part of me will always be here on the banks of the Verde River.
And so it is, dear reader, that I would tell you……if you should feel inclined to have an amazing experience exploring some of the best historic treasures that Arizona has to offer – the Mindeleff Cávate Lodge Group, aka the caves at Beasley Flat, is your ticket to grand adventure. Pack a picnic lunch….set your GPS to “Beasley Flat”….and follow the curvy road until it brings you here to this magical place. And when you do, be sure to feel the spirits of those who centuries ago made this their place of refuge.