A STUNNING TASTE OF NATURE
By James Bishop, Jr
Daydreaming comes easy in the Southwest’s vastness of rivers, mountains, and canyons 16th century Spanish explorers called the Northern Mystery. Four hundred years later author Ed Abbey dubbed it “The Dreamland” where mysterious canyons are as deep as four Empire State buildings and as wide from rim to rim, as Manhattan is long—and where beauty strains credulity. For today’s visitors to Sedona, and the Verde Valley, marvelous opportunities are still as numerous as stars in a summer sky. So very free are visitors to roam and to experience mysterious places that will take them beyond themselves. One such place is Sycamore Canyon—so near and so old.
For a truly spellbinding view of the vanished past of nature undisturbed, then seek out the Sycamore Canyon Wilderness. As the crow flies, it is located 15 miles west of Oak Creek Canyon or 10 miles from Clarkdale on Forest Road 161 near the Tuzigoot National Monument. But do not look for it in your guidebook. It is probably not there. What is also not there are those 56,000 acres, are paved roads, developed campgrounds, vehicles, bikes, visitor centers. To visitors it might sound seriously uninviting. But wait! To all it is a twisting slash in the earth 21 miles long, and up to seven miles wide, but there is more. To renowned wilderness guide, Bennie Benedict, it truly is a backcountry paradise. Said he “While hiking down in this amazing place one is compelled to become more introspective. The farther one goes, drinking cool creek water and nibbling on watercress, other one is no longer a singular human being but part of the rock and the water itself.”
By any measure, it is an uncommon place. What few realize, except for some anthropologists, is that this mysterious canyon is one of the last time capsules remaining in North America. In many other places, the environment has been altered to such a degree that it is no longer possible to experience any powerful sense of engagement with the landscape. Truth be told, Sycamore Canyon has been spared. Countless birds and animals thrive, their wild, natural world is unchanged .This summer golden eagles, and red-tailed hawks soar, thanks to unpredictable wind currents in the canyons while black bear, mountain lions, elk, and deer reign as always.
At twilight, the silence can be almost deafening. Only the singing chilly green waters and the occasional shriek of a great blue heron interrupt the calm. Spirits of ancient peoples make no sound, yet hikers; locals like me have felt their presence. Archeologists tell of finding small animal figures constructed of split willow twigs, magical talismans utilized by the first hunter-gatherers to ensure successful hunts 3,000 to 4,000 years ago, asserts Flagstaff-based Peter Pilles, senior archaeologist for the Coconino National Forest, one of three national forests with jurisdiction at Sycamore Canyon.
Who were the first inhabitants?
What Pilles and other scientists postulate is that the canyon’s first inhabitants can be traced to the Dry Creek Phase, which lasted from 8,000 B.C. to the early years of the first century. Evidence suggests civilization enjoyed a golden age in this area between A.D. 700 and 1000 when sophisticated dwellings were built in shallow caves carved into the canyon’s steep cliffs. By then small bands of Hohokam came from hundreds of miles south, looking for salt, argillite and copper for trade. This new market, says Pilles, after years of study, stimulated development and sophistication of the resident Sinagua population. They accepted a new way of life, an agricultural and trade-based economy, to augment their hunting and gathering ways.
Now as then, Sycamore Canyon is an excellent place to gather wild plants and then to make stone tools. In the early days, they hunted elephants and camels. Hikers today will find many of the same plants—prickly poppies, sacred Datura, baby white aster, golden peavine and the golden columbine—but the elephants and camels now exist only in fable and fossil. As for birds then as now, reports Dena Greenwood manager of Jay’s Bird Barn in West Sedona, “the canyon is on a major migratory route from up on the rim down to the creek…I go down often to celebrate Summer Tanagers, Belted Kingfishers, Flycatchers, and Scott’s Orioles, so rich to be in there”.
Today as in yesteryear, citizens are intrigued by rumors of a ruin called Hidden House, a four-room cliff dwelling located in a shallow cave in the east-face of the canyon, near the junction of Sycamore Creek and the Verde River. Before it was plundered in the 1930’s mummified remains were found, along with an assortment of weapons, tools and functional art, such as woven baskets. The ruin, which people are still trying to find, overlooks a place where the canyon widens out to provide farmland upon which groups of women and children harvested agave in the spring when plants were sweetest and contained the most nutrients. New stalks, juicy with sap, were eaten on the spot. Using large stone flakes, they cut the spike plant away from its root until it resembled a large artichoke. Then the leaves were trimmed away and the plants were baked in a large fire pit, covered with a thick mound of grass and dirt until done.
For reasons that remain murky, the canyon and the Verde Valley appear to have been abandoned by A.D. 1425, despite the fact that there was abundant soil, animal life, water, that should have ensured survival under any condition. Nonetheless, they left, leaving a cultural system 600 years in the making—and one year before the Spanish explorers entered Arizona.
Why did they leave?
Did they become Hopi to the north?
What experts do know is that, because of massive vandalism in the 1930s ‘40s and ‘50s, ancient pots, and relics a vast amount of cultural wealth is lost forever. However, the canyon still welcomes newcomers. Should anyone wishes to camp, as this writer once did, at night, in the flicker of a dying fire, you may catch a glimpse of a surprise –the visit of a bandit-masked ring-tailed cat making off with the next day’s lunch, another experience beyond ourselves. To be sure, many have written about their experiences in Sycamore Canyon. Few have done so more memorably than young Mycah Crawford of Cottonwood in an interview with me in Sedona: “Climbing out I was overcome by a kind of exhilaration, a jubilation, euphoria never to be forgotten.” May newcomers feel the same!