Lessons of the Homolovi Ruins
Draining a large part of northeastern Arizona and a portion of far western New Mexico, the Little Colorado River winds it way from forested headwaters in the White Mountains down through woodlands and grasslands and finally to the arid depths of the western Grand Canyon.
About midway on its journey, the “Little C”, as it is known to locals, cuts through Homolovi Ruins State Park. The park is only a couple of miles north of Interstate Highway I-40, near the east end of Winslow, Arizona. For most travelers, the word “ruins” ruins their fun and they do not bother to stop.
On Monday, May 19, 2008, I picked up my travel trailer in Phoenix and headed north, towards Homolovi. At the Verde Valley, I departed the busy and hectic Interstate Highway I-17 and took Arizona Highway 260 east, than Arizona Highway 87 northeast towards Winslow. According to the maps, I saved 20 miles by diverting from the crowded interstate to the more scenic and forested two-lane highway. With the light traffic of a Monday afternoon, I was able to slow down, relax and enjoy the climb up and over the Mogollon Rim, which separates the desert south of Arizona from its higher and cooler north.
Arriving at Homolovi just before sundown, I selected a campsite that featured electricity and piped water, which is a luxury in such a dry part of the high desert. Only a handful of the 53 campsites had occupants that evening. Just as a shortage of resources had depopulated Homolovi before 1400 CE, the current price of liquid fuels had stripped Homolovi of its contemporary RV culture.
Although the residual heat of a high pressure system made Homolovi quite warm during the day (100 degrees f.), I decided to stay an extra day and explore the ruins. In Craig Childs' book, “House of Rain”, he describes taking part in an archeological dig at Homolovi. His entire episode takes place during a summer sandstorm, so the light breeze I experienced made up for the heat during the day. Besides, I had air conditioning in my coach, so when it got too hot, I just flipped the switch and enjoyed my cool retreat.
On my first evening, I watched the Arizona Public Television station. One of their shows lamented the decline in residential property values in the state and particularly in Phoenix, with an average drop of 21% to 24%, since the peak, less than two years ago. Whether we speak about Homolovi’s pre-Puebloan Indians or current day Phoenicians, every human culture has its fads, fancies and economic bubbles. Although euphoria can mask reality for a time, eventually economic, social and natural forces conspire to burst any speculative bubble.
The route I had taken north from the Verde Valley, in central Arizona to Homolovi paralleled an ancient Indian path that allowed the ancestral Puebloan Indian cultures of the Mogollon Rim to travel as far as what we call the Four Corners area today. In the years from 700 – 1100 CE, the populations moved north to new areas opened to trade and agriculture. In 1200 – 1300 CE, a great drought and other factors put pressure on the overpopulated areas as far north as Mesa Verde, Colorado. By then, the human exodus was from north to south. While entire populations searched for reliable water sources and new places to live, the former homes fell to ruin.
At Homolovi, the result of this ebb and flow of human migration is perhaps the most diverse collection of cooking and storage clay pots found in any single location in the southwestern US. From ancient gray-ware to stylish and elegant orange-ware, the potsherds tell the story.
Homolovi both benefited and suffered from its location along the Little Colorado River. While its channel is dry most of the year, spring runoff from snowpack on the forested plateau moves quickly and often sends the Little Colorado into flood stage without warning. Since the original village of Homolovi developed during a relatively dry period, subsequent devastating floods wiped large sections of the settlement and its agricultural fields off the ancient map.
Responding to this catastrophe, the ancients rebuilt much of the village and its ceremonial structures on higher ground, half a mile from the river. It is there, on the sun-baked mesa, above the river that the remnants of ancient structures and the broken pottery of a five hundred year habitation survive today.
For those who expect to see large or well preserved ruins similar to what exists in Aztec, New Mexico, Mesa Verde, Colorado or Hovenweep, Utah, prepare to be disappointed. Although the state-run visitor’s center has excellent interpretive materials and artifacts, the most prominent features you will find in the field are a few low masonry walls and a rectangular pit kiva.
Homolovi is as much a “place of the mind” as it is a place to see artifacts of an ancient and bygone culture. One needs imagination in order to see the community that thrived there on trading cotton, pottery and perhaps what we today would call tourism.
Did the inhabitants of Homolovi profit from their knowledge that they could not control everything in their environment or did they hold out there until the last person died? Fathoming their fate reveals lessons for our contemporary culture. Do we cling to the energies and ways of the past or do we move on to new vistas and explore new energies to light our own future?