Montezuma’s Castle & Red Rocks

We headed up to the Grand Canyon via Sedona, which took us through the red rock country along Oak Creek.  Our first stop was Montezuma’s Castle, misnamed after the legendary King of the Aztecs, whose people never got this far north.   Castle is also a bit of a misnomer.  It is essentially a lightly fortified cliff dwelling and it was a Pueblo type people who made the structure as a refuge against enemies.  Archeologists call them Sinaqua people.

Looking at the extent that people lived in fortified villages reminds us how precarious life was in the past.   Violent marauders or dangerous animals could appear at any time and the lookouts could only detect as far as their naked eyes could see.   Since old guys, less useful working in the fields, evidently often got the lookout job, sighting distances were cut even further by failing eyesight.

However, as far as stone-age communities go, this was a top of the line location. It was defensible, as mentioned above. Oak Creek provides a steady supply of water, important to human life and attractive to game animals and the loose soils near the creek were easily worked with simple tools available. 

The community thrived for centuries and then just disappeared around 600 years ago. Nobody is sure what happened.  There was significant climate change at the time, with the area becoming drier. This might have changed availability of game species.  That cannot be the only explanation; since the creek did not dry up and no matter how tough conditions were near the creek, they must have been worse away from it. Below is Oak Creek near Sedona.

I blame Rousseau and his “noble savage” myth for giving us the misconception that life before civilization was good. In fact, life for most was violent, unpredictable, generally brief and often unpleasant. A better question to ask is how people persisted for so long rather than why they disappeared. It was probably a combination of war and changing ecological conditions that drove the people away from this area. Of course, sometimes things just happen. Only around fifty people lived in this village. With a small, preliterate culture a few bad decisions, a couple of nasty neighbors or just a run of bad luck can doom a community. I suppose a bigger question is why they didn’t come back.

I didn’t think of Arizona as a beautiful autumn location, but the sycamore trees along creek were showing off a rich golden color.  It was a beautiful fall day at Montezuma’s castle, as you can see from the nearby pictures. We moved up the road and upstream to the town of Oak Creek and the Sedona area. We stayed at the Best Western in Sedona.  Below is the view from the balcony.

This is the red rock canyons area with natural beauty all around.  It reminded both Chrissy and me of the Petra area of Jordan.   Sedona was a cowboy movie location during the 1940s and 1950s and there were markers with handprints of famous actors who played in the movies.  The only ones I recognized were Gene Autry and Ernest Borgnine.  More recently, it has become a center of arts and crafts and a kind of aging hippie hangout.  There is supposed to be some kind of vortex that connects to other dimensions or releases psychic energy or something like that.  This and the lyrically beautiful scenery attract various sorts of people.  There are also plenty of trails for outdoor activity.  It is a nice place generally.

Past Sedona you climb the mountain in a series of switchbacks.  You are still following Oak Creek, more or less.  That little creek is responsible for most of the beautiful topography.  The natural communities change as you climb with scrub, juniper and pinion pines giving way to open ponderosa forests.

The forest service has been managing these piney woods well, at least near the roads where I could see it.  I noticed the results of prescribed burning programs and the trees were often in clumps, as they would be in healthy ponderosa forests of the past.   I saw lots of evidence of fire along the road.  I took a picture of an area that was still warm from the recent burn to show what is supposed to look like.  We saw smoke in the distance the day before, which may account for some of the haze we noticed in Sedona.