Today we drove over the Black Range Mountains, ascending and descending on switchback roads. The trees in late October are a spectacular palette of oranges, yellows, reds and greens. The mountains are a mix of Tertiary volcanic stone and Mesozoic sandstone uplifted some four miles.
We set up camp in the Gila National Forest and break out the motorcycle to drive the remaining 20 miles on lonely mountain roads to the Gila Cliff Dweller National Monument. We get there just in time for the last tour and are alone with the guide.
This is the first National Monument and was established in 1914 by Teddy Roosevelt.
The Mogollon Indian cliff dwellers occupied the caves high in the cliffs of a limestone canyon on the banks of a river. The river has ornately sculpted the vertical sandstone walls of the curving canyon and caves. The narrow canyon is decorated in late October with yellow aspens, red ferns and twisted, deformed green junipers.
Trees used in constructions within the caves are dated about 1270 AD, based on their dendrochronology ring patterns. There was a thirty-year drought before that date that leaves a distinctive pattern of small rings like fingerprints in time. The Mogollon used a mix of clay, gypsum and turkey feathers for mortar to build elaborate stone structures in the caves.
They abandoned this place in about 1300 AD for unknown reasons. Several tribes including the Ute claim the Mogollon as ancestors. They may have lived here for defensive reasons or might have regarded this as a sacred place or meeting place. Theories vary. It is a magical place that throbs with power and beauty.
Our guide takes us though the caves for about an hour, explaining the purpose of various rooms. As we talk, he explains spiritual animism. He mentions that he has had mystic experiences here. I ask him about them, but he tells me that the park superintendent doesn't like him to talk about these during the regular tour. He offers to explain after we complete the regular tour. Several others then join our tour in progress, so we wait for him to finish with them.
We meet him at the mouth of the largest cave and he tells his story:
I was here before dawn, meditating. I've meditated for many years. Suddenly, as the sun rose, an electric shock of adrenaline ran though me and I jumped to my feet and faced the rising sun.
I found my arms rising in an arc above my head and I saw a decorated pot in the sky.
Then I bent over until my fingers touched the ground and I saw a vision of a basket filled with fruit and food, the symbol of Mother Earth.
I stood up and my hands came together over my stomach and I saw a spear, the symbol of power at the central core my being.
Then my arms rose again in an arc above my head and I again saw the decorated pot with light pouring from it.
He tells us that a voice then spoke to him and said:
You have been given the gift of the Bringing-the-Sun-into-the-Cave Ceremony.
He says that all ancient cave dwellers have this ceremony. He knows this because he read a book about it before receiving this vision.