Winter was coming. I bumped along the frosted dirt road in the Park Service truck, veering to avoid the biggest potholes. Any day I took out the truck was a good day, but the shining sun and sapphire blue sky made today all the more appreciated.
I was a guest in this desert for a few months, working at Hovenweep National Monument. Most days I spent at the Square Tower ruins greeting people in the Visitor’s Center. But days like this were why I was here: The times I could get out of work boots, into hiking boots, and step deeper into the nature of the place. Today’s plan was to check on two of the outlying sites and show a rangerly presence. We called it work, but I took an afternoon alone amongst the juniper trees and ancient ruins as one of the perks of the job.
Hovenweep, which in Paiute/Ute means “deserted valley,” is comprised of a handful of acres spread out across the border of Utah and Colorado, containing Ancestral Puebloan sites. While these mesas and canyons were once a bustling center of activity for hundreds of people, these days not many people visited the Monument, which lay nestled in the desert an hour and a half drive from the modern world. It felt like a deserted valley to me.
By December, the other seasonal volunteers and rangers had moved on, and only the lead ranger, Jim, and I were left to take care of everything. With just us two available, it meant I often worked alone in the Visitor’s Center. It astounded me that they would leave a twenty-four-year-old, white, hippie girl from New Jersey to run the joint, but with a daily winter average of 15 visitors, I guessed they figured I could handle it.
Today, however, held an uncommon treasure. Jim stayed behind and I escaped the Visitor’s Center to make the rounds in the cold afternoon sunshine. Hackberry ruins waited silently as I parked the truck and climbed out. The air was dry and stark. Nothing moved.
The desert plains offered little noise; no buzz of technology anywhere, no cars, no tall leafed trees to rustle had there been any wind. Only my feet created any sound—kicking stones aside, sliding across dry dirt, and rock hopping. I moved along the trail to look for offending garbage, or any signs of people at all. Nothing. It seemed a place frozen in time.
The Hovenweep I had begun to know held its grip on me as I imagined time in solitary confinement might; nothing to break the silence except me. I could scream at the top of my lungs and no one would hear. I could lie in the middle of the trail looking up and lose myself into the blue. I could sing my favorite tunes as badly and loudly as I wanted, without fear of anyone but the coyotes judging me. Sometimes I just sat, looking around, listening to nothing. It was the biggest sound I had ever heard. All that nothing, with nothing but me to fill it. I usually didn’t even try.
By 4:30 I turned back to the Visitor’s Center, avoiding the same cracks and ruts in road. I pulled up next to the boxy, grey-blue building to find Jim coming in from the last tour of the day. He blended in quite well with the desert in his requisite olive-green Dickies and hat with yellow National Park Service patch on it. Only his long, grey-white hair stood out against the backdrop. The wind had picked up and he and his four elderly and enthusiastic charges scurried in from the cold.
The actual area inside the building where visitors could stand and peruse books, videos, and various stuffed lizards was about the size of a bathroom. A doorway led to a room half that size where we volunteers and rangers sat to greet park guests. This connected to a third room, Jim’s office. There was a back door hallway, about the size of a shower stall, which connected these rooms, and one tiny bathroom out back. The quaint building was cozy and served its purpose. It allowed us a roof over our heads when it rained and gave visitors from around the globe a place to begin their journey into the castles of the past.
It was a mid-December Wednesday, and this last tour had been the only one of the day. While I had been lazing around the outlying ruins, Jim had been lazing around the Visitor’s Center, doing paperwork, and making sure to correctly count the eight visitors who managed to make it out this far. The elderly guests left and we began to lock up for the night.
“Talked to the Boss last night, and guess what?” Jim asked in the playful way he always spoke.
“They’re coming tonight to install the phones?” I replied. There had been promises of phone service for weeks now, but somehow it kept failing to materialize.
“No. They’re giving us a millennium surprise. They’re going to tear down this old place and build a new Visitor’s Center. Pave the parking lot, and the road coming in, and give us a whole new modern feel here.”
I wondered how anyone could construct a new building when they couldn’t even get the phone lines installed, but I asked “How long have you known this, Jim?”
“Oh, they’ve been talking about it for a while, but you know the Boss. Always tell the people at Hovenweep what’s going to happen to Hovenweep after it’s been decided. I guess they’re finally gonna do it,” he replied.
He spoke with a laugh, but I guessed that he was not pleased about the modernization of the Monument. Despite his being a pretty reclusive person, I had gotten to know and like Jim a lot. He had been working as the main caretaker of Hovenweep for many years, and if anyone was entitled to an opinion about this news, it was he. Unlike our current regional boss, who appeared to be only in the Park Service to see how soon she could become director of the whole operation, Jim genuinely loved Hovenweep.
As we finished up our daily record keeping, I took real notice, maybe for the first time, of the building my life currently revolved around. It fit perfectly into the flat desert landscape, neither sticking out drastically, nor disappearing entirely. It was there when you needed it, kind of like what I imagined the ancestral Puebloan people were striving for with their buildings.
While no one knows for sure what those ancient buildings were used for, some theorize that the Puebloans went inside for small gatherings, or to cook, or just to get out of a snowstorm. Whether the people simply did not spend a lot of time inside because the buildings were small, or the buildings were built small so the people would not spend too much time inside, was unclear. Regardless, the ancient people lived outside, on the mesas, in the canyons, with the world. I liked that about them, and felt like this aging Visitor’s Center was a reflection of their style.
“Well, who needs this junky old shack when you can get the taxpayers to build you a new one,” I said as Jim locked the doors behind us.
A week later the Boss came to Hovenweep for a visit. She met with Jim, did her perfunctory check-ups on various aspects of our work, and left before lunch. It seemed she preferred the flashier parks likes Arches, Canyonlands, and Natural Bridge, where gorgeous works of nature needed protecting, hundreds of visitors required impressing, and nonstop issues demanded managing. It was standard that Hovenweep fell onto the bottom of the pile for her.
But this time the Boss had brought with her the wave of the future, the architectural drawings for the new Visitor’s Center. As soon as she left, I dived into the plans with Jim.
It was to be a modest building, but distinctly different from the desert landscape. It would have a large interpretive space and shop area, offices, actual separate bathrooms for men and women, vending machines, and best of all, phone service. It would be built closer to the road, which meant those working in it would be enclosed quite deeply within and not have a direct line of sight down to Square Tower. I preferred the current setup, where the winter winds blew right through the single panes, causing me to look up from the desk and into the world outside. The plans looked nice, but Jim and I agreed that it all was so unnecessary.
In 1923, President Warren G. Harding declared Hovenweep a National Monument. Around the same time, our little building was built at Mesa Verde National Park, some fifty miles away. By the 1950’s, the public began to visit Hovenweep, and a Visitor’s Center was required. Some creative park employees cut the little building in half, and carted the two pieces from Mesa Verde to Hovenweep. They reassembled it, took a few pictures, and voila, instant headquarters.
I couldn’t help but notice that our whole job at Hovenweep was to preserve the buildings of an ancient people, exalt their lives, and understand their motivations, and yet the NPS powers that be were so eager to throw away this interesting bit of recent history. Jim began a fight to preserve the building, gathering historical documents and photographs, contacting retired rangers for information, and building a case to present to the NPS.
People who made the effort to travel all the way out to Hovenweep generally appreciated history, and they liked the story the old Visitor’s Center had to tell. At the very least, visitors suggested that the new center be built (who doesn’t like new bathrooms?), but the old one be kept to celebrate Hovenweep’s history. It seemed to the Park Service, however, that the history of the Monument itself was less valuable than the history of what the Monument protected.
Before returning to New Jersey for a Christmas break, I headed back to the outliers to hike the four-mile trail across Bureau of Land Management land that connected Square Tower to its closest neighbor, Holly. Arriving on another perfectly sunny day, I sat on a cold slab of pale rock to ponder the incredulity of these seven-hundred-year-old remnants.
At the head of the canyon rested a large boulder. Atop the boulder, a typical stone Ancestral Puebloan building somehow clung to the rock surface. Holly House. With the side walls completely flush to the rock itself, and stone bricks of the same color and texture, the building simply looked like an extension of the boulder. One impossible side door overhung the canyon below.
I imagined people walking all around this shallow canyon, living their everyday lives, and climbing up to that tiny doorway when they needed whatever laid inside the building. A whole community lived in this area, and only these few ruins remained.
It pleased me to know that at one time, in one place, right where I was, there were people who lived in harmony with their world. I didn’t doubt that they affected nature in their own ways, but they somehow had a handle on meshing with it, too. They built a stone structure that blended into a boulder and created a city that left nothing behind but that boulder house as evidence.
As I made my way down the scrubby canyon trail, I thought about the new Visitor’s Center that would replace our eighty-year-old shack and felt sad. Not because I imagined that new bathrooms would suddenly draw in hoards of disrespectful Americans to trample the ruins and disintegrate the structures with their greasy French-fry fingers. No distance of paved road, or glistening of new facilities would be quite enough to entice any but the most excited travelers to come here. No, I was more concerned with how Hovenweep would feelafter such a big transition. It meant the end of an era. The end of simplicity, minimal impact on this environment, perhaps even the silence.
Eventually, I came to the junction of trails that led to Square Tower and saw the ruins at the canyon edge. I realized that an entirely different era had ended when the Ancestral Puebloan people moved away from here in the 1280s. They lived and died and raised their babies in and around these canyons for hundreds of years. And then, they left, leaving everything of their world behind. Would they laugh at our silly little rock pathways and our obsessive ranger rules about not touching the stone buildings? Would they find it strange to feel a connection to an old building and want to preserve it? Did they carry sadness for what they had left behind?
I wasn’t sure I could ever know the answers to all the questions that Hovenweep asked. But I knew that I wanted future visitors to be able to stand in the silence of this place and reach out with their own hearts and minds into the deep nothing and discern for themselves the answers.
The threat of a world computer crash riveted the news as I made my way back to the desert after Christmas holiday. I arrived on December 31st, 1999, prepared for at least three more months of silent service to the Monument. I watched some New Year’s Eve celebrations on the static-y TV, and figured that since Sydney and Beijing had not melted into oblivion at the changing of the clock, then we Americans probably wouldn’t fare much worse. With Jim sequestered in his house for the night, I went to bed early in my own apartment, ready for another quiet day at the Visitor’s Center. I doubted anyone would come on New Year’s Day, but I would be well-rested to greet them if they did.
I awoke to a sound. Like the foolish girls in horror movies, I tiptoed to the living room to see what it was. I stood in the dark and heard a soft dripping noise on the roof. The living room clock turned to midnight as I moved to the front door and stepped out into the night.
It had begun to snow. I looked up into the black sky and the million stars I usually saw there had been replaced by millions of white flakes drifting down on me. I laughed to myself. If this was the oblivion of the new century, I would take it.
The thin veil between the lives of the Ancestors and my own lifted, ever so silently, ever so briefly. I finally understood. I knew that they had felt some sadness as they gathered their babies and left their world behind. I would feel the same way when my time in the deserted valley ended. I loved the old grey Visitor’s Center, as I loved the old Puebloan buildings of stone, but any one building, whether from this era or one long past, did not make this place what it was. A year from now, when new staff, new bathrooms, new phones, and a big shiny Visitor’s Center building overtook this land, it would still be Hovenweep. Just as it had been for hundreds, if not thousands of years.
The cold air whispered across my face and the wet snow clung to my hair. Winter had arrived.
The story behind the story:
“Deserted Valley” was the first essay I ever published. At that time my writing process was undeveloped. I knew the story I wanted to tell with the piece, but I wasn’t sure how to get there. I wrote it more than ten years after the winter I spent at Hovenweep National Monument, so I went back to my old journals and photos to glean the day-to-day life I had lived in the desert. It sounds cliché, but Hovenweep is a truly magical place, and I wanted to tap into that source again. I sat quietly at my writing desk and allowed the memories and moods of that landscape to resurface. The more I did that, the more easily the words spilled onto the page and the pieces came together into something I hoped would reflect the beauty and power of Hovenweep.
Amanda K. Jaros is a freelance writer and editor. Her essay “Blood Mountain” won the 2017 Notes from the Field contest at Flyway Journal. Other work has appeared in journals including Terrain.org, Newfound, Appalachia, Stone Canoe, and elsewhere. She is the Editor-in-Chief at Literary Mama and holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Chatham University. She lives in Ithaca, NY with her husband and son.
“Deserted Valley” was first published in print in Pilgrimage Magazine in 2013.
All photos courtesy of Amanda.