Bright blue skies, the way it seems only Arizona can do bright blue skies, greet me as I begin my walk, the kind of sky that makes you feel so small and insignificant, like standing next to the Pacific Ocean. White puffy clouds break up the blue here and there. Having dropped their rain a bit north during my drive, here they float harmless, just adding beauty. The wind is dry and fierce at times, gusting between the mountains dotted with saguaro, cholla, and the occasional hardwood. Lizards scurry across the path, seemingly oblivious to the wind or the beauty, and turkey vultures circle overhead on the air currents.

Tonto National Monument in central Arizona is truly set in a spectacular location. The path leads me higher up the side of a small peak, and I turn back to look at Theodore Roosevelt Lake in the valley, its blue mirroring that of the sky. About a half mile ahead, my destination looms, already visible around each curve: a cliff dwelling constructed around 1300 CE.

Tonto’s Lower Cliff Dwelling

I reach the top, a bit out of breath from the climb, the view, and the feeling of being a part of history. The dwelling is easy to explore, containing about sixteen rooms; the upper floors have long since crumbled to rubble. Who were the people who called this place home? How many were there?What happened to them?

The answer might just lie at the bottom of Roosevelt Lake below me.

In 1911, President Theodore Roosevelt dedicated the dam bearing his name on the Rio Salado (Salt River). Only four years earlier, he had dedicated this site at Tonto, home to the cliff dwelling I am currently standing in and one other – only reachable via tour with advance reservations as stands – keeping them safe for future generations. But as the new lake of the same name began to fill, the overwhelming majority of what had once been a thriving civilization for nearly two hundred years would be lost beneath the water. Ruins, sacred sites, and countless artifacts vanished for the sake of providing water to the growing Arizona Territory, which would become a US State the following year.

Theodore Roosevelt Lake from the path

Here is what we do know. The Tonto Basin – the valley along the Salt River – has had human residents for more than 10,000 years. By about the year 1300, more than 3,000 called the area home, only to mostly vanish by 1450 CE. Called the Salado culture, after the Spanish name for the river, we know these ancestors of the Apache and Yavapai mainly for their distinct pottery and its black on white on red designs. This pottery would become the most widely distributed in the American Southwest, suggesting vast trading networks of these ancestral peoples.

Salado polychrome. Photo from Northern Arizona University

By the middle of the fifteenth century, most dwellings along the Salado – along with the cliff dwellings of Tonto National Monument – had been abandoned. The timing, similar to the abandonment of large southern Arizona settlements like Casa Grande, may have resulted from a drought, or from flooding, but the truth is that archaeologists still don’t know. But after the forced removal of the descendants of the Salado, the aforementioned Apache and Yavapai, by the US military in the 1860s and 1870s, the cliff dwellings were “discovered” and documented by Adolph Bandelier in 1883. Subsequent visitors to the location soon vandalized and degraded the pristine construction, leading to the establishment of Tonto National Monument to protect what was left.

The Lower Cliff Dwelling from inside

I walk from room to room, imagining who might live here. Was it a single extended family? Or was this more of an apartment complex? Either way, the view can’t be beat. The construction itself is largely of stone; the Salado used fragments that had broken off from the cliffs, held together with mud. Roofs were made of the rare hardwoods that were found near springs, or even of the ribs of deceased saguaro cacti. Suspended here in a natural alcove, the construction is similar to other dwellings found across the southwest, to as far as Mesa Verde in southwestern Colorado.

A dead saguaro shows the “ribs,” which were used in Salado construction

Were it not for Roosevelt Lake, we might know more. Even today, most who visit the area come to go boating or fishing, barely giving a thought to the remnants of a unique culture still to be found in the hills, just a mile or so off Arizona Highway 188, the Apache Trail. They give even less of a thought to the treasures beneath the water. For most of recorded history, progress has dominated human decision-making, the needs of the current generation taking priority over the memories and lessons of the past. We build over the ruins of the conquered, removing the traces of those who came before. We dismantle buildings to use the stones, plow over burial grounds for agriculture, burn artifacts for heat. We flood an ancient civilization to create a reservoir.

As I walk back down the hill, my feelings are bittersweet. I am grateful for Tonto National Monument, glad that these dwellings, at least, are protected, kept safe for future generations. I am saddened that it seems but a token, a small penance for the obliteration of the rest of a civilization. May we strive to do better in the future.

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