The extraordinary disappearance of the Anasazi/Mogollon cliff dwellers from the American Southwest has been well documented but never solved. Why Native Americans who lived and prospered peacefully on the mesa tops for thousands of years suddenly abandoned these villages for precarious cities lodged in the cliffs around the year 1200—and for only a period of some 200 years, before disappearing—remained a mystery, until now.
K'aalógii held her mother’s hand as they wound their way through the darkened passageway leading out of the remote mountain stronghold. She climbed the hand-carved steps that rose to the forest floor with her head held high, knowing—and accepting—that this would be her last time.
Her name, which meant butterfly, had been a gift from her father. He had always said that when she was born he’d felt such joy that he could have stepped into the air from the cliff dwelling and flown like a butterfly. The happiest day of his life.
K’aalógii felt proud that she’d brought her father joy. Her people had experienced little joy during her lifetime. Now that her father was gone, she had dedicated herself to living by his warrior code, acting with honor and bravery, even during these times of terror.
She wondered whether her father might be watching her from the ancestral lands, the Navajo place of origin to which all dead returned. If so, she knew he’d be both proud of and terrified for his daughter, for she had chosen to face the others with a courageous heart and sharp spear.
Some said the others were demons with long fangs and glowing red eyes, wings like an eagle’s but skin like a bat’s. Some said they were the holy people or ancient, forgotten deities bent on retribution for the tribe’s mistreatment of the land. Others considered them the spirits of their enemies, forbidden from their ancestral lands because of the evil in their souls, wishing to wreak only destruction and death.
There had been a time when the cliff dwellings had provided safety from their reach. But safety meant little if the remaining tribes starved to death. Those that had tried to hunt for food or sow their crops by the river had simply disappeared.
K’aalógii had even resorted to eating the deerskin tunic that her mother and father had made for her, boiling it with some leaves and shoots gathered near the secret entrance to the mountain stronghold.
Starvation alone hadn’t extinguished all hope.
Some taken by the others had returned. They brought with them stones her mother had said were evil and would bring death and destruction. The returned had carried a message:
Surrender yourselves, or face the wrath of the others. The cliffs will not protect you.
The survivors had reacted violently to the message. They had killed the returned, then gathered in a council and decided to fight.
Now, climbing toward the surface of the plateau, K’aalógii grasped her mother’s hand more tightly as they reached the outside. She had no need of reassurance, but she knew her mother was frightened.
Her mother stopped and knelt, pushing K’aalógii’s hair away from her face.
“Now we will wait on the mesa.”
K’aalógii nodded and squeezed her mother’s hand again. “We will see Father again.”
Her mother straightened, wiped away a tear, and handed K’aalógii the spear.
It had been the ceremonial spear of her family for many generations. Her father had been given it by his own grandfather. The handle was wrapped in well-worn rawhide and decorated with beads and feathers. The obsidian tip had been masterfully worked to razor sharpness and soundly fastened to the notched shaft with dried sinew.
K’aalógii had always thought of the spear as heavy and unwieldy. Now, as she stepped onto the mesa top, she hardly felt its weight in her hand. The hunger that had haunted her simply disappeared at the sudden sight of the stars and fresh smell of the forest.
Her mother and she joined the others making their way toward the open mesa; all had armed themselves with whatever weapons remained in the cliff city.
K’aalógii listened while the others whispered. She understood much of what was said, even the words not spoken in her Navajo language. Many clans had joined here together in fear, remnants of once-great tribes that had lived on the mesa tops for countless generations.
Tonight the survivors had resolved to leave the stronghold, put aside their fear, and fight the others rather than starve to death, waiting to be taken like mice by a hawk.
The people gathered in a circle, where two women knelt and chipped sparks into dried grass until a wisp of smoke and flame signaled the beginnings of a fire. As the fire grew, children brought dead wood from the nearby forest. A large fire would draw the others, K’aalógii knew.
An old man dressed in feathers and paint walked into the center of the circle. Wielding a spear more formidable than K’aalógii’s, he thrust the weapon skyward in defiance. He then began to dance and chant, a warrior’s dance passed down for generations in his tribe, K’aalógii guessed.
As the old man danced and the fire grew, K’aalógii felt her heart and spirit soar. For one last time they had become brave warriors again, joined in a defensive circle around the comforting heat of the flames.
When the old man raised his spear again, K’aalógii chanted along with him.
It didn’t take long for the others to make their presence known. The plateau suddenly smelled of thunder and lightning, the very air sizzling around her.
K’aalógii stood tall, spear thrust high, her other hand held tightly by her mother, who raised her own makeshift weapon. Somehow, she stood her ground, even as the people around her dropped their weapons in terror and began running for the thin cover of trees.
Now only K’aalógii and her mother stood in the clearing, side by side, spears extended before them.
The roar grew deafening and an unnatural heat burned her skin, forcing K’aalógii to her knees. She drew upon the strength of her father, imagining him standing tall upon the mountain…his scent, his bulk, his eyes, his very presence bringing forth the power of her ancestors.
K’aalógii shouted as a warrior would do, her eyes opened wider, her skin burning as the others devoured her.
Southwestern New Mexico
“Just one more step and you’re gonna get a good look at the bottom of the canyon,” said Garrett Moon.
Dr. Leah Andrews pulled the binoculars away from her eyes and watched as the toe of her boot slid over the edge of the cliff. A spray of sand floated toward the green valley floor hundreds of feet below.
“I know where I’m standing.”
Sand and gravel cascaded down the rocky slope behind them, followed by a giant who wore his hair in a short ponytail over a three-day-stubble beard. Only a well-placed sandstone boulder prevented his 280 pounds from barreling over the cliff.
“Delicate as ever,” Leah said.
Juan Cortez wiped a mixture of sweat and dust from his face. “The coast is clear, but I’d wager those park rangers are sniffing around nearby.”
“What’d you expect?” she asked, grinning despite the risk. “We are trespassing illegally in the middle of a national park.”
“She smells a cliff dwelling,” Garrett said.
Juan looked over the ledge and shook his head. “A monkey couldn’t climb that face without modern equipment.”
Tall, anvil-shaped clouds began rolling in from the southwest, signaling the beginnings of a late-season thunderstorm. The winds preceding the storm kicked dust up in flowing red curtains.
“That’s a hint of things to come,” Garrett said. “You want to be dangling from a rope when that hits?”
“Speaking of rope, where’s our climbing expert?” Leah asked.
“Resting on his climbing gear near the top of the mesa, last I saw,” said Juan.
“Figures.” Leah hoisted her backpack into place. “I’ll wake Sleeping Beauty.”
Juan took another peek over the cliff. “You’d think a couple of relatively intelligent guys would have more sense than to rappel down a sheer wall in the middle of a thunderstorm.”
Garrett grinned and pushed strands of black hair away from his face. “Yeah, but who else would look after her?”
“Don’t let her hear that,” Juan cautioned, “or we’ll both be sporting black eyes.”
“You two better not be whispering about me,” Leah called back as she climbed the slope.
“We’re just a pair of lowly, underpaid archeologists,” Garrett answered. “Our discussions are purely of a scientific nature.”
Leah was still shaking her head when she came upon Marko Kinney leaning on his climbing gear, listening to audibly heavy metal through his ear buds.
Leah poked at the shaggy young man with the toe of her boot until he killed the music. “We’re checking out a wall crack.”
Marko looked up and pointed toward the billowing clouds. “Mr. Thunder Bumper is headed this direction, and he’s looking worked up.”
“Meet me on the other side of the rock bridge with your gear.”
The rock climber shook his head in disbelief, then gathered his gear and chased her across the rock arch toward a gnarled but sturdy-looking pine tree growing near the mesa’s edge. He dropped the pack, pulled out a nylon-anchoring sling, and wrapped it expertly around the pine tree’s trunk. Marko secured the slings, removed two 165-foot climbing lines from the backpack, and tied them together with a double fisherman’s knot.
Juan and Garrett joined them while Leah fitted herself into a padded climbing harness and fastened the metal waist buckle. Marko fed the doubled line through a standard figure-eight descender, triple-checked all the connections, and patted her on the shoulder.
“You’re cleared to fly,” he shouted over the rising wind.
She nodded and stepped to the cliff face. As sloppy as Marko looked, he was a fanatic about safety. Because of his attention to detail, Leah felt at least some peace of mind. If her dad had enjoyed the same kind of attention, he’d have been alive today.
Marko climbed into his own harness and threaded another line through the anchoring rings. He’d feed rope as she rappelled in a classic belay technique taught at most climbing schools. If she suffered gear failure, he would serve to break her fall, at least in theory.
Garrett dug out his own harness, peeking over the edge at Leah’s descent.
“I know you guys are the experts at finding cliff dwellings,” Marko said, “but I’m not thrilled about roping down that cliff face with lightning cracking around my ass.”
“Chances are she’ll shine her flashlight into the crevice, find a dead end, and we won’t be climbing down anyway,” Garrett said.
The line slackened, and a moment later Marko felt three distinct tugs on the belay. “You were saying?”
Garrett glanced up at the sky. “I guess we’re climbing down.”
Marko yanked up the freed belay. “Okay, you’re next, G.”
A minute later, Marko had a hesitant Juan in his harness and ready to join the others. “They’re waiting for you, Juan.”
The big man hesitated, then took a deep breath and leaned over the brink of nothingness. All that separated his ample posterior from a three-hundred-foot freefall were two thin strands of high-strength climbing line.
“Down you go,” said Marko.
As Juan descended, an unexpected gust of wind twisted him around, causing his face to scrape across the sandstone wall, shaving skin off his right cheek. Thunder cracked in the distance as he attempted to gain position against the rock.
“Come on, Juan,” Leah shouted encouragement from the ledge below.
Juan pushed off and rappelled until his shoes touched the ledge.
“Was that so hard?” Garrett secured him to the ledge.
“Still gotta climb back up that mother.”
Marko slid spider-like down the line and noted with quiet satisfaction that Leah had already inserted a removable locking-cam inside a weathered crack in the cliff. He crouched to examine the narrow opening. “It’s less than a meter high. How are you gonna get inside?”
“Seriously, Marko?” Leah asked. “Lie down like you’re taking a nap.”
Garrett winked and patted the young climber on the back. “You’re doing fine. Don’t let her bully you.”
Leah pushed Marko aside and dug a small flashlight out of her gear bag. “If you want something done….” She slithered quickly through the scar-like blemish in the rock cliff. Once inside, she switched on the steel penlight and crawled along on her hands and knees through the confining passageway. Ahead, the tunnel opened into a larger chamber.
“Garrett,” she called back. “You got the big light?”
Garrett crawled in behind her and handed over the high-powered halogen flashlight. Leah fumbled with the switch and then lit the chamber ahead.
“Oh, my God,” she whispered.
A massive subterranean cavern at least 50 meters high stretched far beyond even the powerful beam. The light did a fine job of illuminating the pristine remains of an 800-year-old Native American city hidden in the depths of the Gila National Wilderness.