Was it a mystery, a romance, or science fiction?

The ancient ruins of Mesa Verde look down on Southern Colorado.
The ancient ruins of Mesa Verde look down on Southern Colorado.

THIS IS ONE of the great mysteries, perhaps the country’s greatest mystery.

They were here. Then they were gone. For centuries, no one even knew they had left their footprints on the Four Corners Country of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. The winds had taken away the footprints.

It’s a thriller.

The suspense is unbearable.

It’s a romance.

It’s intrigue, touched with traces of love.

It’s science fiction.

Where did they go?

Were they stolen?

Were they killed?

Were they whisked away to points unknown, to planets unknown, or did the earth simply swallow them up?

Time had tried but had not removed all traces of a vanishing race. Their muted ruins stood like great stone monuments in an astonishing but foreboding landscape that looked as if some ancient sculptor had carved and chiseled canyons into the shadow of the mountains.

It’s just that no one had seen them, no for centuries anyway. No one knew they had existed at all, especially not Richard Wetherill who was having more trouble tracking down lost cattle than worrying about the fate of a lost civilization. He was a cowboy, not an explorer. He was a rancher, not an archeologist. He knew the tribes living out on the edge of the desert, down in the valley, beyond the mountains. He knew some, bickered with some, and got along with most of them.

A cold December wind had come boiling out of the canyon, flecked with snow, and Richard Wetherill was riding across the back country of southwestern Colorado, searching for a stray calf, when he stumbled upon a strange and curious collection of empty stone ruins clustered atop a mesa where no one walked anymore.

It was a mystical place, he thought, a sacred place where only the gods would dare go, but when had they come, and why had they left, and where had they gone?

Wetherill searched for signs of life. He heard only the winds, which sounded like the faint rustle of time passing by. The dwelling was huge, darkened by the shadows of the cliffs. He quietly ventured from one room to another. There were 217 of them in all, and twenty-three kivas had been sunk far into the ground, black holes where only men with ropes or ladders could descend into an abyss and hope to touch the bottom.

No one was home. No one had been home in a long time. The cowboy called it Cliff Palace. He would never be a cowboy again. The spirit of another time and another place worked its way into his skin like the thorn of a prickly pear.

Richard Wetherill would spend the rest of his life in search for ruins tucked away in the desolate, faraway canyons of the Four Corners, back among the bristlecone pine, firs, and spruce trees that clung precariously onto the sides of the mountains.

He became an explorer, a guide, an excavator, a self-made, self-taught, homespun archeologist. He tracked down the Chaco Phenomenon in a Canyon that cut through New Mexico and wrote in a letter, “The ruins there are enormous. There are eleven of the large Pueblos or houses containing from one hundred to 500 rooms each and numerous small ones – how many I do not know but there must be more than 100.”

When he left an excavation in Utah’s Cottonwood Wash in 1893, he reported finding the last remains of a strange race that had no known beginning or ending: “Our success has surpassed all expectations. In the cave we are now working, we have taken 28 skeletons and two more in sight … They are a different race from anything I have ever seen. They had feather cloth and baskets, no pottery – six of the bodies had stone spear heads in them.”

Those who ruled the great halls of science called him a thief, a plunderer, a robber baron of ancient and historic artifacts. And it was true that Wetherell, his father, brothers, and a few neighbors had dug around many of the six hundred cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, even knocking down a few walls and roofs in their frantic quest to gather as many artifacts as they could uncover. He did not consider himself a thief, only a businessman.

The Wetherills sold some of their findings to the Historical Society of Colorado but took a majority of the collection home with them. The ancient objects, torn from the earth, were more valuable than cattle and a lot easier to sell.

Those who ruled the great halls of science denounced and condemned him, but Wetherill merely smiled. He wasn’t concerned. He knew where the artifacts lay hidden. It was all a mystery to those who ruled the great halls of science. Wetherill, more or less, chose to keep his secret to himself. Those who condemned him came west but were as lost as the civilization.

The ancient ones had arrived about 500 A.D. No one had any idea from whence they had come. They vanished seven hundred years later. No one saw them leave.

During their sojourn in the high country of the Four Corners, they built great houses of intricately carved sandstone, placing them high on the brittle faces of mountains, massive pueblos that stretched out for miles, back in caves, beneath rock overhangs where strangers did not journey and certainly did not stay. Many of the houses were built over saucer-shaped depressions. One massive kiva even had a 95-ton roof supported only by four wooden posts. It was an architectural and engineering marvel.

The ancient ones possessed an astounding astronomical understanding of the seasons. Many of the pueblos had been aligned to capture lunar and solar cycles, a system that required generations of careful and unwavering observation of the sky. Their enigmatic web of roads across the scraped caliche beds of Chaco Canyon, reaching out for more than sixty miles, appeared to have been extensively surveyed and engineered by someone who did not have any surveying or engineering technology. At times, the roadways deployed stone stairways and rock ramps to negotiate the steep, unforgiving surface of the cliffs. Nothing was left to chance.

Those who ruled the great halls of science have blamed their disappearance on a severe drought that swept across the land like a grim reaper. Others say a deadly war had removed an entire nation from the face of the earth. Some scholars, taking the easy way out, said the ancient ones simply wandered off and chose to live with other tribes. A few have looked at an odd symbol in the stone ruins, the one that represents a hole in the earth where people had long ago escaped the underworld. They believe that, when the time was right, the ancient ones simply crawled back into the hole once more and pulled the earth in around them.

Wetherill was the first to call the lost people from a lost civilization the Anasazi, the ancient ones, the ones with the long heads, the ones who may have known as much, if not more, than those who occupied the great halls of science. The Anasazi simply left no written words and only a few scattered pictographs and petroglyphs on rock walls.

They were here. Then they were gone. Time swallowed them up, but not even time could ruin the ruins of their handiwork.

They left behind a mystery that no one has solved.

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