We love a good mystery story. Some are carved in stone. And some will never be told.

Mesa Grande National Park
Mesa Grande National Park

We who like to write mysteries are always looking for mysteries. We never have far to look, and, for some of us, no farther than the Four Corners Country of Utah, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico. A strange culture was there, and then it was gone, and the winds have taken away the footprints. And perhaps that is why we write books. We want to leave behind our stories, and everyone has a story, even the Ancient Ones who walked among the Four Corners and walked away without a trace or a record of who they were or from whence they came.

All we know is that their muted ruins stand like great stone monuments in an astonishing but foreboding landscape that looks as if some ancient sculptor had carved and chiseled canyons into the shadow of the mountains.

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 was a cowboy, not an explorer. He was a rancher, not an archaeologist.

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 23 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.

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 600 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.

It would be determined that the ancient ones were short, stocky, and big boned. Their hair was usually black but often brown and wavy. They possessed long heads. They did not quite appear to be like any creature who had ever roamed the earth. The long heads stunned and puzzled even the learned scholars.

The Ancient Ones arrived about 500 A.D. 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 lives of the ancient ones revolved around agriculture, and they possessed an uncanny 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.

Long before Richard Wetherill rode into the hidden valley of Mesa Grande, only the ruins were left, their doorways and windows staring with empty eyes across an empty landscape, waiting for the Ancient Ones to return. It was as though they had all awakened one morning and been taken away. Maybe they were.

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 said 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.

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.

If only they had written their story. We write it simply because they didn’t. But for us, it’s still a mystery.

Wicked Little Lies Amazon coverCaleb Pirtle III is author of Wicked Little Lies. Please click the book cover to read more about all of his books on Pirtle’s Amazon Author’s Page.

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