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Wed, Feb. 26

Hiking: How to be a good neighbor in the Agua Fria National Monument

Courtesy Photo<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Jack Johnson stands above Silver Creek in this November 2008 photo taken by Ted Johnson, Jack's brother.

Courtesy Photo<br /><br /><!-- 1upcrlf2 -->Jack Johnson stands above Silver Creek in this November 2008 photo taken by Ted Johnson, Jack's brother.

My endless speculation about our long-gone neighbors to the south began with a hike in the Agua Fria National Monument. The Perry Mesa people departed the area in 1492, give or take a few decades, leaving behind evidence that they lived in the area successfully for many generations - longer than the United States has been a country, in fact.

While their lives were different than ours in many ways, we might have more in common than meets the eye. For example, when I hike along the Agua Fria River, I feel the same breeze, hear the same birdcalls and flowing water, and probably wonder about some of the same things.

Did they marvel at the vastness of the view above Squaw Creek or did they worry about staying warm for the night? Did they delight in the beauty of saguaro blossoms or did they focus on staying dry as it started to rain?

If we can understand what worked for them and what didn't, perhaps we can enhance our own connection to the land and we, too, may enjoy adequate water, security and incredible vistas for many more generations.

As an Arizona native, I drove past the AFNM to the east of I-17 at the Bloody Basin exit for years before President Bill Clinton designated it a Monument. It received no congressional funding, so don't expect to see restrooms or a visitor center.

I found the solitude, beauty and cultural heritage was on a par with my experiences in the Mazatzals, Pine Mountain, Superstitions, Granite Mountain and Aravaipa Canyon trips. A few abandoned jeep roads have deteriorated into primitive trails, but much of the hiking on the Monument involves rugged cross-country hiking and walking along streambeds - sometimes dry, sometimes overflowing. A visit could involve investigating a ruin, strolling across a mesa, dodging cholla pads on a slippery slope, or scrambling over loose talus. The options are potentially risky, but always rewarding.

Since the Monument lies at the northern edge of the Sonoran Desert, the best time to hike is late fall to early spring when the temperatures are pleasant, the wildflowers are blooming and water flows.

The natural beauty alone is worth the hike, although I find the cultural heritage is truly exceptional. I have not delved deeply into ancient Native American culture, but since I want to be a good neighbor, I can't help but marvel at how these people lived here for so long and so well.

They moved tons of rock by hand to build homes, diverted water for crops and created defensive structures. They obviously had time to chip images of people, animals and symbols on rock surfaces throughout the Monument.

Did that form of communication constitute their news outlet? Was it gang-related graffiti? Or art?

Hiking across Black Mesa, down the Agua Fria River, around the headwaters of Squaw Creek and along Baby Canyon transport me back in time. I imagine the men strategizing at Pueblo Pato, the daily struggle to bring water from Silver Creek to Pueblo la Plata, and the excitement at Richinbar after a successful hunt.

I wonder about the anger of a broken pot, concerns over children falling off cliffs, the meaning of petroglyphs - or stumbling onto a rattlesnake as I did in November.

What a life my neighbors lived - relatively straight forward, pure and rugged. Yet, I wouldn't trade my battle against gophers and weeds with their struggles for enough food from one season to the next. I hope that my footprint is sustainable so that generations hence might appreciate our own efforts to live well on this land.

Directions to the Agua Fria National Monument:

Take the Badger Springs or Bloody Basin exit off Interstate 17 south of Cordes Junction. A high clearance vehicle is recommended and off-road travel is not allowed. Treat cultural sites with respect. Do not touch petroglyphs or remove artifacts. Report crimes to resources including vandalism, dumping and suspicious activity at 1-800-637-9152.

To become involved in the care of the Monument, visit the Friends of the Agua Fria National Monument at aguafriafriends.org for additional information.

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