As weâ€™d searched for the incised grooves and then the tower, the archaeologist and I traded small details about our families.Â He mentioned how, when he takes his kids for hikes, theyâ€™re always running up to him and asking, â€œIs this an artifact, Dad?â€Â I told him how, when we first moved to the area, my two ambulatory kids would go out exploring and bring home rocks that struck their fancy.Â A flashy array of jasper crops up from the ground here along with colorful cherts, etc.â€”the stones Ancestral Puebloans flint-knapped into arrowheads and other tools.Â Lithic flakesâ€”the waste and â€œmisfiresâ€ of flint-knappingâ€”abound, as well as partial and whole arrowheads and cores, which are the rounded remains of rocks from which workable pieces have been flaked offâ€”a stoneâ€™s unusable â€œpit.â€ I had to sort through the adopted rocks for lithic flakes then explain to my kids, â€œThis is an artifact.Â Take it back.â€ Finally, I went out with them and taught them how to recognize possible lithic flakes and related artifacts.Â These, I told them, were to be left in situ.
In situ is not necessarily as fixed a location as it sounds.Â In situ can be, and often enough is, a changing position.Â Artifacts move with the ground, flow downhill in storm run-off, erode out of wash and arroyo banks where theyâ€™re carried downstream, etc.Â Sites can be dispersed by natural forces.Â Still, the place where theyâ€™re foundâ€”in, on, or in proximity to a site, downhill, downstream, or hanging in mid-air from a root or twoâ€”means something.
Also, by way of explaining a little about how important to me Crossfire has become, I told the archaeologist bits about my unlikely household.Â Even for me, whoâ€™s lived with the circumstances for nearly two decades (including the new layer of complexity introduced by my husband’s stroke last July), the extremities of my home life seem at times so outrageous that Iâ€™m not sure why anyone would believe anything I say about my familyâ€™s challenges. But the archaeologist seemed to accept that something intense indeed was going on at the home front and didnâ€™t poke at it.Â I thought that very decent of him.
We found our way down the bench and embankment to Crossfire Creek, running unusually high this year.Â I think that last yearâ€™s record snow pack and wet spring must have recharged the areaâ€™s water table, because in the six years Iâ€™ve lived here, Iâ€™ve not witnessed the creek run so high or so far across the seasons.
As the archaeologist worked his way along the bank in search of a crossing, he met obstacles: a boulder, surrounded by an impassable tangle of brush.Â Both jutted out over the current.Â Grabbing fistfuls of bare branch, he swung himself out onto the edge of the boulder and skittered around it to the bank again.Â A nice show of nimbleness.Â I doubted I could follow suit.Â â€œThat might be a bit much for me,â€ I said.Â He suggested I go back up and around, which I did.Â Thatâ€™s the funny angle to travel in the out-of-doorsâ€”sometimes you have to climb up to get down (and vice versa), and sometimes you have to go back to proceed.Â I lumbered through light brush and finally reached a clear spot on the bank.Â I found a crossing at a mid-stream boulder with a walkable beaver log jammed firmly between it and a cottonwood tree.Â The archaeologist sat on the bank a little upstream of where I crossed, knees up, pulling up his white socks, his eyes reading the terrain.Â When I caught up to him, he said, cheerfully, â€œLook, Patriciaâ€”the skyrockets are getting ready to bloom.â€
Skyrockets?Â Getting ready to bloom?Â In December?Â My mind stumbled trying to make sense of the words.Â He could have said, â€œLook, Patriciaâ€”thereâ€™s the white rabbit.â€ The jolt would have been about the same.Â First off, there seemed barely a trace of living green anywhere, except for sagebrush.Â Second, I didnâ€™t know what skyrockets were, but they sounded flamboyant.Â My eye could locate no such plant. And â€œgetting ready to bloomâ€ conjured images of plants laden with buds.Â Which brought me back to: Huh?
But so far, he hadnâ€™t steered my perception wrong.Â Beyond the dimness of my own not-seeing, I had no reason to distrust his words.Â Iâ€™d caught up to him there on the bank, but my eyes and mind still struggled to draw up even with his vision.
â€œGilia aggregata,â€ he said.Â â€œThatâ€™s its scientific name.â€
I recognized the name â€œgiliaâ€ and realized that he must be talking about the plant I know as scarlet gilia.Â Scarlet gilia is a tall-stemmed plant common to the area, reaching heights of about two feet and producing from late spring into early autumn sprays of brilliant red flowers.Â Theyâ€™re one of my favorite canyon adornments.Â I look forward to seeing them bloom each year.
But where were they?Â He didnâ€™t point, simply looked down at the ground where he was sitting.Â Dotted all about him was a colony of what seemed to be cold-shocked, ground-hugging mopheads of barely-there greenery ranging about three to five inches across.Â Some of their grizzled green leaves looked wilted, struggling. The desert is full of plants that begin in this configuration: rosettes of leaves that seem wholly earth-grasping but that shoot up single stalks producing at their heights clusters of flowers.Â I wasnâ€™t aware that scarlet gilia followed that growth patternâ€”Iâ€™d only noticed the plants when they were at their showiest.
He nodded.Â And I realized that when he said, â€œgetting ready to bloom,â€ he was looking months into the future.Â To me, the plants with pinched-looking, griseous leaves appeared to be struggling against the cold.Â To him, they showed promising progress.
â€œWith flowers shaped like this?â€ I asked, forming with my hand into something resembling scarlet giliaâ€™s trumpet-shaped bell.Â He nodded again.
(I’ve learned since that scarlet gilia–Ipomopsis aggregata–grows in these cold-resistant rosettes for 2-5 years, some sources say 8 years, before conditions trigger a bolt phase and they run up a stalk; bloom; are pollinated by white-lined spinx moths, broad-tail hummingbirds and rufous hummingbirds; produce seed; and die the year they fruit.)
Then the archaeologist directed my eye across the creek and upslope of our position.Â A hundred feet or so above us was a patch of ground that had sloughed from the bench we’d just descended.Â The patch looked to have melted off the hillside and refrozen into a small terrace maybe 30 feet below its original position.
â€œThatâ€™s called a rotational slump,â€ he said.Â Four or five junipers remained attached to the falling ground, having surfed the wave to new locations on the terrace.Â They stood perfectly upright and looked unscathed. â€œThose trees survived the ride,â€ he said.
Suddenly, I understood better why so many of a juniper tree’s roots run horizontal to the soil surface, sometimes just below it.Â As Iâ€™d walked over such roots stretched across trails, arroyos, or other exposures, Iâ€™d wondered why, in a place that offered rain and then quickly snatched it back through evaporation, junipers spread their roots so shallowly.Â Maybe, I thought, to take better advantage of a widely wetted ground surface after rainstorms.Â Or maybe that morphology was necessary to maintain best anchorage on the ever-crumbling desert surface stratum beneath which often lie mantles of sandstone.Â It never occurred to me that those widely spread roots could act as surfboards, floating trees down safely when the soil suddenly dropped out from under them.Â I thought this adaptation strategy darned smart. Inspiring, even.Â Iâ€™d have to consider how I could adapt it to my own circumstances.
We left the creekâ€™s bank, then, heading for that Pueblo II-Pueblo III site high up on the eastern bench.Â By this time, I was overdue at home by nearly an hour.Â As I climbed, I guessed that my daughter would almost certainly be awake and expecting food.Â My family would be wondering where I was.Â I never eat breakfast before I walk Crossfireâ€”a practice Iâ€™ve adopted for many reasons.Â It works fine for the usual one-and-a-half to two-hour rambles along my established route.Â But now Iâ€™d gone way off course, time-wise and space-wise, and Iâ€™d overspent my apportioned energy in extra walking and climbing.Â So I was beginning to feel rather hungry myself.Â But I wasnâ€™t done. Yes–I was hungry and getting tired, but my mind was hungrier, still wanting.Â I couldnâ€™t resist pushing a little further to see what was around the next bend.
To be continued …