I’m walking along the banks of a dry streambed in northern Phoenix under a scorching noontime sun, searching for signs of the people who inhabited this desert land long before the invasion of white men in the 1860s. The sandy trail runs between a small hill of black basaltic boulders and what is now called Skunk Creek. Giant creosote bushes, scraggly palo verde trees and lifeless wolfberry shrubs line the way.
It is hard anymore to find remnants of the old culture, generally known as the Hohokam. Say “Hohokam” to your neighbor here and the response will likely be, “Oh, the stadium in Mesa where the Cubbies hold spring training.” Meaning of course the Chicago Cubs baseball team.
As for the culture Hohokam, most is now buried beneath miles and miles of man-made structures and pavement with the white man’s name “Phoenix Arizona.” Here by this trail, for instance, a huge subdivision of modest homes rests 100 yards away, thanks to nearby Adobe Mountain Dam and the re-channeling of Skunk Creek.
When in 1868 Jack Swilling, the former confederate soldier, and others first began building an agricultural community by the Salt River, they found a large system of canals, ditches really, and small dams all made, it is believed, by the Hohokam, who oddly disappeared in the 15th Century. No one seems to know why.
One of the remaining signs of the olden days around Phoenix are the petroglyphs. These so-called glyphs are symbols scratched in rock, and here, on this blackened hill of basalt, is the “largest concentration of Native American rock art in the Phoenix Valley.” All of it is preserved by the Deer Valley Rock Art Center, about 20 miles north of downtown.
I have come here, paid the admission fee of $4 for seniors, not so much to see the glyphs as to stand on ground where no doubt a community once existed between the hill and the creek.
It is the wrong time of day to see much of the rock art. The basalt glistens under a harsh sun and only a small part of the 1,571 carvings are visible, at least to my eye. An Hispanic caretaker tells me it is best to come in early morning when the sun’s angle reveals more. But like I said the art itself is unimportant to me.
For the longest time, I’m alone on the quarter-mile trail with a few birds. I see an Anna’s hummer resting atop a tree, and some other birds that move so fast through the brush I can not identify them. Finally as the summer closing hour of 2 p.m. looms, two middle-age women trudge by. They later voice their disappointment to me about the glyphs.
“I wish,” says one, “they were closer where you could see them better.” Most of the glyphs are high up on the hill.
I stop to rest at a shaded bench. I try to imagine the people living here in the long ago, how hard in modern experience it must have been. Living here along the creek when it actually had water, growing squash and other plants. And when time allowed climbing up on the broken black basalt to scratch a message or an artistic rendering.
In that way, the experience was fulfilling.