When I was in Moab a few months ago, after my hike through the Maze, my friend Paul and I stopped by the wonderful Back of Beyond Books on Main Street and I picked up a copy of House of Rain, by Craig Childs. It is about the Anasazi, whose territory we had been hiking through. I meant to write about it then, but it has been sitting on my desk since, and it's about time it moved from there to the shelf where it belongs.
Ah, that term, "Anasazi". Paul was immediately suspicious. It's an obsolete term, no longer used by the up-to-date. It refers to the inhabitants of the Colorado Plateau before about the thirteenth century. The more correct term nowadays is "Ancestral Puebloans".
This change is more than political correctness, by the way, though one is always suspicious of rectification of the names. The name Anasazi was given to the ruins by Navaho pothunters, and means something like "enemy ancestors": Navaho are relatively recent on the plateau, and part of a complex system of alliance and hostility.
Childs has a nuanced defense of his use of the term. I won't go into it, because I know the real reason he used it: marketing. It's a totally cool name, and nothing else even comes close. Technical correctness, if you can achieve such a thing, has to run a distant second to that.
The books is half history and half Childs' strenuous and, to be frank, intimidating travels through the plateau, riding cloudbursts, climbing cliffs, enduring bitter cold and brutal heat.
And he travels with eccentrics and obsessives, people who think the Anasazi (let's stick with that, understanding its limitations) did everything in pairs, or people who think they extended far outside of the territory usually assigned to them, or laid out travel routes across hundreds of miles. Even as he goes on trips with these guys, and ably explains their theories, its pretty clear that Childs thinks they are cracked.
And Childs tries to boost the Anasazi as some transcendent notion, some way of living and perceiving that remained as a constant through the centuries.
Maybe. I tend not to be romantic about these things. Anasazi are interesting because they left picturesque stone ruins in some of the most dramatic landscapes on the planet. They make great photographs, and a great thing to come upon during a hike. And they did this in what is now the United States, so they get a lot of push from the National Park Service.
Does that make them interesting in some deeper sense? Well...no. Childs does his impressive best, and the book is a fun read, but if you think it will tell you something significant, you're wrong. There are many peoples in the world, and many interesting ways of living, and the Anasazi, finally, are just one of them.
But this is one of those situational books. Hanging out having a beer in Moab? Hiking through Grand Gulch, visiting Mesa Verde or Chaco, climbing down from Maze Overlook? Thent his is the book you want. It will make you feel you are doing something other than just being a tourist or a hiker. It may not have the same resonance at home.