Books: Grails of the Mesa

Two authors and their search for the Anasazi

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine

In Search of the Old Ones: Exploring the Anasazi World of the Southwest, by David Roberts (Simon & Schuster, $24), and The Maze: A Desert Journey, by Lucy Rees (The Countryman Press, $21). During a hike into Utah's Grand Gulch in 1987, Outside contributing editor David Roberts came upon unexcavated ruins from the Anasazi, the ancient cliff-dwelling people who once inhabited much of the Southwest. "That trip," he writes, "changed everything for me: A passive admiration of the Anasazi turned into something like a quest."

The enigmatic Anasazi, whose history remains seductively mysterious, have fascinated people for centuries. And while Roberts is not the first writer to become obsessed with their world, what sets In Search of the Old Ones apart from other books about the Southwest is his exuberant, hands-on approach, which combines the thrill of canyoneering and rock climbing with the intellectual sleuthing of archaeology. Piqued by a need to establish "some connection with the Anasazi that I could feel beneath my fingertips," Roberts finds himself on a series of backcountry adventures in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado. While trekking through canyons and climbing mesa walls in search of obscure ruins, he ponders the mysteries of Anasazi history, including the vexing question of whether the Old Ones practiced cannibalism. He also crosses paths with a number of Anasazi-obsessed eccentrics, who give many of his pages sparkle and depth.

In the end, Roberts's search for "communion" with the Old Ones is rewarded with not one grail, but two: He finds (but does not unearth) an intact vessel and a beautiful basket that have apparently gone undiscovered for at least 700 years. The reader of this absorbing hybrid of travel writing and amateur archaeology is in for comparable treasures.

In The Maze, Lucy Rees, an author of considerable panache and wit, undertakes a similar journey. With her partner, a part-time fire-eater named Rick, she notices that a stone carving in Cornwall, near their native Wales, is identical to one on a mesa in the Arizona homeland of the Hopi, the modern descendants of the Anasazi. The carvings themselves are complicated, circular mazes, full of sexual imagery, that become a psychological map for a book about what it means to be lost—physically, emotionally, spiritually—and then found again. Arriving in Arizona, the couple sets out on horseback in search of one of the mazes outside of Shipaulovi, an ancient Hopi village. In addition to the stunning desert landscape, Lucy and Rick encounter redneck elk hunters, tough-as-nails cowgirls, a brilliant Hopi medicine man, and their own darkest fears. The maze metaphor wears thin at times, but for the most part Rees's book--by turns funny and gut-wrenching, breezy and baroque--is a first-rate story of obsessive adventure in which the protagonists discover much more than an etching on a rock.

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