We love to travel and have travelled extensively in the United States, but we still stumble upon well-known places nonetheless unknown to us.
Such was the case in March when I put a picture of Montezuma Castle on Facebook. Several friends immediately said how much they had enjoyed visiting there. Alie and I had never heard of it.
We took Arizona 89A south from Flagstaff because several friends enjoyed Sedona. Indeed, the rugged red canyon rocks were so impressive we didn’t stop to take pictures — and heavy traffic didn’t help. Sedona itself was attractive but gentrified and crowded. We kept moving until we no longer were sharing the road with so many people.
Soon we began seeing signs for the National Monument. But if we didn’t know about Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well, neither did Montezuma. An Aztec in today’s Mexico, his ancestors probably moved through the area. But he lived long after the castle was built and never saw it. Early European explorers and settlers were not well educated in history, were enamored of the Aztecs and named the sites for him.
The ancestors of today’s Puebloan First Americans started building this village about 900 years ago. Unfortunately, much of what they left behind was lost to early explorer and settler looters.
Constructed between 1100 and 1400 A.D., we can only speculate why they built where they did. The structure housed between 150 and 200 people. Built into natural recesses and caves, they did not have to build the back walls. A good source of water was at the foot of the cliff, and the raised home protected them from floods. It offered them a good defensive point and some shade in the summer. It faced the southwest sun in the winter. Also, it would have had a pleasant view, which I presume they enjoyed as much as we do.
Each family group had their own room about 17 feet by 8 feet with a 5-foot high ceiling supported mostly by sycamore beams although other trees were also used. One can still see original beams on the right of the structure. The seasoned logs of the Arizona Sycamore, one of the state’s largest trees, can last for centuries.
The castle residents raised corn, beans, squash and cotton. They were not alone. There were other farming communities thriving in the Verde Valley until the mid 14th Century. Then they began to move north and east to other population centers such as Mesa Verde and the Hopi and Zuni homelands.
Mud structures required repair while they were used and erode when they are abandoned. Nonetheless, much of what you see today at Montezuma Castle is original. Nearby structures are much more eroded. Hopi and other First Americans have said the buildings were designed to return to the earth from which they came, but it is the policy of the Park Service to preserve them for future generations. It is unpleasant to say, but I would have more respect for the First Americans’ touted respect for the earth if their reservations weren’t so often blighted by litter.
Montezuma Well is only about six miles away as the crow files, but I doubt it was visited much by Castle residents who could use the creek.
This natural well holds 15 million gallons despite less than 13 inches annual rainfall. Fed from deep underground, it is recharged continuously and is the source of the creek. It enabled communities in the Verde Valley, some on the cliffs and some in pit houses, to survive and even prosper for a time.
Even during droughts, 1.5 million gallons of water flow into the well daily. The water comes from rain far away in the mountains that fell up to 13000 years ago and seeped down through porous rock until it was forced to the surface by a volcanic basalt “dike” far beneath the earth.
High levels of dissolved carbon dioxide mean there are no fish. But there are five species unique to the area: a tiny shrimp-like amphipod, a snail, a water scorpion, a one-celled diatom and fresh water leeches that eat amphipods. There is also a high level of dissolved arsenic which couldn’t have been healthy for those depending on it for drinking water.
The well became the stuff of legend, a holy place for the Yavapai, the Hopi, the Zuni and the Apache. With its many unique characteristics, it is a source of wonder to us.
Click on photos to enlarge.