Spiraling to the Center of the World:
a Personal Introduction to The Orion Zone

by Gary A. David
Copyright 2004 by Gary A. David

“The Hopi land is the Hopi religion. The Hopi religion is bound up in the Hopi land.”1
                    Andrew Hermequaftewa

“Every month we have ceremonies to keep our people balanced. We still live here in the center of the world.”2
                    Thomas Banyacya

Keeping the World In Balance

The landscape of the Southwest is hauntingly familiar. Perhaps it is merely the cumulative memory of all those movie Westerns in which director John Ford and others spuriously used Monument Valley as a backdrop. But perhaps it is deeper. Perhaps it is really an echo of some unfathomable dream, a cellular memory bubbling up from some ancient past.

This subtle yet unequivocal aura of the numinous is best felt at twilight— the crack between worlds, some say. I am sitting at Desert View on the eastern end of the Grand Canyon. The last rays of the sun air-brush a few cirrus clouds salmon pink and saffron. Before the Colorado River turns west into the Grand Canyon proper, it flows out of Marble Canyon from the north like a greenish-brown serpent gliding over chocolate-colored slabs of Precambrian Vishnu schist or intrusions of Zoroaster granite.3 Other exotically named geologic features further accentuate the Romantic nature of this unique formation: Shiva Temple and Buddha Cloister, Manu Temple and Ottoman Amphitheater, Osiris Temple and Cheops Pyramid, Isis Temple and Tower of Ra, Confucius Temple and Dragon Head, Thor Temple and Wotans Throne, Solomon Temple, Angels Gate.

As I perch on the south rim of the canyon with legs dangling over the abyss, waves of tranquillity issuing from far below wash over the shores of my inner being. I am thoroughly relaxed here, in part due to an earlier hike down Bright Angel Trail and a day spent exulting in the cleansing sun and wind. As I trekked down the dusty path, elemental wonder and vertiginous awe had astounded me at every switchback. Profusely sweating, I had paused to take a drink, tipping back my head for the simple pleasure of cool canteen water while the cerulean river above bathed my relief.

Now it is evening. Indigo shadows grope their way across the Little Painted Desert. Some are lost in the Little Colorado River Gorge. Others flow east like dark water through the dry washes past their namesake Shadow Mountain and beyond. Somewhere from deep within all this eroded distance, I sense an echo from another lifetime— a vague yet powerful presence this boundless landscape somehow evokes. The violet shade of crepuscular earth reposing against the royal blue of nightward sky distills an impression of timeless existence, of rituals and prayer chants in half-remembered canyons, of migrations through sacred precincts where sun-charged sand and Milky Way star dust merge. Through the dusky labyrinth of mesas and scattered bones a life of austere dignity and primal yet complex spirituality once emerged to walk the earth, patiently tending dry fields of blue corn, making offerings of corn meal and breath feathers which kept the world in balance. Perhaps this ancient life intimated to me now is keeping the world in balance still.

Spiraling Across Hopiland

Arizona is a land of diversity and contrast. A great deal more exists here than the stereotypic images of the massive saguaro cactus and the red-blossomed ocotillo, though these too lend their bizarre charm to the overall environment. But this story mostly involves a place somewhat north of the narrow range of these two low desert species. The primary focus of The Orion Zone is the southern end of the Colorado Plateau down to the Mogollon (pronounced muggy-own) Rim, that geologic fault of Kaibab limestone curving across the state from northwest to southeast. The Colorado Plateau also extends northward through the Four Corners region into the three other states of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.

A good place to begin, however, is in the vicinity of the San Francisco Peaks, where native spirits live for half the year. The Hopi name for these mountains is Nuvatukya’ovi, or Snow Peaks. The Diné (Navaho) call them Dook’o’oosliid, or West Mountain. A warm vanilla scent of ponderosa pine greets me, bringing back the essence of sacred mountains elsewhere. The mid-September sun is hot on my skin, though the slight chill in the air is welcoming. (This is one of the contrasts of the high desert: Step into shade and you freeze, step into the sun and you broil.) Creating an Impressionist masterpiece, the visual explosion of purple asters and red Indian paintbrushes splatters the dominant yellow hue of wild sunflowers, mullein, gumweed, and goldenrod. Slanted sunlight filters through the forest, infusing the morning with the season’s typically melancholy joy.

To the northeast gray clouds shroud the upper-most portion of the basaltic cinder cone named Humphreys Peak, highest point in Arizona, 12,633 feet in elevation. While I drove from the west, the mountains looked almost pyramidal on the horizon: Humphreys at the north, the slightly lower Agassiz Peak (12,356 feet) about a mile and a half due south, and Fremont Peak (11,969 feet) a mile southeast of the latter. Oddly reminiscent of the ceremonial structures on the Giza Plateau a half a world away, these mountains are home to the Hopi spirits called katsinam (plural of katsina, sometimes written kachina), to which they return each July. I linger here awhile, reveling in the sunshine but cognizant of the possibility that a sudden fall blizzard could dust these peaks white, making the uplifts stand against the horizon even more prominently until they seem to float in mid-air, much like the world’s other great volcanic mountains such as Fujiyama or Shasta.

Following Interstate 40 east through the Coconino National Forest, I travel through the middle of what naturalists call the Transition Zone, which ranges between 6,500 and 8,000 feet in elevation.4 The dominant plant species is Pinus ponderosa, the western yellow pine, occupying one of the largest areas of such in the country (and rivaling that of the Black Hills of South Dakota.) As expected, the mountains attract moisture from the clouds, so precipitation here is an average of eighteen to twenty-six inches annually, twice that of the desert. A lack of understory shrubs creates the characteristic broad, park-like landscapes covered with brome and foxtail grass beneath the tall boles of pines which rise as impassively silent as meditating monks. Larger trees reach a height of 125 feet or more and may be over 500 years old. 5  An occasional stand of Gambel oaks is tinged a tannish orange by the increasingly cool nights. Along the highway bright yellow signs warn of elk crossings. If it were evening, a white-tailed deer or two —or even a group— might dart across the highway. Yet now to our left the peaks suddenly free of clouds point toward a blue noon, over 5000 feet above us.

If I were to go higher along the road to the Arizona Snow Bowl —a ski lodge that desecrates the home of the katsinam—, I would be driving through what is called the Canadian Zone at over 8,000 feet, where Douglas fir and aspens are the major tree species. (It is commonly acknowledged that every rise of a thousand feet in elevation is the equivalent of traveling 300 miles north.) In the autumn sunlight whole hillsides of these golden-leafed aspens flash like ripples on a lake, while their flat-stemmed leaves tremble and dance on a mere whisper of a wind. Up close their white trunks wide as an embrace shine like ruined columns.

Going even higher still, I would traverse the Hudsonian Zone above 9,500 feet. Here is the domain of Engelmann spruce and blue spruce along with a few bristlecone and limber pines. Englemann spruce is greatly affected by the prevailing wind, displaying either a “banner” type growth with branches only on the leeward side or a “wind timber” growth that forms a matted, savage-looking mass. Finally, I would have to abandon my vehicle altogether and hike above the tree line on Humphreys Peak in order to reach the Alpine Zone at 11,500 feet. At these towering heights such arctic tundra wildflowers as the yellow-blossomed cinquefoil and the alpine avens spread out across the rocky terrain in low, dense carpets.

A land of contrasts indeed!

Although a detour in the cool mountain air seems inviting, I decide to stay focused on my goal. Continuing eastward, I pass the small college town of Flagstaff (population nearly 60,000), the only recognizable urban influence in northern Arizona. In 1894 the pristine skies over the San Francisco Peaks prompted Percival Lowell, Massachusetts Brahmin and brother of the poet Amy Lowell, to build an astronomical observatory from which he could study the “canals” on Mars. In 1930 astronomer Clyde Tombaugh also discovered the planet Pluto with the observatory’s telescope. On the eastern side of the peaks, the rounder, more maternal Mount Elden spreads out to the left. A small ancient Anasazi pueblo ruin and burial site is nestled at her base, though radio antennae litter her summit. Almost ten miles to the northeast Sunset Crater rises over one thousand feet. This dormant volcano began to smoke in the fall of A.D. 1064 and in the following year erupted with a lava flow from the eastern side of its base.6 Another thirteen miles in the same direction lies Wupatki National Monument with more pueblo ruins, a blow hole issuing from a system of underground limestone fissures, and the northern-most example of a Maya-style ball court on the continent.

Now I am descending, driving the way the katsinam will travel after the winter solstice, back to the heart of Hopi country. Soon a sign for Walnut Canyon National Monument appears. At this site still more pueblo ruins rest, these dwellings being strung out along the cliff side of a hoodoo island in the middle of the canyon. However, I reserve this pleasant setting of ancient Anasazi existence for another day and continue eastward.

Now the landscape begins to change, as the ponderosa pine forest gradually gives way to the juniper-pinyon woodland. In this Upper Sonoran Desert Zone at an elevation of 4,500 to 6,500 feet, I notice that the air is getting warmer. In addition, the monolithic forest I had been traveling through opens up to shorter, less densely spaced trees and bushes. Here scraggly Colorado pinyon and gnarled one-seed juniper are interspersed with the feathery-tailed cliffrose. To the north I glimpse the low, rounded hills of the same Little Painted Desert that I saw from the Grand Canyon— its pale gray-green, ocher and maroon shale laid down originally as lake beds in the upper Triassic period. As I gaze through binoculars, these mounds are spread out like folds on a piece of velvet thrown down upon the land. A maze of eroded buttes recedes into the distance, looking curiously like a village of Dogon huts with their conical roofs. In other places the terrain assumes a layer cake effect, frosted white with gypsum. Flat-bottomed cumulonimbus clouds drift across limitless sky, casting watery blue shadows on the immense landscape. Driving eastward along the monotonous interstate, I meditate on the clouds until I am floating as well.

As I drop down even further, larger trees disappear almost entirely, except for a few stunted cottonwoods along dry arroyos. Cholla and prickly pear cacti scattered beneath giant toadstools of red Moencopi sandstone add a surreal effect to the environment. This southeastern margin of the Great Basin desertscrub receives a mere seven to twelve inches of precipitation annually and can support only such hearty species of vegetation as big sagebrush and four-wing saltbush or the oddly named greasewood, snakeweed, and mormon-tea. Of course, western diamondback rattlesnakes and jackrabbits abound, while a small herd of pronghorns (commonly called antelopes) grazing in the distance is not an uncommon sight.

After passing the trading posts of Twin Arrows and Two Guns (the former still in business, the latter merely rubble), I easily cross the concrete bridge over Canyon Diablo, a troublesome barrier to earlier expeditions. Off to the right I see a sign for Meteor Crater. Approximately 47,000 years ago a large chunk of cosmic nickel-iron estimated to be about 150 feet across slammed into the earth at 40,000 miles per hour with a force greater than 20 million tons of TNT, creating a perfect bowl-shaped pit 570 feet deep and 4,100 feet in diameter. Pondering in silence at the crater’s lip that extends almost two and one-half miles in circumference, I am reminded of the fortuitous cataclysms to which the earth is sometimes subjected.

In addition to scattering debris for miles in all directions, the crater recently has attracted a more modern sort of detritus: Meteor City, a single white geodesic dome with its attendant brightly painted tar paper teepees jarringly out of place here among all this desert sand and sky. A series of gaudy billboards visually hawks its dubious wares: Jewelry Made By Indians — Petrified Wood — Pottery — Moccasins — Kachina Dolls. Tourists stop and gawk at “authentic” Western American knickknacks and plastic gewgaws (most likely made in Taiwan), while they suck down cold Mountain Dew. However, the middle-aged proprietors are genuinely friendly in the tradition of the Old West. No doubt, the rugged, wind-burned couple finds that making a living in this lonely place can be a tad risky. Behind the “city” a Santa Fe freight train with four engines blowing black diesel smoke to the pure air chugs west, hauling from back east its heavy load and its long history. On the other side of the interstate we see vestiges of Route 66 and remember Steinbeck’s migrants from Oklahoma, who struggled across these harsh distances toward an uncertain destiny. Now travelers to the Golden State pass motel rooms shaped like wigwams and the iconic golden arches of fast food modernity. Together these provide this remote Arizona vacation mecca with both a sense of exotic kitsch and a predictable ambiance of home— if not home cooking.

Here the eye might sweep over fifty miles from one horizon to the other. East and north of the Little Colorado River (whose headwaters flow from the White Mountains over a hundred miles to the southeast), the landscape becomes even more dramatic. At the farthest reaches of this expansive vista float black nipples of volcanic rock. On the map their names are as exotic as those found in the Grand Canyon: Montezumas Chair, Pyramid Butte, Sun Altar, and Star Mountain. Seemingly solid shafts of sunlight strike the earth right in front of me or a dozen miles away. I might well be lost forever in this panorama as forlorn as the Pacific Ocean. Breezing straight through the town of Winslow on the edge of the Navaho Reservation while humming the old Eagle’s tune “Take It Easy,” I pass the river at Sunset Crossing, once the only spot in the area one could safely ford. I stop briefly at Homol’ovi Ruins State Park, where ancestors of the Hopi lived on the banks of the Little Colorado in a series of masonry and adobe pueblos from about the mid-thirteenth to the mid-fifteenth centuries. Refreshed by the small museum and well-organized visitors’ center, I continue northward on the two-lane State Highway 87, also known as the Winslow-Toreva road.

Inching across the Navaho Reservation which completely encircles the Hopi Reservation and provides a buffer against the outside world, I enter the vestibule of some grand earth temple dedicated to the ancient spirits. An occasional octagonal hogan is swallowed up in the immensity of sacred space as I cross Tovar Mesa, headed straight for the heart of Hopiland. Alongside this traditionally Diné style of habitation frequently sits a trailer house with old tires on top to prevent its metal roof from popping and cracking in the fierce winds. Late afternoon shadows have brought the leviathan landscape into stark relief. Finally I glimpse my destination. Extended from the giant hand of Black Mesa jutting down from the northeast, three great fingers of rock beckon. They are the three Hopi Mesas, isolated upon this high desert to which the Ancient Ones so long ago were led.

A whole cosmology along with an intricate religious cycle evolved here, grounded in the paucity of rainfall and the extremes of climate. Summer temperatures frequently exceed one hundred degrees, whereas winter winds blast down from the northwest, bringing snow and frigid air. Because no perennially flowing streams exist here, the people had to rely on local springs. Gradually a number of villages grew, both at the bases and on the tops of the mesas. The pueblo of Oraibi located on Third (the western-most) Mesa is considered to be the oldest continuously inhabited community on the North American continent, founded circa A.D. 1100. 7 The ruins of even older villages are located in Canyon De Chelly, nearly seventy-five miles to the east. Over fifty miles due north of the Hopi Mesas, outlying communities were established. Known today by the Navaho names of Betatakin and Keet Seel, these cliff dwellings are located beneath spectacular archways of stone that frame and protect the Anasazi pueblos like massive, prehistoric proscenia.

Soon I’ll make the ascent to the top of Second Mesa where are located the Hopi Cultural Center with its small museum, a tastefully decorated motel, and a restaurant that serves lamb and hominy stew along with traditional blue, paper-thin piki bread. Yet for a few moments I stand below at the junction of Highway 264. The sun had set about an hour ago and Venus, a ball of liquid light on the western horizon, shimmers near the constellation Virgo. The huge orange globe of a full moon on the opposite horizon begins to push up into deepening shades of night. High above in the old stone houses the lights are beginning to blink on. Some have been wired for electricity; a few others still use kerosene lamps. Nevertheless, the same language spoken in those same rooms for nearly a millennium softly mingles with the fragrant pinyon smoke of evening fires. I review the day’s journey and the incredible diversity of landscape and resources. A simple yet inescapable question emerges: Why here? With all that this environment has to offer, why did the ancestors of the Hopi settle on these inaccessible mesas far from a regular, dependable source of that most precious element? The Milky Way begins to arch overhead from south to north. A falling star glides across my field of vision as if the latter were a pool of water and the star an answer. I drink and feel a celestial wonder rising from deep within.


1. Andrew Hermequaftewa quoted by Hamliton A. Taylor, Pueblo Gods and Myths (Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964), p.180.
2. Thomas Banyacya quoted by Kenneth Lincoln with Al Logan Slagle, The Good Red Road: Passages Into Native America (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1987), p. 11.
3. Halka Chronic, Roadside Geology of Arizona (Missoula, Montana: Mountain Press Publishing Company, 1986, reprint 1983).
4. Bill Weir, Arizona Traveler’s Handbook (Chico, California: Moon Publications, Inc., 1992), pp. 4-7.
5. Charles H. Lowe, Arizona’s Natural Environment: Landscapes and Habitats (Tuscon, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1985, reprint 1964), p. 63.
6. Scott Thybony, photography by George H. Huey, A Guide To Sunset Crater and Wupatki (Tucson, Arizona: Southwest Parks and Monument Association,1987), p. 16.
7. Jefferson Reid and Stephanie Whittlesey, The Archaeology of Anicent Arizona (Tucson, Arizona: The University of Arizona Press, 1997), p. 175.

an excerpt from The Orion Zone: Ancient Star Cities of the American Southwest
Copyright 2004 by Gary A. David. All rights reserved
Any use of text without the author's prior consent is expressly forbidden.

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