This is the second episode of four in my serial article about searching for Indian ruins in the New Mexican high desert. In the first episode I discovered exciting old clues to the existence of pre-Columbian stone towers—in North America—containing mummies and well-preserved artifacts! I wanted to go there and rediscover the towers.
If you missed Episode I, find it on our "Backissues" page, accessible from our "Library." Then continue with this episode.
In this episode:
twenty-five years later, I rediscover the clues and the excitement. With no more urgent matters stopping me, could I really go? Had I waited too long?
New Mexico's Mysterious Stone Towers,
(Travel/Explore #3: May 29, 1999)
Time slips by with hardly a notice. A good intention is delayed, put off, forgotten. Minutiae fills all the time available; leaves
nothing behind to show for the effort expended.
My hair, which had been so dark and full was now almost white. My body, which nobody would ever have described as "svelte," had
spread around the middle. And there were wrinkles. It wasn't the youth I had been in the mirror that gray February morning.
The mirror didn't show two daughters grown and on their own; my bare recovery from the layoff after the crash of Space Shuttle
Challenger; a wife who had moved on to other things; or the youth's heart.
"I've still got my ass," I told the mirror, and patted myself to be sure.
It was in that gray early morning light that I remembered the towers.
"Fifty years old and never been farther west than Big Bend. Never done anything on my own—just me!"
Big Bend had been a great time. All that desert to wander,
looking for rocks, looking for tracks, looking for gold. The family had just dropped me off in a sandy wash.
"Come back for me in three hours. I just want to explore a
little." They hadn't looked back, and neither had I. In that three hours I'd found a hive of wild bees, a shack teeming with bats, some odd minerals, small greenish balls, sulfur I think. I'd located a sandy spring, and I'd climbed a couple of modest rocks. But mainly I'd enjoyed the solitude.
Riding back to the cabin I was sorry that my family didn't enjoy the things I did. To ever be satisfied with a vacation or a trip I
would have to steal time away, alone.
Throughout that February day I thought about the towers. It would have been a great adventure. They would have been twenty-five years younger back then—more chance that they would still be there. Were they still there? In what condition?
Another story came to mind, this one told me as truth by an old friend.
He and a couple of high school buddies had loaded a canoe and paddled up a woody bayou in southern Arkansas to swim and drink beer.
The sky clouded over in the late afternoon, and it began to get dark and cool. At a bend they pulled the canoe up onto a long undercut bank. They'd camp here for the night and return the next day.
They pushed through the weeds along the edge into the low end of a bowl-shaped valley, tilted toward the bayou. In the distance, corn
grew around the slope contours. They were below the cornfield in an area of patchy weeds and naked gravel. Nobody else was in sight.
They tossed their blankets under two bois d'arc trees and went to work on their food and the last of the beer. After a little more swimming and horseplay, a light shower sent them back to the trees. It wasn't long before they began to yawn. Very soon they had made their bedrolls in the leafy litter and fallen asleep in the light, misting rain.
My friend arose at first light, still sleepy, but urgently
needing to relieve himself. He picked his steps along the bank through barriers of thick weeds. He scooped out a shallow latrine in a sandy circle protected on three sides by the weeds, and squatted over it.
As he awakened more fully, his vision cleared and he noticed amazing things. Two feet in front of him, on the open ground, was a
large polished stone axe head! To right, to left, beyond the axe were dozens–no hundreds–of projectile points–arrowheads–gray, red, white, tan. The field was littered with ancient weaponry!
What could have happened here? Why were these valuable artifacts still here, in the open? He selected one small red arrowhead and
pocketed it. He didn't tell his friends, and none of them came anywhere near this strange spot. Soon they left their camp and never returned.
The Caddo Indians had been active in that area of Arkansas well into the early 1900s. Those artifacts had lain there at least fifty years, probably much longer. In all that time this spot hadn't been visited. Why not?
If this were possible in Arkansas, could the New Mexican towers still be there? I thought it was possible; even likely. For once I began to think of a visit to New Mexico as a serious possibility. Nothing stood in my way; no family agenda, no obligations; only some preparation. Certainly. I could go!
I had bought a copy of Ceram's book, The First American, years ago. I wanted a copy of Hibben's Saturday Evening Post article. The library no longer had bound copies of the Post. At some time in the past twenty-five years they had been converted to microfilm. I printed the copy; it was poor, but it was readable; and it was still just as exciting!
The First American
C. W. Ceram
Ceram's book was not in its place on my shelf. I lent it to Clyde years before. A phone call verified what I suspected—he no longer had it; he really didn't remember borrowing it. Amazing! The towers had been there a thousand years; the bound copies of the Post and my book had been lost in less than twenty-five. No matter; another trip to the library solved the problem.
There were no map stores in Rockledge or on nearby Merritt
Island, and I had no Internet; so I wrote to the U. S. Geological Survey
in Colorado for information on ordering maps of New Mexico.
The reply was very slow arriving, but it was only March. I'd probably plan the trip for July. There should be plenty of time. The
U. S. G. S. envelope contained a very interesting catalog of New Mexican maps and some order forms. Now for the big question: where to look for the towers? New Mexico is a big place!
Where Were The Towers?
Hibben's article wasn't precise, but there were clues:
I found only two locations named "Perdiz." Perdiz Peak, near Roswell, was too far south. But there was a small town named "Perdiz"
in the northwestern part near a tiny "Perdiz" River.
- in northwestern New Mexico;
- on a river in Perdiz Canyon;
- near a place where the canyon narrowed to only a few feet;
- high on cliffs.
That must be it! I ordered two maps from the catalog, a large map of the entire state, and a 1/250,000 map containing the general area of Perdiz River. I waited again.
Two weeks later a long triangular tube arrived.
From the 1/250,000 map I narrowed my map needs to five more: a 1/100,000 map that included the general area of the Perdiz River, and
four adjoining 1/25,000 quadrangles of the river and area immediately around the town of Perdiz. I sent in $12.50 for the maps and started my second two-week wait.
Developing A Plan
I'd never been out West before, so there were a few "must-sees." No first trip West would be complete without seeing the Grand Canyon.
I also wanted to see the Petrified Forest. I'd visit Albuquerque and the University of New Mexico to research the towers, and I'd still have a few days to visit the Perdiz River area for a first look at the canyon itself.
In a guidebook I'd seen a color photo of the White House Ruins in Canyon deChelly, near Chinle, Arizona. They were cut into a shelf
in a cliff of ruddy sandstone of almost unimaginable height. It was a long way out of the way, but I had to stand at the base of that cliff and feel what it must have been like to live in its shadow.
My itinerary began to shape up nicely along the familiar "family route": Rockledge, Florida, to Mobile, Alabama, to Baton Rouge, to
Shreveport, for a couple of days' stay with my mother. Next, Shreveport to
Dallas, to Edmund, Oklahoma, for an overnighter with Clyde and Annette. Then to Wichita Falls, and Tucumcari, New Mexico. Tucumcari to Albuquerque for a day or two at the University; then to Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon. Back down to the Petrified Forest, up to Chinle and Canyon deChelly; over to Four Points, and down into New Mexico, to Perdiz. And finally, the long return to Florida.
This was an ambitious plan for me. I'd never taken more than a week off before. This would be two weeks. I'd always talked before;
could I really do it? But after all, I was completely unattached. Why not? Where else did I have to go?
"You're crazy! Going out in the desert alone?"
July, 1993, was only a few days away!
"It seems safe enough," I answered. "I'm very careful."
"Well, watch out for the snakes."
"What about the heat?"
"I'll sweat; all us Hinckleys are good sweaters." I was a little concerned; not for the snakes or the heat; but for the isolation. I
wished for a friend to go with me, but nobody had expressed an interest, and I wasn't going to be stopped.
On another level I needed the isolation. I remembered the joy of Big Bend. This would be a test of my own resolve. And it would be a
test of my faith, too. God would be my only companion for two weeks. Could He stand me? Could I trust Him? My heart said yes; but my mind persuaded me that my rifle might be useful.
For weeks I'd been listening to all the doomsayers' warnings: blazing heat, hostile animals, sheer cliffs, drugged-out hippies living in evil desert communes, dangerous viruses—all of TV's desert denizens.
On the other hand, the guidebooks stressed practical issues. I'd need at least two gallons of pure water a day. I could tell if I'd had enough by the color of my urine. I shouldn't camp near a river—flash floods. I'd need a hefty first-aid kit and water purification tablets. It was really a pleasure to slam down the trunk lid and hear the heavy rattle as I headed west in my Toronado diesel.
Several friends lent me a few books on cassette to span the FM dead zone along the Gulf Coast. Bringing those tapes was one of my
better moves. I'd do the same on future trips.
At Mama's I heard the list of desert denizens again. "I just don't understand why anybody'd go out in the desert alone," said my aunt. She'd have had no question if I'd told her I was going to a famous catfish restaurant out there.
Mom asked barbed questions. "Why are you really
doing this? What if something happens to you? Are there any hospitals
"It's something I have to do, Mom. And anyway, I'm not so sure it's all that dangerous."
"Well, watch out for those motorcycle gangs...Have you had your cholesterol checked...your blood pressure?"
It was only a day to Clyde's in Oklahoma. By then I was liking being on my own. Just me, a pocket full of money, and time on my hands.
"I can't believe you're going out there all by yourself,"
Annette said. "You watch out for rattlesnakes!"
"If I see any rattlesnakes I'll eat 'em." And I would have, too. One summer when I'd worked an oil prospecting job in Central
Louisiana I'd occasionally brought water moccasins home for my Aunt Sue to cook. I loved her; she'd do anything for me, no matter how outlandish. "The snakes had better watch out for me!"
Through that evening Clyde and I pored over my meager collection of maps, trying to find a place that matched Hibben's description. I was sure we were near the right place, but none of the locations I saw fit all the clues.
I wasn't sure I'd recognize ancient ruins if I found them. I was notoriously poor about finding clues in the environment. That was
another reason for this trip—to get some real experience.
"Look for straight lines. Straight lines are always manmade objects. Nature doesn't make straight lines."
Clyde was a geologist; he knew more than I.
New Road Ahead
Early the next morning I drove west, across the windy Oklahoma plains toward Texas and New Mexico. It was warm and damp, but I left
the air conditioner off to acclimatize myself to the heat I expected. The breeze felt comfortable and carefree.
Near the Texas/New Mexico border I passed along an immense
cattle feed lot. In the center of the field, close to the highway, a huge black rubber bladder lay baking in the sun, covered with acres of used tires. I stopped for a closer look. I'd read about this project in Popular Mechanics several times. The lot owner shoveled manure into these huge rubber "digesters" and manufactured methane gas for fuel. The tires provided gas pressure. He powered all his feed lot equipment and heated all his buildings with this free fuel; and he had enough left to sell to local
ranchers. If I saw nothing else on this trip, this made it worthwhile.
In the first rest area on the New Mexico side of the line, I stretched and looked around. Everything was dry, dusty, and orange, like broken flowerpots. The wind was still blowing. The parking area was fringed with scrubby bright green bushes with black trunks. Mesquite, I guessed. It was poor looking terrain; but it was desert, and it was new to me. From this
point the hills changed from pointed or rounded to flat-topped, with sides
that fell away exposing rocky, bluff edges. In the distance I could see hazy mountains. Why had I waited so long to travel out here!
Just west of Tucumcari I stopped on the highway at a very dry, dusty ditch that passed through a culvert and on through a field on the south side of the road. I'd been reading Tony Hillerman's novels; this must be one of his ubiquitous "washes," a dry stream bed. The stream couldn't have ever been very deep, because the bed was wide and flat, and the banks were undercut only two or three inches. It was a very hot, bright morning. I climbed down into the field and over a low barbed-wire strand into the wash. I wasn't in a hurry; I was on vacation; there was plenty of time to rubberneck.
The wash was marked with the tracks of two or three cows that had wandered across, perhaps when it had been a little wetter. I followed the tracks a few minutes and then began to notice a number of interesting rocks scattered around the bed and in concentrations at bends and on little shoals in the wash. In a little while I had collected quartz, petrified wood, agate, a strange yellow ball of mica flakes, and several other colorful stones. It was simple fun— an hour spent savoring the heat and the bright yellow sandy soil, a few souvenirs. This was desert, and I was liking it all.
The long, steep hill that leads into Albuquerque is open,
unprotected, bounded by steep cliffsides and signs warning the driver to beware of strong winds. Cresting that first hill and plunging downward reminded me of the vulnerable feeling of swimming over the edge of the
continental shelf off Florida, the water changing from turquoise to black.
Might I fall into this abyss?
My first itinerary stop was the University, and it was already about noon. I found a motel and unpacked my shaving gear, a fresh shirt, and my maps and notes. I didn't stay long–I wanted to get started with my research right away.
The University of New Mexico sprawls over a large area of a higher part of Albuquerque. The attractive low adobe and terra-cotta
nouveau-Spanish buildings sit on cool green lawns shaded by sturdy wind-formed oaks. It's an inviting place.
I parked the Toronado, with its terra-cotta rust stains and primer blotches in a tiny lot next to the Archaeology Department Library. If you squinted your eyes just so, it fit right in.
It must have been siesta time, because all the main entrances were closed. I walked around the building trying doors, until I found two tall green loading doors that opened into a cool, dim corridor. I went in.
Cautiously picking my way along the halls and reading tags on doors, I turned a corner and saw light flooding one end of the hall from an open door. It was a copier room, and there was a hot coffeemaker by the stack of opened copier paper. There was another open door in the room. I knocked as I looked in. "Hello?"
"Who is it?" came back from around a corner, followed by a man my age dressed casually and wearing sandals with brown nylon socks. Oval wire-rimmed glasses rested on his chubby cheeks.
I introduced myself. "I'm Zack Hinckley, from Florida. I've stopped by to do a little research on some work one of your professors did. Maybe you can direct me. Your door was the only one I found open, so I came in."
"The big green ones at the back."
"Oh! Hibben, Doctor Hibben. The stone towers?"
"Hey, Wanda," he shouted over his shoulder, "Here's another one looking for the towers!" The chubby man, whom I identified by his
desk placard as "M. Dove," chuckled as he saw my surprise. "Every year or so somebody comes in for directions to that area."
"Well, here's another one, then," I countered, hoping I was masking my disappointment. I'd worked for a college for more years than I wanted to admit. This could be just the old "you're too late" ploy. "I could use a little help finding out how to start." As we talked, we walked into the other small office. An attractive woman with curly gray hair and owl glasses was sitting at a very cluttered desk with the telephone in her hand. I introduced myself. "Zack Hinckley from Rockledge, Florida." I stuck out my hand.
"Long way to come," said M. Dove.
"Wanda McPherson." I already knew; I'd read her desk plaque, too. "This is Murphy Dove." We shook all around.
"I read Dr. Hibben's article about the towers in the Saturday Evening Post, and it got me interested. I'd like to read any more articles you may have on how that project ended up."
She put down the phone and looked up over the rim of her mauve glasses. "It didn't exactly end up; it sort of petered out"
"So you remember the project?"
"I was one of Dr. Hibben's graduate students."
I took another direction. "So lots of people come in here to find out about the towers?"
Wanda leaned back in her ergonomic chair and fluffed her hair. She was enjoying this. "Every couple of years somebody comes in."
"Anybody have any luck?"
"Not that we know of. Nobody's ever come back to tell us about it. That's still pretty primitive country. I guess when they get up
there and see how rough it is, and how big, they probably just keep driving." (The old "it's much too hard for you" ploy?)
"Have you ever been tempted to go back?" I rotated a sandstone paperweight on the desk.
"I was a lot younger then. I couldn't do it now. That place is big and rough; and I'm not sure I could find my way back."
"What about your maps and notes."
"What maps? In those days there weren't many. Remember, that was the forties. New Mexico wasn't mapped until the middle sixties. The
only maps we had were sketches with notes like 'Take the trail at the white oil drum. Go about five miles and turn on the trail at the broken cactus.' Not exactly permanent landmarks. I might get close to it, but it must have changed a lot since then."
"I've got Hibben's Post article. It's really hard to piece together a location from what he wrote."
"What Post article?" Murphy was interested, too.
"Saturday Evening Post; 1944."
"That's a long time back. That was right after Hibben got back, wasn't it, Wanda?"
"Yes. He was coming back to the faculty from the Navy when that article came out."
"How would you like your coffee?" Murphy got up from his desk and stepped into the doorway to the copier room.
"Black, please." My spirit was becoming decidedly better.
Coffee slowed things down, made things friendlier.
"The problem was Hibben was such a good writer."
"I don't follow."
"When anybody comes in and asks about those sites it's always 'The Towers.' They want to find 'The Towers.' That's why Murphy was
"The towers aren't real?" I could feel a lump growing in the pit of my stomach.
"Oh, yeah! They're real enough. It's just that there was a lot more work going on than opening towers."
"You were there after the War, right?"
She nodded. "Right."
"Hibben's article is really about his finds before the war. Could there have been other locations he didn't get around to working?"
"Probably. There were a lot of locations. That area is all deep canyons and woods—really big—and very isolated. You could be working in one and be completely unaware of sites in another only half a mile away. When I was there we were working specific sites. The trailblazing was pretty much over."
"I've only read the one article," I said. "I'd like to see any others he wrote."
Murphy put his cup down. "We don't have any of those articles in our files any more. Gallencamp did write one in the fifties. I've
got a copy of it around here somewhere. Let me copy yours, and I'll make you a copy of Gallencamp's." He pushed away from the desk far enough to rummage in the top drawer. Wanda pulled a neat folder from her "in" basket and rapped it on the desk until he looked up and took it. He turned to look at me and stood very still.
"Oh, sorry." I pulled out the photocopied article I'd brought with me and gave it to him.
"We have almost none of those early notes or files. Somehow they got away from the University back then. Gallencamp's a good
friend of ours, and he asked us to start him a file of anything we can find from those days."
"Is Hibben in Albuquerque? Maybe I could talk to him."
"We don't see Hibben very much. He's overseas right now and he probably won't be back for another month or two. Gallencamp's the one you really should talk to. Have you read any of his books?"
"I'm not sure. Name one."
"Maya is probably the one everybody knows best—some really good stuff on ancient Indian language and math. He did some work on the towers, too. I could ask him if he'd talk to you."
"Just give me his phone number and I can ask him."
Murphy hesitated a little awkwardly. "Well, he's got an
unlisted number. He's out of town until next month. I'll check it out with him. Call me in a couple of weeks and I'll have an answer."
Murphy was running interference for Hibben and Gallencamp,
probably because I was an outsider, and he wanted to keep me one. But if I could talk to Gallencamp it would save a lot of time. I sipped the coffee. It had turned cold, but I'd make it last as long as possible.
"Can you give me any clue about where to start? Right now I've got nothing." Murphy returned my article and the copy he had made of Gallencamp's. I casually scribbled "Perdiz Canyons" on my envelope and tucked the copies inside.
"Do you remember, Murphy? I think it was a little north of La Reina. We had a camp up near Yabis, but we worked farther north, too."
"You didn't camp at the work site?"
She shook her head slowly. "Not everybody. Some of us drove in. That's about the best I can do."
I thanked them and asked Murphy to introduce me to
Gallencamp later. I hadn't learned much that I hadn't already been able to piece together from Hibben's article, but I'd check out the area near Yabis and La Reina, if I could find them.
As I walked back around the Library toward the Toronado I
noticed that the campus bookstore was open now. It was very small, but nicely laid out; and there was shelf after shelf on Indian studies. So many, in fact, that it would take a long morning to go through them. So I decided to look for anything by Hibben or Gallencamp, or on the Perdiz Culture (that's what Hibben had called it in the article.) In twenty minutes I found one book on the Perdiz Culture, but none by Hibben or Gallencamp.
"Do you have anything by Dr. Hibben or Dr. Gallencamp?" I asked the clerk. She was a very light blonde, clearly not a native American. She was running a cash register tape, and she spoke without looking up.
"Sorry, none by either one. You'll have to go to the library for that." I made a note to find Maya at home and read it. If I ever got back out here to meet him we'd have something to talk about.
The book on Perdiz Culture was by the university's press; it looked long on technical data, short on locations or directions. There were no maps beyond several site diagrams. I put it back on the shelf. Maybe if I really found the site, then...
I was about to put on my sunglasses and go back out into the bright New Mexican afternoon when I noticed that the bookstore atrium was also the entrance to the Archaeology Department Museum.
In the next hour I traveled through time from Neanderthal man through The Trail of Tears. The museum wasn't large, but it was very
interesting, interweaving general archaeological studies with specific studies conducted by the university. There were many photos and cases containing objects found during the university's projects in the Southwest. Hibben and Gallencamp figured prominently in a number of the projects, but only two of the photos in the museum showed Hibben: one from the left rear, in which he wore a slouch hat; and one of him smiling with an attractive, thin woman. There were no photos of Gallencamp.
Throughout the self directed tour, up the ramps, through
alcoves, beneath overhead photo bridges, and finally, up a ladder and out through a Navajo hogan, there was no mention of the Perdiz Culture. Amazing, I thought; not one trace at the university that sponsored the work. I went back into the bookstore.
"Do you have any maps?"
"Road maps," the blonde looked up, "New Mexico."
"I was thinking about topographical maps, like geologists use."
"No, but there's a store a couple of blocks up from here that may. Central Avenue Books."
"Thanks. Let me get one of those road maps." On the small
Albuquerque map on the back, she pointed to Central Avenue Books, and I refolded the map and left. I wasn't very pleased with my research so far. It would have been good, but almost too much to hope for, to speak to Hibben, himself. Maybe some day. I did have "Yabis," though. I could go further.
That evening I ate supper in the motel restaurant. The food wasn't memorable, I think just a steak and fries. I noticed another thing that reminded me I was in a new environment. All of the men in the dining room were eating with their hats on. I thought about it for a few minutes and decided it was just one more of the interesting cultural differences between the Southwest and the Deep South.
The motel air conditioner rattled softly. On the small desk lay my roll of maps bound by a thin green rubber band. I lay on the bed
looking up at the ceiling, thinking what a lot of work I had left to do. I had trouble falling asleep.
...to be continued...
I take the tourist's route to La Reina and begin the search for the towers.
The First American, by C. W. Ceram, is available from our