by TED S. McGREGOR JR. & r & House of Rain by Craig Childs & r & & r & & lt;span class= "dropcap " & O & lt;/span & ne of archaeology's enduring mysteries is the fate of the Anasazi people. Between the 9th and 13th centuries, a highly organized culture arose in what is now the American Southwest. Then, more than 300 years before Columbus, the Anasazi vanished from Chaco Canyon's spectacular urban centers.
Now Craig Childs, an accomplished off-the-grid writer, has tackled the mystery with some decidedly unscientific methods. Sure, he talks to the experts and pores over data, but he also wanders the ruins, synthesizing what he knows with how the land feels. Every ancient potsherd is a part of the puzzle; as he turns a piece over in his hands, he sees the past. He practices something like clairvoyant archaeology.
Although filled with details about pottery styles and doorway designs, the book is no academic slog, as Childs has a real Indiana Jones streak in him. He's routinely stuck in the desert without enough water, or swimming a flood-swollen creek, or driving a beater truck well past the end of the road. House of Rain is a rare, powerful concoction: part Outside-style travelogue, part historical whodunit.
However unorthodox, Childs' hard-earned observations tell the tale of a lost civilization that stayed one step ahead of its demise. As drought came, the Anasazi moved to protected cliff dwellings like Mesa Verde ("the first gated communities of the Southwest," Childs quips). By 1150, Chaco was empty; Mesa Verde was abandoned by 1275.
The Anasazi were on the run, in search of water -- a commodity of religious significance. ("House of Rain" is their idea of heaven, a watery paradise under the mountains.) Childs follows these refugees by their art and architecture -- much of it aligned, to an uncanny degree, with the stars. Ultimately he decides that the Anasazi didn't disappear so much as wash up, tide-like, onto new shores. All this struggle, of course, seems in vain as European disease came, devastating native populations.
Still, through pottery fragments and empty cliff dwellings, Childs recreates an exotic world and offers a compelling theory of where the people went as North America's last great desert culture fell.