December 21 - December 27, 1995

Time Warps

B y  K e v i n  F r a n k l i n

Out There

WE SEE A lone hunter climbing up a rocky knoll near his camp, 11,000 years ago.

Gazing over oak and piñon treetops, he looks toward a large, shallow lake a few miles to the northwest. Consuming the hunter's attention, mammoths amble along the lake's marshy shore. The sun is sinking low in the sky. He eagerly awaits the hunt with the rest of his clan, but they must wait until morning. So he sits and enjoys the colors painted on the clouds above.

On the same hill, 10,300 years later, a Hohokam Indian shaman sits working. He's pecking out an animal design on the rock. Saguaros and desert vegetation surround the knoll now. He stops his work to take a drink from a finely fired clay bowl covered with an intricate geometric pattern. He looks to his village in the distance--a complex series of adobe structures with platforms and ceremonial rooms. This shaman is living at the height of the Hohokam culture.

Moving forward 476 more years, we come to 1776, when the hill is deserted. More than 2,000 miles to the east, the American Colonies are beginning their War of Independence, thus making way for the advent of Television and Baseball. Here at the hill, a column of 100-some Spanish soldiers and nearly 240 colonists march past with livestock in tow. Captain Juan Bautista de Anza leads the column that will march from here to northern California to establish a colony at San Francisco. As dusk rolls upon them, they make camp not far from the dark hill.

pix Moving forward again, we hit 1937 and the completion of the Tucson Mountain Park Master Plan. Among the many unique and beautiful places protected under the plan is Signal Hill, the same black outcrop our time machine has visited over the past 11 millennia. Again we jump forward.

Now, 58 years later, it's 1995. Sandario Road shoots past Signal Hill, and scores of homes dot the basin that once held mammoths. I'm standing on this hill with a group from the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, listening as two anthropologists go over the history of the Tucson Mountains.

The most tangible reflections of this hill's remarkable portal to pre-history are the petroglyphs pecked out on its boulders. A myriad of designs adorn it, from human, animal and plant images to geometric swirls and apparent sun images. The meaning behind the images, if indeed they were ever meant to be more than just pictures, disappeared with their creators centuries ago.

"For most of the stuff up there," says Linda Gregonis, archeological consultant and Desert Museum docent, "your guess is as good as ours."

One unequivocal message archeologists divine from the petroglyphs is that they are being destroyed.

"Signal Hill petroglyph site," says Linda Mayro, Pima County cultural resources manager and the other anthropologist on the trip, "is probably going to be loved to death."

Most of the damage comes not from deliberate vandalism, but from curiosity. People walking over one glyph to look at another leave scuff marks. Chalking the designs in order to try to make them stand out ruins the possibility for new dating procedures. Paper rubbings or tracing also damage the stone artistry. Even the oils from your fingers speed the deterioration of the images, especially if you just ate pizza.

The best advice is to stay on the trail and take care when casually resting a foot on a rock or taking a seat. One petroglyph is nearly completely destroyed by the dumb asses sitting on it.

Thieves also damage petroglyphs in futile attempts to chip them out of their resident boulders. They nearly always fail because the rock crumbles apart. But they do succeed in destroying the petroglyph.

But bruised as they are, the Signal Hill designs still captivate our imaginations as the two anthropologists recount the known history of their makers.

We traipse back down the established trail to the picnic area. Here the Civilian Conservation Corps built the ramada, trail and other structures during the depression in the late 1930s. Now these structures stand as testament to a long-term vision, (decidedly lacking in much of today's political ambitions). By using local stone and natural colors, the CCC was able to make bridges and ramadas blend with their backgrounds. As Mayro explains, this style was by design. She reads from the 1936 government handbook Park and Recreation Structures:

"The features to be emphasized," Mayro reads, "and stressed for appreciation in parks...are the natural features, not the man-made. After all, every structural undertaking in a natural park is only a part of a whole. The individual building or facility must bow deferentially before the broad park plan, which is the major objective, never to be lost sight of."

One can question whether any structure on a beautiful natural setting is anything more than an eyesore, but tourism fuels the protection of natural areas. With tourists come tourist picnics and the like, so putting them in a designated spot is probably superior to having them wander willy-nilly.

Originally the entire Tucson Mountain protected area was under Pima County jurisdiction, but in 1961 the National Park Service took over the northern half, creating what would subsequently become Saguaro National Park West.

After the talk on the history of the Tucson Mountains, we pile in the van for the ride back to the Desert Museum.

"I thought it was very interesting indeed," says Mary Welch, chairwoman of the historical activities committee for the Colonial Dames of Arizona. "I was somewhat surprised because we were only going to one place, but there was so much to say, and, from one place, so much to see."

On the return drive to Tucson, I stop to watch the sunset at Gates Pass, like those hypothetical sunset-watchers from years ago. With so much talk about the past, looking to the future becomes unavoidable. From my view, perched on a boulder, the future here seems easy to see. From both the north and south, trailer park homes and snap-tite houses continue their slow encirclement of the Tucson Mountains like some giant, aluminum-sided boa-constrictor. Before long these mountains will be an island in a vast city--Tucson's Camelback Mountain.

I hope that Paleo-Indian knew just how well he had it back then. In spite of the ravages of disease, head-crushing mega fauna, hunger and inclement weather, I envy him. If you were strong enough to survive, you sure could enjoy a hell of a sunset.


The Arizona State Museum on the University of Arizona campus has several fine exhibits on Native American cultures. If you want some human background before exploring Tucson Mountain history, the Paths of Life exhibit is a good place to start. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Call 621-6302 for information.

Signal Hill is located off Kinney Road, three-and-a-half miles north of the Saguaro National Park West Visitor Center. Tread lightly or die.

The Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum plans regular outings, though no history tours are forthcoming. Call 883-1380 for information on future events.

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December 21 - December 27, 1995

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