At first, it seemed like a no-brainer. A colleague knew of a locale where stone metates, or grinding holes, existed. He suggested it might be easy fodder for a column on prehistoric food preparation involving stones. He drew me a rudimentary map, with an X almost marking the spot in a wash off of a road between Patagonia and Nogales that I was vaguely familiar with. All I had to do was pack some water and grab my camera and I was off to look for signs of an ancient civilization.

Unfortunately, I did not get the Aha! moment I had hoped for. The hunter-gatherers of the Pre-Colombian southwest did not leave any markers in any of the places in the wash that seemed to me to be the ideal place to camp and cook.

Still, I went back. 

On my third trip to the area off Paloma Road, around the western edge of the Patagonia Mountains, I went into a narrow place in the wash where a tree was slung low from one side to the other. 

On a prior trip to the same place, I had backed away from a thorough inspection after a sudden plume of brown earth erupted into the air and startled me. I was already on the lookout for snakes, so the movement gave me pause—until I realized that it was a large black bull swishing his tail to fling cooling dust onto his body to keep the flies at bay. I had no idea what this angus weighed in at but I wasn’t about to get any closer. That was his place for the day, and I readily ceded it to him.

On this day, though, the huge bovine was gone. I was free to explore. I slowly made my way around the sides of the small canyon, tapping my walking stick like a blind man crossing a curb near a major thoroughfare. Tap, tap, tapping, and listening to hear if I was intruding on the personal space of a very warm and ready-to-strike viper.

This particular point in the wash seemed to coincide with the confluence of three different rock types. There was what appeared to be some youngish basalt running cheek-by-jowl with a rhyolite dam of the same approximate age. Nearby were huge boulders of ancient, large-grained, granite. It was over the granite that I ran my eyes and my hands hoping to find a man—or woman—made depression, but nothing was obvious to me.

All the while I was studying the flat surface of the basalt, looking for any sign of an etched petroglyph or a pecked pictograph, any change in the rock’s smoothness or the distribution of the north-facing lichen that might be indicative of someone with enough time and energy to make a statement about their passing in that place.

It was not to be. My third time out was not a charm. It was a bust.

My disappointment, though, was balmed by what I did see: A red tailed hawk, flushed from a low tree at close range. A ringtail, or miner’s cat, scurried along the road as I drove slowly in. A hummingbird came eye to eye with me when I went to photograph a beautiful flash of yellow and orange that proved to be a western oriole.

For proof of previous human existence, there was the old iron hinge, rusted, lying on the road. Some newer galvanized steel, flattened and blown from who knows where. Best of all was an unexpected foundation, steps, doorframe, adobe, and stuccoed, right where the wash widened considerably. It was lush there, with tall, deep-rooted trees. I wondered if this was Paloma.

Frustrated at not having found anything to write home about—no metates, no grinding stones—I went to the Santa Rita Mountains to clear my head. There, I investigated a mostly hidden waste rock pile and found the stanchions of a stone-crushing mill, the iron rods still standing, bolt-strong, right in the concrete where someone had left it 100 years ago.

On my way out, I stopped the car when I noticed some limestone chunks. When I emerged from the car I nearly stepped on a fossilized Horn Coral, delicate in its filigreed shape, yet hard, that was embedded in stone.

I had been listening to Birds & Arrows, a Tucson band, singing the Strata Song, a rock song about a rock song. The lyrics speak about melodies being a metamorphic blend that gets laid down, again and again.

The fossil that I held was locked in limestone, a sedimentary rock made up of shell fragments that were laid down over eons on a long-ago ocean floor. It struck me that for all of our human machinations, this lowly coral had left a more timeless record of its passage than all our human endeavors.

A million years is a long time to exist.

Keith Krizan can be contacted at