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Painted Hand Ruins   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

1276 AD.  Chaco Canyon, the center of Anasazi culture in the 11th and 12th centuries, had declined and disintegrated, spurring escalating chaos and violence all around the surrounding areas. Many people had moved to highly defensive cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde and Cedar Mesa. In the canyons under the Sleeping Ute Mountain, where there were no high cliffs, Puebloans built defensive towers for protection. Despite the precautions, village after village were ransacked by intruders, occupants murdered. Painted Hand’s clan built a massive round tower on top of a rock shelf at the head of a canyon. The night after the tower was completed, the clan held a ceremony under the rock shelf, pledging solidarity by leaving their handprints on the backwall.

One night, Painted Hand woke to find their pueblo under attack. His clan was no match against the ferocious invaders. The surviving clan members retreated to the high tower. Painted Hand guarded the single entrance with a spear, while others rained arrows from the rooftop on the invaders. The battle fought to a stalemate. The attackers laid siege to the tower and set it on fire. Painted Hand watched his family perish in agony. Before he died, he made a vow to turn into a ghost to revenge against any intruders of his pueblo. Ever since, those canyons were said to be cursed.  

Painted Hands   Photo   Tim Wong

May 30, 1998.  A lone shadowy figure crept stealthily along the overgrown canyon floor in the dark. The man did not use a flashlight. At the head of the canyon, the figure emerged from the shadow, a handsome young man with a black beard and a mustache, clad in camouflage clothing, an AK-47 assault rifle strapped on his back. He eyed the dark silhouette on top of a rock shelf, a cylindrical tower like an abandoned grain silo. He recognized it was one of the outlying ruins in Hovenweep National Monument. He ducked under the overhang, unstrapped his rifle, and slumped against the back wall, looking utterly exhausted.

The man was Jason Wayne McVean. The day before, he and two accomplices named Alan Pilon and Robert Mason shot and killed a police officer at a traffic stop in Cortez, Colorado. The three hijacked another truck and led police on an intense chase and gun battles that seriously injured two more officers. Thirty miles from Cortez, the desperados ditched their truck and ran into the maze of canyons near Hovenweep National Monument. Pilon soon died from injuries from the gun battles. McVean and Mason left their companion and split up. Mason turned south towards San Juan River while McVean headed west towards Hovenweep Monument.


San Juan River swinging bridge   Photo  Tim Wong

After walking for 5 days, Mason made it to the river just east of the town Bluff in Utah. Across the river was Navajo land. He crossed the river on a swinging bridge and hid among some bushes on a bluff. He had long run out of food, but at least he no longer worried about water. He planned to wait until dark and try to steal a boat or raft to slip away down the river. It was then he heard a truck pulling up across the river. It was a San Juan County Sheriff vehicle. Deputy Kelly Bradford happened to be taking a lunch break by the swinging bridge. Thinking he was being tracked, Mason shot the deputy with his .308 deer rifle. Despite being badly injured, Bradford managed to crawl back to his truck and called for help. Before long, a contingent of deputies, rangers, and Navajo tribal police converged on the spot. They found Mason dead, apparently from a self-inflicted gunshot.

Meanwhile, after separating from Mason, McVean had reached an outlying ruin in Hovenweep Monument, where he intended to commandeer a tourist’s vehicle the next day. Now, all he wanted was some sleep. Around midnight, McVean was jolted out of his sleep by the sound of police sirens. He bolted up, fumbling for his rifle. A new moon had risen, casting long shadows in the canyon. He held his breath and listened but heard nothing. Had he been tracked and discovered? He quickly gathered up his backpack and rifle, slipped out from the shelter and slid into the canyon, and ran like a mad man down the dry wash. When he felt he was far enough, he scrambled up the opposite bank onto a wide sage plain. There he stood and listened, out of breath. He heard it again, but it was not police sirens, just coyote howls. Fatigue must have clouded his senses. He was unsure if he should return to the rock shelter when he heard something else - slow rhythmic drumbeats - thump … thump … thump. He turned toward the sound and froze in fear. In the dim light, he saw a dark silhouette of a giant warrior, brandishing an enormous war hammerstone! The figure lifted the weapon high when McVean emptied the magazine at the attacker. Sparks ricocheted from the dark figure, but it kept coming. McVean turned to run and tripped over some cacti. The last thing he remembered was frantically crawling away from the attacker as the world suddenly turned black, as if a curtain was drawn close around him.

The fate of McVean remained unknown for nine years. On June 10, 2007, a cowboy was trudging through the rugged canyons east of Hovenweep Monument. In the shadow of Sleeping Ute Mountain, he stumbled across some human bones, along with a camouflage backpack and a rusted AK-47 rifle. Authorities determined the remains were McVean’s, yet they were unsure exactly how he died. There was something very strange about McVean’s death. The skeleton was in pieces, his skull bashed in. Not far from the remains stood an old oil pump, shot full of bullet scars, its massive iron counterweight head rising and falling slowly like a nodding donkey, going thump … thump … thump …

Sleeping Ute Mountain in the Rain 

 Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

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