I have never visited Aztalan. For those that are unaware of this location’s significance, Aztalan is a historic sight in the State of Wisconsin that was once a fortified Native American settlement along what is known today as the Crawish River. Today, remnants of the once culturally and spiritually rich community now remain as earthen mounds and towering walls made from tree trunks planted vertically in the ground. Although the glory of the city is now reduced to a few reconstructed and maintained features in the land, the history of Aztalan stands as a testament to the area’s earliest settlers, their ingenuity, and the history they left behind when European settlers dominated the land.
Given the history and significance of Aztalan, I have always wanted to visit the site and experience it firsthand, but I have failed to act on that desire up this point in my life. With autumn now fading quickly, I decided visiting Aztalan for the first time would likely be a good idea before the snow started falling in my “I have never...” year. As a result, I set aside time to travel to the location this afternoon. As a result, I recruited Rachael for the short day trip and made my way to Aztalan this afternoon to take in some of the history at the foundation of this place I call home.
When we arrived at Aztalan, I immediately noticed the beauty of the rolling hills as they cascaded down to the banks of the Crawfish River. With tall stalks of grass tipped white by the cool air of autumn parsed into sections by the remaining sections of tree trunk stockade around the former site of Aztalan, the location’s appearance was unlike that of any other I have encountered before. Although the ruins didn’t offer the staggering, awestruck feeling as some of the other encounters with historical places during my “I have never...” journey, the first sights of Aztalan were enough to inspire curiosity and a drive to explore the grounds of the location.
As Rachael and I approached the first run of stockade in our path across the grounds the size and scope of the vertical tree trunks jutting from the ground caught me off guard. What looked like a small barricade from atop the hill was actually rows of fully grown tree trunks planted like stakes in the ground. Reaching well over 15 feet into the sky, the trunks made a formidable barrier between pieces of the land that made it clear the scope of the work required to make such a place was far greater than I originally anticipated. With knowledge the walls once existed in multiple layers around an entire community, I was taken aback by the lines of aged tree trunks cutting through the terrain. Our first encounter with the walls of Aztalan was enough to stop me dead in my tracks, and we had only been at the historic site for a few minutes.
Continuing, Rachael and I walked along the first wall of Aztalan until we encountered the banks of the Crawfish River. Among the quiet of the autumn afternoon, we slowly walked along the river’s edge as we talked about the sights around us. “Imagine this place walled in and full of people,” I said as we cut through a forest and emerged at the former city center, “It would have been something to see, huh?” Rachael nodded her head in agreement as we pressed forward up the hill and toward a two-tiered mound behind resting behind the protection of another section of stockade wall. Upon encountering the base of the mound, we climbed the two staircases leading to its peak, where we took a brief rest to take in the view from of the location’s highest points. As I looked over the terrain between the mound and the river, I did my best to imagine what Aztalan must have looked like at its peak. My mind carried me to a scene of people bustling during the harvest time of autumn, carrying dried goods and materials to prepare for the coming winter. Although I knew such a life would be incredibly difficult, the thought made me feel a brief moment of envy at the prospects of such a simple, connected life bound to movements of nature. I settled on that thought for a few minutes until I broke the silent air between Rachael and I as we stood atop the mound. “Where to next?” I asked as Rachael looked back at the stockade. She replied with a simple statement carried by a undertone of inquisition “...Down by the river?” In agreement, I nodded my head and the two of us began our walk to the far side of Aztalan’s walls.
|The view of the mound|
|Approaching the mound|
After a short walk, Rachael and I found ourselves before another section of wall bordering the Crawfish River. We stopped to read a few placards of information related to the construction, maintenance, and purpose of the Aztalan stockades and their towers. The details of tree trunk posts woven with willow boughs and sealed with mud made both of us turn back to the stockade with a look of amazement. As if the very process of cutting, stripping, and planting tree trunks to forms layers of city walls wasn’t enough, the people of Aztalan wove the entire length of the structures and sealed them with mud. Discovering that information left me struggling to grasp the amount of work that went into building the city and left me with a new respect for the people that once called it home. Stated plainly, the idea was baffling and it made me realize the degree of commitment the people of Aztalan had to their community.
|On the river bank|
|A view of the mounds from the grasses|
Rachael and I spent some time walking the far side of the grounds before returning to our original entrance to Aztalan. We took a few minutes to explore some of the remaining mounds from the historic Native American site before deciding to begin our trip back home. As I looked over Aztalan one last time before we departed, I did my best to retain an image of the autumn licked land and the lines of stockade beaming in the afternoon sunlight. While it wasn’t the most amazing site I have visited in the last six months, I knew I didn’t want to forget my first views of the ruins. The ruins of the place offer an uncommon look at a nearly forgotten history, which is enough to inspire me to do whatever I can to hold onto the memories of my first experience with the location once known as Aztalan.