April, 2008

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Each fork leads down a rougher stretch of road, and the last ten miles takes an hour to cover.  Traces of an old pack trail lead to the rim of the canyon and take us through the cliffs of Dakota Sandstone to the dry bed below.  We walk between rock walls the pale yellow of cliffrose, following an unnamed branch fingering back toward the higher mesas.  Water surfaces for short stretches, and soon we're following a set of mountain lion tracks leading up canyon in the wet sand. 

A flash flood powered through within the last year or so, leaving the vegetation bent double, logjams on the upstream sides of boulders, and a scoured streambed.  Overhead shoots a prairie falcon, triggered by our passing.  Where the canyon narrows, running water has undercut the cliffs to form flaring walls.  Tony Williams and I begin to find the ground paved with potsherds in a rincon filled with ruins and rock art.  The most striking pictographs are two left hands, formed by blowing red pigment around them and then tracing them in yellow. 

We continue and soon encounter a jumble of boulders choking the wash, forcing us to find a bypass.  And suddenly we get a dramatic view of an ancient pueblo sunk in the shadow of the overhanging rock.  A single room rises whole from a rubble of collapsed walls.

 The two of us pick a way up the slope to avoid the broken masonry spilling down from above.  Nearing the cliff house, I remove my pack to prevent inadvertently knocking something loose.  Carefully placing each step we approach the standing walls, a soft yellow in the ambient light.  The building stones have been dressed and skillfully laid in a mud mortar, then chinked with small stones pressed into a slip of clay to protect the joints from weathering. 

The room is entered by a keyhole doorway, narrow at the bottom and wider at the top.  The prehistoric masons fashioned it with care, creating one of the most perfect ones I've seen.  The remains of a wooden rod lie embedded in the doorway a few inches below the stone lintel, probably used to hang a blanket, letting air freely circulate, drawn in the narrow bottom and ventilated through the top.  Two keystone-shaped windows were filled in sometime after the original construction, and three loopholes pierce the wall on each side of the entry. 

While loopholes are common in Pueblo III dwellings, archeologists still debate their function.  Everything from ventilation to skygazing, from firing holes to simply keeping an eye on the neighbors has been suggested.  The explanations depend as much on your frame of mind as the evidence at hand.  The possibilities have ranged from environmental degradation, resulting in social collapse, to warfare and the disruption of religious cults.  It's the old story:  ruin as enigma. 

Before we leave I inspect a large crack running the length of one corner.  It's only a matter of time before this extraordinary cliff house crumbles.  A tremor could do it or simply a visitor stumbling and reaching out to catch himself.  The wall won't take much to topple.  For as long as I remember, I've been taught to protect these places, that we have a duty to preserve the past for future generations. 

Some are tempted to preserve structures like this by patching the crack, shoring up the walls, restricting foot traffic to a single trail, keeping visitors at a distance, hammering in a sign, and charging an entry fee.  But the Navajo who live nearby have a different view of ruins.  It's taken me years to come to terms with their way of thinking, which can be summed as:  Do not resuscitate.

Everything follows a cycle of creation, growth, and ultimate destruction.  Everything comes into being for a reason, fulfills its purpose, and then returns to the matrix.  To hang onto the past blocks the flow of life.  Some of the more traditional Navajo refuse to embalm the dead and won't build a check dam across a wash.  The idea is to let creation play out to its natural end while embracing all stages of life. 

With time running short, the two of us turn back.  We walk down the canyon, scanning the cliffs for a route out.

Great Wall
April, 2008


At dawn I walk away from camp to watch the growing light breathe life into the twin buttes to the west.  With only a dirt track winding between them, the setting could be Monument Valley long before Hollywood discovered it.  We break camp and drive the sand track, working our way south.  After a combination of turns, Alan Roberts parks and I pull in behind his pickup.  He's taking us to a spectacular rock art site he found two years ago.  Long shadows rake the ground behind clumps of yucca and rabbitbrush.

We cross the high desert on foot, aiming for a gap in the wall of cliffs.  Picking up a horse trail, we climb to the saddle and veer toward the face of a mesa still covered by shadows.  Streaked with desert varnish, the rock crests upward for two hundred feet the way a wave hangs for a moment before breaking.  Immense polychrome figures, visible with the naked eye, stand above a ledge, and never having seen painted images so huge I pull out the binoculars for a closer look. 

Reaching the site, I climb onto a ledge next to the central figure.  It stands more than 10-feet tall with broad shoulders and tapered body, patterned in a way to suggest clothing.  Some of these early Basketmaker images are paired, possibly man and woman.  While many have faded into ghost figures, I count at least sixteen of the giants.  Two wear conical hats, and hairstyles vary from side bobs to close cropped. 

In an hour or two full sunlight will strike the panel as it has for more than a thousand years.  Over such a great span of time, the sun has leached the deep color from the images, leaving a gallery of soft whites with pastel yellows and reds.  A white sunburst and a line of stylized birds, some with human features, may have been painted by later Puebloan people.  The monumental figures present an air of self-assurance.  I get the impression they may be ancestors deified, perhaps marking a shift in focus from the supernatural forces of the Archaic hunter to the human realm of power and prestige. 

High on the wall to the right, more than 20-feet above our heads, stand a pair of figures less than 2-feet high.  A ledge that gave the artist access to the upper wall has fallen, leaving a scar on the rock face.  Studying it I notice the second figure is only half finished and wonder if the artist was on the ledge when it collapsed.  If it was a cartoon, we'd find a long streak of paint marking the cliff below it.

Hanging Ruin
May, 2008


Certain places have a way of setting you adrift.  At the foot of the mountains the dunes shift, burying roads and hogans, the canyons dead end, and the stories fade.  Nothing is tethered by memory or map.

After linking up with Vince Benally at his mother's hogan we continue up canyon.  I stop behind the Navajo's pickup at a weathered plug of sandstone about 10-feet high.  Vince calls it, "Woman Walking Fast Wrapped in a Shawl Rock."  Using binoculars we scan a high alcove above a sheer cliff and spot a masonry wall.  Near it stands a tall human figure painted white in a herringbone pattern.  Handholds carved in the rock once gave access to the high ledge, but Vince says the lower section has collapsed.  He tries to discourage us, but Scott Milzer, Tony Williams, and I decide to take a closer look.

Climbing the talus we reach the bottom of the route, now undercut.  After we make several attempts, Vince braces himself and lets Darrel climb up his back and onto his shoulders.  His nephew reaches the first set of handholds and pulls himself up.  A handline is rigged, and the rest of us negotiate the face.  This takes us to a narrow ledge covered with loose sand and clumps of brush.  While not difficult, a misstep on the 20-foot traverse would be fatal.  Where it ends we reach another pitch with a few moki steps blocked by brush.  Finally on top we follow the main ledge to the hanging ruin.  Left behind at the trucks far below, the dogs begin to howl.  "They miss us," says Vince.

Stone walls tuck into the base of the cliff below another showing of hands and a few triangular-bodied anthropomorphs.  Rare in rock art, the yellow hues dominate the panel.  Set off in a niche by itself stands the white figure we saw from the trucks.  It's more difficult to see up close than from a distance.  "You get too close," Milzer says, "and it breaks into pixels."  As we take in the scene, Darrell tells us we're the first white men to reach the site.  We soon turn back and descend the same route.

Dancing Dog
August, 2008


            With his maps and a memory for terrain, Tony Williams handles the navigation.  He knows the Arizona Strip country well, having spent years within the region lying north of the Grand Canyon and south of the Utah border.  Its fine landscapes continue to draw him and satisfy what might be called an aesthetics of the remote.  "The sense of space you get out here," he says, "is remarkable."

            The next few miles take us as long to cross as the last forty.  Tony and Chuck LaRue walk the steeper cuts to give me a fraction of extra clearance, and I take what I can get.

              The Esplanade lies thick with archeology, and Chuck is in his element.  He sketches an arrowhead in his notebook, having learned the kinesthetic act gives him a better understanding of an artifact than simply taking a photo.  Although a field biologist, he's developed a passion for how people lived on this land in the past.  He's packed along a couple of atlatls and a quiver of darts, and pulls them out for a toss whenever he has any down time. 

The three of us have come to the western Grand Canyon to locate rock art panels dating back several thousand years.  Glenn Rink found them on a backpack trip this spring.  From photos I've seen they appear to be Grand Canyon Polychrome, an Archaic style never recorded this far west.  We load daypacks with extra water for the desert heat and drop into the head of a drainage.  Finding a sheltered ledge on the far side, we climb up to it.

            Right away the dancing dog catches my eye.  Whether intended or not, you can't help but smile.  The dog stands on its hind legs with ears alert, tail clipped, and a red tongue protruding from its mouth.  With an upright stance and paws resembling hands, it suggests a moment of transformation rather than simply an old dog learning a new trick.  With the sun hanging to the west behind the east-facing alcove, the interior glows red with ambient light.  The pale figures, bordered in dark red paint, absorb light differently than the rock, giving the pictographs a sense of depth.  I'm tempted to slide a page of my notebook behind one to make sure it hasn't detached from the rock.

            That night we camp by a massive sandstone knob rounded like a match head.  Far to the west the last light becomes so weighted with color it reaches the saturation point and suddenly collapses into night. 
After an early up to beat the heat, we start working back along the road, checking overhangs.  Potholes, roasting pits and lithic scatters, check dams and old fence posts mark the landscape.  At one point we get out to stretch our legs and scan the ravines.  Using binoculars, I spot a wooden crate tucked into a hollow of the cliff far below and give a shout to the others.  A shelter good enough to draw a cowboy might have lured others long before.  I climb down to inspect it.

Inside I find the crate turned bottom-up for a seat, an old glass jug lying in the sand, and a wooden box labeled "Hercules Powder, High Explosives Dangerous."  Tony enters and, curious about the explosives box, reaches in and carefully lifts a covering of stiff paper.  Red sticks of dynamite pack the insides.  They are extremely unstable when old enough for the nitroglycerine to seep out.  Some of the upper sticks show discoloration, and we suspect nitro has collected in the bottom layers.  So we let this sleeping dog lie.

Chuck turns over the bottle and finds it's a jug of wine with a few swallows still remaining.  He does a quick inventory of the site.  "A bottle of cheap Tokay and a box of dynamite," he tells us.  "Who says those Mormon boys didn't know how to have a good time?"


Click for past explorations
New World part 1 of 3
New World part 2 of 3
New World part 3 of 3