I had been walking in the desert among the mesas and canyons for five days. This was the last day. As I set off my shirt rubbed coarsely against my flesh. The water that cooled me throughout each day drained and pulled the salt from deep within; my shirt, now white and rough, was stained with the previous days' efforts. The Camalback's pack straps were also covered with small, white crystals, but inside was 100 oz of water soon to add to the ghostlike white stiffened fabric. A ring around my wide-brimmed hat told the same story.
Already it was hot.
I stepped into the dry, desiccated sand of Gypsum Creek. The drop was only several inches deep - a mere depression in the sage flat. But, down the slight grade, about 100 yards distance, the Creek made its first drop - almost 100 feet - and became Gypsum Canyon. With it fell the sand and the freshly loosened debris of Beef Basin. Sometimes though it carried the rocks and trees and the remnants of the ghosts who lived here long ago. The water, and that which it has torn away, races down into the depths of the canyon headed directly for the Colorado River some 3 or 4 miles distant; the mouth of Gypsum Canyon opening up its red maw into that great chasm and the river accepting all it will give. Time will ensure that everything here will eventually end up in the Colorado to then be swept further down into Lake Powell; slowly filling the Lake and slowly starving the great cities in California, Nevada and Arizona.
I skirted the south rim and imagined the canyon growing deeper. I could not see the bottom; it was too narrow and the rim held me away from the full view. I took a first sip of water. Each drink is a measured calculation against the day. Will it run out? Will I drink too much? Will the return trip be marred by the focused and frantic drive to quench the emptiness within? The fear of stumbling through the pinions and sage, oblivious to all but desire, controls the craving to extinguish the devil inside and the water he summons, but the battle rages nevertheless.
I followed the track between the pinions beside the south rim, but caught a sound almost lost to the wind. I stopped. I thought I heard the drip of water echoing from the depths. At first I wasn't sure - it seemed not a drip, nor a stream. The wind slowed and the sound collected and rose. The thought of coolness reached up and engulfed my entire being. I imagined a refreshing, deep pool. I vowed to return at the end of the day and plunge into the darkness of the canyon baptizing myself in the bliss and washing away the sins of the week. Forged by the wind and baked hard by the sun that thought remained throughout the day .
Fable Canyon joins Gypsum Canyon, but the larger of the two is Fable. I wanted to peer into its depths so I understood how to best traverse it on a future trip. As I walked west the views opened to include the entire valley system. Rugged, deep, steep and massive the cliffs tumble red and wonderful until the entire landscape seems to scream for you to turn back, yet beckons with a whisper for you to try. I clamored out, now out of the shelter of the cliffs and hills, to a point where the two canyons meet; the wind tearing at this interloping salty apparition, snapping at itself until at thought I would be picked clean of the sandstone and hurled into the abyss. Only the hot wind of the desert seems to have evil purpose. The cold winds of the high summits seem benign as they pull and push on your crampons, but these rushing desert winds tear at you with furious purpose.
Seven-hundred foot straight down was the bottom swept clean of even color. The rushing water had left nothing. I returned and followed the meandering rim of Fable south until I could see its beginnings. Next time I'll descend into Fable and follow it to the Colorado. It would however, not be easy.
With the thought of the water I retraced my steps. Turning east the wind abated and the stillness and heat descended and suffered nothing. I found a cool, low alcove and crawled in and lay in the dirt; the dust mingling with the salt, the smell, and the sweat. I rested and ate a little nodding off a bit thinking about the promise and the sound of water...
I returned to the place I heard the water like a salmon to the place it was born. I was drawn there, I did not have to know the way. The sound remained. I walked the rim looking for a weakness and found it at a small bend in the canyon. I descended the cliff bands finding a weakness in each, sometimes hanging and dropping and sometimes climbing down or jumping from block to block.
The solid limestone bottom held no stream, no coolness, no respite. It was swept clean; the water sculpting and cutting the rock into that which it desired - that which fed its inexorable journey toward the Colorado. I walked down the canyon till it was joined by side canyon equal in size to itself. The canyon narrowed into what I could not see into earlier in the day. I could hear falling water. The limestone became smooth, the canyon walls polished, water appeared.
The limestone was flat and about forty-feet wide and the water meandered across the bottom, but it was just a trickle flowing here and there sometimes breaking up and sometimes coming together. It formed small pools no more than an inch or so deep. I could see that the canyon dropped and I walked toward the sound of the water, the heat eating my flesh and baking my bones white and hot to the touch.
The red canyon walls straightened and the desert blue sky narrowed. In a crescent moon shape the limestone floor abruptly fell away to a glistening pool about 25 below. The clear water beckoned. The small trickle fell into the pool in more than a dozen spots creating the sound that tantalized me far above. The falls were undercut; the softer sandstone having eroded far under the harder limestone. I looked around for a way down - I found none. The smooth walls held no holds. Being a climber, I can get up and down most anything, especially a small vertical distances with many choices. I prodded and hung and plotted. The problem was not getting down, but getting back up. I could jump, but I couldn't even imagine a line to get up again. I could see that the canyon continued to plunge so I couldn't bank on an escape further down. Likely, there were more drops.
I sat on the edge, a mad man longing for that just out of grasp. The wind was gone. The heat between the walls collected; oppressive, unrelenting, unforgiving.
Not ready to give up; compelled by thought of the pool and a natural shower, I went back up the canyon thinking I might find a suitable tree to drag down and tip over the edge. Hydrus had swept his palace clean - they had all been swept away. Seemingly I could not commute my sentence. My sins would remain. But...looking down again past the falls I could see a large tree trunk striped clean of all branches. I thought I could move it; I thought it would work. I hung over the side and let go.
Saturday, September 29, 2007
Sunday, September 23, 2007
If you're interested in Comb Ridge this book; Sandstone Spine, by David Roberts is a good introduction. This is the book that led me to Comb Ridge. It is the story of Climber David Roberts, climber and writer Greg Child, and wilderness guide Vaughn Hadenfeldt's backpacking trip along the spine. It has much about the Anasazi, but the narrative isn't terribly exciting and they fail on describing both the natural history and the history of the place. All in all a good read.
For some really great prose and desert wonder I recommend House of Rain: Tracking a Vanished Civilization Across the American Southwest by Craig Childs. This man knows the desert and is an excellent writer. I admire his style and knowledge.
Through his studies of the land and its history, seeking out of oral tradition and hundreds of miles of walking the landscape in search of clues, Craig Childs has turned his considerable talents for reading the landscape and turning his observations into wonderful prose towards the mystery of what happened to the Anasazi of 800 to 1000 years ago. Childs uses his travels, his inquisitiveness and imagination to write a plausible history of the Anasazi... tracing their exodus from Chaco and the Colorado Plateau south into Mexico. An academic could never leap to the conclusions that Childs postulates, however most archaeological papers don't touch the soul. Child's book does. He has crisscrossed the desert southwest to find out how this ancient civilization converged on places like Chaco Canyon and Mesa Verde, where its culture thrived and flourished, and why these hubs of civilization dried up and its people seemingly scattered into the wind.
One of his other great books is The Secret Knowledge of Water. In a poetic account he brings the sand to life in these pages. His writing on pockets and tinajas is especially good. Childs shares beauty, science, historical anecdote and research in a nice balance and with extremely good writing.
For reading about the Anasazi a good primer is The Mesa Verde World: Explorations in Ancestral Puebloan Archeology edited by David Grant Noble. Key topics include farming, settlement, sacred landscapes, cosmology and astronomy, rock art, warfare, migration, and contemporary Pueblo perspectives. Winston Hurst, an archaeologist who has been most kind to me, has a chapter about sacred Landscapes.
Winston said this: "Sacredness is not implicit in the landscape. Rather, it is a purely subjective property that exists on in the eye or heart of the beholder." I find a lot of that. I hope you enjoyed the Comb Ridge series and have a real sense of the place.
Friday, September 21, 2007
Butler Wash parallels Comb Wash like two wild-eyed stallions bent on some distant finish line; neither fast enough to pass the other. Nostrils flared, both rush toward the San Juan River to the south. They are about a half-mile apart, but a world away - Comb Ridge separates them.
Butler Wash seems hotter and dryer. There is less vegetation - not that Comb Wash is any jungle. It bares the heat of the sun for the entire day whereas Comb Wash luxuriates in the long cool morning shadow of Comb Ridge and the long evening shadow of Ceder Mesa. Even the pinions avoid the lower half. Closely to the east lies Black Mesa whose cliffs rise above the sage, but not too far - usually about 100 to 200 feet. To the west, white bare sandstone rises almost directly out of the wash creating an almost unbroken 20 degree plane rising toward the setting sun and Ceder Mesa. Upon reaching the top of the unbroken slickrock Comb Wash lies about 800 feet below. This snake-like summit is broken along its entire length by deep washes carved out of the solid sandstone. It is in these deep, narrow canyons that the Anasazi made their cliff dwellings. (In the picture below, taken within one of the deep washes, you can see Black Mesa to the east)
Along the wash, at various times, they lived in the pit houses I have described; they planted and harvested corn, beans, and squash; and they roamed the area for the many other food items they collected. They were the masters of the land.
I approached this wash a little differently. The road roughly followed the wash north and I stopped often doing one or two-hour walks up into the Comb. Although this side was drier there seemed to be more habitation. At each stop I headed into one of the deep washes. Each held their own secret. The angled sandstone was white-hot in the noon sun; almost unbearable, but the washes were cool. I waited till evening to climb the ridge.
There was some water in the the deeply cut washes, but not too much. And, Butler Wash only ran during rains and drained a limited area. But, when it did rain there was as much solid rock as soil and the wash must become a torrent. All day I looked for the water and all day I wondered.
I camped early, tired from the three days and somewhat beaten by the heat. I went up one more canyon and came back sitting in the only shade around - a grove of stunted and hardy oak trees. I wasn't the only one to find this place. The ruins of a Navajo hogan from the 1950's was nearby and just beyond that the telltale concave depression of a pit house. A Pinyon Jay kept me company while I rested and ate.
I picked up and headed up the comb. Where the sandstone met the soil I found a depression containing maybe 20 or 30 gallons of water. I bent and drank deeply and tasted the earth. I wound my way up the rough sandstone, skirting the drops and climbing now and again. Soon I found my answer. There were solid sandstone depressions containing pools of water everywhere. Some were crystal clear, some turbid, some even contained tadpoles. This barren, solid rock is where the water was stored in the cleanest vessel nature could find. In a space of a few acres there were 50 or so. In Spanish these water pockets are called tinajas and to desert travelers they are almost holy. I stood on earth's spine looking north and south and the view of white sandstone seemed unending. Black clouds gathered and I headed down.
Every evening, after the clouds build, the thunder roles across the desert. Far off darkness tells of rain and water. Lighting flashes far off into the night. Every night I watched this show usher out the sun. This evening I received just a few drops with the now answered water question quenched. The thunder crashed, a lone cicada serenaded the coming darkness, the crickets came out into the coolness, and far off two coyotes called to each other for the night hunt to begin.
The clouds fled with the darkness and I watched the stars come out. Again, I had found a lifetime in a few short days. I will return and find these places and feed upon stillness, glory in the beauty, and wrap my soul in the spirit of the people who called this home.
Sunday, September 09, 2007
Link to satellite map
I woke up in the shadow of the ancient ones, their leaves still in the dark early morning air. Orion to the east stood on the back of Comb Ridge. I wondered by what name the Anasazi knew him by. They were gifted astrological observers cleverly noting the sumer and winter solstices and other celestial events. Surely, they awoke and knew how much longer they could slumber by his position in their carefully framed windows. They would have associated him with winter, just as we do. He would have told them their grainaries should be full.
Near here, not 30 meters distance, they lived in a pit house or kiva - cool in summer, warm in winter. The perfect abode for this place. Generations had refined its design, made elegant chimneys, perfected the placement of the firepit, its fireback, and the drafts needed to retain the heat and keep the fire small. I imagined them in this place, in these trees, fetching water; checking beans, corn, and squash, waking up...
I drove south to climb Comb Ridge and return north through Butler Wash, not because I was done with Comb Wash. I have only started. But, before I leave, a little history.
The Hayden Survey (1874-1876) published the first map depicting the geographic, archaeological and geological features of southeastern Utah, including key archaeological sites on “Epson Creek,” now known as Comb Wash. Those of you who read my blog have heard me over and over again comment on camping where the Hayden Survey once camped. I once again crossed their path.
Later, the Mormons would make a little history here. The Mormon Trail intersects with Comb Wash Road and the trail still climbs upward toward Ceder Mesa through something called the twist. A Mormon delegation of settlers established the trail in 1880 and a six-week trip turned into a six-month over-winter trip full of unimaginable hardships. Seeing the country and imagining a wagon train attempting to cross it is a sobering thought indeed. Their full story has a bit of suffering. Here's a short version of the journey.
One other historical event of note happened in Comb Wash. William Posey, chief of a small tribe of Paiutes that roamed southeastern Utah at the turn of the century, was mortally wounded in 1923 by a posse in the Comb Wash area, hid there, and then died. He was apparently a bid of a bad guy, but of course the Indians were treated terribly. Posey was the last "hostile" Indian killed in the United States. His grave is in the canyon somewhere, but it was at least dug up twice just after he died. It is an interesting bit of history. Find it here.
With my coffee, in this stillness, surrounded by the red rocks, the cottonwoods, and the sand all of this history is timeless. Posey still hides in his cave bleeding and dying. Corn, planted in clumps greets the new day, Anasazi turkeys fly down from their night's roost, and the Mormon settlers greet a new day of suffering.
The heat gathered and I loaded up the truck.
The name Fish Creek implies water and indeed the creek does have water, but it does not flow in the traditional sense. However, there is enough water that most of the pools aren't stagnant, but are refreshed by seep and infrequent rains from the the creek's large drainage lying west toward Ceder Mesa. The water courses down through miles of sand and bedrock, collects, and feeds life for miles around. I saw raptors come to drink here in the evening and the prints of deer and coyote coming and going. In the wash I also saw bear scat - perhaps he was not an infrequent visitor. The accumulated pools are numerous and shallow, collecting in some areas, but absent in most others. And no, I didn't see any fish.
There is one other element to the water in the canyon. It brings life, but sometimes it kills. The evidence is written in the narrows; high water marks more than eight foot high, twisted piles of debris, massive rocks heaved against broken piles of chaos. As it rises, fed by the many, many square miles of exposed sandstone the torrent seeks nothing, but destroys everything in its path; especially, if that path is narrowed or restricted.
The canyon is dotted with ruins and seems to contain many eras of settlements. Only general inferences can be drawn without the archeologist's work, but there are clearly many kinds of structures and styles. Where the canyon joins Comb Wash there is a pit house; considered one of the earliest structures. There are many types of cliff dwellings, some clearly not intended for any kind of defense whatsoever. The two-hundred-fifty-year period subsequent to A.D. 900 is known as Pueblo II and seems the best fit for many of these ruins. But, there was one that was so clearly intended for defense or warfare I have never seen its equal. High on the mesa, up on a mushroom rock, unapproachable, and unreachable to me was a ruin. I have included it a picture of it here. It took a tremendous amount of work to get the material in place. It is a very defensible position, but I question its utility as you could be penned there with no escape. It is quite a sight, high up on the mesa silhouetted against the cloudless sky. I wasn't even sure it was a ruin at first - it seemed too improbable. If it was built for defense it is hard to imagine the fear the inhabitants lived in. Was it for the woman and children? Whatever the reason, this wash was last inhabited about 1250.
Some of the masonry is rather rough and some structures are built very skillfully. Generations lived here - the span is almost unbelievable; about 2000 years. It may have been sporadic and discontinuous, but not so much as we might imagine with our rather insignificant 250-year history. In one ruin a large flat rock used to grind grain (matate) worn with years and years of use was recycled; raised on its side and incorporated as part of a new structure.
It was a good day and an interesting place to visit. Even more interesting because there is nothing fantastic, nothing to bring the masses. It is the ordinary, the everyday - a place where 1000 years seem near history, uncelebrated, unphotographed - quiet and unassuming. That is the true magic of the place. And the hand prints outlined on the walls, their souls long departed, still mark the place with their work and the stones they set. We could only hope to leave a mark 1000 years later so those who passed wondered at the sight.
Friday, September 07, 2007
The topo map indicated that there was a ruin up an unnamed wash high up on Ceder Mesa. I only had half-a-day of light having gotten up at 4:00 to begin driving. I thought I could make it to the top. I grabbed my stuff and headed west toward Ceder Mesa. As soon as I hit a high spot I was able to orient the map, make sure I was headed toward the right spot, and haul out the glasses to figure out a way up the steep terrain. There are always ways up the cliffs and across the steep terrain, but if you don't plan it out the most likely outcome is you'll become rim-rocked; this is, stuck and backtracking.
By the way, I took this picture not to show the location of ruin, but in the foreground you will see part of a bowl-shaped depression that was once a pit house or similar structure. While walking I found a single shard, which I though odd, but by making circles found the reason for the "homeless" shard; the depression. I was to find three of these during the trip. I mapped the locations and sent them to Utah archaeologist Winston Hurst. He is a consulting archaeologist who lives and works in his home town of Blanding, Utah. He received a Master of Arts degree in anthropology from Eastern New Mexico University and has been actively engaged in archaeological research in the Colorado Plateau since the early 1970s. He is currently the co-principal investigator for the Comb Ridge Survey Project. The Comb Ridge Survey Project, a multi-year archaeological inventory survey of a 42,000-acre area encompassing Comb Ridge and the adjacent Butler and Comb Washes, is inventorying all the ruins at Comb Ridge to include ancient camps, food gathering and processing stations, storage facilities, settlements, shrines, ancient Puebloan roads, Navajo hogans and historic ranching and mining sites.
On the way up, there were many limestone layers mixed in with the sandstone with deeply red chert inclusions (in geology - a mineral or rock enclosed in a larger body of rock). Pieces large and small were scattered across the desert and no doubt was a large source of stone tools. I found chippings of this chert during the entire trip. I'm quite certain this area must have been well known for this material.
The climb was well worth the effort. In the picture you can clearly see the deflector stone of the kiva located in the foreground. Comb ridge points south off in the distance. It was a very defensible site with water located in the form of drips several hundred feet up just at the lip of Ceder Mesa. It wasn't an easy site to get to and didn't afford any easy route to go anywhere. Interestingly, the debris pile was cut vertically by water erosion and the layers clearly indicated the site had been abandoned several times and reoccupied. Some of the abandonment layers were more than an inch thick. I don't know what that would equate to in time, but I suspect more than 100 to several hundred years. One of charming things in abundance in most of these ruins, including this one, is the finger prints still clearly visible in the mud walls. Most of the fingers seem to be quite small.
I spent some time sitting and imagining what it might be like to live there. I wanted to climb up and check out the area, but time was ticking and I didn't want to go into the night. I hustled off the mesa and returned to the truck.
I drove down Comb Wash and found a nice place to camp among the cottonwoods. I went out to take pictures of the Comb as the sun was setting and walked back in the deepening dusk. I heard a noise off to my left and peered into the willows, but didn't see anything. As I walked away I stopped to check out the possibility of another picture and something caught my side vision or perhaps there was some small sound. I turned around and WOW, a bear! I truly thought I was seeing something else, but he was only dozen or so feet away. I snapped this picture of what must be the most southern desert bear ever seen, and he was moving south in a hurry. I guess he wasn't in the mood for a fight for he barely gave me a sideways glance.
Click below to see a few more pictures
Wednesday, September 05, 2007
I sat in a richly red cathedral, fire lapped the ceiling, stillness cloaked the walls in ethereal, unrelenting silence. This cathedral was last inhabited about 800 years ago and I now was only a visitor - an interloper. I left and gave the stillness to itself, and the sanctuary to those who made it their home and headed back down the wash.
Comb Ridge rises in the south-eastern desert of Utah. It is an immense monolithic, solid sandstone formation tilted at an angle of about 20 degrees running north/south about 80 miles (128 km) long (or longer, depending on the perspective), and about one mile (1.6 km) wide. Geologically speaking the Comb is a monocline — a great crack, a fold in the Earth's crust created by a slow slippage of deeply buried tectonic plates some 65 million years ago.
On the western side it drops vertically 800 to over 1,000 feet (245 to 300 m) to Comb Wash. On the eastern side it drops gently into Butler Wash. For the entire length, it is a slickrock playground, a geologic masterpiece, a natural history museum, and a archaeologist's dream. The dryness preserves the past as if time happened yesterday.
Both Butler Wash and Comb Wash flow into the San Juan River which cuts through Comb Ridge between Bluff and Mexican Hat. To the south the of the river the Navajo make their home; to the west lies the magnificent Monument Valley; to the north, the Abajo Mountains. The desert creeps up the washes and canyons, invading the mesas; shriveling the landscape, compelling the unprepared or uninitiated to stay on the far-flung roads. The heat and the dust and the miles and miles of sandstone bake the imagination.
Yet, there is water here. I found it everywhere; hidden in the creases, folded along the frozen and tiled dunes, sitting in cool huecos high on the ridge. The lost would die here, the wanderer would live wonderfully. The Anasazi, the Ancestral Puebloans not only wandered here, they lived here for thousands of years and their mark is still on the land. This is what I came to see and in this wash I found their hand prints on the walls, their kiva walls standing, and the places where they ground their corn and straightened their arrows. Here they grew squash, beans, and corn; hunted small game with finely woven nets, raised turkeys making intricate woven feather blankets, and painted beautiful pots, the shards of which make you long to see the original.
(more next post)