Wednesday, May 21, 2008

The Desert and the Anasazi - Lavender Canyon

The cliffs and mesas on the Colorado Plateau are a unique place with unique qualities. The red walls peel away memory – the memory of other places, of other times, and even the memory of self until all that is left is this space – this red cathedral and the thousands of years it whispers of in a thundering, but empty and still crescendo. The cliffs rise as memories fade.

Although I have not wandered in these canyons for almost a year, the intervening time is stolen – filtered in the sands - lost. That year fades like a single drop of sweat on hot Navajo Sandstone until even the feeling of memory is lost. Now, this place, this time is all I have; all I know; and all I desire - a jealous lover whose beauty bares no wayward glance and whose caress steals the heart – forever. It is also best to pay attention to this lover in the heat of summer or she will have her vengeance.

I have journeyed here again to find the anasazi, to wander in the beauty of the desert, and to lose myself; to let sun bleach my soul, to filter it through the hot sand and to have the ancients return it to me cleansed and clear. They have walked here until decades are measured in moments — they know the paths, the secret places, and the beginning and end of a footstep and the sum of a life. Perhaps the solitude here is part of the revelation - the serenity drives a kind of relentless introspection.

I lean heavy against the red escarpment as if to push it away like great Atlas or Hercules - palms outstretched, fingers pointed toward the sky, back bent, head bowed. The moments slip and I think about these things. The week lies ahead. Eventually, I pull away and stand erect. The moisture of my palm prints, much like the painted palm prints of the Anasazi, traces the outlines my hand. Another journey begins -discovery in many forms awaits.

Lavender Canyon lies between Bridger Jack Mesa and Salt Creek Canyon on the south side of Canyonlands National Park. I wished to explore the upper and deeper part of the canyon because of its proximity to Salt Creek Canyon. Tammi and I had been backpacking down Salt Creek a couple of years back and were surprised by the number of ruins and gliffs. Salt Creek has the largest ruin outside of Mesa Verde (Big Ruin) and is home to such famous pictographs as All American Man and the Four Faces.

Lavender Canyon was named after David Lavender. Twice nominated for a Pulitzer prize this rancher and all-around western man; who was mostly a hard scrabble cowboy, put his mark on western history and literature. Near Durango, as a young man, he worked a silver mine and on his stepfather's cattle ranch as a cowboy, helping with all the work until a drought and the Depression forced the ranch's closure. Near to my heart he was also an avid mountaineer. Among other things, he was a Princeton grad. He later became a dedicated conservationist. He realized the west he knew was dying and the result of this realization was his most well-read book which was published in 1943, "One Man's West". The book is in reprint by Bison Books and out in a new edition with notes and added material by David Lavender's son, David G. Lavender.

Armed with a permit you can drive into Lavender Canyon from Canyonlands, but that approach is best for uninitiated and untested. It is best approached from the most south-southwestern side of Bridger Jack Mesa. The 4x4 road that leads north around the west side of Bridger Jack makes for an easy passage, but it is a bit narrow. I don't know the name of the Mesa the road sits on (it is unnamed on the topo), but the camping on the Mesa is fine. Let's call it Little Bridger Jack Mesa. The mesa burned quite some time ago, so the top is mostly grass and offers easy going. I found the reason for the fire on the way back up. There is an old uranium mine just off the cliff on the southwest corner. It looks like the miner's camp was the source of the fire.

The way down off Little Bridger Jack is hard and the way up even harder, but it does make a good day's walk. You can also get down Dry Fork Canyon - I walked around to look off the side and the way is quite easy. The north end of Little Bridger Jack looks passable on the topo, but the lower wall can not be breached without a rope.

Lavender Canyon is deep and the walls consistently vertical. The first picture shows the central part of the canyon - about 1000 foot from the mesa top to the creek at the bottom. There are ruins in the canyon and some looking around will reward a good search; however, the wild parts of the canyon are pristine and the wildflowers were wonderful - Shooting Star, Pestemon, Desert Indian Paintbrush, coreopsis, and plenty of blooming cactus.

In a side canyon I found fresh cougar track, the rear paw measuring just over 4" wide. He was a big boy and I was weary coming back at dusk that evening. A few deer tracks and a bit of water gave up the reason for his night's vigil. (I've looked at this picture a few times and sometimes get the illusion that the print is "pushed up", not in to the soil - if you get that look again) There were few signs of the usual leftovers of Anasazi habitation in the canyon itself. Although the Anasazi did live here I suspect the times were shorter and the water and game scarcer. I saw no gliffs except at the ruins; however, there are more than likely some around. The wall are generally dead vertical too - there simply aren't many building sites.

As soon as I got near the lower parts of the canyons the deer flies began to attack in hordes. I nearly went crazy slapping and swatting and Deet didn't make any difference whatsoever. I eventually put on pants and the incessant biting stopped - the horde just swarmed my legs. I seldom wear pants in the desert, but from now on in June I think I will always wear them. The gnats and no-see-ems were no fun either. I'm still itching a week later.

Besides the canyon itself there is another reason to visit; Cleft Arch. Cleft arch is a graceful and massive arch, thick and even, wide and tall. It juts into the the canyon and demands a visit. I approached it from the south and begin to friction the lower steep slaps and faced climbed the remainder. It can be free climbed, but it took me some time to work it out and I am a fairly experienced climber (the face: friction -5.9, face - 5.7/8). I recommend the northern side as it provides only a steep walk. Begin up thru the narrow slot when you first see the northern side of the arch. Of interest is the arch itself - its name becomes apparent once inside. It is now actually two arches joined together by a narrow, but very deep cleft no more than 1/2" wide. Lying on the hot sand blue sky is visible thru the vertical shaft, which must be 30 or more feet thick.

I walked and explored throughout the day and in the afternoon periodically sought some shade as I began to overheat. The canyon become hotter and the little thermometer on my pack strap soon slipped to 110 degrees. The afternoon, the sand, the ceders, the cactus, and the terrain turned against me. I had gone too far, climbed too much and still had much of the mesa to ascend to get to camp. I ran out of water and I had started with 200 oz - more than 1-1/2 gal. The setting sun gave me respite from the heat and I struggled slowly up the last 700 foot of Little Bridger Jack Mesa, through the cliff bands, and made my way toward camp. I had suffered a good bit in the end, but the day was worth the effort. The thirteen-hour exploration had left its mark and tomorrow I would drive to Beef Basin. Here's how David Lavender said it:

"Fortunately God gave man a poor memory for physical discomfort. The active ingredients which made the hurt so brutal at the moment lose their keen edge in retrospect: we are able to look back on them with certain detachment and even make them subject matter of our dearest conversation pieces."

These canyons don't yield their beauty easily - especially in late June and the home of the Anasazi is seldom hospitable. Discovery is never easy - any kind of discovery.

Correction! I had read that Lavender Canyon was named for David Lavender, but according to a much better source, David G. Lavender (the writers grandson), Lavender Canyon is named for Ed Lavender (David Lavender's step-father). Apparently, Ed used to drive cattle he bought from Ed Scorup ( the then owner of the Dugout Ranch on Indian Creek now just outside Canyonlands National Park). See page 328 of the new edition of "One Man's West". Anyway, I'll keep the post - surely Ed would approve of his son's fame.

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