Canyon Tales
Ancient Wonders
by Dave Pimental

• Prologue •

Spurred on by our previous day’s success, we wander further down the canyon, our eyes scanning the alcoves and talus slopes for that familiar shape. As the Sun creeps steadily higher in the limitless sky and the heat of day begins to crackle in the newborn leaves of the cottonwoods, we meander in hushed silence, craning our necks and squinting against the noon–day glare. The fever of exploration and passion of discovery are upon us as we glide along the intermittent stream–bed. We see phantom signs and symbols everywhere we train our eyes. The walls are alive with possibilities. The anticipation of new wonders washes over us in waves of excitement as we relish the last magical hour in the home of an ancient civilization. We are awed by the span of years and respectful of this Pre–Columbian race which squeezed out an existence of art and worship in a harsh and unforgiving land over 800 years ago.

•   1   •

The day before had played out in a slowly unwinding dance of exploration which had climaxed with the discovery of the ruin. We had assembled the night before just off the pavement and quickly went to bed in a driving desert wind. The next morning started with a drive to an impassable sand–slide at the brink of the canyon. We set our camp and quickly moved down the slide which would give us access to the depths of the main canyon. A persistent cold breeze over–powered the brilliant March sunlight, forcing us huddle into ourselves as we made our way to a pair of small sidecanyons. The discovery began early that day. Jim and Jane paused on the way down the sand–slide to admire a skillfully constructed sand castle. Jim soon found a curiously whittled stick which had three depressions the size of your fingertip drilled and burned in a neat row. Each depression had a small groove cut out that created a channel that broke the side of each small concave bowl. We never did come up with a plausible use for this artifact. It didn’t appear ancient, but who knows? (Further research suggest that it was a fireboard.)

Just downcanyon we spied a cord hanging from what appeared to be a cluster of climbers bolts back against the rock wall. We made our way back to the cord and it was a bolted anchor protecting a nice open–book finger crack, the cord left behind to set up a top rope. We found two more bolted anchors along the way. Clearly someone has found the vertical Wingate walls a friendly place to climb. Our chosen pair of sidecanyons were lush and verdant. In the first canyon we were stopped at a wonderful sinuous dryfall and a grove of trees which tell the story of water in this small side–branch of a massive canyon system. The walls are festooned by hanging gardens where seeps of cool–filtered rain water has made it’s way for a thousand years to trickle out a drop at a time. The heat of the day had finally reached us in these sheltered canyons and we slowly, reluctantly removed successive layers and bared our pale skin to the chill desert breeze.

The second of the pair of canyons ended in a series of twenty–foot dryfalls which we bypassed at first but finally turned back at a slanted ramp where we found old bolts in the side wall. These bolts beckoned the explorer within and inflamed the imagination to wild flights of fantasy. Speculation ensued. Why would someone go to the trouble to drill bolts in the wall at head of this nondescript dead–end canyon? Archaeologists climbing to an important ruin? Miners ascending to the fabled silver mine? The bolts didn’t look like anything that climbers would put up. After lunch and a change into shorts, Jane and I made our way down canyon while Jim wound his way back to camp. The water had resurfaced in the canyon bottom and we weaved our way to keep our feet dry. Butterflies fluttered on a warm breeze, in search of delicious nectar. Canyon wrens sounded their descending chord of notes, claiming their special plot of boulders. It had become Springtime once again in the canyons of Southern Utah.

At a particularly wonderful bend of the canyon we paused to admire a hardy cottonwood which has managed to lodge it’s roots in a crack and has since sent tendrils seeking water six feet down to the stream–bed. A strong echo drew our eyes to an alcove on the far side of the bend where we could just discern the walls of an ancient ruin. As we made our way up the sandy bank towards the alcove and I was imagining ancient farmers tilling the soil, Jane sighted a pair of vivid red twin pictographs on the wall above the shelter. The talus below the crumbling walls was steep and full of small bones and bits of coals from a wood fire.

When we topped out we found the tumbled down walls of perhaps eight tidy little dwellings. The rock walls have been stacked in a skilled manner and have been mortared over with the red mud found by the stream side. Corncobs and pottery sherds were scattered about and each new discovery brought an exclamation of delight from us. We found grey utilitarian ware with the finger print indentations of the ancient ones. We found black on white ornamental ware which must have been the finest this settlement owned at it’s peak. There were other pictographs on the walls. Some are reinforced by pecking and must have been magnificently three dimensional in their time. Hand prints, strange geometric symbols, warriors and shamen, a woman giving birth and a couple locked in a passionate embrace. Red, gold, green, white and black. All the colors of the Anasazi palette. We found an inscription which tells us a famous archaeologist has been here many years past. To view the two red pictos requires a tenuous climb up some weathered moqui steps with your back pressed against the wall. Someone put tremendous effort into painting those twins and the moqui steps show that the sacred pictures must have been visited many times over the centuries.

It’s settled. We must bring Jim back here tomorrow. An hour in the sheltered alcove had sparked many questions in our minds and we scanned the walls for additional ruins and art panels with newly keen eyes as we traveled back upcanyon to camp. We chance upon a new panel of petroglyphs and quickly decided to save them for the return trip on the following day.

•   2   •

As we are running out of steam and beginning to seriously imagine a cool shady spot to stop for lunch, we come upon a sun baked corner of canyon with a picture perfect alcove situated above us on the top of a steep slope of jumbled boulders. Jim can clearly see a petroglyph on the wall to the right of the sheltering overhang. As I surmount the retaining wall of rough terrain that always seems to protect the climb to a ruin I envision mortared red walls and scattered grey pottery. I see the ‘trophy rock’ where enthralled visitors have displayed bits and pieces of interesting pottery and flakes of chert. I see the pack rat–chewed remnants of corncobs which must have rivaled the produce found in a supermarket today. My heart quickens at the prospect of another wall of ancient paintings, where I could spend the rest of my life speculating as to the meaning and never be sure.

Cresting the final wall of loose blocks below the enclosure, I am now certain I have something. I can see a vague smear on the ceiling of the cave which was obviously the work of man. It resembles a scorpion with it’s coiled tail held aloft in a well known threat posture. The scorpion draws me to that side and I immediately see some pictographs on a fallen rock which resemble stalks of grass or grain. There are strange shapes laboriously pecked into the stone which portray the print of the sole of a moccasin. There are bits of pottery in the sand everywhere I look. Pieces larger than any that I’ve seen. I turn them over to reveal the black lines expertly painted on a pearl white background. Some are painted on the inside of the curve indicating a bowl. One has the rim still intact. Another has the stub of a handle still protruding from it’s side.

I make my way to another pile of broken pottery, my camera working overtime. I climb beyond the cave to the wall with the petroglyph to see if there are more. Additional glyphs are visible but time has worn them beyond recognition. I continue up along the wall searching for more. When I reach the crest I have an amazing view back down to the canyon bottom and finally another structure tucked against the wall blending with the background. This small round house once again exhibits the neat stacking of stone into the existing canyon walls and a smooth mud plaster which still shows the fingerprints of the original builders. There are richly decorated potsherds on the ground and wondrous paintings on the wall. Bighorn sheep, hand prints and a highly eroded figure in green paint. Just above we find the deep groove of a metate where countless hours were spent milling grain. Below the fallen embankment we find another pile of large pot sherds. One could almost reassemble an Anasazi water jug from all these pieces.

Another hour in the ruin raises more questions than it answers and we are off again downcanyon in search of mysteries. This time we find a magnificent sidecanyon with water flowing out and the softest sand on earth. We pull off our shoes and traipse upcanyon, the cold spring water reinvigorating our weary feet. After an undetermined length of idyllic splashing upstream in the ankle deep water, we come to a cool green waterfall flowing off an overhung sandstone wall twenty feet high.

This is Paradise indeed!

•  Epilogue  •

Over the next few days we continued to make discoveries that brought us back one thousand years, when nomadic hunter–gatherers roamed the vast mesas and peaceful farmers and potters gathered together in canyon alcoves to weather out another long, hard desert winter We have seen the corncobs and dreamed of the fields of tall tassels swaying in the breeze. We pondered upon pieces of broken gourd and imagined the sprawling vines full of ripening fruit waiting for harvest. We have seen the metate grooves and imagined the generations of women toiling to grind the dry seeds and get them into storage. We have seen the silent art work and formulated tales of great battles of warriors and chaotic hunts of nimble bighorn sheep. We have looked out of the now crumbling walls of once majestic cities and felt the loss of an entire civilization

Wyoming Dave

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© 2007 Dave Pimental