Great Hikes: 6 Days in Cedar Mesa, Utah (Day 4)

Target and Mule: Watchtowers, refuges and unanswered questions

Stephanie Scott

This is day four of a six-day hike. Don't miss the other five adventures of Best Hikes: 6 Days in Cedar Mesa, Utah.

How many men, women and children lived on Cedar Mesa, in, say, AD 1230? It’s impossible to say, but the three scholars who studied the question most deeply in the 1980s came up with a tentative population of 750 to 1,500. Since then, many more small living structures on the mesa top have been discovered (i.e., blundered upon by folks tromping through the piňon-juniper forest), so it wouldn’t be unreasonable to raise the estimate to 2,000 or 2,500.

What’s beguiled me since my first visit in 1987 is that despite Cedar Mesa’s burgeoning popularity as a place to hike and camp and commune with the ancients, not a single human being lives on it year-round today. Even the rangers who man the Kane Gulch ranger station shut their visitor center down and take the winter months off, fleeing to warmer climes such as southern Arizona.

The mesa and its canyons—all 600-odd square miles of it—are supervised by the Bureau of Land Management, with the southern edge—including Muley Point, where Stephanie Scott and I camped our first night—tucked into the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. Grand Gulch itself is protected as an official Primitive Area. There’s a single square mile out on the Snow Flat road that is privately owned, fenced off, and cleared of trees to grow alfalfa. During the last five or six years the owners have tried to sell it, and a fading sign on the fence touts the quadrant as the perfect place to build a hotel and conference center. So far, no takers.

Cedar Mesa, after all, is not such an easy place to live. Just ask the Anasazi (if only we could). But if two thousand folks called it home nearly 800 years ago, they must have found something to like about the place, besides its sheer beauty. The second obvious question is, how well did they all get along? And the gloomy answer, circa 1230, is, not very well at all.

For Stephanie’s and my fourth day on Cedar Mesa, I designed a pair of easy jaunts to ruins only five miles apart as the raven flies, implicitly to test that murky question. It takes eighteen minutes to hike from your car to Target House, two minutes (if you dawdle) to close the car doors and trundle over to the Mule Canyon towers.

Some years ago I befriended a young seasonal ranger at Mesa Verde National Park, who confided in me (as her superiors never would have) that one of the favorite occupations of her colleagues was to write down the most idiotic questions the tourists asked and tape them like post-it notes to the communal refrigerator. Her favorite (and mine) was, “Why did the Anasazi build their houses so far from the road?” Those couch potatoes, one thinks, ought to have been pleased with my two destinations for Day Four. Yet on four visits to Target House, I’ve never had to share the place with any other admirers of the Old Ones.

The indefatigible Wetherills (see part two) found Target House in the 1890s. It lies in a tiny box side-canyon off a nondescript wash. No way out except the way in, and not much to do there besides worry. Twenty-five feet off the sandstone floor, up an overhanging cliff, an ovoid alcove is filled with five superbly built rooms. No ruin in the region so idiosyncratically fills the space that eons of geological wear have provided for it. The ancients used their log ladder tricks to commute from cornfield to bedroom—you can still see the round depressions in the bedrock that socketed the upright beams. The Wetherills imitated the Snazi technique to get into the site, then clambered all over the ruin, crawling across the roof of the most enigmatic of the rooms, a windowless cubicle with a huge white “bull’s eye” painted on the left hand wall (the “target” that gives the place its name). A handful of archaeologists have been up there since, but it would seem to me sacrilegious to demand an entry permit to so pristine a site. Stephanie and I were content to climb to the dank recess facing Target House from the other side of the canyon, stare at the ruin’s architectural intracicies, and browse through the utterly different leavings of the insouciant Basketmakers who, centuries earlier, had sharpened their tools and dug their cists and left their painted handprints on the walls, undisturbed by any notion that somebody from the next valley over might want to kill them, or at least steal their corn.

Five miles west, at the head of the middle fork of Mule Canyon, stand three circular towers, half collapsed. They look like the ruins of stone silos, but no one thinks they were used to store grain. Towers are rare in the Anasazi world, but Cedar Mesa boasts at least three sets of them. Fifty miles to the east, at Hovenweep National Monument on the Colorado border, the finest and most enigmatic of all Anasazi towers proliferate on the rims of shallow canyons that usually run dry.

So what are they all about? The archaeologists can’t decide. Signal towers, linking a vast network of allies? But nobody’s ever found the ones that might have provided a line-of-sight relay from Hovenweep to Cedar Mesa. Watchtowers? Too visible to the bad guys, and impossible to defend. A few of the arkys want to classify them as observatories, whose alignments celebrate celestial events such as solstices and equinoxes, but I’m skeptical. The towers on Cedar Mesa happen to loom over flowing springs tucked under the ledges just beneath. But you hardly need a tower, let alone three of them, to advertise (or protect) a reliable source of drinking water.

Most of the visitors who come to Mule Canyon putter around the towers, admire the view down-canyon, take a few snapshots, then move on. But Stephanie and I scuttled down three ledge systems below the rim  to check out the half-hidden ruins below. These were full-on cliff dwellings, in various states of disrepair. We don’t even know whether the towers were built at the same time as these modest refuges, but it’s a good bet that the dwellings were contemporary with Target House.  In AD 1230, people were probably living in both places. So were the Target folks and the troglodytes of Mule Canyon relatives, friends, strangers—or enemies?

For many decades after the 1880s, when Anglos first paid serious attention to the Anasazi world, it was assumed that the hyper-defensive sites of the 13th century and the subsequent abandonment of the Colorado Plateau were a despairing response to the invasion of marauding nomads. The leading candidates were Utes, Navajos, Comanches, and Apaches. But research after 1950 has convincingly shown that all those nomadic peoples arrived well after AD 1300. The parsimonious explanation, alas, is that as times got really hard around 1230, thanks to a fiendish combination of drought, famine, deforestation (it takes a lot of trees to keep your campfires going all year), the hunting to near extinction of big game, and a nasty geological phenomenon called arroyo-cutting, the Snazi started raiding and perhaps killing each other. Cannibalism among the people, demonstrated beyond the shadow of a doubt by physical anthropologist Christy Turner and others, may have been part of this apocalypse.

Except at Chaco Canyon during the 10th and 11th centuries, when an anomalous stab at empire-building apparently fell apart, like imperial Rome, from its own arrogant excesses, the Anasazi seem never to have been organized in social units larger than the extended family. If after 1230 you’re starving and short on water at Target House, it might make good sense to head over to Mule Canyon, scare the crap out of the residents, gobble up their corn, and fill your pots at their life-giving spring.

We don’t know that for sure, of course. But on the lowest ledge of the Mule Canyon cliff dwellings, Stephanie and I traversed into one of the weirdest sites on Cedar Mesa. Above an eighty-foot cliff, a narrow bench of slickrock commands a proud view to the west. On the very edge of the precipice, the ancients erected a six-foot-tall wall. It’s not part of a dwelling, nor does it guard any place where the Old Ones lived. Instead of windows, the wall is pierced by a series of loopholes, conical tubes through which you could crouch and stare at would-be intruders.

Behind the wall, however, there’s only rock art on the cliff. Magnificent petroglyphs carved into the ruddy sandstone. Bearpaw prints marching left to right, duck-headed trapezoidal humans, zigzag snakes . . . . Crowning the panel is a big circular ring, inside which the artist gouged a crescent moon and a pair of V-shaped wedges.

I can’t think of another place on Cedar Mesa where the Anasazi built a wall just to protect rock art. Was the very act of seeing those designs a dangerous deed for the beleaguered inhabitants of Mule Canyon? Polly Schaafsma, the leading expert on Southwestern rock art, argues that such “shield” symbols may be hex signs. Warnings to anyone who happens by—even to us, seven centuries later—proclaiming, “Bad juju. Go away. Leave this place alone.”

The weather had turned splendid again, the rains of the night before having cleansed the sky. On our way back to the car Stephanie and I passed scarlet penstemon, sago lilies, and claret cup cactus in riotous bloom. If Mule Canyon brimmed with bad juju, it was hard to detect it. But what did we know? We were only visitors.  

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