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

Moon House: Strange, beautiful and accessible. That's the problem.

Stephanie Scott

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

Ah, Moon House . . . . Of all the hundreds of Anasazi ruins on Cedar Mesa, none is more beautiful, and none is stranger or more surprising. And right now, no ruin poses a more worrisome dilemma to the rangers who supervise the mesa, as they try to balance the right of the public to visit such prehistoric prodigies against the need to preserve them from the vandalism and deterioration visitation inevitably provokes.

In November 1993, ten days after I’d made my accidental discovery of the Citadel, I started hiking downstream at dawn from the head of the unofficially named McLoyd Canyon. My goal was simply to see as much as I could in a short, cool day at the end of autumn. My companion was Marie-France Moisi, who, though Parisian-born, had come to love the desert Southwest as passionately as I did. That day, in one of the richest outings I’d yet had on Cedar Mesa, we found six small sites, each different from all the others. Five miles in, with dusk approaching, we were ready to call it quits (we would rim-walk by headlamp back to the car). But we needed to clamber down from the north rim to cross the canyon and gain the side with the easier hiking. I wended my way through a series of wild hoodoos—bulbous towers of wind-carved stone balanced on slender stems—and found a scramble down the cliff. Turning the corner, I was startled to see a long, windowless Anasazi wall hiding a ledge eighty feet above the creekbed. Great, I thought, a seventh ruin to round out the splendid day.

The only entryway was a small oval on the righthand edge of the blank wall, with a pair of stones for doorstep. Marie-France poked her head through the opening, pivoted, looked at me, and said quietly, “David, you’re not going to believe this.”

I stuck my own head through the doorway and gasped. I’d heard the vaguest of rumors about a place called Moon House, but I didn’t even know in what canyon it lay. At a glance, it was obvious. This was Moon House.

With or Without Wonder
Nineteen years later, everybody knows about the ruin, and every visitor to Cedar Mesa has to see it. I’d been there some twenty times since 1993, and though the place still stunned me with its virtuosic details, it was hard, with the chatter of ten or fifteen other pilgrims ricocheting about the site, to regain the wonder that had smitten Marie-France.

To make matters worse, despite the devious route by which I’d taken eight hours to stumble upon the ruin, Moon House is absurdly accessible today. For years the BLM has tried to shut down the old dirt track that crosses an anomalous quadrant of county land to emerge on the McLoyd rim facing the ruin. But trying to shut down a county road in Utah is like convincing Texans they don’t need to own guns. The BLM has given up: now the rangers urge you to drive the road and park on the rim. From car to ruin is a 25-minute saunter. 

The compromise the rangers have imposed is to limit the daily visitation to twenty people, each of whom must secure a permit the day before or the morning of their visit. The BLM patrols the parking lot, and hands out citations to scofflaws who try to sneak in.

Having seen a picture of the place in a book, Stephanie Scott demanded that we go there on the last of our six days on Cedar Mesa, and I was happy to oblige. By the time we got to Moon House, only six other worshipers were in attendance; before we left, eight others had arrived. Yet when Stephanie stuck her head through the low doorway, she gasped just as I had in 1993.

The façade that hides the ruin is a wall full of loopholes through which the denizens once could have checked out the bad guys creeping up from below. The ruin itself is set back in the dim recess by a good four feet, preserved from wind and rain as perfectly as any structures in the whole Southwest. The finest room is built not of mud and stone, but of jacal—sticks erected in an upright grid, daubed smooth with mud. As fragile as they look, jacal walls are surprisingly sturdy. But what dazzles your gaze is the decoration—a smooth, thick band painted white across the whole front wall, from which triangles dangle, topped by a continuous row of white dots. A pictograph high on the sandstone cliff to the left mimics the design, along with a multi-colored zigzag snake.

The second room has a band of white that completely circles the interior at half height. On the west wall, a crescent moon has been left unpainted; on the east, a full moon. (Whence the ruin’s name.) In 1993, Marie-France and I had carefully climbed inside, making sure not to touch the sides of the doorway, so fragile that the slightest brush of a shoulder rubs away immemorial plaster. We’d spent half an hour inside, playing our headlamps across the enigmatic designs. Today, a plastic sign laid in the doorway forbids entry, as well it should. It’s enough to stick your head in and stare.

Cows and Crowds: Cedar Mesa's Fate
Exiting the site, I led Stephanie eastward a few hundred yards along the ledge. Around two corners stands another ruin, as finely crafted as the Citadel. And here, the builders replicated the painted dots of Moon House with rows of tiny white chink stones embedded in the plaster.

Painted walls of any kind are extremely rare in the Anasazi world, and these are the finest ones I‘ve ever seen. Moon House has the aura of a scared place, a shrine, a pilgrimage site. Yet an M. A. thesis directed by veteran archaeologist Bill Lipe, who first studied Moon House in the 1960s, determined that the whole ruin was nothing more glorious than a gigantic storehouse for corn, holding enough grain to feed the population of all of McLoyd Canyon for two or three years, if the crops should fail.

There’s a lot of talk these days about turning Cedar Mesa into a national monument. Some of my friends think that might be a good idea. At least it would get rid of the cows, which still graze the mesa top and blunder into canyons, sometimes knocking over ruin walls. But I hope the government passes on the idea. I saw what happened to Escalante after Bill Clinton proclaimed it a national monument in 1996. Visitation went up something like ten-fold, and little-known wonders such as the Golden Cathedral became, like Moon House, to-do destinations where solitude is a thing of the past.

Ah, Moon House . . . . On her first visit, Stephanie fell in love with the place, overwhelmed by its fragile loveliness. And I managed to tune out the chatter of the other visitors, skim past the inanities scribbled into the site register, and focus on the conundrum the place eternally poses.

What were the Old Ones thinking? Why did they take an oversized storage bin and shape and paint it into a masterpiece? What did they know about the canyon that was their home that we will never glimpse? Did the bad guys actually come, or was fear enough to drive the inhabitants away?

In six days on Cedar Mesa, as on every one of my previous trips to my favorite place on Earth, I’d only crept to the edge of the Anasazi mystery. It would soon be time to go back.      

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