This is day five of a six-day hike. Don't miss the other five adventures of Best Hikes: 6 Days in Cedar Mesa, Utah.
After leaving Mule Canyon on Day Four, Stephanie Scott and I rendezvoused with three old friends of mine for two nights of camping on Cedar Mesa and one long day hike. The afternoon had turned windy, so we pitched our tents in a shallow wash under the generous umbrella of a stately cottonwood.
Greg Child, besides being the author of such acclaimed books as Over the Edge (about the young American climbers kidnapped in Kyrgyzstan in 2000) and Postcards from the Ledge (a collection of his deft essays), is one of the great mountaineers of his generation. Born in Australia, he migrated to the United States as a lad, living first in Seattle and then in Castle Valley, Utah, up the canyon from Moab. It was in Utah that Greg fell, like me, under the narcotic spell of the Anasazi.
During the last dozen years, Greg and I have teamed up to figure out ways to get into the most inaccessible ruins we can find. Thanks to his expertise, we’ve managed to visit a fair number of sites that we’re quite sure no one else had been to since the last Anasazi took off for points south and east around AD 1270. Much of the appeal of the Old Ones for us is that they were master climbers who built hideouts in the most improbable and frightening places, and Greg and I, as climbers ourselves, still argue vehemently every time we get together about how they did it.
Greg’s seven-year-old daughter, Ariann, is one of the spunkiest and most delightful kids I’ve ever known. A couple of years ago, when the three of us hiked together, Ariann would tire after a couple of hours and plead, “Daddy, carry me on your back!” By now, however, she hikes all day without a word of complaint, carrying her own pink-and-purple daypack. Unlike most kids, who are unmoved by ruins and rock art, Ariann, who’s camped out in the Southwest since she was one month old, took to the puzzle of the ancients with a passion. During their first field trips to Anasazi ruins, Greg sometimes had to divest his daughter’s pockets of potsherds and chert flakes that she’d stashed away when he wasn’t looking, but by now she’s a card-carrying patron of the Outdoor Museum. Ariann calls the whole Snazi assemblage—ruins, rock art, hand-and-toe trails and random artifacts—“Indian stuffing.” That’s what we call it, when we’re out with her.
Shannon O’Donoghue, the former director of the Banff Mountain Film Festival and a Canadian by birth, came to her own enthusiasm for things Anasazi during the last several years, under Greg’s influence. Like me, whenever she visits Utah, Shannon can’t get enough of the canyonlands in general and Cedar Mesa in particular.
Under our cottonwood, we spent two halcyon nights watching the moon go down after the sun set, drinking beer and wine, stuffing ourselves with sausages and spaghetti, reliving past exploits and passing judgment on the foibles of our friends and the redeeming quirks of our enemies. Ariann rode her mountain bike up and down the approach road like a motocross hellion. After dark, she helped Stephanie “paint” the nearby trees with a headlamp for a long-exposure portrait, jumping up and down to enhance the special effects. Then she toasted marshmallows over the fire. I pointed out Venus, Mars and Sirius in the sky, and the second night Ariann pointed them out back to me, unprompted.
Avoiding Roberts's Pot
During the previous quarter century, I thought I’d explored every canyon on Cedar Mesa. But within the previous month, Greg had started poking around the multi-branched head of a canyon that he and I (and for that matter, our friend Vaughn Hadenfeldt) had dismissed from its look on the map as beneath our interest. Lo and behold, Greg found Anasazi wonders around every bend. Now he was on a mission to explore them all, and I had signed up as his first lieutenant.
I’m going to be coy here, reader. For now, the canyon’s our secret. I won’t name it in print, or give any indication where it lies. I learned my lesson sixteen years ago, when I published In Search of the Old Ones, which celebrated some of my best finds on Cedar Mesa. Little did I guess that readers would treat the book as a treasure map. They descended on the Kane Gulch ranger station en masse, my book propped open to the photo of a beautiful intact pot I’d found on the most arcane of ledges. I hadn’t even named the canyon it was in, but these arrivistes demanded, “Tell me how to get to Roberts’s pot.” The rangers blamed me for the whole fiasco.
Speaking of pots—on one of our previous days on Cedar Mesa, Stephanie and I had hiked out a dead-end ledge to a corner only fifteen feet short of the void. There we found some eighty percent of a corrugated gray cooking pot—not intact, but in six or eight big pieces you could probably glue together to reconstruct most of the original. I first saw it in 1993, when Fred Blackburn led me to the spot. It’s still there, thank God. My hunch was that some woman, during the bad times in the second half of the 13th century, had hidden the pot on the end of the ledge, where no one was likely to stumble across it, intending to come back and retrieve it in a year or a decade. But she never came back, nor did any of her people.
The Missing Ruin
On the morning of Day Five, led by Greg, we plunged off the rim of one branch of our canyon, bound for the valley floor 700 feet below. The going was nasty: loose talus, steep dirt, scratchy bushes, and devious route-finding. We plunged through a thicket of buffalo bush whose pollen reduced Shannon and me to sneezes and sniffles for the next two days. Unfazed, Ariann sang a few songs and regaled Stephanie with the complete résumés of the plots of her favorite movies. We were aimed at an obscure ruin Greg had scoped out from another rim a month before, way down on a ledge just above the distant creekbed.
Suddenly, above us on the left, we spotted three rounded, well-built structures tucked under a dizzy overhang, half-hidden by two bends of the lefthand wall. They looked almost impossible to get to, but Greg and I could taste the challenge on our tongues. But then, as we rounded the corners that should have opened to a clear view of the site, the ruin simply disappeared. “Where the hell is it?” I wailed. For the rest of the day, we fretted over the “missing ruin,” as we started calling it. Was it a mirage concocted by our pollen-addled brains? Greg and I knew we’d have to come back to figure it out.
It took four sweaty hours to get to the ruin Greg had set as our day’s objective. It wasn’t much—just a couple of rooms on a south-facing ledge, a hundred feet above the canyon floor. But the difficulty of the approach bore its rewards. Among the many potsherds that littered the slope below the site, we found two finely painted pieces of Mesa Verde black-on-white. It’s the kind of sherd that’s vanished for good from places like the Citadel or Green Mask Spring. And then, scrutinizing the dirt on the floor inside the bigger room, Greg saw an odd white object half-buried in the dirt. He fished it out with a stick. It was a bone awl, sharpened to a needle point out of the legbone, perhaps, of a deer or a bighorn sheep. Only four inches long, it was perfectly wrought. The ancients had used it to poke holes in hides to sew into garments to be worn against the chill of winter. You could use it for the same purpose today.
Neither of us had ever found a tool quite like that awl before. We photographed it, turned it over in our hands, practiced holding it to gouge a deerskin. Then Greg stuck it back in the dirt.
It’s still there, a month later. May it rest in place another century. May it never adorn some collector’s mantelpiece or shoe-box. And may there still be enough places on Cedar Mesa we’ve never seen before to fill the wandering years that Greg and I—and even Ariann—have left on Earth.