Here in the southwest we mark our trails with neatly-stacked rock piles called cairns. When one follows cairns a lot, one becomes cognizant of the countless different ways stones can be piled up: messily, artfully, crazily, larger-to-smaller-ly, monochromatically, unbalanced-ly, demurely, or with a surprise on top. I’ve photographed many beautiful cairns in the past three years, each time with a nod of appreciation to its builder whose personality shines through in the making.
Yesterday on the Alcove Spring trail I added a new adverb: FISHILY! Rounding a bend in my 11.2-mile hike, a rare desert carp occupied the trailside. Made my day. Whether an ichthyologist or an artist had a hand in this, I tip my hat to the one whose creative spark has brought many a smile along this daunting trail.
A piece of fire-cracked rock (repeatedly heated, as for cooking fires) grabs my attention. I will call the Bureau of Land Management and inquire about this earthen mound.
Our eyes were sharpened by hours of looking at — and for — everything and anything. Clues of past occupation present themselves to the vigilant observer, and we had been hiking in canyons, scouring alcoves, poking around springs — anywhere where people would have hung out. The only down side was the heavily-used ATV trail nearby, and the tens of thousands of hoofprints and cowpies. Ranchers love canyons that have perennial water sources in them.
I was following a cliff wall, looking for lithic scatter on the ground to indicate a place where ancestral Puebloans would have knapped their points, when I came upon a curious mound of earth looking very different from its environs. About my size, it was covered with hand-picked and hand-placed stones of three types: smooth river cobbles, sharp angular chert, and tabular sandstone slabs. A glance over my shoulder revealed a clue.
In cursive hand on the sandstone wall was etched “Press” followed by a last name I couldn’t make out. Underneath, “3/4/33.”
Time for a little archival digging. Might Press have been an early 20th-century cowboy who met his end in this canyon?
[WARNING TO ARACHNOPHOBIC FRIENDS: SKIP THIS POST.]
You know, if you make a New Year’s resolution that states “Go into the wilderness at every opportunity,” and you find instead that wilderness is coming to you, doesn’t that count? At least a little?
Diameter with legs: about size of a quarter
After I reached for the phone and found an arachnid (species unknown) guarding its buttons, I went outside to our porch benches and looked underneath them. Black Widows hang around buildings and structures, and their webs are blowing in the breeze beneath the seats. Oh, the things it’s better NOT to tell visitors…
Nobody has ever been bitten, by the way. It’s not a safety hazard. I see it as a teachable moment — like the telephone spider who sidled away after my camera lens got too close. Learning to co-exist peacefully with other species that share your space is a useful and compassionate skill.
White Rim, canyon edge at far left, is our destination on this steep hike. It's a glorious and unseasonable 45 degrees.
Glancing back at the cliff top from which I had just descended, I shook my head. 1400 feet of elevation loss in 2.7 miles of trail is, well, steep. The perpetual steps and switchbacks that had brought us through five rock layers would feel more like a perpetual StairMaster on our way out of the canyon. This, however, was no ordinary jaunt; my boss and I needed something by which to remember the first day of 2012.
Not to be done in icy conditions.
I had never done this treacherous trail before; summer heat makes it more of a cruel slog than a breathtaking hike. Winter provides sweet respite if you don’t mind a little snow and ice underfoot. In one section the trail narrows to just over a boot-width along a few feet of ledgy slickrock, talus slope on the right, comforting wall on the left. Although I don’t send a lot of visitors this way, I personally like the challenge. I like edges.
As with many of our trails, the rewards come at the end. Having passed through the Kayenta, Wingate, Chinle, and Moenkopi, we find ourselves standing at the edge of yet another abyss. Beneath our boots are massive chunks of bright sandstone — the White Rim layer.
Silence, in one large gulp, swallows all distractions. What is left but to look outward, and inward?
I am 5-1/2 feet tall, for scale. The White Rim blocks are massive.