Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 11, 2012

Keet Seel 6: the walk out

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Early morning light reflects my hiking partners in Tsegi Canyon.
Our steady gait will get us to the finish of our Keet Seel adventure by noon.

Pre-dawn rustlings in camp signaled everyone’s eagerness to hit the trail before the sun warmed things up. Feet wiggled into boots. Bagels with peanut butter satisfied stomachs, fueling another 8.5 mile hike before climbing the switchbacks out of the canyon. We’re traveling lighter now: less food, less water, more joy. (Joy, you must know, subtracts weight from backpacks.) Tired hips and shoulders and feet from yesterday were doing fine after a night of so-called ‘rest.’ We set out southward.

As each mile marker came into sight and faded behind us, our packs became simply an extension of ourselves, tightly strapped to our able bodies; at some point I ceased noticing mine. Several waterfalls burbled, singing to us of the millennium of habitation here. Two ravens overhead, mated for life, reminded me of the power of relationship. Algae-covered rocks spoke of the perennial stream’s life-giving presence. Before we knew it, the base of the switchbacks and my two liters of cached water appeared. We forced ourselves to drink, knowing what lay ahead.

Like rabbits scurrying from shrub to shrub, we hastened from one spot of shade to the next during our thousand-foot ascent. And then we were out. Done. Celebrating the completion of a much-dreamed-of adventure to explore a long-absent culture in another state. Learning, in the process, what we’re made of, and why we undertake such crazy things: for the sheer delight of discovery, connection, exploration.

Good-bye, Keet Seel. Your walls, streets, pottery, and art will always resound in my soul.

January 6, 2012

archeological sites and why they fascinate

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Relishing being at an ancestral Puebloan archeological site

It’s as if you’re there, or they’re here — whoever ‘they’ are. You see their finger smears and prints in the construction mortar. You can superimpose your hand over their painted handprints, invoking wonder. You find things they left behind that were important to them — tools, foodstuffs, art, clothing, structures. Last year: a molar on an alcove floor, a scrap of yucca sandal, a black human hair in the ancient doorway mud, a dessicated squash stem, a metate (grinding stone), a stone tool found in the wash. These were the people, the families, the predecessors, who walked the Colorado Plateau eight or ten centuries ago. How can I help but feel that their lives are inextricably entwined with mine? Archeological sites are my favorite places.

November 11, 2011

Cataract Canyon 4: Side canyons

(Continued from Cataract Canyon 3: Doll’s House)

Like overgrown sinuous tendrils, countless side canyons empty into the Colorado. Some are prodigious, some are diminutive, but all — when wet — carry sediment and debris inexorably down, down, down. All have discoveries worth seeking. Here are five.

Limestone makes an appearance in these sandstone canyons. Abundant fossils — crinoids, sponge spicules, and more — indicate that this area was covered by a tropical shallow sea.

Beavertail Cactus, a pricklypear unique for its spinelessness, is usually found much farther south. This purplish color is real.

Flash-flood-carved slots in the rock contain white foreground boulders the size of couches. One can only imagine the power of the torrent that moved them there in Water Canyon.

Wet sand captures animal tracks. Raccoon here, but plenty of beaver, kit fox, and ungulates (hoofed mammals) as well.

Archeological sites abound, including many granaries for storage of crops. It never ceases to amaze me how the ancestral Puebloans positioned these structures for difficult access. Double-click on the photo to better see the door in the center.

We’re all discoverers, on some level; it’s what humans do. What do you explore?

—  Continued at this link

November 9, 2011

Cataract Canyon 2: Flatwater beauty

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Colorado River, UT, north of Spanish Bottom

(Continued from Cataract Canyon 1: We begin)

As I climbed aboard the Black George and put my life jacket on and earplugs in, I realized that there has been one other four-day river trip in my life. It was in Egypt, on the Nile. That vessel coddled a hundred tourists, steaming downriver in search of ancient temples and burial sites. Mentally reviewing the grandeur of Queen Hatshepsut’s imposing memorial, I wondered how many ancestral Puebloans were buried without so much as a grave marker along this stretch of the Colorado River.

“Airport Tower” in Canyonlands NP.  Invasive tamarisk trees choke the river’s edge.

Between Moab and “The Confluence” (the Green and the Colorado), our river flows calm and flat. Both outboards whined in unison as we glided along at 15 mph. The early November air still held enough warmth to keep us from shivering, but a storm was headed our direction and things would be changing by evening. I’m a wuss at heart and don’t like being cold and wet, but I’m here to tell you that mental preparation is as key as having the right clothing layers. You know what’s coming, and you refuse to complain about it.

It’s us and the river. In wonderment, I watched rock formations and waterfowl and autumn-splashed vegetation pass by. I made a mental note to ask Kyler why he was traveling in zigs and zags down a flat river whose surface features divulged nothing to my untrained eye. A story from Bill about being thrown from a boat hitting a sandbar gave me new reason to study the water, thankful for an experienced captain.

(Continued in Cataract Canyon 3: Doll’s House)

Unnamed monolith in dappled autumn light, somewhere between Potash and the Confluence.

August 22, 2011

Those ancestral Puebloans

A single course of masonry curves gracefully around the space it once defined.

A hummingbird whirred by in the silence, jarring me back to the present. I was standing at an infrequently-visited ruin at Mesa Verde National Park, trying to wrap my head around the living conditions here in this cliff dwelling 800 years ago. Birth, work, ritual, play, cooking, dancing, death… everything we do, they did. Only they did it in an alcove high above the canyon floor, with little to work with but their marvelous resourcefulness.

I pondered the walls, their builders’ skills varying from ‘passable’ to ‘highly aesthetic’ with perfect corners and edge decoration. The seep spring in the rear of the alcove was ingeniously directed toward small cuplets carved in the sandstone floor, making collection easier. Grinding stations were conveniently placed where the women could watch their children play while socializing with “the girls” as they prepared grains and seeds. Each clan had its own ceremonial subterranean kiva for rituals and worship, with innovative HVAC elements supplying it. Sketchy toeholds and handholds were cleverly carved right into the cliff walls, enabling ascents and descents that would dizzy us today

Perhaps a hundred people called this alcove home during the early 13th century.

Their building boom (i.e., multi-story masonry cliff dwellings of the 12th century) lasted only about a hundred years; then they moved southward to New Mexico and Arizona, abandoning the architectural wonders. Why did the garbage middens have fewer animal bones in the top layers? Why did the last rooms added to the pueblo use far less timber? The likely culprit was that their intensive land use had made trees and game animals scarce, too scarce to support a population dependent on the land for everything.

My 28 hours among the archeological sites of Mesa Verde gives me pause to consider what we are doing to our own world.

May 2, 2010

“May Day Man” and other petroglyphs

[I apologize for the formatting. I can’t seem to make the pictures and text fit around each other.]


My fascination with ancient rock art is likely rooted in the universals that connect us all. Every emotion I experience was once shared by the Ancestral Puebloans who lived in this area a millennium or two ago. Let’s look for the themes in various local petroglyphs I’ve photographed.

"May Day Man" --rock art from Chaco Culture NHP

Here’s one I’ve nick-named “May Day Man.” Is there an emergency? Is he startled? Newly engaged? Trying to get help? Petitioning a higher power? Or has someone just given him the best birthday present he’s ever received? Is there anyone who can’t relate to the intense emotion expressed here?

along the Petroglyph Trail at Chaco Culture NHP

Sexuality is another theme that crosses all cultures and all times. I saw such universals celebrated in the hieroglyphs lining Egyptian temples, half a world and three millennia removed. There is no denying its place as a major theme of human experience, worthy of fine art around the globe and throughout history.

Birthing Rock, near Moab

"TV screen" bighorn sheep, Hwy 313 outside of Arches NP

Relating to the organisms around us is another shared experience. Whether one hunts and eats them, or domesticates them for pets, or reveres them as gods, or honors them as another creature sharing this earthly domain — animals are a significant part of our world.

Finally, we have the realm of the spiritual, the unapproachable, the mysterious, the immanent. Every culture struggles to find expressions for this, whether it is shamanistic figures or the Sistine Chapel ceiling. These are pictographs (painted), not petroglyphs (pecked).

Barrier Canyon style, at Sego Canyon, UT

Sego Canyon

There are other universals that could be found: conflict, survival, discovery, movement, beauty, love, beginnings, suffering. The intrigue of rock art is that we will never know many of its meanings. We can, however, be certain that if we experience it, our ancestors also did… and took the time to document it with significance lost to us across the centuries.

April 9, 2010

Chaco Culture National Historical Park

In the ruins of Pueblo Bonito, Chaco Culture National Historical Park

Chaco Canyon, in NW New Mexico, is an unassuming panorama of badlands, grasslands, buttes, and mesas. It is dry, dusty, desolate, and appears to be filled with nothing but monotypic stands of blackbrush as far as the eye can see… unless you go with an archeology major. Ranger Casey’s birthday gave us a great excuse to drive the 200 miles to her favorite place.

Wavy walls at Pueblo Bonito

Ancestral Puebloans built and occupied this remarkable place between 850 and 1150 A.D. The National Geographic Society started excavations in the 1920s. It is a World Heritage site, like Machu Picchu and the Pyramids of Giza.

Take an expert next time you go someplace; you will have new eyes with which to see. All those mounds of earth along the canyon walls are NOT mounds of earth, but buried ruins. Casey would point out when a piece of wall protruded from the boring desert scrub, or how one ruin lined up with and balanced other ruins along the axis of the valley. She took us to an ancient route behind a minor complex that scrambled up ten or twelve stories of sandstone, for our cool photos from above. She sighted a ruin complex three miles away that, to my untrained eye, looked like a rock outcropping. She showed us an ancient 30-ft-wide staircase carved onto a cliff, part of the road system that linked Chaco with other scattered communities. We peered into kivas and great houses and tried to grasp how they would have been used.

Casa Chiquita, from the cliff top

We looked at different masonry styles; the preservation workers there can tell which walls were done by the same worker a thousand years ago, they are so stylistically unique. And, thanks to dendrochronology, each ruin can be dated by tree ring analysis of its ceiling timbers. Wild!

A philosophical shift happened in archeology about thirty years ago. Costly, time-consuming, and disruptive excavations have been set aside in favor of using underground imaging techniques with instruments I’ve never heard of. This is much more acceptable to the Hopi, Navajo, and other present-day descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans.

Ceiling timber is long gone. Artful masonry.

As I wandered this broad flat valley, with only my two companions, a few ravens, and my imagination, I pondered the life I would have led as one of the residents here twelve centuries ago. Evidences of their daily routine were scarce: only metates, or grinding stones, and a few potsherds. The rest has gone to museums.

What I know for sure is that I would have been highly in tune with light, seasons, cycles, weather, plants, animals, and the stars. When survival itself depends on these things, they assume an importance I will never experience. Thanks, Chaco, for inviting me to glimpse my world anew.

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