Ranger Kathryn's Arches

July 11, 2012

Keet Seel 6: the walk out

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 5:48 pm
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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.

June 21, 2012

Keet Seel 3: real people

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 4:31 pm
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(continued from Keet Seel 2: arrival at the ruin)

An everyday cooking vessel sits silently in the ruin.

In every direction, my eyes land on evidence of the ancestral Puebloans’ occupancy — at times so fresh, so present, that it is as if these people just picked up and left recently.

Ancient corn cobs fill the stone depressions that may have served as part of the grinding process.

Ancient shrunken corn cobs fill stone depressions which were likely used for knocking the kernels off to be ground; I can see the womenfolk hard at their task with metates and manos. A shapely vessel adorns the top of one wall, recovered in pieces and cemented back together; I can see girls filling it with water. Down in the kiva, fiber loom anchors are attached to the floor; I hear the men gathered there, weaving blankets, talking about their latest hunting escapades.

Hollow pottery handle from a dipper or ladle adds intrigue.

A broken dipper handle, hollow, hallowed, sits upon a pile of stones; thirsty children drink from the spring. And, in one darkened room block, our camera flash reveals distinct painted handprints on the wall — intimate touch of its residents 750 years ago. Rough-hewn beam ends, ceiling timbers shaped by stone ax, project from rock walls. Pottery shards everywhere speak of the artistry and aesthetics of this culture.

 ~~ to be continued ~~

Every shard reflects the artistry of its maker. They covered the ground underfoot.

One can see the ax marks on this beam. Dendrochronologists can tell in what year it was felled by comparing it to known tree ring patterns.

Black and yellow paint highlight hands of the original residents. The yellow pigment was blown through a straw-like reed to make the negative print.

June 19, 2012

Keet Seel 2: arrival at the ruin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 10:08 pm
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The ruin is so intact that I have no difficulty imagining its occupants in their daily lives. Just look at that beautiful street!

(continued from Keet Seel 1: the trek begins)

The ability to sense when you’re getting close to your destination helps when you’re bone-weary, which we three were. Ascending the final hill to the primitive campground, we found an open site and dropped our packs. Ground-cloths were spread and late lunch happened. The lure of horizontality couldn’t be overcome; we rested under the oaks in sight of our prize — Keet Seel Ruin.

If you’ve never seen a huge sandstone alcove, it’s difficult to comprehend the feel of the space. Organic, protective, curvaceous, smooth, empty, inviting — the ancestral people felt its attraction. When one of these magnificent spaces is filled from end to end with a village, my heart and mind are electrified with connection.

Polychrome pottery fragments — such lovely colors are mixed in among more common black-on-white shards.

Approaching the ruin with quietness and respect, we met Bill, a park ranger of Navajo descent. He guides only five people at a time through the 13th-century cliff dwelling, after the approach past thousands of breathtaking pottery shards and a climb up a five-story ladder. “Broken pottery scattered around” is Keet Seel’s rough translation in Navajo. I gasped at the quantity and size of the pieces and scrambled up to enter the ruin.

The ladder is not for the faint of heart. Ancestral people used less sturdy ladders, and sometimes moki steps (footholds and handholds) carved into the rock.

A masonry retaining wall running the length of the alcove presents a strong visual boundary; behind and upon it the people laid out three streets. Streets! Places of commerce, greeting, gathering, moving about, exchanging conversations — I’d never seen such streets in a ruin before. This, however, is no ordinary ruin.

~~ to be continued ~~

June 17, 2012

Keet Seel 1: the trek begins

Filed under: Uncategorized — Kathryn Colestock-Burke @ 9:07 am
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I feel weightless on the cusp of adventure. The pack, however, is another story.
Keet Seel Canyon, Arizona.

In the pre-dawn chill at 7300 feet, our sleeping bags held us captive as we contemplated the two-day adventure before us in Navajo National Monument. Arizona’s finest ruin had been on our radar for a month; team Tara/Margretta/Kathryn was perched at the ready. Now we had to carry full backpacks 8.5 miles (and back) to earn the privilege of exploring this ancestral site that could be visited only with a permit and a ranger. We rolled out of our bags, greeted the just-lightening skies, and got busy.

Margretta and Tara, hydrating in the desert. Strong, beautiful women. All-important permit is attached to Tara’s pack.

Contents of pack: two gallons of water per person in the summer sun (that’s sixteen pounds of slosh) plus food for three meals, sleeping bag and pad, clothing, footwear, toiletries, backpack stove and tent. To lighten my pack I elected to forego the tent and sleep on a small tarp. Still, hoisting that weight onto my back was a reminder of how much I ‘need’ in my everyday life.

Dropping a thousand feet down switchbacks, I cached two liters of water at the bottom for tomorrow’s climb out, and we began following a meandering perennial stream that would be our guide. Thirty-two times we waded through 1-3” of spring-flow that morning, glad for Gore-tex boots. Shade was absent, but camaraderie plentiful — adventurers lured by twin siren songs of exploration and long-gone cultures.

Numerous stream crossings added interest to the hike. Park Service boots kept my feet dry.

Mile by mile, the canyon gradually narrowed and became even lovelier; with the dependable water source, I had no difficulty imagining why the ancestral people chose this site for cliff-dwellings in the thirteenth century. My mind could not have conceived, however, the marvels that lay ahead.

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.

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