Thursday, May 21, 2009

Canyons I Have Known and Loved

Before my move to the Southwest I spent a good deal of time hiking and exploring canyon country around southeastern Utah.  I yearned to see more of what I was naturally drawn to geographically if not spiritually. It was partly about hiking and partly about my love of red rock but mostly it was about being entranced by all things Anasazi. This ancient culture called to me almost halfway across a continent and I couldn't get enough of it. I needed to see where they had lived eight hundred plus years ago.

A small town named Bluff became base camp. The greatest hiking in the world - Comb Ridge and Butler Wash among the possibilities - was just outside of town. Hikes were planned around the hope that a ruin would be discovered hidden in an alcove on the canyon wall. I knew all about the Federal Antiquities Act and had no desire to hunt pots but I did want to photograph these incredible dwellings and the artifacts around them, in situ. Every spring yielded sweet surprises.

Cedar Mesa is where the adventure really began. There was Mule Canyon, which gave us what we referred to as Mule Canyon Towers and Mule Canyon Apartments, modern day appellations for ancient dwellings. We'd spend the afternoon absorbing the ambience and imagining their day to day lives. Midden became one of the sweetest words in the English language. We took some great photographs, always followed by a lunch of canned sardines. It was tradition.

The finest hike for me was in Owl Creek Canyon. We didn't know what to expect except a great hike between rock walls and the possibility of astounding discoveries. We didn't have to wait long. Half way down the canyon we turned to check our back trail (always a good idea), and saw part of a ruin in an alcove just above and behind us. There was a granary with the stone slab door still covering it and a couple of other structures that were a photographer's delight. It got better from there.

By the time we got to where the going got really fun, we realized we were on a grand adventure. I could feel it, knew this was going to be life-altering.

En route we passed three other hikers, something that rarely happened back then. Canyon country had not yet been discovered. They were two guys and a gal on spring break who were just coming out after spending almost a month down in the canyons. She apologized for being a bit "whiffy" and admired my bear claw earrings. After we moved on I kicked myself for not taking them off on the spot and offering them to her in honor of her intrepid spirit.

When we reached the pour off I realized I would have to meet my fears and subsume them enough to get down to the pool below and Neville's Arch waiting just around the corner. A long ledge at a slight angle high above our destination was the only route. Going across gave new meaning to sweating bullets. Temporarily sitting on my sorry butt and looking down into the canyon below only exacerbated the effect. I knew I had to stay on my feet where my boots would provide traction in case I lost my footing. JB, my cohort in crime and hiking, was there to provide encouragement as well as the opportunity to save face if I simply couldn't do it. He was a mountain goat. I was not. We kept moving along the ledge, one step at a time and a lot of positive thinking. Failure was not an option.

Eventually we did make it down and took a big breather at the bottom. Then, we moved on to Neville's Arch. As I looked at it from a distance, I became fully aware that I would have to retrace my footsteps across that ledge to get out of there. We were day hikers and not prepared for a night in the desert's extreme cold. I said a little prayer. Okay, okay. I said a big prayer. Then we headed back.

It became an interesting lesson in the dynamics of being right versus left handed. This is my posit: going across was very scary because my right hand, the one I use, was exposed with no place to reach for safety. On the return trip, my right hand was up close to the rock wall and thus a greater sense of safety. Anyhoo, I made it back across feeling a great deal less fear, a bit more enlightened, and with a whole lot of gratitude for an experience I'm obviously still talking about. JB dubbed the ledge, Teresa's Traverse, and so it remains in my memory and, as memories go, it's a pretty good one.

The photograph is of me, in one of the canyons we explored.

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