Four Corners Region—Trailing the Ancients

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 1999. © Photo: Philip Greenspun.

The Four Corners region means different things to different people. To Terry Tempest Williams it is Navajoland, where every conversation, every sigh uttered by the “longtime-ago people” circulates around you. To Edward Abbey, the ancient canyon art of this region was the first world language that represented images ranging from the crude and simple to the elegant and sophisticated.

To me, it was a headache to sort through what the Four Corners meant to different people. OK, so my definition is a bit of a downer. But in my non-prolific defense it was overwhelming to determine which archaeological sites, modern communities and Indian lands to cover in an area that smacks of a primeval and intangible world.

My friend John and I turned to the Visitor’s Center in Monticello for the inside scoop on following in the footsteps of the Ancients. Little did I know those ancients would be by way of the local geriatric ward. A sweet grandma greeted me at the main desk. Haltingly, I asked her if she could help me find some backcountry routes in the region.

“Of course, sweetie,” she replied. “If I can’t help, then Herbert can.” OK, I didn’t exactly capture the name of the ancient, sun-worn man she pointed to at the end of the counter. But if any man looked like a Herbert, he did. It took mere seconds to confirm that they would not be good resources. They loaded me up with brochures and John and I headed to the BLM Ranger’s station a couple of blocks away for the real scoop.

We came away with concrete plans. We would start at the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park and cut over to Cedar Mesa and Grand Gulch. From there, we would hit Valley of the Gods, Monument Valley, and then Canyon de Chelly in Arizona. Our final pinnacle experience of the lopsided loop would be to stand on the Four Corners marker to symbolize the end of our own Trail of the Ancients.

Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park
We headed south on U.S. 191 to the Edge of the Cedars Museum and State Park in Blanding. For $1, we were introduced to the largest collection of Anasazi (pre-historic Puebloan) pottery in the Four Corners region. Located on the site of an ancient ruin, the museum has a collection of archeological treasures from the Ancient Pueblo Indian, Navajo and Ute Indian cultures that includes pottery and a ceremonial kiva, home to the Anasazi between A.D. 825 to 1220.

A sun marker stood just beyond the ruin. The Anasazi used this solar sculpture to calendar when to plant and harvest crops, connecting them with solar, plant life and ceremonial cycles. John moved in for a closer look as I stood back to analyze the dance of shadow and light. I gave up after two minutes of intense scrutiny and resolved there was a very good reason why I live in the 21st century when all connections with time are made with my trusty calendar and digital watch.

My favorite part of the Edge of the Cedars was the Observation Tower. This circular room’s expansive windows traced many of the Four Corner’s ranges, starting with Sleeping Ute Mountain and extending to New Mexico’s famous Shiprock and Utah’s Grand Gulch Plateau. Sometimes called Cedar Mesa, this 1,000-square-mile recreation area includes many archeological sites and was next on our agenda. The Abajo Mountains rounded out our view in the semi-circular tower.

Grand Gulch Primitive Area
I was eager to explore the Grand Gulch Primitive Area, one of the premier backpacking areas in Southern Utah. A friend had raved about an unparalleled 22-mile backpacking trip from Kane Gulch to Bullet Canyon, which winds through ancient ruins. John and I stopped at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station to get the ‘411’and permits. If the building was any indication, we were in for a primitive experience—the station was in a condemned trailer transported from Hovenweep National Monument.

The gal on duty gave me a detailed play-by-play of Cedar Mesa, home to numerous rock art panels and prehistoric ruins. Ancestral Puebloans inhabited the canyons and mesa tops between 700 and 2,000 years ago, and many of their dwellings remain in tact and fragile. For this reason, permits are limited and required for all overnight and day trips.

She tipped me off on an area outside of the Gulch in Cedar Mesa: Mule Canyon. I was immediately attracted by her description of this 10-mile roundtrip hike. Two fairly easy hiking areas are found in the north and south forks of Mule Canyon, which cut through sheer sandstone walls and ponderosa pine. But the true appeal of this trail is that it contains the highest concentration of ruins found anywhere on the plateau—more than one ruin per mile. We were sold.

Mule Canyon
We arose to the predawn colors of the desert and watched as pink, magenta, silver and purple shafts of light enticed the sun over the horizon. We were on the trail by 8 a.m.

John portentously wore his new trekking hat that his friends allegedly bought in Nepal. He bore a strong resemblance to Paddington Bear but I decided I’d have more fun with exploiting the Nepalese claim and asked if this meant he was Sherpa for the day. He was not amused. But when I pointed to his CamelBak—“the Sherpa”—he resigned himself to his station of servitude.

As we hiked, the canyon deepened and eroded alcoves lined the cliffs. The majority of cultural sites were on the south-facing slopes among typical high desert vegetation. The north-facing slopes were verdant with Douglas fir and ponderosa pine that spilled down from the Abajo range.

We had hiked about 0.75 mile when Sherpa John suddenly stopped. “Do you think that could be something up there?” he breathlessly asked. I gazed at the sandstone wall shrouded by ponderosa pine. What could his stealth Sherpa instincts be telling him? But then I looked at the ground—a giant arrow had been traced in the sand, pointing to the wall. So much for instinct. His sighting did not amount to anything, but he pulled through about 1.2 miles up the canyon where he discovered the first of a string of Anasazi ruins.

We spent the rest of the hike perched on the sandstone walls exploring the various alcoves. We crawled into the ancient settlements and marveled at the fallen masonry of the dwellings. Shards of pottery, worn but still proof of the artistic refinement of the ancients, were strewn around the rooms and organized on rocks by other hikers. The desert sun had shifted by the time we made our way out of the canyon, the colors, textures and shadows of our surroundings changing with the angle and intensity of the sunlight. Mule Canyon had come to light—and life—before our eyes.

Monument Valley
We then followed U.S. 261 through Grand Gulch until we reached the Moki Dugway overlook where we gazed down upon the Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley’s compendium of silhouetted buttes. We descended three miles on the graded gravel road and then explored the 16-mile loop through the Valley of the Gods—often called a miniature Monument Valley. The rock/clay surface road was a roller-coaster ride through a sandstone museum that included Castle Butte, Rooster Butte, Battleship Rock and Setting Hen Butte.

And then it was onto Monument Valley—land of the American West, and backdrop of hundreds of western movies and magazine ads. Where a simple image, the silhouette of a monolith held sacred for the Navajos, is enough to make us dream of infinite possibilities and empty spaces. The Navajo Nation Council designated Monument Valley as the first tribally-owned-and-operated park on July 11, 1958. More than 140 habitation sites have been found on the 17.6 million acre Navajo Reservation that straddles the Utah-Arizona border.

I was initially disappointed with how tightly the Navajo Nation regulates the valley. There is no hiking allowed off the 17-mile road unless you have a guide. We passed on shelling out $30 for a 2-hour tour, bought a $2 brochure and set out to explore the valley on our own terms as best we could.

The first monoliths we encountered were the famous Mittens, which according to Navajo legend were once deities who lived upon Mother Earth in the beginning of time. As we drove, the subliminal imagery of the monoliths, spires, buttes, mesas, canyons and sand dunes invoked a powerful associative reflex, and the distinction between reality and illusion became blurred.

We continued along the rectilinear ribbon of the road until we encountered one such mirage of the ancients. OK, maybe it was only a burro but for a moment I was transported back in time. John insisted we stop for a picture and I rolled my eyes at his hypocrisy. He generally mocks tacky tourists who take pictures of animals in the wild and then get attacked.

And then a Machiavellian plan unfolded. As he made his way back, I deviously exclaimed, “The burro is attacking!” Instinctively, John raced back to the Jeep to find me laughing hysterically. In his defense, he weakly said, “I thought I heard him running.” My query, “Do burros RUN?” did not lesson the pain. He will not be stopping to photograph wild and ferocious burros anytime soon, I’m sure.

Canyon de Chelly
We were intoxicated with the sights and smells of the labyrinth called Canyon de Chelly from the moment we arrived in Arizona’s northeastern desert haven—from the pungent scent of the vegetation, to the purity of the dust and the lucidity of the air.

Canyon de Chelly (pronounced d’SHAY) is really several canyons that rise as high as 1,000 feet above the floor, overshadowing the streams, cottonwoods and small farms below. The Canyon de Chelly National Monument was established in 1931 to preserve the land where people have lived for nearly 5,000 years—longer than anyone has lived uninterrupted anywhere on the Colorado Plateau. Embracing nearly 84,000 acres within the Navajo Reservation, the monument is administered by the National Park Service but belongs to the Navajo people.

Backcountry camping was out of the question in Navajoland so we stayed at the Cottonwood Campground, which was free of charge. We stopped as the Visitor’s Center in the morning and learned the rules and regulations were similar to Monument Valley.

With the exception of one designated trail, we were not allowed to hike unless we were on a tour or with a Navajo guide. The tours cost $40 for a half day, or $15 per hour with a private guide, with a minimum of three hours. We opted to explore the south and north rim drives on our own, which took in famous ruins such as the Mummy Cave and the Sliding House.

The highlight of Canyon de Chelly was the 2.5-mile roundtrip hike to the White House ruin. We followed the trail along the rim for about 1,000 feet before descending steeply into a canyon that had been polished by eons of sandpaper winds.

The White House was like an apparition floating in the cliffs. Built and occupied centuries ago by ancient Puebloan people, it is named for a long wall in the upper dwelling that is covered with white plaster. At its zenith, the village housed about 100 men, women and children in 60 rooms. The pottery shards surrounding it testified to the leavings of an ancient civilization.

I could not wait to document the ruin on paper and film. Until I realized I had forgotten my notebook. And then my camera malfunctioned. Regardless, we were in good spirits when we finally made the steep ascent back to asphalt and civilization and prepared for the final leg of our Trail of the Ancients.

Four Corners Monument
The sprint to the Trail of the Ancients finish line had a few speed bumps. Our final stop was at the Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United States where four states and two Indian nations share borders. Established in 1912, this monument was to be the capstone of our Four Corners tour.

I had envisioned our crowning moment. The desert sun would blaze down upon us. We’d explore the Visitor’s Center and small jewelry shops on the perimeter of the monument before planting ourselves on the marker. And we would smile like tacky tourists as photographs were taken to document the experience for posterity.

Of course, that was the illusion. Reality was that we got caught in a blinding sandstorm. We skipped the booths and made a mad dash to the marker where we stood for a good five seconds.

And pictures? Get real. Don’t forget the broken camera.

Total elapsed time at the monument: five minutes.

The total elapsed time of finally hearing the silence of a region that many revere as sacred: timeless.

-Amber Borowski Johnson

Havasupai, Arizona: A Garden of Eden in the Desert

Originally published in Sports Guide magazine, 2000. ©

Perhaps it is a bit of a hyperbole to describe Havasupai as a “Garden of Eden”.

Sure, it is a stunning region of glistening waterfalls and verdant foliage that are especially luminescent under a full moon. But our group of intrepid hikers also encountered our fair share of serpents in this garden, which amounted to danger. Big danger.

From the ferocious food-mongering stray dogs to the vile dwellings of doom known only as “the toilets”- to the deadly snare of the black hole in our campsite, to our leader’s murky sleeping chambers that we reverently referred to as “the tarp.”

Albeit risky, this trip to Havasupai amounted to high adventure. Located in the western reaches of the Grand Canyon, it is no surprise that this place is referred to as the Shangri-La of Arizona. Maze-like canyons wind through a dusty brown landscape and eventually descend upon an oasis of turquoise waters at the foot of four cascading waterfalls. A narrow green ribbon-Havasu Creek-connects them all as it cuts through the red canyon floor. A heat-induced hallucination? Not quite-try Havasupi!

It had been years since I traveled into the backcountry with a large group, and our group of 11 was like no other:

Ray – Sadistic Leader(S.L.)a.k.a. Tarp Man
Travis – Little guy with the fast feet
Julie – Kodak spokesperson
Robert – Guy with the patience of Job
Melvin – Keeper of S.L.’s blackmail Panda stories
Preston – Lopsided backpack man
Brent – Maniacal barefoot trail walker
Layne – Packer of the kitchen sink
Trisha – Giggly newlywed
Marshall – Camp dog
Me – CEO of Moleskin, Inc.

We arrived at the trailhead early on a mid-April afternoon. The sky was thankfully overcast, providing a reprieve from the region’s typically scalding temperatures. After unloading my gear, I stood for a moment on the canyon rim overlooking the parched desert before me. From here on the arid Hualapai Hilltop, the thought of Havasupai’s green and azure paradise seemed downright whimsical.

Thirteen-year-old Travis led the way down the moderately steep 1.5-mile descent to the canyon floor, and then along the Hualapai trail, which twists 6.5 miles through a flat wash to the village of Supai. The convoluted canyon’s steep and embayed cliffs dwarfed us at every turn. This dramatic sweep of sandstone was punctuated by dizzying rock pinnacles that caused us to frequently pause for orientation and inspiration.

We were alone on the trail, except for the occasional mules hauling backpacks and mail through the wash. Ray assumed the role of Tour Guide Extraordinaire. “See that tree over there?” he asked. We all leaned forward expectantly, awaiting profundity. “That is a green tree . . . with purple flowers.” His banal banter continued- from “orange flowers” to “flowing creek” to identifying graffiti on the walls as pictographic evidence that “white man was here.” Julie (somehow) seemed impressed because she had her camera out at every turn.

Despite Ray’s comic relief, the arid stillness of our narrow confines stifled at times and our packs weighed heavily on us. I looked sympathetically at Preston, whose loosely attached sleeping bag flopped with every step. And then at Layne, who in anticipation of his first backpacking trip since Boy Scouts, was overloaded with brand spankin’ new gear. Regardless, everyone remained upbeat.

About 1.5 miles before the village, the canyon opened into a wide plain shaded by cottonwood trees was correct and Havasu Creek was no mirage in the desert. We finally arrived at Supai, home to more than 500 Havasupai Indians. The tribe, whose name means “people of the blue waters,” has lived in this isolated country for centuries. They once farmed the fertile canyon floor each summer then moved to the plateau after harvest to gather abundant wild foods and firewood during the winter.

Though we already had a confirmed reservation, we still had to sign in at the Tourist Office and pay the rest of our dues ($15 per person). Conditions in town were cluttered and unkempt path and stray dogs lapped at our feet. We wandered, checked out the rodeo grounds, café and general store, and then watched a chopper land. For a price, less adventurous trekkers can buy their way into this canyon. Then again, flights in that dilapidated helicopter looked like they held their own high adventure.

The campground was another 2 miles from Supai, so we continued through Havasu Canyon to where the creek tumbles over the limestone cliffs of Navajo Falls. Less known than Havasu and
Mooney Falls, this 75-foot waterfall branches out into a series of smaller waterfalls that cascade into a pool shielded by lush foliage.

Nothing could have prepared me for the sight of Havasu Falls, just half a mile from the campground. Pummeling 100 feet down travertine columns and shelves that were formed by limestone deposits, its blue-green color rivaled the jealous sky. Dusk only intensified the saturation of its brilliant waters and red-rock backdrop.

We paused for only a few minutes before continuing to the mile-long campground that was nestled along Havasu Creek. Most of the campsites were just off the main trail and a freshwater spring provided drinking water. We found an area that was somewhat secluded from the bustling crowds and proceeded to pitch our tents. That is, most of us pitched our tents; Ray had instead opted to take the easy and lightweight route by packing a tarp for shelter. An hour after the rest of us had set up camp and eaten dinner, he was still struggling to secure the tarp as he recited his knots aloud. So much for ease of use.

The next morning I rose before the sun but after the stirring dogs. Following a brief mishap when I discovered the camouflaged hole in our campsite the hard way, I limped to the dreaded outhouse. On the way, I was struck by the desire to visit Havasu Falls. I had yet to see them in daylight, but the thought of witnessing them by myself before sunrise was appealing.

I wasn’t disappointed. A light wind carried the falls’ mists like dust through this mystical lagoon. I expected the colors to be dim in the early light, but instead they had caught fire when touched by dawn’s cool brilliance. I tested the waters with my toe. The air was brisk and the water colder, yet adrenaline pushed me to jump in. It pulled me out even faster.

By the time I reluctantly made my way back to camp, sunrise had awakened the surrounding peaks and campers as dawn sketched patterns in the sky. Ray quickly discovered his food was missing. After searching all over the campsite we could only deduce one thing: the roaming dogs must have feasted on it the night before. Sympathetically, we thrust food his way. “Beware of dog” took on a new meaning in Havasupai’s campground.

An hour later, drowsy newlyweds Marshall and Trisha emerged from their tent. The rest of us were discussing Tarp Man’s great loss when Marshall plopped down at the table and innocently said, “Hey, I don¹t know whose this is, but someone left it out last night,” and tossed Ray’s bag of food down on the table. Laughter followed shock as we identified the dog to beware.

We had plenty of options for our day of exploration. We could: 1) Hike up the small side canyon to the east of Havasu Falls; 2) Follow another trail that can be reached by carefully climbing up a steep rocky area near the village cemetery along the west rim of Havasu Canyon that leads to Beaver Falls; 3) Hike along Havasu Creek another 8 miles to where it flows into the Colorado River; 4) Continue a few miles down Havasu Canyon and swim below Mooney and Beaver Falls.

We chose the last option and hiked to Mooney Falls, a hike of half a mile beyond the campground. Heralded as the most impressive of the area’s waterfalls, they plummet 196 feet into a vibrant pool that is a popular swimming hole. Gazing down from the steep ledge, it takes little imagination to see how prospector Daniel Mooney (after whom the falls are christened) fell to his death in 1880.

With the aid of chains and iron stakes, we eased down the steep, precipitous trail that descends through the travertine’s handiwork which resembled petrified waterfalls (or were we the petrified ones?) We were fascinated, awestruck and nervous as we passed through two tunnels that dulled the resounding drum of the falls. Upon reaching the bottom, we jumped into the chilly waters. I marveled how Mooney Falls was as much a visual splendor as an experiential one.

We then continued along the creek’s moist banks. Lush with cottonwood, willow, wild grapes and watercress, they provide a dense haven for hummingbirds, mallards and rock squirrels. The trail, though rough in places, offered a welcome sense of variety versus the flat wash that brought us to the campground. We climbed into the cliffs, passed by countless travertine pools and traversed the creek. After several crossings, a very frustrated Brent ditched his damp shoes and went barefoot, defying the sharp rocks and prickly cacti along the trail.

We discovered a swimming hole at our first river crossing and as a bonus stripped down to our bathing suits and took our turns swinging into the tranquil pool. Robert and Travis then opted to patiently wait while the rest of the group continued a few more miles to Beaver Falls. The largest of the travertine pools and small cascades, this area was more difficult to find and less frequented than the other falls.

When we finally headed back to camp, I marveled how I could feel such isolation and solitude while surrounded by so many people. Perhaps that was the magic of this canyon. It was only when I saw footprints meandering haphazardly along the trail that the presence of others was brought into my realm of serenity.

Dinner was uneventful. No missing food. No black holes. Just Melvin’s entertaining blackmail stories, Trisha’s contagious giggle and a smorgasbord of chow as we tried to devour everything to avoid packing it out the next day. And not to be forgotten was Ray’s glorified chicken noodle soup. Oh, I mean delicious angel hair pasta dish. Even the adopted camp dog (the real one, not Marshall) was invited to partake of our goods.

At dusk, we made our way down to Havasu Falls and were surprised to find that we were alone. The hues of the ebbing sun and presence of our group changed this beautiful place that had seemed frozen in time that morning. It came to life as we played Frisbee, explored the filmy curtains of travertine that produced small caves at the base of the falls, and enjoyed one another’s company.

I sat quietly for a few minutes breathing in my final scent of the spray before we headed back. Two torrents of water sliced down the canyon and bellowed over the falls. Perched between them a lone tree sat, defying erosion. Below, the subtle silver paints from nature’s palette glazed the cliffs as a waxing moon fought for space in the clouds until it finally dominated the ebony sky.
As we walked back, the full moon set the trail aflame.

“Look,” someone commented, “It’s almost like we have a spotlight on us!”

I looked around at our group and it was true radiance made us glow like beacons in the desert…a Garden of Eden in the desert