“Sometimes the road leads through dark places, sometimes the darkness is your friend”
There is a certain place in Southeastern Utah, on Cedar Mesa, and there is a road that leads out to it. The road there is long and complex, to embark upon it involves travelling not only forward through distance, but also backwards through time as well. One also travels outward, emerging from the densely thicketed morass of daily life into a larger world that moves at a more deliberate pace.
The beginning of the road is in Austin, along highways so new they are not even finished, past virginal, white expanses of concrete and shiny "just out of the box" Best Buy and Barnes & Noble stores. A long push through and out of Texas follows; out of the up-to-the-minute cybernetic frenzy of the Silicon Hills and onto the Llano Estacado. Parts of the human landscapes seen from the highway have not changed significantly since the 1930’s: fields, tractors, silos, gas stations.
Then the road proceeds through northern New Mexico, after a brief, heady affair with mountains it heads down, out of the high country and across the desert of the Indian Reservations. At this point, hundreds of miles of distance notwithstanding, one begins to feel as if they have traveled. The road has narrowed. Names, such as Dzlith-na-o-dith-hle tease at you from forlorn signs along the shoulder. Death hogans (one wall knocked out to allow the former inhabitant’s spirit to exit the dwelling with a minimum of fuss) dot the lonely landscape. The dog has to pee, and when you let him out of the truck he stands out in the dust and sun, sniffing, processing (assimilating?) (Remembering?). We could be thousands of years in the past, yet we are not. The roadway proves it. The refineries on the horizon prove it. The billboards for the reservation casinos (Truckers Welcome!) may or may not prove it. Now, for a brief moment, a day or two, the modern world is forgotten. For as long as you can stay out on these back roads, off the grid, you can exist on your own terms. The din and clamor of advertising, jobs, “news” or whatever defines a day to day existence fall noiselessly to the ground and the moment in front of you can be experienced in its fullest. If it is true that humans are merely the sum total of their perceptions, the act of stripping away much of the trappings of modern life can distill this perception and sharpen it, especially with respect to a landscape.
From here, the road angles northward, the surface steadily deteriorating. Across a corner of Colorful Colorado there is a brief upgrade in road conditions, lost of course in the stream of RV’s trundling towards Mesa Verde. Then, heading west out of Cortez, the road climbs up into the high desert, through McElmo Canyon, a road that within the last year has been, regrettably, paved. From the lush foliage of the creek bottom, sandstone formations jut starkly up, into the blue sky. This road is sufficiently off the beaten path that there is no Welcome to Utah! sign at the state line.
Now the road goes due north, through a landscape that feel palpably old. House sized boulders litter the feet of 2500-foot high cliffs. Stone faces burnished black and bronze by the sun and wind often yield fascinating rock art. Heading defiantly straight at the foot of these cliffs, the road seems unaware of the upcoming obstacle. Amazingly, rather than abruptly veering away, or coming to an unceremonious end or in any way yielding to the bulk of stone and the weight of years, the road turns into gravel and switchbacks directly up the side of the mesa. Once at the top, there is a short section of black top, then a right turn, onto a road whose name I will not divulge. Here there is a brief respite to lock up hubs and secure gear on top of trucks. Then it is onward, down a red dirt road; alternately crawling across the desert floor or bashing through creekbeds, often with deliciously long, metallic scrapes emanating from underneath the truck. The sound of failing metal and rising hopes. The machines that we surround ourselves with are at once an enabler and a detractor. I never would give up the opportunity to spirit myself into the American west, yet problems arise when we try to get away from it all in an air-conditioned steel chariot. A journey used to be an arduous undertaking, spiritual journeys doubly so. Super highways and automobiles cut this journey to the bone and strip away the meat of the matter.
Eventually this road ends, as all roads must do. Though it is quite possible that this is the beginning of a road, and I am travelling backwards. Through space, through time. Often roads end for no discernible reason, but here the reasoning is quite sound, as there is a yawning chasm, a slickrock canyon that silently, inarguably prevents further passage. However, other conduits await. A trail takes off from this point and heads east, skirting the edge of the canyon. On each side of this path cryptobiotic soil, the crusty outer layer of the dirt of the desert fills the spaces in between Juniper and Pinon trees. Bending down and peering at these living soils, one gets the impression that they are looking at an alien landscape, and indeed scientists look at cryptobiotics with interest, as they hold clues as to how life could exist on Mars.
As primitive as it is, even this path eventually peters out as the desert soil gives way to pure slickrock, petrified sand dunes from the days when this all was an ancient inland sea. Scattered here and there are various hollows in the rock surface, usually filled with water. Many are evolving into island ecosystems, as the tiny ponds fill with silt and dirt and eventually provide footing for plant life. Something else is happening too. The land narrows down to a 50-foot wide span, a curving gangplank of stone flanked on both sides by precipitous drops down to the canyon floor. With sharp eyes one can see ancient dwellings underneath overhangs across the canyon to the north.
At the end of this slickrock moonscape, the land widens out again. At this point are the remains of a prehistoric wall, strategically placed to slow one’s advance out to the point of land nearly surrounded by canyon. At the bitter end, up on a small pedestal of land spared (so far) by the constant erosion process of the canyon country are a couple of trees, a nice shaded overhang and four perfectly preserved rooms left over from the period of Anasazi inhabitation of this area. Wood supports are still in place over doorways and in ceilings. Corncobs, flint and potsherds are abundant in the sand. This south-facing site, informally named Citadel House for its commanding location, is a perfect example of the prehistoric habitation of southeastern Utah. Other sites exist that equal it in terms of preservation and construction quality, but none have the spectacular setting and 360 degree view
This is a landscape of loss and renewal. For millennia the area moved at a geologic pace of gradual erosion. Rock faces gave way to wind and water, leaving fantastical spires, arches and fins. The denizens of the desert consist of spiny, hardy, creatures, heavily adapted by trial and error, loss and renewal. Humans then showed up, late and in a rush. In the mad dash down the continent some hunter-gatherers stopped off here and eventually settled down to subsistence agriculture, eking out a living in a landscape that was, even in the best of circumstances, continually on the razor’s edge of sustainability. A particularly dry summer or a harsher than usual winter could easily tip the scales against the Anasazi. For a while they succeeded, well enough to establish trade with the civilizations of Mesoamerica. Something happened, however. This something shows up in what is left of the Anasazi landscape (the term Anasazi is under some debate, though it is the most commonly used name, in Navaho means “ancient enemies”, many prefer the Hopi word Hisastinom, meaning “the old ones”). A set of circumstances not fully understood drove these people into the canyon country, forced them to build walls and to repel attackers. Something forced them, eventually, to give up, to abandon this first feint at civilization and go back to the nomadic lifestyle. Many drifted southeast and formed the pueblo cultures of northern New Mexico that exist to this day. No one knows for sure what took place. Perhaps they pushed the landscape too far, asked it to give up too much in the way of crops, water and timber. Almost certainly, it had to do with the turmoil that took place thousands of miles south, as the trade network among the civilizations of Mesoamerica collapsed. Hundreds of years before the arrival of Columbus, the people who inhabited this little point of land reacted to events that took place far away. For several hundred years, the area lay still. The Navaho shunned the Anasazi ruins, part of their elaborate system of taboos concerning death. (Perhaps a cultural memory of the despair and failure that took place here?) Eventually other pioneers entered the landscape and discovered the fantastic ruins of the canyon country. The Mormons, neutrino-like, bore straight through this landscape, most notably at Hole-in-the-rock; heads bent on task, they seemed only aware of their goal. Others, however, took note of the natural beauty and prehistoric heritage of the area.
Is my journey out here a version of the story of the Anasazi in reverse? Am I moving from civilization to nomadicism and back again?
Why travel here? Why take the extra time and effort? Mesa Verde was right on the way, had that been the destination one could have seen larger and more spectacular ruins. Why is this place so special? Perhaps it is because you do not have to pay for this. It is not a commodified landscape; the experience is not that of a museum, or a zoo. There is no physical or intellectual separation from the ruins. There are no didactic tour guides or signs. You don’t have to shuffle past in a line. When all of the explanation and interpretation is stripped away one is left with that most precious of emotions: Wonder. Wonder is that emotion most people have left behind with their childhood, and the emotion that we long for when we reach back to those years. Here there is no separation from the place, no glass wall between you and some forlorn, corpse-cold relics. The ruins and the landscape are one place, together, rather than an archaeological site that through its uniqueness demands to be considered all on its own. By drawing out the approach instead of immediately switching from air-conditioned car to ruins, the transition afforded by gradually shedding modern life allows the deeper significance and meanings of these ancient structures to seep in.
Other reasons for travelling to this spot have to do with numerous boyhood trips out to this region. With my father at the wheel, we would leave the warm, humid embrace of Houston and head west. Our summer range extended from Northern Mexico to Southern Canada, bounded on the east by the cordillera of the Rocky Mountains and on the west by the bracing waters of the Pacific Ocean.
Neuron-like, Citadel House has connections to other places in the west. From here, one can get to the nearby Abajo Mountains, the Goosenecks, Muley Point, the Lonesome Beaver Campground, or Mollie’s Nipple. The Bear’s Ears occupy the horizon to the north. The lights of Cortez are visible due east, with the La Plata mountains further behind. Just as neurons continually build and refine their dendrites, their connections to other neurons, so too does the system of place-connections continually refine itself. Old, out-of-date or otherwise useless information withers and drops out of the network: yahoos have overrun Moab. New information is included: on my last trip out there the chef at Crow Canyon Archaeological Center told me about the little known Woman Giving Birth petroglyph just below Muley Point.
In some ways, this triptych is not real, rather, it is an archetype, a “form” in the neo-platonic sense. It is an ideal against which other journeys and other trips are measured. It has to do also with scattering my father’s ashes around this point of land. It only seemed fitting to cast his remains about a place that held significance, and that he loved, rather than commit him to a tiny patch of land that no one had ever thought of before. In attaching this much significance to this place, I run the risk of devaluing it, stripping it of its larger context and meaning. The story of millions of years of geology and thousands of years of prior human habitation becomes mixed up with my personal relationship with this site. A description of a landscape is often just a story that we are telling ourselves about ourselves. Someone’s story of their trip to the Grand Canyon becomes, through the lens of human perception, a story about them. It is hard to say whether I have absorbed this landscape or it has absorbed me.
This place, this landscape and this journey are all unique because they are merely shells, archetypes of greater things that no longer exist. Like a national park, a scraggly herd of buffalo, a lone passenger pigeon in a zoo or an Indian reservation, they ultimately point not to what is there, but to what is no longer there. The reason that these shells are so compelling is that they still possess power and emotion, magic and loss, beauty and pain. This, I think, is of paramount importance to understanding a place. These emotions must be felt by anyone who would presume to make decisions affecting these lands, as well as by those who delve into the archaeology of this area. Without this connection, how can any understanding be achieved?
I have sown an interesting seed here in that I have associated the same landscape with both the loss and the memory of my father. By scattering his ashes here there will always be the pang of his loss present in this place. Because this place was one that he loved, and showed to me so that I could love it too, there is at the same time a sense of renewal.