Far from the fires around Flagstaff, we’ve been in chilly Ogden, Utah, this past weekend. It was green almost beyond belief—the only gaps in the lushness are where snow still covers the mountainsides and peaks. The reservoirs are brimming, and the rivers are running at full tilt: falling over cliffs of quartzite and granite and crashing down mountainsides.
Wednesday, we hiked up Waterfall Canyon, just east of town. From the top of the canyon, snowmelt plunged down 200 feet to where we were standing. A wind kicked up from the rush of water and coated us with a fine cool mist. I missed a crossing over the creek on the way down, and had to wade across the cold stream to pick it up again. Frigid water ran through my boots, leaving the hem of my jeans soaked.
Our first two nights away from home, we camped on Cedar Mesa, just north of the San Juan River in southern Utah.
We hiked a rim trail to a giant rock formation, a fortress tower with just a spine of land connecting it to the main part of the mesa. About a third of the way up from the bottom of the canyon were terraces that looked like garden plots, carved into the flattest levels of the canyon. We spotted structures below on the canyon floor, and a tiny square window indicating a granary. A rocky sentinel with a smooth round head stood guard nearby, watching over the abandoned settlement.
After being forced to scramble along a steep ledge to stay on the trail, we were able to walk along the exposed ridge to visit 10 rock rooms built into the cliff just below the top layer, some perfectly intact, others just barely crumbling. The tower afforded a clear view for miles in any direction, and a completely defensible location.
The place felt like a prayer: quiet, windswept and generations-old.
As we turned back, the profile of a 30-foot-high boulder looked like the silhouette of a man’s face, ancient eyes upturned to the western sky.
After supper and clean-up, we played music around the campfire in the still of the night and resolved to hike again in the morning. We rose early, packed up camp, then descended into the canyon, clambering down rocky talus slopes, over rock falls and boulders to the canyon floor. The sandy path took us through cottonwood groves, past reedy plants and pools of water. We listened to birdsong and watched lizards dart in front of us, and spied the ribbon of a snake scooting away at our approach.
In addition to the intact kivas we’d seen from the rim, there were others that had collapsed, a total of seven. All along the walls at the site were potsherds and tiny cobs of corn, picked utterly clean by small rodents and birds.
The kiva roofs were made of timbers thick as thighs, with charred ends, cut to length with fire not saw blades. Flat rocks were stacked atop the timbers to complete the roofs and fortify the structures. From the rim, rectangular holes in those roofs had looked like the eyes and mouths of kachinas. What we couldn’t see from the trail above was that the insides of the kivas had been made smooth with mud and were polished black with soot, just like the ruins we’d seen on the rim.
Like scouting a rapid, the higher view gave us an idea of what we might encounter. The rim hike to the fortress was for viewing mountain ranges, geologic features, and the way trees and rocks populate the land, letting us see a compelling and dramatic big picture.
But without those delicious details, the view felt empty and incomplete, like a grand gesture with no driving emotion.
From the rim, there were no charred beams, no fragments of pottery, no wet boots, no tiny ears of corn or darting lizards, no smell of water or sound of the wind rattling through the cottonwood leaves. By getting wet and dirty, we caught the particulars of the experience. The canyon hike was for going deep, getting to the heart of the place, sensing the intimate character of a human life one thousand years ago.