We'd already been hiking for some time by the time we came to the wash. Dry arroyo more like it, incised drainage cut into the hardened mud of the floodplain, where water hadn't flowed in a long time. Days certainly. Weeks probably. Chinle mud; from the formation named for the town through which the creek of the same name flows. The same creek we were angling towards, hoping to cross. Coming full circle.
One minor rub. No idea what the Chinle will be like. I've read a bit about it through this stretch where it slices back and forth across Comb Ridge, and have found two different observations; bone dry or thigh-deep. No way of telling what it'll be like here and now. No rain in some time, but certainly there's melting snow up in the highlands where the Chinle is sourced. Big mystery, and the only way to find out is to descend to the wash itself and find out.
So down we go through this arid tributary, winding back and forth beneath the prow of a spire of rock, a spur of Comb Ridge itself. 10, 25, 50 feet the arroyo walls rise above us, and bottom remaining narrow until that last final turn. Suddenly we were out in the open, the Chinle floodplain. Tamarisk and willow stands stretch from bank to bank, the only feasible way across through old cattle trails. The bank rises on the other side, and beyond that the burnt-red rock cliffs of Comb Ridge. First things first - Chinle Wash.
We meander, like the wash, across the plain following leads to cattle trails, bushwacking where we can't. A gurgle reaches my ears, and halfway through another ordinary stand of willows we come across the 7 foot steep bank, and the muddy Chinle.
Chinle, Chinle, running brown red with sediment from its namesake rock formation, carried across the plains and valleys between here and Ganado, with 20-some miles to go before dumping its load into the San Juan River. Looks like we'll be wading after all. Ely is skeptical we can get down to the wash itself. I disagree. Scampering down the soggy bank, I measure the flow with my hiking pole. Swift and about thigh deep. An obstacle, but certainly not insurmountable. I climb back up the bank and we head a few yards upstream to a better crossing.
Beth and Ben apparently gave little heed to my warning of having to possibly wade the stream, so they've brought nothing but their boots. They'll go barefoot across the stream, if indeed we can cross it. Ely and I remove out boots as well, but in their stead sling on sandals. I'm the scout and possible sacrificial lamb, not only because this whole thing was my idea, but I'm the only one with a hiking pole. Out into the current.
It's chilly and swift, nothing I didn't already know, but knowing and experiencing are often different things. The bank drops straight down from the edge, going thigh-deep without any preamble. The good news though is that it doesn't deepen. The bottom appears to be unerringly flat. Fine for our purposes. "Is it cold?" asks a member of the group.
"Not really," I reply, and am immediately called a liar as Ben steps into the flow.
"This is cold!" comes the shout, followed by like words from Ely and Beth. Come on people, it's not that cold. I'm standing midstream, guiding them on, and you don't see me complaining, do you?
Cold or not we all make it safely across. My hiking pants seem sodden with extra water. Others were smarter than me, they all rolled up their pants, though perhaps not high enough. Everyone still has wet feet and wet legs either way. No getting around that.
Up the far bank, a challenge that looked more difficult than it was. Ely and I stay in our sandals, giving our feet time to dry out, but Beth and Ben reshoe themselves. More bushwacking through the willow and taramisks. Tougher going, since we have to find a cattle trail before we can follow it. Run into the Chinle again, much to my surprise; are we on an island? No, its just a meander. Breaking free of the green grasp of the trees we mount the bank and we're back up to the level of the old floodplain.
Up a redrock draw, and we're on the Moenkopi Plain, dotted with Chinle hills. Sand blows across our backs, pushing us along. Beth and Ben forge ahead, while I hang back with Ely, who's feeling pretty hungry. We'll eat after the ruin, we agree, as it looms closer and closer on the cliff face. Or so I think. Ely tells me she doesn't think its getting any closer. Of course it is - we're walking towards it, aren't we?
One advantage to taking a slower pace is that we can see stuff that the others can't. As Ben and Beth begin to descend another draw to bring them back to the Chinle floodplain, and skirt a boulder fall, I cry out. "Holy cr@p!" I shout, pointing at a fallen boulder. "Those are some big freaking petroglyphs." That does it; Beth and Ben come trotting back while Ely and I veer off the cattle trail towards the boulder.
Awesome. Its a Basketmaker panel, with some life-sized San Juan Anthropomorphic figures near the top. Male, with the position of the boulder they seem to be ascending into the sky. Below them myriad other designs speckle the rock. Other humans, bighorns, yucca, abstract designs. Some of them are more recent, Pueblo III, while others are older but repecked. In the lower right-hand corner there's another San Juan Anthropomorphic figure, with no head and a human inside it's torso. Strange strange. What does it all mean? We speculate briefly, but it can only be that: speculation.
The boulder break provides us with a perfect opportunity to snack up, though. We won't have to take a break after the ruin unless we want to. I don't own a watch, but Ben's got his, and we're doing good on time. Loading our packs back where they belong, we hit the trail again.
The going gets rough soon after the boulder. We're faced with two options; descending to the Chinle flats and traversing along there to the ruins, or sticking to the bench, hoping to avoid bushwacking again, and crossing to the ruins that way. Of course there's no guarantee that this bench in fact goes all the way to the ruin. We can't see around a big boulder fall between us and the site.
So off we go to the boulder fall. It seems passable. Rough, but passable. We scramble up through some, cross canted slabs, and drop back down through another series of scrambles. Back on the old floodplain, but we can go no further. Erosion has removed the compacted mud all the way to the canyon wall directly in front of us. Back down to the Chinle flats anyway.
Another scramble through a tight eroded draw, and we're back among the willows and tamarisks. Cows have been here before us, and they've stuck close to the arroyo bank, bashing an easy path for us to follow upcanyon. At one point, though, we come to a place where the cows have deserted us. We step out onto the flats themselves, huge dessicated area with cracks the size of my arm encircling areas the size of my torso. Huge mud cracks. Slightly spongy as we walk across it, and I don't like that at all. "This feels like its about to become quicksand," I say. Prophetic words, but soon forgotten as we burst through another thicket. There, towering in an alcove above us, half-hidden in shade, is the ruin we've been seeking.
It's impressive. A white shield looms on the cliff face over a partial three-story tower. Other structures dot the alcove, including a well-preserved two-story building with a T-shaped doorway, and many other buildings, both partial and complete are built on a rock fall. None of these structures were visible during our trek across the bench above, shielding under the north wall. Holy cow, what an awesome surprise.
The old floodplain has eroded mostly out from around the ruin, but a small section remained. We saw that a small arroyo cut through the solidified mud, and we aimed for it. The climb back up to the old level was steep but short and studded with pottery sherds. What a sight greeted us when we got to the top of the bank.
I stopped, holding the whole group up as we came through the crack at the top. It stood, directly above us, on a steep slickrock slope, angled down towards us severely. I moved a bit, allowing the rest of the group to catch up. Appreciative gasps, quasiheroic photographs, and we began making our way across the bottom of the midden, then up the slope between the midden and the slickrock, avoiding disturbing the archaeological deposits still buried deep within. Those slumbering graves not yet churned up by the archaeologist's trowel or pothunter's shovel.
The slope was steep, but we made it up to the thin ledge where the slope me the cliff face. The steep angle the ancient architects had build their city on was even more obvious. Back in the direction we'd come in from, under the hanging brow of stone, stood the three story tower, the complete two story building, and several other well preserved structures. On the shelf where we arrived there was a small spring, a kiva, and the boulder fall buildings, each carefully masoned in place atop and in between various chunks of stone that had detached themselves from the cliff sometime in the distant past. Despite the care the Anasazi had put into the construction of this section of the city, it just hadn't held up. Being built on unstable boulders couldn't have helped, in the long run, and unlike the tower section, the cliff face was vertical, not overhanging, above the rockfall. Wind, rain, and snow had worked their dirty magic over the years.
After poking around in a kiva, checking out a few Moki steps, and admiring some pottery on the close end of the rockfall, we headed for the shade of the tower section. The first building built away from the rock fall shows the difference in preservation. Although the cliff face wasn't overhanging, the remains of the two story building were well preserved with the lower floors intact, complete with doorways, and remains of the second floor walls were still present. Walking along the ledge behind the building, against the cliff, we were able to look down into the remains and wonder what it had been used for all those hundreds of years ago.
Then we were in the heart of the tower district. Creeping along the base of the cliff, along a narrow alleyway, we saw bedrock metates and post holes, possibly supporting a veranda over the alley back when this was more than just a city of the dead. The alcove deepens as we step under the overhang, a pair of one room structures block our way, masoned back to back against the cliff face. A narrow passageway remains to their left, no doubt the only way to pass through on the ground level even when the city was occupied. On the other side of the passageway the tower reaches skyward. Although it looks tower-like now, it almost certainly was the interior wall of some long-eroded building back in the 1280's. The reason? The top floor has the remains of a T-shaped doorway. If it was a tower, why put a door up there? To trick people into killing themselves as they took that final plunge to the sloping apron of rock below.
What a scene this lays out in the mind! How enormous this place must have been, and filled with people and activity. This doesn't have the ring of some ghostly sanctuary of priests and rulers like Chaco, or even Cliff Palace. Here we've seen very few kivas, and very little in the way of rock art. A lot of the buildings we've seen too show evidence of internal fires - cooking and heating fires. This was a place where people lived, by god. What a sight it must have been, stretching across this elbow in the Chinle canyon, from apex halfway out to the point. Three story buildings lining alleyways, carefully fitted buildings built on boulders, with children and adults climbing up and down the network of Moki steps to criss-cross the city. Another set of buildings by a huge dripping spring, and then another, higher up. This certainly was a bustling hub, even if it all wasn't occupied all at the same time (as many of the largest cliff dwellings seem to show evidence of). This was vital!
That vitality, that strength, still show through today in the remains of the city along the Chinle. A little of that fear too, I suppose. They knew, the inhabitants of this nameless city, that their world was changing. They'd seen change before, change that had drove them to this bend in the canyon. Change would drive them further on, and they had to know it. Clinging to the rock face, leaving every square inch of indefensible land next to the Chinle for farming, not habitation. Then what?
I stick my head inside the two story building, with a wonderful T-shaped doorway at its center. During this city's life, that doorway would have lead into the upper story of a lower building, built on the slope before it that now is just a pile of rubble and low walls. Such is the way of the world. I am startled to note, however, that the two story building isn't one large downstairs room and one large upstairs room. Instead an interior wall divides the buildings in half. The ceilings/floors are gone, so I can see all the way up to the alcove roof, covered in ancient soot. There are no doors through this interior wall that divides the building. Why? There is, however, a small section of broken wall next to the back of the alcove along the interior wall. Some unscrupulous pothunter or early archaeologist may have busted through here to gain access to the treasures that the other side may have once contained. I know I won't fit, or even try to fit through that crack, but I know that I can pass without problem through the masoned door I'm looking in through.
Some may be shocked, recent ruin hunters who think that going anywhere near a ruin is sacralige, and that the only safe way to visit ruins and cliff dwellings is not at all. Perhaps they are right...for them. For if they've never actually visited a cliff dwelling, they have no idea how to behave around them; best to leave them below the midden staring up in wonder. This wasn't my first rodeo, though, so I eased myself though the door without touching a single bit of the building. Simple. In all the ruins I've visited, I've never displaced a single building stone or bit of mortar, and all the potsherds, corn cobs, and other items are always in the exact position I found them when I leave. Leaving no trace. If I find I can't get to someplace without doing damage, I don't go. Simple.
It was dark, darker than I had expected inside the room. Above I could see the post holes in the walls, where the ancient floor had once been for the second story, and above that were wooden sticks masoned into the wall. To hang things on? Its possible, I suppose.
I walked only on the bedrock floor, next to the back of the alcove, and made my way to the hole in the wall that some previous visitors had made. Sticking my head through, I could see the T-shaped doorway, almost next to the dividing wall. Footprints on the floor in the dust! I'm a small guy, I wouldn't think of putting more than my head through the hole - what were these people, whoever they were, thinking!? Sometimes it seems like all the work I take to be careful around ruins and rock art is for naught. Someone before me, or some later visitor seems almost to take pleasure in screwing it up.
I don't let my thoughts slide, though. How could I? Here I am, in a 700 year old building, looking out on one of the most beautiful landscapes possible. The T-shaped doorway frames the Chinle, flowing innocently across its floodplain, and the thin sandstone ridge that the Chinle has left of Comb Ridge at this bend in the river. Turreted, minarets all fly from the slickrock rising from the arroyo. Too cool.
I withdraw my head and walk back to the other side of the building, to the door I entered through. Its cool in here, cooler than outside. The rock walls do a great job of thermal insulation, but the smoke stains tell me it could get pretty cold in the winter.
As always, I don't want to leave. It seems every time I go to someplace new and special and unknown (to me), I develop a love. A love of place. We always say, "Oh, next time," or "When we come back," but the truth is I/we rarely go back. There's too many other places we haven't been. I worry that I won't get to see them all before I kick the bucket. Stupid thought; I believe it to be impossible to See It All before you die, even if your goal is as modest as seeing Anasazi sites, not all 7 continents. Whatever. I extract myself from the old building, breaking the spell.
Getting out of the building thrusts me clearly back into the present. The group is sitting around, admiring some of the best scenery this side of the Utah line. Its almost like Monument Valley with a stream running through it. The angle of the light on the cliffs and ruins speaks of time, though. As in time we don't have. I say, "You know, normally I'm the one urging us to stay and explore, but if you guys want to go, that's honestly all right by me." And it is. The spell was broken. We've got a long hike back to the truck, and there's still the stream to cross again. Ely doesn't believe me, but its true. I want to come back, to explore the rock fall and the spring complexes towards the apex of the bend, but its a simple fact; we don't have enough time. Taking one last look around us, as though we'll never see it again, we begin our trek out of the ruin.
Base of the cliff, beyond the midden. We're making our way back towards the arroyo crack where we gained access when Ely lets out a shout! "Guys, you've gotta see this!" Indeed we do. Beth has discovered a nice potsherd, a huge bit of Tusayan Black-on-White the size of my hand. Wow! I'd been muttering to Ben just a moment before how I needed to stop looking at the ground and concentrate on hiking. What a happy regression though, certainly one of the nicer finds from any of our trips together.
Down the arroyo bank to the new floodplain, bashing our way through the willows and tamarisks. Why did we ever leave that old dead city again? Back to the area of the mudcracks and bouncy ground. Again I warn. "This feels like quicksand. We've got to keep moving so we don't get stuck." Just then Ben, slowing down to move some willow branches, stops and turns.
"What did you say?"
That does it! Behind me, Ely goes into a wild panic while Beth, still on the margins of things, spins around and retreats for dry ground. Ben topples over, sparing himself the worst of getting stuck. I'm only in up to my soles, but I know if I move, I've screwed. Quicksand.
"Help me out," yells Ely, directly behind me. I lean on my hiking pole, and it immediately sinks up to the handle. Crappy. I try to turn, grabbing onto a willow, as I begin to go down as well. Movement is your real enemy in quicksand. I hold out the hiking pole to her, coated in slimy Chinle mud. "You can try this if you want-" and she does, her hand slipping off immediately. That mud is slick! "-but how you get out of quicksand is to lay down. Crawl or wiggle your way to dry ground." I then demonstrate, flopping to my belly beside Ben. I hope its not all a crock - I'm just going off of several accounts of quicksand that I've read, I've never actually dealt with this quicksand before, not crotch deep quicksand like we're in.
But it works. The surface tension of the quicksand holds, and we make our way to the solid banks. "Why did we ever go that way?" asks Beth. "Our tracks weren't there." Nobody likes a wise guy. Oh well. Now with only 50 extra pounds added to our lower limbs, we breeze along.
Speaking of breeze, there's a stiff one blowing as we cross the plateau leading to the Chinle where we forded it earlier. Past the petroglyphs. It whips and whirls, sending up dust devils and plumes of sand. In our eyes, our teeth, our ears, our hair. Each others steps stir up that fine silty sand, the wind blowing it back in the trailing members' eyes. Mouths. The sun is sinking lower in the western sky.
Finally we reach the wash, and I've still got about 100 pounds, or so it seems, of mud on my boots. Only Beth takes off her boots, probably because they're not coated with Chinle silt and grime. We wade the creek again, easier than last time, all wearing our boots hoping they'll wash clean. They don't, not really, and now in addition to our wet feet we've got soggy boots and socks to complete the hike in.
No choice but to do it though, as we climb out the dry arroyo and trudge across the plain, racing the setting sun. I can see the truck, far off, when we crest a ridge here and there. The wind is worse, howling right at us. With our sloshy boots and muddy pants, its a long haul. Ely keeps saying, "It seems like its not getting any closer." Even when we're no further away from the truck than maybe 100 yards, I still hear the same line. "It looks like we're not getting any closer. I'm not going to make it."
"Its fifty feet," I tell her. "We're almost there." We reach the truck just as the sun sets behind the ridge, blasting the hobgoblin spires, crenelations, and balanced rocks along the face of Comb Ridge with pure red light. Fantastic shapes and shadows, colors, and then fading. We load up and head towards dinner at Gouldings, looking like wandering desert rats with our sweaty visages and muddy clothes. We catch a gorgeous sunset over Monument Valley on our way back to the highway. Wheels rolling over the dirt roads, I couldn't ask for a better end than this.