Canyon of the Ancients

A few years back I was driving from Colorado into Utah on my way back to Arizona. It was getting dark and my eyes were getting heavy. I needed to find somewhere to pullover and sleep until morning but, I was in the middle of nowhere. The headlights were going out in the 4×4 camper van I was traveling in but, I figured better to get down the dirt trail and into BLM land while there’s still a tiny bit of light peeking over the horizon. This may or may not have been a good choice, depending on how you look at it.

Like clockwork the faint remnants of daylight that had been left lingering completely vanished the second my tires pulled off the blacktop and onto the worst washed out dirt trail I could have chosen. “Oh well, we’re into it now” I said out loud to my traveling companion who was sitting in the passenger seat, a white boxer dog named Murphy. We drove about a mile or three, who knows, down the trail in the pitch black with essentially no headlights before finding what seemed like a good campsite to pull over at. We didn’t need anything special, just a place to park and rest our heads till sunrise.

After pulling into the little cut in the brush, letting the dog outside for a while, and making a cup of tea it was officially bedtime. When we woke up the next morning and stepped out of the van into the daylight what we saw was staggering. First of all, I apparently stopped the van about a foot away from the edge of a mile-high cliff that I had failed to see in the dark. What really took my breath away though was that in the surrounding canyon walls I could see ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings everywhere.

I walked over to the very edge of the cliff and looked down. As I peered over the ledge a massive hawk soared past about 100 feet below where I stood, there must have been a mile between this bird and the canyon floor, yet I was still looking down at its back. As I watched the hawk land on a tree branch sticking out of the canyon wall something caught my eye. Hidden there about 50 feet below was a 3,000-year-old homestead carved into the side of the rock face. How the original occupants decided on this spot, and how they must have gotten into and out of their home every day baffles me still. Working construction for a living I know exactly what kind of work must have gone into building this place and the task was truly monumental.

From the higher up vantage point it was plain to see the lay out of the place. It was a four room block house built right into the side of the cliff. Also, there was a small second house built right next to it. Was this used for storage? Perhaps an elderly parent or teenage child? Regardless of the fact I was in pajamas and flip flops, or that I was armed with nothing more than a hot cup of coffee, I could see only one logical course of action. I called Murphy over and we began to descend the steep rocky path, if you could call it that. After close to an hour of intense spontaneous hiking we finally arrived at the spot the hawk had shown us.

The first thing that struck my eye as I entered what would have been the front door was a long black stain running up the wall from the floor to the roof and out the side where the rock had been carved into a sort of chimney. I know it sounds ridiculous but I swear you could still smell the 3,000-year-old campfire as if the coals were still hot from the night before. As Murphy and I explored the multiple rooms I could feel the presence of something else with us. It was as if there was another person looking over my shoulder trying to determine if we were friend or foe.

I sat on what I suppose you could have called the front porch, feet dangling off the side of the cliff, sipping the coffee I had been carrying this whole time. Thinking about what it would have been like to live here thousands of years before was both overwhelming and liberating at the same time. As I sat there rolling a cigarette I could feel the presence that had been following us around, sizing us up this whole time, come and sit next to me. The feeling of curiosity turned into one of welcoming. Sitting there on that ledge, drinking my coffee and smoking my cigarette, with Murphy and the spirit of the man who used to live in this magical place we had stumbled across was truly one of the most inspiring moments of my life.

Like all good things though it was short lived. The cigarette burned low, the coffee ran dry, and the sun began rising over the horizon, heating the canyon up like an oven. I took what loose tobacco was left in my pouch and, as a show of gratitude for the hospitality extended to me, sprinkled it into the breeze that had picked up just long enough to accept my offering and then subsided again. I took one last look around, said farewell to my host, and began the trek back up the rocky path.

As Murphy and I pulled back onto the dusty trail that led us here we both took one last look in the rear-view mirror and then at each other for what had just happened was the kind of thing most people will never experience in their lifetime. To step into another world like that is something worth taking a moment to truly appreciate before pulling off the trail and back onto the blacktop pavement, back into the modern world. Though I couldn’t lead you back to this place if my life depended on it, I still visit often in my dreams.