A report from a memorable trip in April 2014.
I rolled out of town after lunch on Thur. the 10th. Destination, Cedar Mesa. I arrived with plenty of time to setup camp before dark at a nice spot on Coyote Flat. A spot that Randy, Jared and I had camped the year before when we hiked Sheiks canyon.
The next morning I drove to the Todie canyon trail head. After loading my daypack and turning the temp control on the fridge down to 27* so my beer would be icy when I got back, I started down the trail. The trail starts out on the south rim of the canyon for a little way before dropping down in. I had been told that the drop-in to the canyon was very rough and even kind of sketchy. It was steep, and kind of rough – but not that rough and no exposure. I thought it was easier than the steep drop into Slickhorn past the big pour off, or the loose steep slope part way down Sheiks. And it was way easier than getting down into the canyon I’d find myself hiking into in a couple more days…
Heading down canyon was glorious, spring morning, canyon hike. The kind of stuff that hardly gets any better.
Ruins soon started to appear along the canyon walls. Most I just looked at through my binoculars or took a few pictures from a distance. The most interesting or easily accessible ones, I took the time to look at more closely.
I missed the Corn Panel on my way down but stopped at the Junction Panel.
From there it was more awesome canyon hike and lots of ruins.
Eventually I arrived at Split Level Ruin, which is awesome.
I love the way the soil has eroded away from around this tiny pot shard, leaving it on a tiny little spire.
Split Level Ruin is just plain cool…
When I started back up canyon, it was already 3pm, so I didn’t dally around visiting any more ruins on the way back out, basically just marched. But it was still nice. Just a very, very pleasant day to be down in there.
Back at the Jeep it was 6pm and I’d been hiking since 8am. The Squatters IPA was ice-ice-cold baby! I sat on the hood and sipped one down before heading back to camp for nice steak and potatoes and a couple more brews around a cheery little fire.
Saturday morning I was up with the chickens again. Sipping my second cup of coffee and guiding my Jeep across Polly Mesa towards Slickhorn Pasture as the sun was rising. I parked near the end of the road and started walking cross country to the southeast, towards a tributary of Slickhorn canyon.
There is a little ruin up inside the cave behind the Jeep – and the cave goes all the way through to the other side – cool little setup.
Not too far from where I parked is this. I’ve checked it out before on earlier trips, not sure what it is, or was. It’s ancient. Sweat lodge maybe? Not sure…
About 90 minutes later I was walking southwest along the canyon rim looking for a way to get down in. Less than a mile later I found a spot I could get down off the rim into the canyon.
Then I just turned and walked up canyon, below the rim. Just seeing what I could see! It was preternaturally calm and quiet down in there. I walked about 3 miles up canyon under the rim, sometimes having to change my level to avoid exposure. Didn’t hear a sound. Not even a bird chirp. Did not see a living thing. Not even a lizard. Just an occasional rodent track and a very occasional big horn sheep or coyote track. Had not seen a boot track since leaving the Jeep, but down in this canyon, it was like nobody had ever walked the ledges I was walking. I made it clear down to the bottom at one spot and there was not the faintest vestige of a hikers trail. Just nothing. There was plenty of water in the bottom. It was awesome!
A view back down canyon at where I spent the morning exploring.
I hoped to find some seldom visited ruins or rock art, but found only one small ruin in shambles with a wrecked jackal granary nearby. The kind of ruin that makes you sad to think of the people so poor, so un-connected, so pushed to the margins as to have tried to have a life there. I searched all the likely looking walls in both directions for rock art, but without much hope. The place just had the feel of desperation. People pushed too hard just to survive, no time or resources for the luxury of art, maybe pushed hard enough to abandon religion.
There was a fantastic spot near there to eat lunch – if there was going to be any rock art it would have been here. After eating I spent about an hour just sitting there puffing on a cigar, listening to the silence, thinking about the people who had lived in that poor little ruin across the way.
The silence was broken by distant thunder. I could see the storm out there, wasn’t sure if I’d get hit by it or not. I had packed a lunch, but no rain gear, so I decided I’d best scoot on out of there.
The rain started while I was still bench walking back down canyon to my entry point. With no rain gear, I just stopped to put my camera in my pack and accepted the fact that I was gonna get wet.
Lost in the rain
I was hustling back down canyon, towards my entrance point. With the rain coming down harder all the time. Still some distance from the entrance point I came around a corner and saw a weakness in the canyon wall that I thought I could scramble up. And indeed, it went and I popped out on the rim in a new spot. There was a steep fin to my right that discouraged walking the edge of the rim in that direction. So I went around it and followed along it on the far side, not really thinking about it other than I was paralleling the rim back towards the path I’d taken from the Jeep that morning.
No longer protected inside the canyon, the wind ferocious. The taut webbing straps between the padded part of the shoulder straps and the hip belt of my pack were vibrating and thrumming in the wind. Making sounds that reminded me of the sound a playing card makes when positioned to flap on the spokes of a bike. The pitch rising and falling with wind speed at each gust.
I was already wetted out, the wind was cold, there was nothing for it but a forced march across the open mesa, about 4 miles back to the Jeep. So, with my face down to let the brim of my hat deflect the rain drops stinging my cheeks, I was simply putting one foot in front of the other at a rapid pace.
I just marched along like that for awhile, wet and cold. Eventually, upon looking up, I noted the rain obscured form of Navajo mountain ahead.
I took probably another 20 steps before that sunk in.
I should NOT be walking towards Navajo mountain! In fact, I figured I should be walking dang near straight AWAY from Navajo mountain.
Turned on my GPS, checked that against my map and compass and no doubt, I was walking in the opposite direction from my Jeep! Son of a… gun. All I can think, is that fin along the canyon edge that I initially walked along didn’t parallel the canyon, but had got me going off in the wrong direction and I’d been too stupid to notice.
For a moment, I entertain romantic thoughts of seeking out an alcove, making a fire, waiting out the storm. But these thoughts are along the lines of “letters I’ve written, never meaning to send…”.
So, embarrassed and irritated that I’d be that much longer in the weather, I take a compass reading and start in the right direction. Plunging along in the rain, just trying to make good time and not go the wrong way again.
Dead trees talk to me
Plodding along with my head down in the rain, I came upon a dead juniper. In a landscape of old, this tree looks incredibly old. I wish I could say how old it is. How many hundreds of years it lived. I think it’s been a thousand years since it died. I forget that I’m in a hurry to get out of the rain and I just stare at it.
The trunk is huge for a juniper, several feet across – not diameter, it isn’t round, it isn’t any shape I can describe, but it’s three feet across at it’s widest points. It stands only half as high as I do. What is left, doesn’t look like wood anymore. It’s jagged, sharp, dangerous, not just at the surface, but clear through. The texture is violent.
Everything that is left of the tree is acutely angled. Pointed and sharp now. From the sharply spiked tiny ridges of it’s grain structure to what may have been giant limbs that are now grotesquely shaped claws tipped with spear points and alien tomahawks. Nothing about the tree is approachable.
There is only the main. The whole. There is no detritus of fallen limbs or the remainder of the great trunk laying near and still decaying. What time has taken from the tree, has been taken completely, without a trace remaining.
What remains is iron. An iron fist. Obscenely twisted with levels of ancient agony and suffering beyond imagination. Making a sign. An unmistakable sign. That old juniper stump is screaming “EFF YOU!!!”. To the entire universe. To all of creation. To the creator. Most of all it’s screaming at Time itself. A long hard life, followed by a longer harder death. Through centuries of suffering and hardship that tree has never willingly yielded a fraction of an inch. Not to anything. Eff You! It says. That’s what it has always said.
I think to myself that if I was a tree, that’s what I’d want to look like…
The rain stops
This isn’t the route I came in on. I’m on the wrong side of a rugged little canyon. A minor tributary of Slickhorn. I stay above it, hoping to find an easy place to cross, but I’m angling away from the direction I want to go again. So I turn abruptly and start down into it.
A hundred yards later I’m at a mesa top site. Flat stones on the ground set at right angles and formed into rectangular shapes. Building rubble. Pot shards. Flint chips. I pause for only a few seconds, making a mental note that I’ll never see it again and continue on my way.
Almost straight down from the Indian site in the bottom of the canyon are a few cottonwoods. I think they could indicate water. If there is water, there might be a cow trail to lead me along the path of least resistance out the far side of the canyon. It turns out to be so. When I top out on the other side the cow path continues on a heading so well aligned with my own that I start to imagine it’s going to end up right at my Jeep. But then it goes around a pinion and just disappears into a small sand dune.
By now I recognize landmarks though. I know exactly where I’m at and exactly where I need to go. And the rain, which has been gradually lessening, stops completely. Soon the sun is out and shining bright and with the help of the wind I’m enjoying the quick drying properties of synthetic “gear” (when it’s this expensive, it’s not clothes anymore, it’s gear…). By the time I reach the Jeep, my pants are completely dry and my shirt almost. Nice.
I make a couple more short and shorter walks. I find a nice ruin I’ve never seen before on the first of these walks.
It’s been looted, of course, but appears seldom visited in recent times. There is no trail near it that I’m aware of and there are no boot tracks visible anywhere around it.
take the above picture of the cordage, I spy an edge of yellowed paper sticking out of the dirt by my knee. An old piece of a newspaper or catalog I suppose. Wonder who left it behind and how long ago?
My last and shortest walk of the day is to visit a tiny ruin I’ve been to before. It has a really cool little doorway granary that I like. The space behind the little doorway is surprisingly large.
Before heading back to camp, I drive out to the end of the road past the Gov’t trail head and snap a couple of pics.
Yucca that’s taken up residence in an old piece of pipe sticking out of the ground.
Then it’s back to camp for halibut filet and fresh asparagus, washed down with plenty of High West rye.
Sunday morning I had camp packed up and was driving by 6:30am. Heading to where I’d start my final hike of the trip.
I parked about a dozen miles up the Cheesebox road. It was raining pretty good again and I debated the wisdom of even doing this hike for a while, but finally decided the weather could do whatever it damn well pleased and I’d do whatever I damned well pleased.
So I put on a waterproof jacket and started walking west through a PJ forest towards my destination – Gravel canyon. The rain quit less than 30 minutes later and I was having a thoroughly enjoyable walk.
Thinking about whether to go or not…
An incongruous pair of artifacts in the forest.
That’s Jacobs Chair in the middle of the picture in the distance.
Jacobs Chair again, but I’ve walked a few miles closer since the first picture.
And my first view into Gravel canyon. Some awesome looking narrows – would love to come back and explore them more sometime – from the top, with rope.
I was a little bit apprehensive descending from the rim down into this canyon. I had to do a fair amount of route finding to avoid getting ledged out, with some mild exposure. It was a LOT tougher to get down into than Todie had been!
I was here to visit ruins! The first set were okay, but nothing special.
The second set though… Now these, these are some ruins!
Sketched out in Gravel
I really wanted to get up to these ruins for a closer look. I could see where others had piled up some rocks to access a crack in the cliff right below the ruins, but I didn’t want to try that by myself. Confident I could get up it, I was less confident in how easily I’d get down without a spotter.
I scouted out a route up onto a really narrow, little eyebrow on the side of the cliff, a possible route around a corner that might get me on the level of the ruins. Climbed up to it and started walking out along the eyebrow. It was r-e-a-l-l-y sketchy. Pretty serious exposure. It would be easy to fall. The immediate fall might not have killed me outright but then again, maybe it would. It for sure would have made for incapacitating injury with a pretty good chance of dying before I was found.
I’m doing it though. So… I inch my way along and get right to the corner, need to “make a move” to get around it. I’m pretty focused in the moment. All the sudden the canyon is filled with this crazy screeching bird sound. It startled me. Took me out of the moment. And I didn’t know what kind of a bird made that sound. Then a falcon glided into view from the higher cliffs above, crying out. Another one I couldn’t see was crying even louder from back in the cliffs – nesting female bitching at him to go get some groceries maybe?
Anyhow, it had really startled me and broke my concentration. Now I returned my attention to the task at hand and thought about continuing along that cliff. I started having second thoughts. Big time. Then while I’m still clinging to the side of this cliff, it started to rain again. That was enough. I said to heck with it, I’m getting down off here. So I got turned around and realized that just going back over what I’d already covered was going to be kind of freaky. Then I noticed that I was breathing hard and my heart was kind of racing even though I was basically resting. Obviously having a bout of nerves…
Then the rain turned to hail… Little teeny tiny round white hail stones. Ice balls bouncing off the cliff and gathering in the tiny little toe holds that were all I had to keep me from falling.
Have to admit, I was just slightly freaked out! I took a moment to regain my composure. The rain and the hail suddenly stopped as quickly as it had started. And just a couple minutes later I was down off of the cliff and safe.
Then almost like the flick of a switch, the sun came out bright and the sky ahead turned blue and the temperature soared at least ten degrees in thirty seconds. Almost instantly, I went from shivering cold in my jacket to feeling so much heat on my shoulder that I wanted to take my jacket off.
It was just surreal how quickly my world had gone from fear, cold, dark and wet to warm, bright and relieved.
View of the ruins while hanging on the side of a cliff.
I took some pictures of the ruins from down below and resolved to come back someday with a companion or two and get up there for a closer look.
The world turned bright and warm again all the sudden.
I still had a tough climb out of the canyon and a long walk back to the Jeep ahead though. At least I was able to simply retrace my path back up to the rim, none of the time consuming route finding like hiking down in.
When I topped out back on the other side, the wind was blowing the hardest I had experienced all weekend. The hardest wind I’ve experienced in quite a while period. It was BLOWING!
Looking up the direction I needed to go, I saw an inky black wall of storm. In front of it the world was still pretty brightly lit, but the storm was a solid menacing front, gobbling up all the brightness in its path. Still a mile off, but coming very fast, it hit me only a couple of minutes later. Not just rain, there were some snow grains mixed in too. With the wind and all, it was a big old can of Cold, Wet and Nasty got opened on my azz!
I had four or five miles of gradual uphill to the Jeep and I started putting some ground behind me like I meant it! That walk back in that storm is one I won’t soon forget. About 20 minutes before I got all the way back, it quit just as fast as it had started though. The wind was still howling – and would continue like that half of the way home – but the sun was suddenly peeking through in more places than not and the world was just drop dead gorgeous everywhere I looked. Life is good. Life is very good.
Back at the Jeep at last, I made a big old Dagwood sandwich and woofed it down. Changed out of my boots. Lit a cigar, opened a throwback Pepsi, cranked up the tunes and pointed the Jeep’s hood toward home. Another great trip was over.