My first day on the job in Canyonlands, I was confronted by Harry Yount, first-ever park ranger and mountain man of Yellowstone, whose leathery countenance stared out at me from a faded photograph in the dilapidated trailer we called an office in the Needles District – the very same trailer, I was told, in which Ed Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire when he was a seasonal ranger at the Arches. Over the next few weeks, I’d hear this particular rumor applied to several other weathered metal hulks scattered throughout the canyon country,
My first assignment in the Needles: Learn how to drive a jeep, and head up to Davis Canyon to repair a vandalized cliff dwelling. I was introduced to Ken, a fellow ranger and native of Moab, Utah. Within minutes of our meeting, we were in a lime-green government rig, moving quickly under a cool gray sky.
About five miles from headquarters we took the turnoff to Davis Canyon, leaving the paved road and the broad valley of Indian Creek for the avenue of cliffs beyond. I absorbed as much of the scenery as possible while Ken drove the first part of the canyon, offering tips on vehicle control and pointing out ruins. I settled into the bouncing rhythm of the jeep and began training my eyes to see the subtle signs of prehistoric habitation – little square windows against a cliff, methodical layers of sandstone masonry.
Shortly past noon we reached our destination, a narrow drainage filled with Indian ruins on both sides. The one we were looking for was perched on a ledge under a pothole arch and we’d have to climb down to it from above
The air grew chill and dark, biting against our faces as we climbed the rounded cliffs of sandstone. We were soon on top, moving carefully across ledges, carrying rope and climbing gear over our shoulders, stopping finally at a large horizontal hole in the cliff twenty feet across and shaped like an immense toilet seat.
We walked around the far side of the hole until we could see below us a narrow ledge about fifteen feet away. Perched upon it was a small square structure of earth and stone. A nearby juniper provided a belay point for our ropes as we tied them off and rappelled down to the ledge. The ruin was about five feet thigh, its ceiling built squarely against a curving wall of the arch. A wooden floor divided it in half, and there was a small opening in each level. I marveled at the workmanship, at the ancient fingerprints still visible in the dry mortar. It was a two-story granary of some kind.
A small dried up corn cob lay nearby, its shape barely altered by time. While it looked like it might have been discarded only recently, we knew we were looking at an agricultural product from 700 years before, preserved intact by the dry climate. We began looking for signs of vandalism. The granary was in excellent shape, probably visited by only a handful of people a year. But around its backside, nearly hidden in the shadow of a nearby wall, someone had carved their message in the ancient clay, in letters almost an inch high:
HA-HA. WE WERE HERE BEFORE YOU.
As the sky darkened through the oval opening above us, I could almost feel the presence of Anasazi spirits condemning the modern intruders. I turned to Ken and suggested we wet some of the fine red dirt, make a paste out of it, and plaster it over the letters. We mixed our saliva with the dust, making clay in our palms and applying it to the graffiti. The letters disappeared as the clay blended in, and the wall’s original appearance was restored. As we paused to admire our work, we hear the sound of rain up above.
“Jeez, we’d better get out of here fast before the rock gets too slick! Do you know how to use jumars?” Ken asked.
“It’s been a while, but I think so.” Actually, I sucked at using jumars but I didn’t want to admit it.
We quickly attached the jumar handles to the dangling rope, their looped ends going around my boots. I began my ascent, slowly lifting each handle and each leg in unison as the rain increased in intensity. It was slow going as the rope became damp and slippery. I was nearly halfway to the top when I saw a small trickle of water spilling over the same notch where the rope hung. Soon it was splashing my face and running over my hands. Despite mounting anxiety, I managed to reach the top. I immediately dropped the jumars down to Ken. By this time, a small stream was flowing over the lip of the arch, pouring right onto Ken who was struggling with the equipment, trying to slide each jumar up the saturated rope.
When he neared the top, I grabbed the rope and pulled with all my strength until Ken made it over the lip and onto relatively level ground. We swiftly gathered our gear and headed over the rocks toward the jeep, the rain now a relentless torrent, unleashing waterfalls and sudden streamlets from every direction, as if someone had turned on hundreds of faucets all at once. Slipping several times as we ran, ropes dangling, packs bouncing, we soon saw the jeep just a few hundred yards away. By this time my near-panic had turned from our slippery climb to the flash flood that might come sweeping down the canyon at any minute if the rain continued.
But almost as soon as we reached the jeep the torrent ceased, the roar of the water rapidly diminishing until only a few small waterfalls could be heard. The air regained its dry demeanor and the aroma of damp sage filled the canyon. A few squawking ravens flew by, their cries echoing off of moist sandstone. I took my place behind the wheel and began driving the sandy road out of Davis Canyon, commenting to Ken as we rumbled homeward, “If every day here is as exciting as this one, I may not survive this job!”
I was half-joking, soaked and exhilarated, and breathless in a new realm.