Monday, August 13, 2012

Westward: Ruins to Bridges

7/24/12: A damp morning on Roaring Forks Road.  I’d woken up earlier than usual; the stream beside my tent and the dampness of the air were unusual sensations.  The sky had cleared somewhat, no worries there.  I put on many more clothes than usual (Trixy’s thermometer later told me it was 39 degrees) and began the morning processes: breakfast, ablutions, qi gong, and packing.  My tent was hopelessly wet, but I presumed it would dry rapidly as I headed down and west into drier country. 

Yes, just short of Telluride I’d reached the north-easternmost corner of my trip; now I had the better part of a week to return to California.  Still many sites to visit.

But first a gentle drive down a muddy road.  Plenty of traction; this route was well built, well drained.  Left and west-southwest onto Route 145 towards Dolores.  I had hopes of coffee, but the town was still very quiet at 7:30 am.  Well, I was in the Paradox Basin: sediments shed off the Ancestral Rockies.

My first stop was the Anasazi Heritage Center in Dolores.  This BLM facility is a museum, research center, and the information source for Canyons of the Ancients National Monument.  Canyons of the Ancients sounded pretty amazing; it has 6,000 known archeology sites, which seems at best an estimate.  Topographically this density made sense: the Monument comprises most of a pair of large drainages without extreme relief like at Navajo or Canyon de Chelly: probably plenty of sites for living and farming. 

The Monument was largely inaccessible to Trixy.  Just as well: the great houses and other sites that had been excavated for research purposes had been backfilled to preserve them.  Little to see, I had read.  I thus planned to skim the southern margin and call it good, en route to Hovenweep National Monument: my real goal for the morning. 

Guidebooks recommended the Center.  I was digging archeology enough to visit.  I arrived at 8:15 am; the Center opened at 9.  No worries, I used Trixy as a platform to dry the various parts of my tent, and sat in the shade (it was now 85 degrees) pondering my future route.  Good to have a rare bit of time not in motion.

The parking lot gradually accumulated a variety of large American vehicles.  Even though Dolores is within maybe 20 miles of Mesa Verde National Park, it seemed to be off the main tourist route.  That is, no Europeans appeared. 

I enjoyed the Center’s permanent exhibits immensely.  Wall panels provided a good chronology Puebloan and pre-Puebloan migrations and settlement.  These were matched by artifact displays.  Somehow, I’d missed or ignored these at earlier stops.  I was most impressed by a deductive presentation addressing the wide range of pottery sizes found in the ruins, such as cups that could hold a teaspoon to ones that would contain a pint or more: all the same shape.  The best explanation, based on cultural analogy, was that the smaller pieces were made by children: training for “adult” work.  A neat connection.  The pottery designs on Mesa Verde work fascinated me; the painted black geometries on white clay were beautiful.  If I had been in an acquiring mode the museum store – good reproductions - would have been a threat.  Another exhibit documented rescue excavations near Dolores triggered by reservoir construction; a hard effort to survey ahead of rising water.  Hmm, I wonder if this provided rationale and/or a dowry for the Center’s construction.  No worries, it was a true asset to the community.

The route past Canyon of the Ancients led through Cortez.  I needed ice, Trixy needed fuel.  Cortez seemed big enough for coffee.  Via my guidebook, I visited The Silver Bean, an Airstream trailer converted into a coffee bar.  Easy recognize by the white picket fence, flamingos, and astroturf yard in front.  A good dark roast.  

Two towns were enough for one day.  Thus, further west on Montezuma County Road G and Indian Route 5068 towards Hovenweep.  Road G traced the floor of McElmo Canyon, cutting downsection through Jurassic rocks: the Junction Creek Sandstone and Morrison Formation.  More terrestrial muds and sands; elsewhere the Morrison is particularly known for its abundance of dinosaur fossils.  Saw a few of those in Montana about thirty years ago.  We called it “The Doors” Formation, which our instructors did not understand.

McElmo was not a deep canyon, but plenty of intermittent cliffs of aeolian sand gave a sense of being enclosed.  The drainage was on the same scale as those in Canyons of the Ancients; there looked to be enough relief to avoid summer heat, plenty of loose rock for building (and mud for mortar), as well as flat land for agriculture. 

Fun driving, a windy and uncrowded road.  Hmmm, I intermittently heard a grinding noise coming from under Trixy.  I stopped.  Nothing caught on any of the plastic or metal bits on her underside.  I revved the engine: no correlation.  I drove slowly: the noise continued slowly, so it was something with the wheels.  Stopped again; looked again.  Nothing obviously caught.  Well, I had not tried reversing.  This produced an immediate clunk.  Going forward again, the noise was absent.  That was too easy.  In my relief I drove away without looking for the whatever that was temporarily attached.

Hovenweep National Monument: late morning, 96 degrees.  The weather forecast I had heard approaching Dolores promised a pair of relatively monsoon-free days.  This was coming true.  Hovenweep includes seven isolated sites.  The visitor-accessible area was the largest: the Square Tower group, in the aptly named Little Ruin Canyon.  This small not too deep drainage housed seven distinct ruins on its rim or within, constructed between the 10th and 12th centuries.  They were clustered around the head of the Canyon; supposedly this reflected increasing arid conditions leading up to the late 13th century megadrought. 

I stopped at the VC, got good orientation from the ranger, and charged out to the two mile loop trail around and through the Canyon.  My first thought was: damn, it’s hot.  I had plenty of water and sunscreen, so not a problem.  My second was: bugger, I wish I were here at sunrise and sunset.  It was clear that the Ruin Canyon structures would have excellent light.  Oh well, at least I had two hours.  I wanted to get to Natural Bridges National Monument for overnight. 

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah: note the structures built into the large boulder on the right.
Hike and photograph, repeat until water depleted.  I meet a couple dozen other visitors on the trail; mostly families, mostly Americans.  Proportional to the remoteness of the locality again, I supposed. 

Like McElmo on the morning drive, Little Ruin Canyon was relatively shallow: maybe 150 feet deep, cut into the Dakota Sandstone and the underlying Burro Canyon Formation.  The accessible ruins were concentrated around a pair of tributaries near the head of the canyon.  These included a check dam, so I bet that the Dakota, being a porous sandstone, had a bunch of springs or seeps when the Puebloans lived here. 

Hovenweep National Monument, Utah, unnamed ruin near Tower Point

The trail guide did not quite correspond to the posted stops.  This made me stop and actually look at the Canyon.  I also picked up the tip that collapsed ruins could be spotted as piles and debris fields of book-sized platy buildings stones.  This was a “duh” moment; as I looked around the drainage these clast concentrations were quite obvious.  Anomalous particles: the rest of the sediment in the drainages was sand, mud, or house-sized boulders. 

The architecture and siting of these structures was different.  The structures on the rim were multi-room “houses” for lack of an accurate term, up to four stories high.  Unlike the one large structure at Betatakin or Aztec Ruins, here several isolated houses dotted the rim.  At least one of these shows evidence of astronomical alignment.  That was cool enough, but then there were the structures below the within the canyon.  At Betatakin and Canyon de Chelly, the builders had adapted their work to the irregular shape of the alcoves where they worked.  Here, this approach was taken to an extreme.  Structures perched on top of large rocks, and were built around and into the crevices between them.  One structure stood by itself: a multi-story tower with a pinnacle-like aspect ratio.  Although square –sided, the walls gradually spiraled with height.  Crazy.  I made well over 100 photographs, again ruing the high sun.  Well, it was a challenge to work with. 

Back to the VC and a few minutes of cooling my core temperature.  I had a question for the ranger: the brochure and stops featured the same motif, a bird, which I assumed was something local like a raven: was I right?  Not even close: the motif is interpreted as a macaw, based on feather and bones found here and at other sites.  Someone kept birds here.  Wow, more evidence of trade and travel: like cocoa, macaws are from well south of the current border.  The ranger clearly enjoyed surprising people with this information.  I would too. 

Lunch on a picnic table, then to the road.  Trixy was noiseless.  I tried to wrap my brain around the Hovenweep site.  The small portion I saw just felt different.  While some of this was the geography and geology, but the abundance and spacing of such small complex structures did not seem like the usual habitation.  Moreover, the rim structures were visible from a distance; all the other ruins I’d seen were concealed.  I’d need to do more reading before more speculation, lacking adequate understanding of Hovenweep’s place in Puebloan time and space.

Trixy and I jogged west on Routes 401, 461, 5099, 414, and 262.  A final transect of the Navajo Reservation, past Hatch Trading Post.  There were quite a number of such attractions, holdovers from the initial American conquest, which seem to serve as a mix of tourist attraction and actual store.  Not being in search of curios of any quality, I did not stop at any.

North on Route 163 to Blanding: my first Mormon town on this trip, manifest in the number of solid brick structures, the expected temple with six steeples and the extremely wide streets.  Residential roads were easily four lanes wide.  Another fluids stop, then west on Route 95 to Natural Bridges.

If you have read The Monkey Wrench Gang, Route 95 should sound familiar.  It crosses Comb Wash and Comb Ridge, a lovely monocline in the Navajo Sandstone, which was the site of destruction of lot of road construction equipment.  I felt both interested and guilty driving the route, which did pierce through beautiful and otherwise desolate country.  A faster way to across the upper end of Lake Powell was needed, I assume. 

Route 95 also passed near a number of Puebloan ruins.  I don't know the overall density of sites here, but the topographic relief was similar to Hovenweep; maybe this was a factor.  I wasn't hot enough, so I stopped at Butler Wash Ruins.  A 101 degree hike over sandstone slickrock: no worries, at least it was light colored.  Butler Wash is a 12th century site, in an alcove setting similar to Betatakin, but a lot smaller as visible from the overlook.  The Navajo Sandstone created deeper canyons with steeper rims than at Hovenweep.  Several kivas and storage rooms tucked into an area well above the drainage floor.  A seep dripped directly down into the Ruin, and another was near the viewing area.  If the hydrology was similar when Butler Wash was occupied, there would have been abundant water.  I swatted mosquitoes and tried to capture images of the slickrock.  Hard in mid afternoon.

Butler Wash Ruins, Utah: note seep above structures.

Butler Wash area: stream in Navajo Sandstone slickrock.
Butler Wash Ruins was my last Puebloan stop.  Investigating these sites and their history added an unplanned dimension to my trip, which I enjoyed.  I moved too fast to build a coherent archeological space/time map; I was content to absorb the bits of information that washed over me.  I've thus tried to limit my observations in these posts to what I could see directly, learn from park rangers and interpretation, and infer from them.  Hopefully I don't sound like I know what I am talking about - yet.

I pulled into Natural Bridges by 3:30.  It was 98 degrees.  I had worried a bit that its small campground would be full, as I was getting back onto the main attractions of the Colorado Plateau route.  I drove the camping.  Bugger, pretty populated, but a decent spot near the entrance with only one neighbor through the trees.  No one was around.  I parked Trixy for a 15 hour rest, set up my tent, and took a nap.

I woke up in a pool of sweat on my Thermarest; noise outside.  My neighbors were back.  A family with several rambunctious children across the way; I was never sure how many.  A couple of college students next door; they seemed quiet and much more interested in each other than anything else.  An RV shoehorned into the space across the road: English accents from within.  The rent-an-RV approach seems popular with foreign visitors; I passed such vehicles of all sizes on this trip, rented by domestic outfits that I’d never heard of before.  Seems practical, but not speedy. 

Downtime: I sorted gear, rehydrated, backed up photographs, read up on upcoming travel, ate dinner, and tried to pretend I was alone.  This was my first night near people on the trip; a necessary choice as it had water and wasn’t reservation land.  No complaints, just adjustment.  I anticipated a similar setting the next night in Capitol Reef National Park. 

Sunset, finally cooler.  The monument map suggested that the three bridges accessible from the loop road: Sipapu, Kachina, and Owachomo, would be more photogenic in the morning.  I didn’t need an excuse to relax.  I lolled.  The big family across the way trooped off.  I assumed they were going to a ranger program, but then noticed that all were carrying towels and toothbrushes.  I guess that running water in the VC bathrooms was worth a mile walk.

7/25/12: 6 am.  The campground was dead quiet.  I’d woken up early, not the first occurrence.  Well, time to go for a run.  The Monument is at ~6,500 feet; I wanted to do at least four miles.  Best option: go out the loop road.  A lovely run; I made it as far as Sipapu Bridge and its overlooks, and resisted the temptation to circuit.  I was quite distracted by the slickrock exposures of Cedar Mesa Sandstone (Permian, I was going down section); amazed that yet more aeolian deposits weren’t getting boring.  I didn’t bring fluids, and it was getting warm.  I returned via the VC, startling the maintenance crew when I ran into the bathroom for a rinse. 

The campground was beginning to wake.  The small children were up, poking their father (?) where he slept alone in a hammock.  Breakfast and off to see the bridges of Natural Bridges.  I was happy to get out early, before the expected heat, while the sights were empty. 

Trixy and I retraced my run to Sipapu Bridge.  While eating breakfast, I’d watched an RV lumber out of the campground, thinking, they must have a ways to go today.  Wrong: I came across the RV at the first scenic pullout: a German family.  They were having what was clearly a very proper breakfast - tablecloth, china, flowers on the table, etc - in the parking lot next to their RV.  Goodonem.  While this seemed stereotypically Teutonic, what bemused me was the location.  The parking lot had no view other than the road.  I would have made a bowl of fruit, yogurt, granola and supplements and had contemplation at the Bridge while I ate.

I took a healthy look at each bridge.  They were very large and robust structures, but in the morning light, they underwhelmed.  Sipapu and Kachina were shadowed.  Hard for photography, and this uninspired me to make the short access trails to get under them.  But it was also appearance.  The Cedar Mesa Sandstone is essentially flat-lying; the bridges thus have very linear tops, which did not stand out against the surrounding sedimentary layers. 

Sipapu Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Kachina Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah 
That said, the abundance of bridges in such small area is remarkable.  The park interpretation gave an explanation of bridge formation, related to the various streams in the White Canyon drainage system cutting tight meander beds and then piercing the resulting goosenecks to form the bridges.  This is basic but old school geomorphology.  I assume the particular lithology of the Cedar Mesa and landslides were also important.  I also wondered if there was a newer explanation that particularly explained why the streams cut so quickly through the rock.  A rapid phase of vertical erosion must have been necessary to get the relief needed to make bridges.  Something else to research; likely tied to the most recent uplift of the Colorado Plateau.

Owachomo Bridge was in decent light.  This pleased me; it's also the most delicate, i.e., oldest bridge.  I was a bit stiff from running, so I descended the access trail for a closer look.  Still no one else around.  It was quiet other than bird songs and the tread of my sandals on the slickrock.  Ahh, getting below a bridge was much better; cooler in the shade, and the oblique views of Owachomo were particularly good.  The drainage dropped steeply below the bridge into a rock pool: water and mosquitoes again.  Traversing around the rim of the pool looked like fun; then I remembered I was alone, and that Capitol Reef National Park, my next destination, was several hot hours away.  More pictures, a stop at the VC, and away. 

Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah
Sun behind Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah

Flakes of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, near Owachomo Bridge, Natural Bridges National Monument, Utah 

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