Deep in the Grand Gulch of southeastern Utah, we had been hiking for several hours and took a rest to drink some cool water and eat a snack. Someone in our party of 12 people suggested moving on to Turkey Pen Ruins to set up camp for the night. The few more miles along the trail proved to be both fragrant and musical. Golden hollygrape flowers, smelling like Mormon honey, attracted hummingbirds and western meadowlarks that translated the highs and lows of the surrounding rock walls with commensurate notes. Desert varnish graced all of the gulch’s cliffs with finger-shaped stains of black, gray, red, or white.
Who cared about the pain in our shoulders from those ridiculously heavy packs. John Muir had it right, though–hike with bread crumbs, tea leaves and matches. But the Grand Gulch is not Muir country by a long shot, and we were hungry for more than bread crumbs.
What did these ancient Anasazi people feed on who lived here eight hundred years ago? Corn for sure. Turkeys? Perhaps they penned wild turkeys more for their feathers (used for sleeping mats) and for eggs than for their meat. Other crops? Beans and squash for sure, not to mention pine nuts and wild strawberries. They certainly hunted mountain goats, deer and rabbits as the bones of these animals have been found in their ancient trash heaps. They built up appetites as strong as ours by carefully constructing sandstone dwellings, storage chambers, and ceremonial kivas and by climbing up and down sandstone fills to farm the mesa tops, and by occasionally hunting wild game.
Plodding along our trail, we were refreshed with the sight of flowers: bright red scarlet gillia, yellow clusters of Rocky Mountain bee plant, and chilli pepper-red firecracker penstemon fainting suggesting bowls of hot chili!
Had similar swallows’ nests made of mud hanging throughout the canyon inspired the Anasazi to do likewise? Perhaps hornet nests inspired them as well. Modern day Native Americans tell us that each animal has something to teach human beings. Spiders weave, coyotes always look over their shoulder, hummingbirds cross-fertilize squash blossoms, and owls hunt at night when small mammals are active.
At last we came to an incredibly lush bend in the valley with a curving arch of sandstone cliffs rising above the Turkey Pen Ruins. Twilight had settled in as our cook stoves hissed away like serpents; some of us gourmandized on cous-cous, others on tortillas and beans, and still others on spaghetti. It had become too dark to climb the cliffs up to the ruins which gave us the excuse to sit back and listen to a nighttime chorus of frogs, owls, and jays. For a moment I thought I was back in South Florida’s Corkscrew Swamp where the evening is hardly silent but alive with the piping of creatures large and small. One could readily imagine that these sounds came from the spirits of the protective Chindi hovering around the ruins keeping away alien intruders. Who knows what I dreamed of that night under the glow of a full moon.
White cliffs glinted in the rising sun giving contrast to the dark hollow housing Turkey Pen Ruins. A quick breakfast in our bellies and we climbed to the ruins across a high sandy flat beneath overhanging sandstone. Slowly we approached an enclosure of tightly knit willow branches whose shadows slanted across the sand. No doubt about it–a turkey pen with small piles of petrified golden brown dung. We half expected to see wild turkeys clucking loudly trying to chase us away. As if to anticipate our coming, the ancient ones had painted images of turkeys both standing and sitting on the cliff walls behind the pen. Quiet though it was, you couldn’t help but sense the presence of these people and their penned turkeys.
We climbed with care to an upper house high on a ledge above the turkey pen. The masonry, the ceiling, the jutting pinyon pine logs remained perfectly intact. We looked closely at the masonry to see rough sandstone slabs cemented together with mud mortar and stone chips for leveling. Clearly the masonry of this upper dwelling was a work of art as were the ceilings made of willow branches and smooth plaster.
The view from the inside to the outer world was stupendous–first a curving arch of woven sandstone looking like a tan sky, and then the blue sky itself above the bending river valley lush with vegetation, and finally the far side of the valley bending with its own sandstone cliffs; the whole valley indeed appeared to be a great ceremonial kiva. Three or four of us, including my son Rich, sat here for an hour just staring and listening. Voices from other people in our party talking below seemed to bend with the stone sounding like they were next to us, Space in this valley also bent around the contours of the sandstone cliffs. The Turkey Pen Ruins proved Einstein right; time and space bend making here there and there here. Above all, our perspectives on life bent. Whose civilization lay in ruins? The Anasazis’? It depends on how you define ruins.* This is a modified excerpt from my out-of-print book Where Land is Mostly Sky(1997).