Map of Grand Gulch in southeastern Utah
Hiking to Split Level Ruins in the Grand Gulch*
Anxious to move on quickly, my son Rich and I forged ahead of the group through sage brush thickets. My son suddenly raised his hand nervously. When I caught up with him, he said “didn’t you see the diamondback rattler winding back and forth next to our trail?” Though I hadn’t seen the serpent, just the thought of it brough Emily Dickinson’s powerful poem to mind:
A narrow fellow in the Grass
Occasionally rides– You may have met Him–did you not
His notice sudden is–
The Grass divides as with a Comb–
A spotted shaft is seen–
And then it closes at your feet
and opens further on…
But never met this fellow
Attended, or alone
Without a tighter breathing
And Zero at the Bone–
Zero at the bone described our feeling perfectly–at least until we arrived at a run-off pool, an oasis of ice water amid an increasingly desert-like canyon. Waiting for the arrival of our trail companions, I waded up to my knees into the pool following a sandbar around to the back of a small waterfall where green mosses coated the rocks and cliff.
Fellow hikers in the Grand Gulch
It was all I could do to get back to the starting point so numb were my feet, a rather pleasant feeling, none the less, for being in the midst of a hot desert. When the rest of the group arrived, one fellow immediately stripped to the waist and plunged into the pool. As he surfaced he couldn’t form words on his lips so cold was this mid-May water. He waded back to the beach like someone who had fallen overboard in the Arctic Sea, too cold to say “Wow!”
We told others of our snake sighting and to be careful as we ever-so-gingerly proceeded one mile father to the Split Level Ruins nestled high in a sandstone hollow.
Our tents formed a circle among an ancient stand of junipers as old as the Split Level Ruins themselves. If the ancient ones believed in the communal link of all living things including trees, one could ask, did the Anasazi really ever leave? If the juniper, bat, wren, owl, serpent, firecracker penstemon, were truly part of their village, part of their being, then one could say a part of these people is still here. I suspect we do feel the tug of the spiritual fusion of humans with flowers, mountain sheep, and buzzing flies even if it comes from more remote planes of existence. Petroglyphs and pictographs assist in our sensing a lingering presence. These places foster the union of various planes of existence like no other location on Earth. Here truly is the Rocky Mountain Time Zone, a zone whose minutes click by with centuries attached to them.
Despite the trickle of a small stream nearby, our campsite proved to be distinctly drier and more desert-like than the night before. But with water (purified) by our filters) in good supply and a plentitude of food, we experienced no hardships whatsoever, except for having tio climb a steep hill up to the ruins.
Split Level Ruin is a marvelously preserved piece of architecture in two levels with perfect willow-branch ceilings and firmly mortared walls housing numerous chambers. Any and every breeze coming from the valley below or cliffs above wafted through these buildings creating a perfect summer air conditioning.
These sandstone slabs surely absorbed winter sunrays and held them through the night to furnish these ancient people of 800 years ago with indirect solar warmth. The accoustics up here proved to be ideal for listening to nature’s perpetual concert of frogs, birds, crickets, and wind in the willows. The swoosh of a raven’s wings in the sky above almost made me duck. Crickets hundreds of yards away sounded like they chirped in the k8iva (an underground ceremonial chamber) below our feet.
“Hey Dad, look over here,” said Rich. He had crawlede inside a smoky room built right into the bottom of the sandstone cliff. He peered out the narrow doorway all smiles. “Can still smell the smoke from their cooking,” he said. “In fact, it’s making me hungry.” The sun lingered brightly on the higher cliffs as the valley darkened below. Lizzards scampered in search of warmer rocks.
Our descent to camp below led us past Spanish bayonets and green yucca plants whose roots furnished the Anasazi with fibers for such articles as sandals and rope. Soon we cooked our meal of dehydrated honey-lime chicken and mopped our plates with homemade chili-pepper bread. Coffee and cookies finished things just right. There came a time for us to stop talking about events of the day as we sat in a circle under stars; we listened in silence to the plaintive notes of a pair of mourning doves who seemed to have more to say than we tired and weary human beings.
Split Level Cliff glowed bright red in the rising sun. Today we had to cover eight miles in desert heat with those stubborn forty pound packs all the way to our last site before departing the Grand Gulch. Carefully handling a steaming mug of coffee, I plodded back up to Split Level Ruins for one last look. Pottery fragments, some red, some black, some black and white peppered the sandy soil. How did they bake these clay vessels? They probably burnt juniper branches in sandstone alcoves. That would certainly bake clay alright, but I wonder if they might not have used wild turkey dung also for the same purpose. You can see the results of Anasazi potters in the Colorado History Museum in Denver–incredibly beautiful vessels with patterns of black and white squares and occasional representations of lizzard figures scampering up curved handles.
As others awakened from a mummy-like sleep down below, I figured we would be breaking camp soon. There remained eight long, hard miles to go to get to our next site. Would we encounter more snakes? Would we spot unnamed ruins? Would all twelve of us maintain our energy levels?
Eight miles in ninety-degree heat made it difficult for all of us. We burnt through water quickly and the bouncing backpacks chafed our shoulders. Thankfully no yellow-eyed serpents reared their heads to give us a feeling of zero at the bone. We did spot numerous unnamed dwellings balanced precariously on narrow little ledges half hidden in shadows giving credence to the observation that all of Grand Gulch in southeastern Utah served as a gathering place for isolated, rural Anasazi communities unlike the more urban sites in Mesa Verde.
In the heat of noon we paused for snacks on a rocky spillway of a small stream, though hardly anyone was hungry. I barely noticed a stranger–an older, very tan, blond-haired woman munching on some trail mix; some of us struck up a conversation with her. After several minutes of chit chat she announced she must leave because she (like Greta Garbo) treasured solitude. She slithered off into the willows with only a daypack and disappeared forever. Some of us thought she vanished even before she reached the trees–too much exposure to the sun or to Tony Hillerman novels, no doubt.
We lingered a moment longer listening to caroling birds seemingly un-bothered by the ferocious heat. Perhaps they sang from the shade of branch-rooted gambel oaks or from deep within the willow thickets where the old woman had vanished. Perhaps they were the old woman herself singing in solitude. We followed after her and soon we, too, disappeared into the thicket.
* This is a modified excerpt from my out-of-print book Where Land is Mostly Sky (1997).