Best Hikes: 6 Days In Cedar Mesa, Utah (Day 1)

This is day one of a six-day hike. Don't miss the other five adventures of Best Hikes: 6 Days in Cedar Mesa, Utah.

We hiked west on the rim of the short nameless canyon, then popped down sixty feet to the ledge under the caprock. Sidestepping piňon and juniper, scuttling across talus, we turned a corner—and there it was.

More than fifteen hundred years ago, a single artist clad in sandals, breechcloth, and little else had reached up with a hard-stone chisel and carved his vision into the black patina of the vertical wall of softer sandstone. The composition he designed was all about animals and atlatls, spearthrowers used to launch darts tipped with points knapped out of sharp-edged chert—the hunting weapon of choice before some genius invented the bow and arrow.[slideshow:508]

It was something like my eightieth trip to Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah. If required to testify on oath, I would declare that the mesa and its canyons compose my favorite place on Earth, for here one can find rock art and unrestored ruins in greater splendor and proliferation than anywhere else in the United States. They are the work of the Anasazi, who flourished for millennia all across the Colorado Plateau before abandoning it utterly just before AD 1300.

For photographer Stephanie Scott, it was a first trip to Cedar Mesa, and so I forgave her for uttering at least seven successive "Wow!"s as she snapped away. Here a forlorn bighorn sheep stood on its last legs, four atlatl darts bristling from its hide. There a humanoid was in the act of thrusting his dart into the mouth of a snarling mountain lion. Another hunter aimed his dart straight up the rectum of a lordly stag too startled to escape.

Aficionados of Cedar Mesa call this gallery the Hunting Panel. Yes, it's about hunting, but something else is going on. Something hallucinatory. The guy standing sideways on a blooming spiral. Another guy with both an atlatl and a lightning zigzag forking out of his skull. A flute player piping to a dancing dwarf. And four guys with ducks for heads—a common image all over the Southwest. What was it all about? I was reminded for the umpteenth time of the words archaeologist Steve Lekson had uttered about Anasazi rock art as we stared at another Cedar Mesa frieze in 1994: "It makes up an amazing set of data. But we'll never decode it."

From the panel we climbed down ledges into the crease of the canyon floor, hit the stratum of sandstone that I wanted to pursue, and walked a ledge on the right wall that narrowed as it hung over a deadly void. Two more corners, and we stood facing a cliff dwelling, stones mortared with mud into a two-story square tower. "Look at this," I said to Stephanie. "You've got a perfectly good ledge for your dwelling. But they chose to build it on top of that huge boulder. Look inside. They had to make a second floor out of timbers and somehow balance it on top of the boulder. What the hell were they thinking?"

While I was trying to decipher the crazy logic of the site, Stephanie was figuring out how to shoot it, tinkering with lenses and angles that would never have occurred to me. We were only half a mile from the Hunting Panel. But the Anasazi who lived here had come as long as a thousand years after the master carver up above. And these men and women and children were desperate and afraid. This was their solution to whatever threat—famine, drought, an apocalyptic new religion—would soon precipitate the mass abandonment of the 13th century. For these refugees, nothing was more precious than corn, so they crafted their granaries in eerie niches above the dwelling, on ledges and slabs so steep and exposed that I had never risked climbing up to peer into them.

The scariest of all the granaries was mortared into a cubbyhole around the last corner, just a few feet from where the ledge dwindled into sheer precipice. It loomed twelve feet above the ledge. The butt end of the straightest log ladder the Anasazi could whack out of some piňon trunk must have been nestled into a ring of stones just inches from the void. But there had been no way to fasten the log ladder to the wall. To get their corn, the bravest of the ancients must have climbed the ladder while his comrades held it in place. The slightest teetering, and ladder and climber would have toppled over the cliff, a hundred feet to certain death. The log was long gone, but the supporting ring of stones lay intact.

A place redolent of fear and survival–yet the ruin and its site struck us both as supremely beautiful. And we had it to ourselves. All day in the nameless canyon, in the prime season of late April, we saw not a single other hiker.That evening we car-camped on the southern edge of Cedar Mesa, at Muley Point. Our view commanded Monument Valley, Navajo Mountain, the far-off Lukachukais, and the Gooseneck bends of the San Juan River almost 2,000 feet below. We drank red wine with our glop, built a small fire, and stared into the southern vastness as a crescent moon slid toward the horizon. And slept that night—not the sleep of the just, but the sleep of late-comers stunned by the mystery of the ancients.