Best Hikes: 6 Days In Cedar Mesa, Utah (Day 2)

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

At the trailhead, Sheik's Canyon begins as a mere trickle in the sand. Half a mile in, it's still so diminutive that the surrounding walls rise a mere fifty feet above the creekbed. But here, on our second day on Cedar Mesa, Stephanie Scott and I found the first Anasazi ruin, a cozy little one-family assemblage tucked under a convenient sandstone overhang. Two rooms in which the old ones lived and slept, and two or three granaries in which they stored their corn, beans, and squash. But the pièce de résistance of the settlement is the intact roof of the main room.[slideshow:512]

We crawled in through the missing front wall—whether it was torn apart by pothunters in the 20th century or scavenged by the Anasazi themselves to start another structure, no one knows. Once our eyes adjusted to the darkness, we stared up at one of the most pristine ceilings I've ever found in the Southwest. The way the ancients built their roofs was evident at once. Stout wooden beams called vigas laid at intervals from the top of the east wall to the top of the west; at right angles to the vigas and resting across them, dozens of smaller sticks called latillas laid tight to one another, spanning the north and the (missing) south wall. Atop that wooden grid, a matting of rice grass and juniper bark, then the whole patted smooth with a sealing layer of mud. I pointed out to Stephanie the series of loops, made of thin strands of yucca, tied in square knots, that lashed the latillas to the vigas. They looked so fresh and fragile, she had a hard time believing they had been bound in place more than 700 years ago.

The oldest cliché about Anasazi cliff dwellings is the truest: they look as though they were built yesterday. Yet that perception belies a prehistoric reality. The vast majority of Anasazi structures were built not in canyon alcoves, but on mesa tops and valley benches. The rain and wind of the centuries have reduced them to rubble mounds. In New Mexico's Bandelier National Monument, for instance, Yapashi Pueblo, standing open to the sky, was a far more important site than our cozy hamlet at the head of Sheik's, for it boasted 350 rooms arranged in orderly blocks, not four or five. Yet if you walk across the fallen stones and drifted sands of Yapashi, you can scarcely tell where each living cubicle began or ended. The exquisite preservation of the cliff dwellings, in contrast, depends on two factors—a very dry climate and overhanging walls that protect the mud-and-stone edifices from rain and snow.

Sheik's Canyon trundles on westward for another two miles, gaining little depth, meandering as if uncertain of its purpose on Cedar Mesa, before abruptly plunging into a slickrock gorge. Two hours in, Stephanie and I stopped for lunch on a lordly saddle overlooking Grand Gulch, of which Sheik's is a short tributary.

The Key to Cedar Mesa
All my first forays on Cedar Mesa, starting in 1987, were backpacking and llama-packing expeditions lasting as long as eight days. On those treks, I covered every inch of Grand Gulch, the mesa's star attraction, which cuts a 55-mile diagonal swath across the mesa from northeast to southwest before debouching into the San Juan River. It is the deepest of all the mesa's canyons and the richest in ruins and rock art. Yet to reach such famous sites as the Big Man Panel or Green Mask Spring seemed to require two to four days of steady marching. It took me years to learn that the key to Cedar Mesa is car camping and day hiking. If you can read a map and are a fearless scrambler, there are only a few places in the mesa's twelve major canyons that cannot be reached via clever shortcuts in a single day's effort. And unburdened by heavy loads or pack animals, you will actually discover more arcane wonders than if you tromped dutifully down the Gulch from Kane to Collins (one of my eight-day sojourns).

In recent years, it has sometimes amused me to pop into Grand Gulch, say, at the mouth of Step Canyon, where the Quail Panel adorns a half-hidden wall of sandstone. The junction lies twenty miles in from the Kane Gulch headquarters, where most pilgrims begin their Grand Gulch excursions. I'll run into a group of weary backpackers, who can't hide their surprise at seeing me hefting only a light daypack.

            "How many days in are you guys?" I'll ask.

            "We're just starting our fourth," one may answer. "How about you?"

            "Three hours."

            "Huh? That's not possible."

            "Yep. I came in Hardscrabble."

It's cruel, perhaps, to gloat over the trudgers' dismay as they plod on down Grand Gulch, but after all my wanderings on Cedar Mesa, I like to think I've earned my hubris.   

 After lunch, Stephanie and I climbed down a cowboy ladder—a dead tree propped against the cliff facilitating what would otherwise be an unprotected 5.6 downclimb—and emerged in the bottom of Grand Gulch. Here in the 1890s, the five Wetherill brothers, ranchers from Mancos, Colorado, dug treasures out of magnificent ruins as they evolved from pothunters into competent self-taught archaeologists. We stared up an eighty-foot cliff at a broad ledge festooned with inaccessible Anasazi rooms. I've been here with two world-class rock climbers who couldn't get more than ten feet off the ground before chickening out. But the Wetherills strung three logs end-to-end, lashing them together with their lariats, and climbed into the ruin. There's a photo of their makeshift scaffold that makes my palms sweat every time I look at it. Yet the Wetherill contraption no doubt mimicked the very procedure by which the Anasazi first gained the ledge and built there in the 13th century.

A mile farther down Grand Gulch, we turned left up a narrow trough in the willows and hiked a few hundred yards to Green Mask Spring. Here, spread across three separate levels of the overhanging cliff, one of the two finest rock art panels in Grand Gulch lies open on permanent display. Near the ground, the relatively prosaic humanoids and animal prey painted by the sedentary Pueblo Anasazi, the same ones who built the cliff dwellings before giving up on the Colorado Plateau just before AD 1300. Above them, the magisterial trapezoidal anthropomorphs (the formal designation used by scholars who don't want to assume that human-looking figures might actually be humans) limned by the semi-nomadic Basketmaker Anasazi, sometime before AD 500 but perhaps as long ago as 2000 BC. And way up under the overhang's ceiling, far out of reach today, the truly enigmatic abstract designs in green and purple and yellow paint meticulously inscribed by artists from the Archaic, dating as far back as 6500 BC. Though completely nomadic, those hunters and gatherers had their own Picassos, several of whom worked here. They knew what those lines and zizags and orbs and rectangles meant, but today we cannot even make an educated guess.

I've been to Green Mask at least a dozen times, but I never get tired of staring at the rock art; each visit, I find something I'd failed to see before. Stephanie was in a photographic rapture, and after two hours of snapping away, she still felt that she hadn't done justice to the place.

The site is named after a single pictograph on the righthand edge of the wall—an eerie human head with dark red hair whorls, its face painted with blank bands of green and yellow. If you look carefully with binoculars, you can see a faint white loop protruding like a handle from the top of the skull. A few years ago, rock art expert Sally Cole made a brilliant connection between this image and an identically painted, deboned facial scalp dug out of a cave more than a hundred miles to the south by Alfred Kidder and Samuel Guernsey in 1914. (The scalp is curated today at Harvard's Peabody Museum.) The thing, we think, was a "trophy head"—the decapitated, luridly painted head of a slain enemy carried into battle by an attached handle, and brandished to scare the bejeesus out of whoever the next enemy might be.

Finding the Princess
At the Green Mask site, beneath a pair of crescent-headed Basketmaker anthropomorphs, Richard Wetherill, the brothers' ringleader, dug in the dirt in January 1897. He had already unearthed many an Anasazi burial, and by now he was sponsored by the American Museum of Natural History, which paid him modestly for all the booty—mummies and skeletons included—he could ship to New York City. Nearly all Anasazi burials are relatively plain and similar to one another, a fact the archaeologists cite to argue that the old ones had a thoroughly egalitarian society. But here, Richard Wetherill made the most dazzling single find of his whole career. It was a true "status burial"—the interment of someone (whoever she was) who must have held an exalted place among her people.

Several feet below the surface, Wetherill came upon a huge yucca basket covering another basket. Beneath them stretched a blanket made of turkey feathers spangled with bluebird feathers, atop yet another blanket festooned with yellow canary spots. Under the blankets, a third basket covered the perfectly mummified head of a young woman. Her body was painted yellow, her face red. Wetherill called her "the Princess," and he excavated her as carefully as the best archaeologists of his day could have done.

 In 1993, I went to New York City, hoping to be allowed to see the Princess. I had learned that nefarious dealings over the years had transported the priceless mummy and her assemblage from the American Museum of Natural History to the National Museum of the American Indian (then still in New York). The bureaucrat with whom I finally gained a meeting was at first reluctant to admit that the NMAI owned the Princess. When cornered, however, he told me that no one would be allowed to view the mummy, not even professional archaeologists.

            "So what's her fate?" I needled. "To be locked away forever?"

            The man prevaricated. "That's something that's yet to be determined."

Nineteen years later, I suspect, the Princess still sleeps in some some storage drawer of the NMAI in Washington, DC—if the bunglers who all too often run museums haven't managed to lose track of her along the way. (Just now, my Google search of the NMAI collections under "mummy—the Princess" came back "No matching records found.")

No matter—on this late-April day, it was enough just to stare at the plot of ground out of which Wetherill had dug the Princess 115 years ago. Over the decades, the provenience of the find had been lost, until my friend Fred Blackburn—a self-taught amateur like the Wetherills—connected Richard's notes with Grand Gulch and rediscovered the sites of scores of the cowboy's dazzling discoveries.

The Sheik's loop is, I believe, the single richest one-day hike on Cedar Mesa. It's no secret—you can look it up in guide books and find its praises sung on the Internet. And yet in eight and a half hours of hiking and peering, Stephanie and I ran into only four other people—a pair of couples as amazed as we were by what the ancients had left behind, and as willing to do whatever it took to creep to the edge of fathoming their unfathomable achievement.