There was no trail only bare ocherous rock and soft pools of sand deposited where the ceaseless wind eddied. A few stunted wildflowers and flowering cactuses drew the eye with their intensity, bright splashes of yellows and scarlets interspersed with the purplish-ivory seedpods of yucca, their roots scrabbling for whatever foothold they could find. Without the sand there would be nothing but stone. Sand was the nursery. Sand was the giver of life.
I turned and saw the Trailblazer reflecting the sun and the blue ribbon of highway curving away toward the gigantic sunbleached vertebrae of Comb Ridge, and thinking of extra water bottles knew there was time to change the course I seemed resolutely determined to follow despite my lies and half-hearted deception. We are given choices, I thought, and followed my companions into a shallow arroyo where all signs of civilization fell away. We walked a land freshly created from the raw elements and raw still. In all that tortured expanse there was no even terrain but a thousand angles of verticality amplifying the sibilant wind and the slight toc-toc of hiking sticks. The arroyo twisted and writhed to the memory of waters, narrow in places and broader in others, until it opened onto the lip of Butler Wash and a three hundred foot vertical drop.
This was the unnamed box canyon we’d noted on the Internet image. To our left along a narrow shelf lay the “shortcut”—what looked to be a sheer cliff—while to our right the rock wall supposedly sloped more gradually to the canyon floor. As it was impossible to ascertain from our location, we set off along the shelf only to find our initial suspicions verified: the rock face plunged dizzyingly down to a small stagnant stream and silvery stands of Russian olives.
“I’m not going down that,” Chod said.
“Hell, I’m not even getting near it,” Jim cursed. “I’ll stay up here and watch the fort.”
We backtracked to the arroyo and began our descent on the opposite flank. At first it was gradual, as I’d expected, but as we neared the precipice the gradient became evermore perpendicular. Rather than leisurely walking we were forced to chart a route, connecting ledges that led to more ledges or snaked around to form narrow shelves slanting downward. And so we zigged and we zagged, keeping our body mass tilted inward toward the escarpment and our eyes peeled for loose rocks or rattlesnakes. The dizziness I’d felt earlier seemed to recede though I bitterly regretted not bringing my hiking sticks for their added stability. Where Chod appeared to float down the cliff my own passage was more ponderous, slower and less confident. The belt provided equilibrium for my gear but the camera dangling on its shoulder strap constantly threw me off balance. Plus I was altogether too hesitant and mistrustful of my abilities and felt a loss that nothing could fill. A part of me deeper than my youth was missing.
The final ledge deposited us next to the stream. Its shoreline was clumped with spindly olives and carpeted with waist-deep marsh grasses the color and hue of the scummy water. Following the stream proved impossible, however. It was deep, for one—we estimated its depth at six feet or more—with undercut banks that could easily collapse under our weight. Whenever possible we scrambled onto rock ledges and crabwalked toward the head of the wash, otherwise we forced our way through the brush, wary of the olive thorns that promised to rake and tear our flesh.
We hadn’t gone a hundred feet when we spotted the ruin. It was a small structure tucked under a massive overhang whose roof was black with desert patina. Seeing it there made me feel like an explorer from another century discovering some lost civilization. That there were hundreds of other such ruins studded throughout Comb Ridge made me want to explore the length and breadth of it. None are elaborate as Cliff Palace or Balcony House in Mesa Verde, nor even Pueblo Bonito in Chaco Canyon, but then again no visitor to Mesa Verde or Chaco Canyon could ever hope to replicate that thrill of discovery.
Seeing it gave us the impetus to hurry. We forced our way through dense shrubbery and clambered up a steep incline to the mouth of the recess. It was humbling, almost sacrilegious, as if we were trespassers of the first order. Others had been here before, their bootprints crisscrossing the sandy floor, even as hundreds of years before families had lived here. As Chod shucked his backpack to get to his camera I began composing the shot I wanted. It would encompass the entirety of the recess and highlight the fractured surface of the rock as well as the adobe bricks of the ruin. Clouds blocking the sun provided an even light that was more gift than I’d expected or deserved. After nailing the shot I withdrew to give Chod unfettered access.
Taking a short pull of water but not nearly as much as I desired was almost painful. Surely there are more ruins, I thought. And then I saw a faint trail crossing the entrance to the box canyon. If we could follow it all the way to the road we could spare ourselves the vertical ascent and possibly find even better sites. I hadn’t brought binoculars but from what I could see it looked feasible. When I pointed it out to Chod, he agreed it was worth a chance.
I popped a piece of gum into my mouth to offset the dryness. The trail, more an impression than a path, skirted the cliff before dropping into a deep gulch. Had anyone watched us from the canyon rim they would have seen two small figures struggle up a sharp incline and disappear into a wall of vegetation. The real adventure had begun.
(To be continued)