Because it’s so hot, even in September, our sojourn out to the Needles district of Canyonlands is a somewhat lackluster affair. I have a dream of backpacking down into Canyonlands for a night—our days have been so open-ended it seems like a possibility—but Darren is against this. Because above us spreads a merciless blue sky, spreading a burning heat the likes of which our Oregon skin hasn’t known before, and all around us is red, red rock. Listen, he says, assuming his I’ve been around this area I know a lot, voice—it’s just rocks, down there in the Needles. It’s just like a forest of stone. What about this doesn’t sound cool? I’m not sure. You have to remember I’ve never been here before, not like this. I’ve only dreamed of it—desert days, desert nights. And now it’s unfolding for me, and I want to know everything, every nook and cranny and hidden pocket of this red, red world. Sadly that’s being denied to me. Because of the heat. The rational part of me respects this deeply, because I dislike being too hot, mostly because I sweat a lot. But the non-rational part of me wants to throw caution to the wind, sleep in a rock bowl and stare at the stars all night—the risk of becoming a bleached out skeleton in the sun be damned!
It’s important to note that I’m also coming off of a petroglyph and pictograph high at this point, so my emotions and sense of reality are not probably where they should be. Not sure if they ever are to begin with, but we stopped at Newspaper Rock on our way to Canyonlands and it was incredible. My excitement over the extraordinary array of rock art is carrying over to backpacking through a stone forest (will wonders never cease!) so try not to be too critical towards my total lack of reason. Early in the trip—first day early—I did what any self-respecting English major would do and bought a book about petroglyphs and pictographs at the first bookstore I could find because I was so fascinated by them. What did they mean? What myths were they trying to convey? I was unabashedly a tourist, craning my neck up this impressive wall of carving after carving, flipping through pages. I can never understand, of course. No one can—we ruined our shot there. But eventually patterns start to emerge and I think I understand some of what was being conveyed. Holy, holy, holy are these places, and Darren and I have been seeking them out.
Which is how I’m appeased with our next option for the day, one that doesn’t include dying out in the middle of the desert at high noon. We decide to go to a ruin that Darren knows, tucked away on BLM land underneath a steep overhanging cliff, that features a mountain range pictograph and some masks that are slowly eroding. We head out through Indian Creek, a legendary climbing spot near Moab, but today the walls are heat-shimmering in the sun, the mesas jutting up out of the land like a challenge. Darren points out formations as we go—there’s the Bridger Jacks, that’s the Cat Wall, here’s the South Sixshooter, over there’s the North. I collect the names like talismans, turn them over and over until they’re like a hymn in my head—bridger jacks cat wall south sixshooter north sixshooter—so I can memorize them, come back to them later. I love that about climbing—if you climb it first, you get to name it—and eventually there’s a name for everything, that speaks to the person who first did it, so they get to leave a little bit of themselves, in addition, I guess, to the blood sweat and tears they already left on the stone. Anyone else bumping along this dirt road wouldn’t know that they were surrounded by legends, but we do. A name for everything.
I spot the ruin first, a little dark window against the rock, everything else blending in completely. The rest of the tower begins to emerge, as we drive closer—a line of rock here, a shadow cast down the wall—but it’s incredible how well the house is camouflaged. As soon as my feet hit ground, little red puffs of dirt spiral up into the air and before me a steep field of boulders and agave rises up to meet the little ledge that the tower is perched on. It isn’t going to be a long hike, but it will be hot. It’s beautiful, in the stark way that everything is here, in the harsh way that everything is. We start walking, following a very lightly marked trail, little cairns stacked here and there by others—probably climbers—to mark the easiest route through. Prickly pear blooms in spots, livening up the landscape with some color, and the whole way up I watch my ankles get scratched by rocks and cactus and everything in between. There’s a notched log leaned up against a particularly steep scramble and we work our way up, sweating profusely, the kind of sweating that you don’t even fight, you just let it happen. By the time we get there, both our shirts are drenched.
The tower, it begins to be clear, is built into a cliff that cuts off sharply on one side and a little gentler on the other, so we head that way, our progress slow but steady. Darren gives me a hand up on to the ledge, and then, suddenly, we’re here. The ledge is deeper than it looks, stretching the length of the steep curve of cliff band. Across from us, another mesa rises up to meet the sun, glittering dangerously. We’re protected now, from that ball of fire, tucked into the alcove of stone that someone, a very long time ago, decided to make home.
Once my eyes adjust to the shade, I start to see where we are, really. On the wall high above us, three triangle mountains are printed, a fading red against the tan of this sandstone, with a big arc over the trio. They’d clearly been to the Lasals, I could see that for sure. Storms roll off the mountains here, Darren tells me, pointing at the arc. Maybe that’s what it was—an ancient person respecting the power of a thunderstorm, racing across the desert, sent from the mountains. Or maybe not—it could be anything, really. We’re just guessing. Below the mountains, a few feet down, are three masks that are mostly chipped away now—snarling, elaborate faces unlike anything we’ve seen thus far. Normally there are stick figures, etched into the rock, but these are something different entirely. I move away from them, a little uneasily, towards the tower.
Here, between layers of sandstone and some kind of mortar--a mud, maybe?—rises up a three story tower, evidence of the floor between the basement and the first story still intact. Thick branches are thatched across each other, layered with more of the mortar. Gray light filters through to the floor below, filling the basement with an otherworldly glow. Peering into this tower, someone’s home, I become suddenly aware of how quiet it is. There’s a kind of quiet in the world you have to look hard to find, the kind that pushes in at you, presses in all around you, and that quiet is here, now. Quiet and still is the desert today.
Darren has sidled past the little gap in between the tower and the mesa wall and is moving on to other structures while I stand here for a minute, put my hand on the edge of the tower. Are we trespassing, I think, or paying homage? I follow him through the gap, climb through the window of another room—this one with no roof—and find him in what looks like a sweat lodge. Black rims a hole in the roof, which is the ground I’m standing on, as the lodge is dug in to the wall and built into the slope of the hillside. I don’t go down there, can’t make myself get into the dark, but I can see from where I’m crouched that benches are built into the walls and a deep, black circle in the center of the room marks where the fire would’ve been built. Can you believe this is all still here? Darren asks, and I can’t.
It’s all a little surreal—hiking through agave and prickly pear to the homes of people who lived thousands and thousands of years ago, to seek shade and shelter in the same curve of the earth that an ancient person also sought. What a legacy to leave, I think, as we discover corn cobs littering the floor of a granary and hundreds of pottery shards—some still painted—collected by people who have visited before grouped together on a flat rock. We sit in a particularly cool spot and debate what it might have looked like, really, before everything eroded and weathered many a storm, what the geography of this place might have been. We think some of the ledge must be gone, or shrunk, because the only way across it is through windows of the buildings, and that doesn’t seem effective. How did they get water here? Where was the bathroom? Where did this rock come from?
And who were they, I wonder? What did they dream of, what did they value? How many babies were born here, how many grandparents lost? What stirred their souls—the view of the canyon out their front doors, as it did mine, or would it have been the sight of a river, of water? Maybe they were used to this and took it for granted, as a normal part of life, like I do sometimes with my home. What stories did they tell at night? Why did they paint mountains and masks on a wall instead of the stick figures we’ve been seeing everywhere else?
After a little we leave, looking back at the tower until it disappears up into the wall, holding its mysteries close. At the bottom we pause, soak in the silence and the stillness, just able to spot the little dark window that marked the tower. There, a remnant of a culture and people, ancient lives still visible along a canyon wall. What will last of us, I wonder, and can think of nothing. What will be the testament to my life—here’s the question again, lingering. What will make people wonder about me? Maybe my writing, but maybe not—maybe there will be nothing left of me thousands of years from now. That’s probably true. But as we drive off, into the fading sun, it doesn’t seem so bad. A little anonymity never hurt anybody. Dust to dust, dirt to dirt, back to the land I’ll go, not gone, really—but a party of everything, in the end.