Silent Night, Holy Night

Tires crunched through the snow as the SUV inched along the deserted, unmaintained dirt road.  Slowly, tediously, it negotiated the frozen ruts, and when the road finally ended abruptly in a large semi-circular open area, inched gingerly into what appeared to be a parking space.

But appearances could be deceiving in this land, so far from the forced order of civilization where there was a place for everything, and everything in its place.  The steaming engine sighed and  clanked to a stop, and after a moment’s hesitation the doors opened, releasing two passengers into the snowy, empty and completely silent landscape.

Mosaic at El Santuario de Chimayo

“Are you sure we’re in the right place?” my husband asked delicately, after a brief pause during which we took a collective moment to catch our breath and acclimate to the frigid air surrounding us. The cold wind, gentle yet insistent, was alive — creeping with icy tendrils into any unguarded crack or seam in our multiple layers of warm winter clothing. “I mean, I’m not saying you don’t know where we’re going, but there’s nobody else here ~ maybe we should keep driving  and see if there are any parked cars further up? Maybe that guy at Chimayo didn’t know what he was talking about.”

Earlier that day, we had stopped at El Santuario de Chimayo, a small Roman Catholic church in the Sangre de Cristo (‘Blood of Christ’) Mountains between Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico. The ‘Santuario’, or shrine, built in the early 1800s, is known as the ‘Lourdes of the Americas’ because of various miracles reportedly connected to it and, more specifically, the sacred dirt found in a small hole in a little room off the sanctuary.

After filling a plastic baggie with sacred dirt and lingering for a good twenty minutes over the rows of crutches, casts and pictures covering almost every inch of the walls inside, we had accosted another tourist and asked him to take our photo in front of the Santuario.  During the friendly conversation that ensued, we mentioned that we were hoping to find a place to attend Christmas Eve mass that night in Taos, our next destination. Without hesitation, he excitedly exclaimed that we should attend Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo.

Snapshot of us in front of El Santuario de Chimayo

Taos Pueblo, traditionally known as ‘Tuah-tah’, is one of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos clustered along the banks of the Colorado River and the Rio Grande; villages of the modern Puebloan people who are believed to be descendants of the ancient Anasazi, a culture now more commonly referred to as the Ancestral Puebloans.  These peaceful farmers had never seen a European face until the Spanish descended upon their villages in 1540, forcing all of the inhabitants to convert to Catholicism.

Due to an ingenious adaptability (perhaps stemming from their peaceful nature) the Puebloan people adopted the forced religion while at the same time managing to retain most of their traditional ceremonies, opting to practice one ‘religion’ alongside the other in lieu of choosing between the two.  Despite the survival of the traditional ways, remnants of the Spanish conquest remain: today nearly 90% of the Puebloan people are practicing Catholics, and a Spanish mission still stands near the plaza at each and every Pueblo.

Taos Pueblo
Taos Pueblo

I was familiar with Taos Pueblo’s Christmas festivities and the various ceremonial dances that were open to the public each year, and knew of San Geronimo, the mission church at Taos Pueblo.  The chance to experience Midnight Mass at Taos Pueblo was an opportunity I was not going to pass up.  So here we were on Christmas Eve, just before midnight, in the middle of nowhere; and by the look of it, completely alone in this frozen New Mexico night.

“No,” I replied to my husband, “the guy at Chimayo knew what he was talking about and I know the church is over that way. We came all this way, let’s at least check it out.”

As we approached the Pueblo, one of the oldest continually-inhabited communities in the United States, I thought about how much life it had witnessed over ten centuries’ time.  I marveled that a village built while Europe was still entrenched in the Middle Ages had remained, intact, to this day.  In fact, remarkably little had changed here in the last thousand years; the people who called the Pueblo home still walked in the path of their ancestors each and every day and Taos Mountain, with its holy Blue Lake, watched perpetually over them from its home in the East.

San Geronimo Church Taos
San Geronimo Mission

I took my husband’s hand as we ducked through an opening in the low wall that surrounded the Pueblo and made our way towards the back of the little church, poised humbly on the edge of the plaza.  We crept around the side of the church, flecks of straw in the ancient caramel-colored adobe walls glinting eerily in the dark night.  Crunch, crunch, crunch…our heavy boots methodically covered ground but it was slow going with all the ice, snow and total darkness.

There is no electricity at Taos Pueblo, and the night possessed a mysterious depth I have not experienced anywhere else.  Tipping my head back, I was dazzled by millions of stars, so thick they were practically dripping from the sky in a mind-boggling three-dimensional display.  In the distance, sacred Taos Mountain stood guard over the pueblo; although it was too dark to see it, I could feel its  presence – brooding and silent – at home and alive in the inky darkness.

The church, San Geronimo Mission, was named after St. Jerome, the patron saint of Taos Pueblo, and was originally built by the Spanish in 1619.  Destroyed when the Puebloans rose up against the Spanish in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, it was soon rebuilt on the same site – only to be destroyed once again in 1847 by the U.S. Army during the Mexican- American war.  In 1850 the present-day church was erected near the site of the old church, where it still stands.  Its freshly-whitewashed adobe walls a startling contrast to the hollow ruins of the old mission.  Tonight it stood in darkness reflecting only the dark night sky…cloaked in its thick mud walls, and seemingly unconcerned about the weary travelers outside.

Old Church at Taos
The old mission at Taos

We rounded the corner of the church and it was as if someone suddenly turned on the volume. The faint sound of muffled voices wafted from the front door, and as we approached a glowing light shone softly out, mingling with the scent of incense as it welcomed us, beckoning us closer.  We were ushered quietly into the church and it was as if we had been transported back in time.

The thick, musky-yet-pleasant smell of incense and smoke from the candles, their dim, flickering, golden light, the closeness of the people crowded shoulder to shoulder in the rough wooden pews, the smooth adobe walls that enclosed us – and above all the feeling of community sacredness – presented an air of mystery and timelessness.  It’s almost dreamlike in my memory.

Shuffling into the back row, we stood in humble regard through the short yet moving service.  The gentle chanting voice of the priest alternated with voices raised in song.  A feeling of enchantment permeated the small room, and I melded into my surroundings and became a part of the otherworldly atmosphere.  The quiet majesty of the scene before me, the beauty inside this small and unassuming mission church in the middle of an ancient Pueblo, was an unexpected treasure and I took it in with moist eyes and a thankful heart.

When the service ended, we left the church in silence, both lost in our own thoughts. As we stepped over the threshold and into the frigid dark night, the spell was broken and we were brought abruptly back into the present – to the stars and the snow and the sacred mountain before us.  Everything remained exactly as it had been before; as it had been for over a thousand years.

But something inside me had changed; I had been transfixed and transformed by the beautiful experience.  The stars glittered and winked knowingly in  the velvet sky as we silently made our way back to the car.

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New Mexico Posole


The Lessons in Rocks

Jutting shards of Squaw (Piestewa) Peak

To many Native American tribes, rocks are the “stone people”, or Ancestors.  I was in a sweat lodge once and the huge volcanic rocks in the pit glowed red like searing hot sponges, the holes, along with the shadows from the fire (or maybe it was my encroaching delirium from the intense heat), causing me to start truly seeing rock faces, their expressions changing, dim and glowing.  My Apache friend told me that these sweat lodge rocks have actually spoken to people – which would be very disconcerting – and have even on occasion jumped out of the pit!

Rock formations: Escarpments at  the top of Squaw Peak jutting out at an angle like great steely shards.  The buttes and formations in Sedona, ancient and majestic.  Devil’s Tower from the Close Encounters movie.  The crazy hoodoos of the Chiricahuas down in southeast Arizona, whose formations  appear to defy the laws of gravity.  Our own Weaver’s Needle deep in the Superstitions,  and Superstition Mountain itself, part of a huge caldera millions of years old, steeped in mystery and revered by the Native Americans who lived in the area hundreds of years ago.

Chiricahua Tombstone July 06 055
Duck Rock in the Chiricahuas of SE Arizona

When on road trips, I find myself wondering how the landscape was formed.  Did a huge wind caused by an ancient pole shift blow the hundreds of boulders I see from somewhere else and scatter them across this valley?  If not, how did they get here?  Why is that rock shaped like a duck?  Why is there an infusion of sparkly rock flowing through that exposed cliff face?  How did that five-foot-high layer of pale rock get into the red sandstone that’s hundreds of  feet thick?

I was in heaven when I found an amazing book that describes the landscape along each of the major highways in Arizona and how it was formed, including the features’ names. But the only problem is I always seem to be the driver, and noone wants to read to me as we pass the points of interest marked in this book.

One of the many ruins in Sedona

My love for ruins, especially Native American ruins, comes in second to my love for rocks, but I’ve realized that although I appreciate ruins for what they are – or were – ultimately, I revel in the fact that they are rocks forming a structure. There’s a wistful atmosphere of abandonment surrounding ruins, yet they make me feel so close to the people that walked there so many years ago.

The rocks thoughtfully chosen and placed…the mortar spread so carefully between the layers of rock, impressions left by careful fingers hundreds of years ago frozen in stone. I think the way I feel when I’m near a ruin comes from the rocks that form it, yet the fact that they’ve been used to build something bigger than themselves symbolizes something so much more complex.

Ruin in Canyon de Chelly

Ruins embody the fact that rocks don’t have to move to have life, they don’t have to do anything to prove they exist.  They just ARE.  They have seen so much over so many thousands of years; been silent witnesses to the milennia.  These ancient Ancestors watch and listen.  Through their presence alone, they retain their power.

Ruin in the Sierra Ancha

This is symbolic of a bigger truth for me.  The  very fact that each one of us is here on this earth is by no means an accident, or chance.  To gain a better understanding as to why you are here, like the rocks, you just need to listen and be Present.

Stop trying to influence your surroundings or life situations with your own ideas as to how things should be and just observe the world around you (especially the natural world) – allow it to teach you. By doing so, you will begin to enter into a whole new relationship with life that is almost magical!

Living this way takes trust, or faith if you will, that things are going to be OK.  It requires you to enter a state of humility, and surrender to something you may sense, but may never truly  understand or comprehend.  When you’re in this state of receptivity, little things will start to happen that seem like strange coincidences – synchronicities.  The  more you acknowledge them, the more often they will happen. It’s almost like the Universe likes the attention and will interact with you even more, the more you open yourself up and notice!

Ruin in Chaco Canyon

The tools you are given to realize your purpose in life are intuition, and the ability to follow your heart – if you are listening, these tools will always tell you when you’re going in the right direction.

I love rocks and ruins, and I don’t know why.  Finally listening to my heart led me to go back to school at age 32 as an Anthropology/Archaeology major even though I have no idea what I will do in that field, or where exploring the past will lead me.

What makes you feel alive?  Whatever it is, it’s no accident.  Explore that path with your heart wide open, even if you don’t know where it will lead you.  Like the rocks, be still and listen. By honoring that which speaks to your heart, ultimately, you honor Life itself.

Related Posts:
The Most Precious Stone
Adventure in the Sierra Ancha
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2012-07-02 05.58.54“If anybody is not blown away by the Grand Canyon, they won’t be blown away by Judgement Day, either.  To spend the night on rocks that have been warmed to 120 degrees by the sun, to feel the incredibly insistent and very dangerous Colorado River rush by you, to be down in the depths of the Grand Canyon with no one around you but your own party, you begin to feel your own insignificance.  At the same time, you are made larger by that realization.”
filmmaker Ken Burns, to Arizona Highways Magazine

I recently confirmed our spots on our second Colorado River rafting trip, set to embark in July of 2015.   Since doing so, I often find myself staring off into space, my mind wandering back to our pre-baby – and virgin – trip…images flash through my mind of sun-seared red sandstone cliffs…the roiling rush of the river, like a writhing beast, beneath me during the day and beside me at night…and slowly but surely I get drawn back down, down, down into the Grand Canyon. It has a way of doing that.

Like it was yesterday, I can feel the hot, industrial-thick rubber of ‘The Rail’ (what we newbie river runners dubbed the side pontoons of the raft – the front of the raft, where you’re sure to get soaked, is The Bathtub, of course) under my sunburned legs and the soft spray kissing my face…the rhythmic rise and fall of our craft as the river swelled beneath it…Like some living thing, the Canyon is already calling to me, pulling me back in.

When we signed up for our first river trip with Hatch River Expeditions back in June of 2012, one of our main goals was to check a ‘big one’ off of our Bucket List.  I mean, what adventurous soul does NOT yearn to raft the mighty Colorado at least once in their lifetime? Little did we know that the allure of the Canyon was not something easily-escaped once whisked top-side via helicopter.  Nor did I expect, even weeks later, to start from a sound sleep, feeling the roll and sway of the raft beneath me as if I were still being carried down the river.

There is something haunting about the Grand Canyon – and something absolutely visceral about experiencing it while riding on the back of the mightiest river in America, spending a whole week sleeping exposed to sheer, sun-baked rock faces under the craziest, thickest expanse of stars imaginable. That canyon gets into your blood somehow.

Nankoweap Delta
Nankoweap Delta

For all the intensity of experience and mysteries unveiled to us during that memorable first trip, one spot stands out for me above all the rest.  Nankoweap.

“Nankoweap”…I had seen that word hundreds of times, almost always gracing the caption of a stunning photograph of ancient ruins nestled high above the water back-lit by an impossibly beautiful straight-shot view three miles downriver.

Nankoweap…the humongous delta – the largest on the river in fact – named for Nankoweap Creek, which drains into the Colorado at this spot where Nankoweap Canyon and Marble Canyon meet.

To me, the name Nankoweap had become so synonymous with these ruins perched high above the river, which were not dwellings but granaries where the ancient inhabitants stored their food, that I had no idea this place held so much more.  I had read about Nankoweap in countless captions, but never did I imagine I would see it for myself, and be able to view the remnants of its ancient civilization up close – let alone bed down in the Nankoweap Delta, where Ancient Puebloan people made their home nearly 1000 years ago in what had been one of the largest settlements inside the Grand Canyon.

Indian Dick Campsite
Indian Dick Campsite

It was day two of our trip, and we had spent the preceding night, our first inside the canyon, at Indian Dick; a popular camping spot lewdly named after a prominent rock feature that overlooks it. After an intoxicating second day on the river, I consulted my trusty waterproof mile-by-mile Colorado River guidebook (which sadly ended up in its namesake when I rode The Rail on Hermit Rapid just days later) that we were approaching Nankoweap, located approximately 52 river miles below Lee’s Ferry.

I excitedly anticipated getting a glimpse of the fabled granaries from afar, as the raft whisked us around the curve of the delta and on our way. As I braced myself and my waterproof camera so as not to miss them as we rounded the curve, imagine my excitement when I overheard the guides discussing whether we should pull in for the night – a possibility as long as no other river runners had beat us to the few good camp sites on the delta.

As we rounded the bend, I sucked in my breath; pleasepleaseplease…yes! There was nobody there!  It only felt real when our guides carefully guided our boat and our sister boat to shore – we were actually spending the night at Nankoweap!

Technically inside Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, Nankoweap’s expansive delta was officially studied back in the 60s by an archaeologist named Douglas W. Schwartz.  Not only did Schwartz thoroughly investigate the famous granaries in the cliffs, but also a number of petroglyph sites and ruins on the canyon floor along the river – in all, thirty pueblo structures- upon which he based his conclusion that the Nankoweap Delta may have been home to as many as 900 people at one time, most likely between AD 1050 and Ad 1150.  He also concluded that the people farmed the delta, based on remnants of ancient corncobs and pumpkin seeds that he found in the granaries.

Mooring at Nankoweap
Mooring the rafts at Nankoweap

The boats drifted to shore, as crafts of millennia past must have done, and we commenced our nightly ritual of unloading supplies and setting up individual camp sites. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting shadows onto the canyon walls, our guides beckoned and a good number of us gathered at the foot of the salmon-hued cliffs to begin the ascent to the Nankoweap granaries.

As we started along the sandy trail, I couldn’t help but notice our guides wore flip-flops…a modern testament (in my mind) to the woven sandals the Ancient Puebloans surely wore to make this very same trek. We navigated silently among the mesquite, tamarisk, and other brush, the trail often choked with obstacles, forcing us to scramble over toppled rocks and exposed roots. Soon, the trail began to get steeper, seemingly chiseled through the exposed rock, and the granaries came into view, over 600 feet above the river.

After a bit of huffing and puffing, we finally made it up the last stretch and the granaries sat as they had for nearly ten centuries, tucked away tight in the cliff side, accessible only by a narrow walkway. In ones and twos, we carefully navigated the precarious zig-zag path up, and finally I stood on the threshold and beheld that coveted view. I looked off down the river, relishing the moment, then let my gaze wander over to the granaries themselves. So small really; humble storage caches for a people that lived and breathed and walked here a thousand years ago. A people who, after all, were only trying to survive.

Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.
Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.

I reverently approached the caches and peered inside, trying to imagine the need – the urgency – that drove these people to store seeds that would ensure their survival in such a high and inaccessible place. Was it a fear that the river would rise? Was it to keep them out of enemy hands? Archaeologists dance around the truth, seemingly getting closer and closer to The Answer; but I am convinced there are some things we will just never know.

I let my gaze linger inside one of the small depressions and a faint shimmer of blue caught my eye. Turquoise. The revered symbol of water, sky, and life itself. Like the archaeologists trying to decipher the clues left behind by the Ancient Puebloans, I will never know for sure who left this hopeful offering or why – but to me it was the perfect embodiment of the People, whose essence and spirit will always live on within the canyon.

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‘Quick Jaunt’ to Cooper Forks

I didn’t breath a word to anyone, but as we climbed down out of Pueblo Canyon, I was secretly thinking to myself, “there’s NO WAY we’re doing another hike tomorrow.”  The plan had been to hit Pueblo Canyon, the harder and longer of the hikes, on day one and follow up with a quick out-and-back to what the guidebook called ‘Cooper Forks’ the next morning, before heading home to Phoenix.

Early Morning Campfire

In that moment, on the tail end of what I will officially deem “one of the hardest hikes I’ve ever done,” (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha) I mistakenly believed that if I was feeling the pain, everyone else must certainly be feeling it.  So when our silent descent was broken by random banter about the following morning’s hike I just smiled and nodded diplomatically.

Morning dawned bright and early; I laid with my sleeping bag up over my face for as long as possible, until I could hear that everyone was up except for me.  I am not a morning person, so was a bit slow coming out of the bag entirely but once I got moving around I began to revive. I was still quite confident that we’d probably putz around the campfire for a while before reaching a unanimous decision to break camp and head back home a little early.

I dressed and freshened up a bit, and came around the side of the truck to see everyone standing slightly beyond the fire, shading their eyes and squinting intently out across the wide canyon that stretched below our campsite.  As I approached, John handed me the guidebook and pointed to a hill that rose steeply from the creek at the canyon bottom to the base of a sheer rock cliff.

View without binoculars – huh?

“That’s where we’re going, see up there at the base of the cliff?”

“Huh?”  I glanced at the guidebook, then back up at the large hill.  John offered me the binoculars, and after scanning the hillside for a bit I found the cliff face and trained my view down to where it met the bare slope.  Nestled inside what appeared to be a gash running down the cliff was a cliff dwelling, perfectly centered in the narrow opening.

Zooming in on the cliff face and cave

“Wow, that looks pretty far…” I trailed off as I realized how lame I sounded; it was obvious that the plan was to do it – and nobody else was complaining.

“Well, the guidebook says it’s only a half mile down to the creek, then another half mile to where we hit Cooper Forks Canyon, and then another half mile up to the structure.”  John assured.  OK, that didn’t really sound too bad – really just a quick jaunt.

If I hadn’t been so eager to believe it was a short hike I would have realized those distances made no sense based on what I was seeing with my own eyes.  Regardless, there was no way I was going to be the only one who didn’t want to go.

Brian…examining bear scat?

I gathered up my gear a bit reluctantly and followed everyone down the dirt road where we met up with the old mining trail again, this time heading down-slope towards the creek.  The warm sun on my face, singing birds, and flowers blooming all around quickly captivated me and I was suddenly really glad we were on another adventure.

We hadn’t gone a quarter mile when some strange-looking droppings in the trail prompted me to wonder aloud what type of animal might have produced them…My husband Dan swiftly delivered the first blow to my serene state of mind when he revealed (after some hemming and hawing) that it was probably bear.  Apparently, he and John had already had this conversation the day before when they came across the same thing multiple times on the trail to Pueblo Canyon (Adventure in the Sierra Ancha).  When John told Dan it looked like bear scat, Dan had sworn John to secrecy – bears happen to be my biggest fear ever.

The second blow came when we reached the creek.  There, marked clearly in the sandy bank, was the BIGGEST paw print I had ever seen. “OMG, the bear’s down here!”  was my first thought.  However the number of toes must not have matched up because Bill joyfully exclaimed that it was actually a mountain lion…”And he must be a big sucker!”

Where I slept the night before

Numbness crept up my body as I furtively scanned the banks and the encroaching forest, positive the animal in question was watching and waiting just beyond the treeline.  Nobody else seemed to be that worried, so I tried to mask my terror, but in reality I could not get out of the forested area near the creek fast enough.   I cringed thinking about where I had slept the night before, totally exposed and ripe for the picking.

As usual, my fierce yet shameful sense of self-preservation took over.  In a carefully-calculated strategic move, I fell in behind Bill and John, with my husband Dan and his friend Brian from Jersey trailing behind me.  My thought was, if we surprised the mountain lion, Bill and John would create enough of a distraction for me to have a chance – and if the mountain lion came up behind us, the same logic would apply from the back end.

Crossing the creek

In loose formation, we boulder-hopped across the creek and up the other bank.   Trying to stay close to the creek, we slowly made our way among the boulders and slippery rocks, but were eventually forced by a tangle of impenetrable vegetation to veer right and up onto a little terrace that rose above the river.

Low mesquite trees created a canopy over the flat terrace, interspersed with the occasional prickly pear or creosote bush.  I imagined that this would have been a perfect place for the ancient Anchans to live, overlooking the river and all, but I didn’t notice any signs of habitation except for a few possible stone alignments that may or may not have marked the location of ancient structures.

So close, but yet so far…

Finally, we came to the edge of the terrace, where Cooper Forks Canyon intersected the creek.  Unfortunately, by this time we were quite high above the creek and the canyon floor, without any obvious way down – the problem was that we needed to cross Cooper Forks Canyon.  Before I knew what was happening, Bill disappeared down the side of the terrace, to the sound of cracking branches and cascading rocks.  A moment later, John followed.

I gingerly stepped forward a few feet in the direction they had gone, looking for handholds.  Just then Brian spoke up and said his heel had been bothering him for a while, and he felt he’d be better off going back to camp to wait for us instead of pressing on.  Before he had even finished his sentence, Dan chimed in, offering to accompany him back to camp.  Bill and John were already out of earshot.  I craned my neck, trying to see where they had gone, to no avail.  Looking at Dan and Brian, then back down the steep terrace, I reluctantly decided to push ahead; at this point I just couldn’t stomach giving up and turning back after coming so far.

Strange conglomerate rocks lined the trail

Bidding Dan and Brian farewell, I returned to the task at hand; negotiating a way down the slippery, vegetation-choked dirt bank.  Seeing no obvious route, I finally launched into a brisk downhill slide, grasping wildly at any plant within reach (most of which happened to be covered in either spines or thorns).

I made it down about 20 feet and finally caught sight of Bill and John waiting in the wash below.   After another 20 treacherous feet of basically skiing on dirt, I finally reached the wash and the base of the steep hill leading up to the cliffs and the ruins.

I can’t lie; at this point I was secretly envying Dan and Brian, imagining them kicking back with a cool drink at the campsite, leisurely watching the remote hillside, waiting for us to appear.  As we wearily crossed the wash, Bill paused for a moment before staring up at the steep opposite bank.  “You know,” he said, “I’m feeling a bit tired myself – I think I’m going to go join those guys at the camp site and sit this one out.”

John and I looked at each other.  For a brief moment, I thought I might get my guilty wish and we’d all turn back.  But I could see John was excited to continue, and despite my pure physical exhaustion, I did really want to see the cave and the ruins first-hand.  So after making sure our walkie-talkie was synched with Bill’s, we agreed to contact him when we reached the ruin.

Descending towards the cliff base and cave

The cliff and cave appeared tantalizingly close at just over a half mile away, but this final stretch involved a 1200 foot climb, and to quote the trusty guide book, “most of the route follows no recognizable trail”.  For once, the book was astoundingly accurate.  John and I started up the steep winding trail that switch-backed up the base of the hill.  Within minutes, the trail had dwindled to nothing and we stood staring out over a rocky, sparsely-vegetated slope.

In the absence of a trail, we opted against pushing ahead on a steep route directly towards the ruins, instead choosing a more gradual approach which would take us left along the hillside and a bit out of our way before (hopefully) veering back up towards the cliff and our destination.  We were encouraged when we eventually picked up a faint trail again, but after about 20 minutes it was obvious that it was taking us around the mountain and not up towards the cliff.

Our first close-up view

Abandoning the trail to nowhere, we bushwhacked up through a copse of mesquites to the crest of a low rise, hoping we’d be able to see our destination and adjust our path accordingly.  Frustration mounted as, no matter how high we climbed, a clear view of the cliff we needed to reach eluded us.

We had nearly reached the top of the mountain without catching even a glimpse of the cliff face when we suddenly had an ‘ah-ha’ moment and pulled out the camera.  Examining the pictures we had taken earlier from below and matching up distinctive landmarks, it became obvious we had climbed too high and were actually above the ruins!

Cautiously but excitedly, we began to descend towards the edge of the hill, and where (based on the pictures) we thought the cliff should be.  After a harrowing, albeit quick, slide down a field of shattered rocks that rolled and shifted under our feet with a sound like breaking glass, we finally rounded the corner of the cliff and found ourselves directly below the ruins.

Ancient camouflage

Looking up in awe, we beheld an amazing sight!  Blending perfectly into the natural openings in the cliff were the most well-constructed ancient dwellings I have ever seen.  And compared to the structures in Pueblo Canyon, this small enclave of 10-12 rooms brought new meaning to the word ‘inaccessible’.

After personally experiencing the difficulty of reaching these dwellings, it was hard to imagine what prompted the Anchan people to expend the time and effort required to build in this remote, waterless cliff side – a question that archaeologists are still trying to figure out.

As John and I spent the next hour joyously exploring this amazing place, there was no question as to whether the trek was worth it – bears and mountain lions notwithstanding.

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Adventure in the Sierra Ancha

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Adventure in the Sierra Ancha

It was a motley crew that set out from our house early Saturday morning.  I had proposed this little expedition after reading an amazing article about the Sierra Ancha in Arizona Highways magazine a few months ago, and was really jazzed when a few people actually seemed serious about accompanying us.

Fellow Traveler

Aside from my husband Dan and I, our group included our longtime petroglyph-documenting mentor and camping-in-the-outback guru Bill; an amazing man in his 70s who has the body and stamina of a 20-year old. Fellow companion was rock art buff John, who had also been accompanying Bill for years on the many petroglyph-documenting camping trips out in Arizona’s Tonto National Forest.

The oddball of the group (in an outdoorsy sense) was Brian, Dan’s best friend from Jersey.  Perhaps inconveniently for him, our trip just happened to fall on the weekend he was to arrive for a week’s stay.  After going back and forth with Dan as to whether Brian would be up for something like this or if we should just reschedule, Dan decided he might as well ask him.  Brian, in his typical non-committal manner, let us know he was up for the trip.  Actually I think his exact words were, “Eh – yeah…I’ll go.”

His response didn’t carry a lot of emotion, but this was a brave move on Brian’s part.  He had only ever camped once in his life — a comparatively cushy night in our pop-up camper in a nice campground in Sedona’s Oak Creek Canyon. After a harrowing night involving a trio of racoons and a picnic table full of glass beer bottles, he had vowed never to camp again.

Stay Left Bill-Far Left!

We set out from Phoenix bright and early, taking the 60 all the way out past the mining town of Miami to Claypool, then heading north towards Roosevelt Lake.  It was relatively smooth sailing, including the next leg of the trip which involved a nearly 20-mile joggle on a washboard dirt road.  It didn’t get hairy until we hit the last three or four miles of the drive.

“High clearance vehicle required for last approx. 4 miles,” is how the guide book put it — which was true, especially for the second creek crossing which involved hitting the creek at about a 45-degree angle and praying you didn’t bottom out coming back up the other side.  What the book failed to mention was something more disturbing than the condition of the narrow, gnarly, boulder-strewn final stretch of road:  the approximate 1000 foot drop on the passenger side!  I felt sick as I crawled along at a snail’s pace, only thankful I wasn’t the passenger.  After about 30 harrowing white-knuckle minutes, we finally spotted the little mining road where we would begin our trek up into Pueblo Canyon.

View into Cold Spring Canyon

It was there, hidden high in the cliffs, that the ancient Anchan Culture had lived.  Evolving out of an indigenous Archaic culture as early as AD 800, the Anchan people had started out as farmers living in stone pueblos along the creek banks, but late in the 1200s something changed.

It was then that some of them began to retreat up into these secluded canyons and build nearly inaccessible, and possibly defensive cliff dwellings.  To add to the mystery, these dwellings were only occupied briefly — no more than 100 years — before the Anchan people abandoned the area completely in the early 1300s.

Mining Trail & Steep Mountainside

After parking the trucks, we headed back on foot to pick up the little mining road where it bisected the dirt road and traversed up the side of a broad hill.  It was a pretty steep grade, and it was hot out.  As always, I took mental stock of our situation and my mind rested on my usual first concern; Dan’s water supply.

For all of his meticulous (i.e. OCD-like) preparation in every other area, I’m now convinced that Dan will have to actually suffer from full-on dehydration or heat stroke before he truly believes he needs more than one quart of water per hike, no matter the distance.  True to form, today he carried two 16-oz plastic water bottles — and a Camelbak with an empty pouch.  I reminded him that we had an at least six-mile, difficult trek ahead but he didn’t seem too worried.  Ugh.  At that point there was nothing I could do but firmly remind him to please ration his water.

Nearing the Top

We began the hike, which the guide book had cheerfully termed “bushwhack out and back,” with Dan and I falling into the rear with Bill, while John and Brian from Jersey forged ahead at a good clip.  The trail quickly narrowed as the mining road faded and finally disappeared beneath our feet, replaced with what looked to be no more than a well-traveled game trail.  We switch-backed up the flank of the hill, practically burrowing through the thick manzanitas in a grueling, steep, nearly 1000-foot climb.

Finally the trail leveled out and opened up and we were able to see the far canyon wall, getting our first tantalizing glimpse of the cliff dwellings, although we weren’t yet a third of the way to our destination. John and Brian quickly disappeared ahead again as Dan, Bill and I took a much-needed breather, enthralled by the view across the canyon and taking advantage of the photo-op.

First View of Dwellings

As we hit the trail again, it got narrower still, and began tunneling through thick, low, deciduous-looking trees.  In parts, we weren’t even sure we were still on the trail.  After an exasperating muddy scramble up a 10-foot, nearly 90-degree stretch of trail during which I managed to drop my walking stick, my hat and my knife in quick succession, we all stopped to catch our breaths and I realized we hadn’t heard nor seen Brian or John for a while.  Now even more unsure as to whether we were on the trail, I yelled for them, to no avail.

Dan recalled seeing what appeared to be another branch of the trail about 10 minutes earlier, and wondered if they had gone that way.  At that moment a hot wave of anxiety washed over me, and I got a sinking feeling in my stomach.  How dumb we were to not stay together!  If they had gone the other way, they could be heading for an entirely different canyon than us, and our only hope would be to head back down to the vehicles, adventure aborted, and hope they eventually turned up.  I  opted to stay with Bill while he rested, and Dan pushed ahead; soon I heard his unmistakable bird call…”Twee, twee!”  Thank God — he had found them!


We all regrouped, vowing not to separate again, and started back along the trail as it opened up into a rocky, cathedral-like stretch that hugged the canyon wall.  Great streaks of minerals streamed down the rock walls, and natural seeps dripped water all around as we continued on.  After passing what appeared to be a small rockslide that had covered part of the trail, I suddenly heard what sounded like a huge maraca rattling and echoing back and forth across the canyon walls.  Everyone jumped backwards about three feet, which was a bit dangerous as the trail was only about three feet wide with a steep drop-off behind us.  Finally John spotted the perpetrator; a large rattlesnake coiled against a rock, huddled, rattling and ready to strike.

They say your true nature comes out in crisis situations and I have to admit this isn’t the first time I’ve felt a twinge of guilt at my incredible sense of self preservation.  I finally got close enough to take a picture (full zoom of course) after being reassured that the snake was not going to unexpectedly fly four feet through the air at me.


The trail continued along the canyon wall, passing a solitary ancient one-room structure perched right next to an historic uranium mine (the guide book warned not to go in, for obvious reasons!) before reaching the back of the canyon and a beautiful, seasonal waterfall.  This time of the year it was sprinkling healthily, although I’m sure if we would have been a month or so earlier it would have been more of a force to be reckoned with.

Apparently, the ledge below the falls, which you must cross, also gets icy in the winter, but rest easy — if you slip the drop won’t send you “plummeting 300 feet” like the guide book says.  I’d estimate it at a good 50-foot plunge, although it is pretty much sheer rock so I suppose the actual height is irrelevant; you wouldn’t be walking away from that fall.  Just sayin’…

Pretty Amazing!

The crown jewel of this trek was the reason we came:  Magnificent cliff dwellings lie just beyond the waterfall.  Room after room, they lined the cliff ledge in a seemingly endless progression, better-preserved than any I have seen before.  It truly brought me back in time to see the actual posts and beams, stucco still clinging to the walls, and even faded paintings right on the stucco walls.

Interesting factoid:  famous archaeologist Emil W. Haury visited these very cliff dwellings back in the 1930s to collect tree ring samples for his monumental tree ring dating project.  You can see cuts on some of the beams, but I’m not sure these were from Emil — although it made for an interesting thought.  There was almost too much to take in, the pictures in the slide show below will hopefully do the experience some justice.

After visiting these amazing and extremely inaccessible structures, it’s hard to imagine what would have caused the Anchan people to choose to live somewhere so difficult and seemingly inconvenient to reach.  Some archaeologists think they moved up there to be closer to reliable sources of water but others believe it was a defensive move in response to a threat by other, possibly invading, Native Americans.


After drinking in our fill, we headed back the way we came, eager for the comparable civility and comfort of our camp site.  Most of us were silent on the way back; whether from exhaustion or reflection, I can’t say for sure, but for me it was a little of both.

I was happy we all made it in one piece and got to experience the wonder of the cliff dwellings.  I was thankful that Dan still had one sip of water left by the time we finished, thanks to careful rationing.  I was glad no one had gotten hurt, bitten, or otherwise incapacitated.  I was excited that Brian had gotten to see something so remarkable, and so different from what he was used to in Jersey.

Back at the campsite, while enjoying a celebratory round of Skinnygirl margaritas in plastic camping cups, I eagerly asked him what he thought of the journey and whether the  end made it worth the strenuous hike in.  His response was typical Brian: “Eh – it was OK I guess.”

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