Sandstone cliffs rose above us on either side like some mystical natural highway. We were walking through an ancient oasis in the middle of the desert, with pools of trees who’s leaves were shimmering under a light breeze. Perched on the sides of cliffs were the remains of some ancient Native American cliff dwellings. Painted on the sides of the walls were pictographic paintings that either acted as some form of signs directing friends to different areas of the canyon, or some sort of artistic graffiti that let us know how good they were at hunting. Surprisingly, there were no pictures of dicks. Many of the pictures were basic hunting scenes, but contained some very interesting variations on what we would consider a normal hunt.
We passed a pictograph of two men with antlers either on their heads, or growing out of the sides of their heads. They carried spears at the end of their stick figure arms, and it was impossible to know what kind of mood they would have been in. Their eyes were staring back into the mysterious landscape inside of the sandstone cliff. Neither of them noticed us walking past in a line of stinky hiking boots, backpacks, but seemed to be looking further into the rock at some mysterious scene inside of the sandstone. I didn’t mind. We weren’t much to look at right then anyway.
The rangers had told us that ancient dwellings were built into secret places the sides of the cliffs surrounding us, which had me thinking of some sort of metropolis style Native American city. In spite of the number of places people could have lived, it was very difficult to see them. In fact, the ranger could have been lying. Occasionally, we would spot one tucked under a cliff and feel very excited. Even though there weren’t many other hikers in the canyon, it was almost guaranteed to see someone visiting the dwelling. I saw one standing high on the edge of a cliff like a mud caked gem, which looked almost impossible to get up to. The temptation to check it out was too much.
Unfortunately, the group I was hiking with was not as enthusiastic.
“Do you want ghosts?” said my friend Sophia, “Because that’s how you get ghosts.”
“I’m not going in.” I said, “I’m just going to look in. Any good quality ghost knows the difference.”
“You’re going to get us all haunted.” She said. Most of our group agreed that my curiosity would get us all haunted.
“I’ll be respectful. I swear.” I said.
Sophia gave me a very evaluating look. Then, she gave another look at the layers of steep cliff that stood between myself, and the cliff dwelling. Then she gave another look at me again.
“You aren’t even going to make it up there.”
“I will make it up there.” I said, “And I’m going to take a picture from the top.”
“And then you will have ghosts.” Said Sophia.
“Damn it!” I said.
Then she picked up her bag, and the rest of our group went to find some much coveted fresh water. (Side note, the water in a desert that is almost always gross. If a book describes it coming from a “crystal spring” is usually tepid, full of bugs, and has an unsettling smell surrounding it.)
Sophia said, “We are going to find some fresh water.”
Sophia and the rest of our group shouldered their heavy backpacks, and disappeared between clusters of juniper bushes. Only my friend Chris stayed behind. I’m not sure if he did this because he was a true homie, or if it was to maybe see me fall, and he was actually my bitter enemy. Either way, it was nice to not suddenly climb this ancient cliff all alone, without any ropes.
We left the trail, hopping over a few ribbons of criptobiotic soil crust clustered in patches on the slick rock. Each crusty piece of soil could be centuries old, so stepping on one is kind of like killing an ugly little brick shaped unicorn. The hike slowly turned very steep, and then very suddenly it was a rock climb.
The beginning of the climb was easy, and enjoyable. A few jugs (large, comfortable hand holds) and solid crimps (smaller, less comfortable hand holds) led the way to a corner in the rock that had sprouted a small green bush. It only took a few minutes until I was 60 feet off the ground, and I had to do some breathing to calm my nerves down.
In front of me were the weather worn remains of some Moki Steps. What are these? A series of steps that people had carved into the side of a cliff, to be walked up like stairs. At one time, these steps were probably very well defined and easy to walk up. That was probably 500 years ago. Over time they had been worn away into barely recognizable nubs. They had turned into rock climbing holds on the side of a very steep cliff.
Standing next to the bush, which had started to seem much more like a friendly bush in my fearful frame of mind, I thought about stepping onto the first moki step. I gripped tightly to the rock next to my head. Slowly putting one foot out, I tested to see if my foot would slip. Starting with just a little bit of weight at first. It was holding just fine. I slowly put my body weight onto the first step.
When I fully committed to stepping out onto the sheer cliff face, I realized there was nowhere I could put my hands. I was standing on tiptoe over a very steep, very long drop. Sophia was right. I hated her at that moment. Then I looked back at my friendly bush, and felt re-assured.
Whenever I’m rock climbing, I find that my mind can wander away from actually climbing, into just thinking about the terrible scenarios of falling. I made the amateur mistake of looking down and thinking about how shitty that would be. I could die! Even worse, I could not die and just lay broken on the ground until I died over time. Why did I make these life decisions? Why didn’t I do something safe, like tennis.
Taking a deep breath, I tried to relax. If I were tied in to a rope, this climb would have been easy. The difficult part was going through every possible doubt my mind could possibly generate. If I listened to those doubts, I would never reach the end of my goal.
Taking another step forward brought a rush of confidence. Turning off the mental blocks my brain could create, and stepping slowly forward, were the only ways I could move forward. I matched my feet, and took another step towards my goal.
Having conquered the crux (hardest part of a rock climb), the climbing above that point was easy, and fun. I ran up a ramp of sandstone to the base of a flaring chimney carved in the rock. Climbing up into the chimney, I made it onto the ledge.
Further along the ledge was the small wooden hut, that I could only imagine had belonged to some important figure. It could have been a medicine man, or a king for all I knew. I would have to be respectful. Scooching along the ledge, is slowly approached the opening. What would I find inside? Mumified remains? Treasure? Could be anything.
On my hands and knees, I carefully approached the entrance, and peered through the single hole entry way.
Inside, a lattice work of branches was covered by a natural red plaster. The floor was the same bare rock that I had was now standing on. It was an old storage hut. Someone had been keeping their grain in there, until they probably abandoned the spot because it was so hard to reach. Unfortunately, it had not been as epic as I had originally imagined. Luckily though, there were no ghosts.
There were no mummies, or pottery shards. Inside, the shelter was empty. It’s floor was completely clean, almost as though it had been swept. The mystery of why this place had ever been built will most likely never be solved. The only thing left in the area was mysterious dignity, and a silent history that would never be spoken of again. The only people who could possibly answer any of our questions were the two man shaped figures wearing antlers, staring into another world on the other side of the sandstone.