Despite a happy ending to the previous day, I woke up discouraged, and a bit overwhelmed from the overall negative experience of the day prior. Needing some fuel in my system, I decided to visit the hotel’s breakfast bar, where I proceeded to pig out on waffles.
Sitting there thinking, I began to ponder what the towns people of Blanding do for fun, there are few entertainment sources, and no other cities or cultural hubs for a hundred miles in any direction. For whatever sick twisted reason, I joked to myself that they have weekend looting outings. The more that I chuckled at my incredibly rude joke, it dawned on me…this was that place…
In September of 2009, the FBI raided the little town of Blanding for the looting of archeological resources on public lands. In total they arrested sixteen people, including the town’s doctor, who committed suicide the following day. This wasn’t the first time the town was raided, it first happened in 1986, for the very same reason.
My joke was no longer funny, ironic, but not funny…still sick and twisted, however.
I finished breakfast, and got on the road. My destination was Comb Ridge, or in Navajo, Tséyíkʼáán (meaning, “rock extends in the form of a narrow edge”). Comb Ridge is an 80-mile long monocline, a step-like fold in rock strata consisting of a zone of steeper dip within an otherwise horizontal or gently-dipping sequence, which runs north to south, from southeast Utah to neartheast Arizona. Tucked inside the canyons of Comb Ridge there is evidence in the form of cliff dwellings, petroglyphs, and pictographs left behind by the Anasazi, or Ancestral Puebloans. Many ruins in this region were first found and documented by the Macomb and Hayden expeditions (looting expeditions) in 1869 and 1874–1876.
I made one quick stop prior to Comb Ridge, a very public petroglyph site at the Sand Island Recreation Area, along the San Juan River. The Sand Island Petroglyphs are well signed, and adjacent to a BLM campground. I wasn’t sold on this being a mandatory stop, figuring that the panel was insignificant, or trashed beyond recognition, however being along my way, it was worth checking out. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the panel was larger than I anticipated, and in nice condition, with only minimal vandalism. The BLM has erected a short fence, which is non-intrusive when viewing the panel up close.
The BLM states that the petroglyphs at Sand Island were created between 300 to 3,000 years ago. I found that the panel contains a large concentration of anthropomorphic figures, including several renditions of the famed flute playing, Kokopelli. Patterned body anthropomorphic figures can be found among the jumble of thousands of petroglyphs adorning the red rock cliff face. Zoomorphic, or animal depictions are also heavily represented, predominate is the famed bighorn sheep of the southwest. There are also depictions of elk, or deer, and even a man wearing a wide-brim hat on horseback. The panel is so busy with designs that I didn’t realize half of what was there until reviewing my photographs at home.
Pleased with having stopped at Sand Island, I embarked on the rest of my day’s journey with a smile upon my face.
Gallery of images from Sand Island
I turned back on the highway, heading east toward Mexican Hat, to find that the access road that I wanted, Lower Butler Wash Road was just a few miles up the highway. The remainder of my day was to be spent hiking back and forth from my vehicle into several canyons along Comb Ridge.
The first location that I wanted to visit is referred to as “The Wolfman Panel.” A small parking area was located where a road once crossed the valley, now that road is signed closed as a wilderness area. Other than the closed to vehicular access sign, no other signs indicated what lies beyond. If I did my homework correct, the “Wolfman” would be found less than a half-mile from where I had parked.
The trail followed the old dirt road, before cutting across a segment of slickrock, then down a ravine and into Butler Wash. At the bottom of the ravine is where I found the “Wolfman Panel,” and a considerable amount of additional petroglyphs. The “Wolfman,” is a boxy human figure with arms and legs, only his hands have what appear to be claws for fingers. Why the panel is named after this figure is unbeknown to me, larger, and much more elaborate petroglyphs are to the right of the panel’s namesake.
The prized panel in my mind is a large series of Egyptian looking designs, including that of a large human figure with what appears to have stretched earlobes. To the left of him, two large depictions of birds, and what appear to be staffs. The precision in detail to these large petroglyph designs is what really surprised me, each meticulously carved out of the wall.
Unfortunately the panel has seen some defacement, there are roughly a dozen or so scars from bullets hitting it. Thankfully the damage is minimal, but it is unfortunate that it was done at all. I have no reason to believe that this act of vandalism was recent, there are photographs of the panels going back several years showing the same damage. This act was likely to have been done in the early to mid 1900s, when there was far less respect, and educational resources about the importance of these cultural sites.
After admiring the beautiful, and unique panel of petroglyphs, a trail caught my eye, crossing the wash, and up the other side of the embankment. At the time, I wasn’t aware of there being anything else in the immediate vicinity, but out of curiosity, I followed it. Reaching the top of the embankment I was delighted and taken aback by what I would consider to be the first cliff dwelling ruins that I’ve ever seen in a non-controlled environment. Sure, I have seen cliff dwellings before, like at Montezuma Castle and Montezuma Well, but never at a place that you can just walk up and touch history.
The cliff dwelling was eye-catching even in its current state of ruin. The detail to construction immediately popped out at me, each and every stone utilized in the construction was squared of, and placed neatly upon each other. Mud was used to cement the stone in place. A piece of the roof, constructed of sticks tied together, and encased in mud, lied on the ground nearby. It was obvious to me that great time and detail went into the construction of these homes.
One small portion of the dwelling was still fully enclosed. I took a peek inside of one of the windows, and was surprised at how small the room was. For that matter, maneuvering around among the walls without bumping into them was very difficult for me, I managed, but I was extra cautious the entire time. Some reports state that average height of an adult Anasazi was only four and a half feet tall, based on the tight living spaces, I believe that to be true.
Adjacent to the dwelling there was a large boulder covered in metates and mortars. Coming from California, where these things are often far less concentrated, I was surprised. On the cliff walls behind were dozens of faded, almost nonvisible pictograph designs.
So far my day was on track, and I smiled widely as I made the short hike back to my Jeep. From there it was a short ride north to the next canyon, where I would seek out a ruin that has been dubbed “Double Stack”.
The hike to “Double Stack” was again a short one, a little over a half mile to the ruins from where I parked. The terrain before entering the canyon was for the most part wide open desert, and a short walk across some slickrock. Where the trail began to drop down into the canyon, the vegetation became denser, but wasn’t problematic. This was also where I encountered the first ruins in the canyon, a still standing, and very primitive, Navajo hogan.
Hogans were small structures made by placing a few poles (ie: large branches) together, and covering them with sticks, leaves, and mud. They were traditionally used as homes, but there where other types of hogans as well, for instance the “male hogan” was used for spiritual retreat. Hogans used for housing were traditionally one family dwellings. A fire was kept in the middle of the hogan, and people slept on mats with their feet toward the fire. Woman utilized the north side of the hogan, and kept the families cooking utensils with her, while the men kept to the south side.
The hogan of “Double Stack Canyon” was stripped down to nothing but the poles that held it together. Gone was the mud, leaves, and sticks that once provided the finishing touches. It is astonishing to think that somehow these poles have managed to stand in an upright position for at least a minimum of a couple hundred years. When we say, “they sure don’t build things like they used to,” that is indeed a fact.
I continued further down canyon, after a bend or two the “Double Stack” ruins came into view. Sitting high above the canyon floor on a ledge is what appeared to be a large square structure, along with an additional small structure beside it. I looked around, trying to figure out where it could be accessed from. During the days of the dwellings inhabitation, it was likely reached via a ladder, but that ladder is not here today, therefore I was forced to admire from below.
Thankfully I didn’t stop there, I continued further down the canyon, and soon a lower set of ruins came into view on the shelf directly above the wash. Like the ruins near the “Wolfman Panel,” these ruins were also in rough shape, for most part consisting of an occasional still standing wall. Large pinyon pine logs that were used as beams in the construction remain untouched, still built into the masonry work. As I walked around admiring the ruins a couple of things caught my attention, the first being the extensive amount of pottery sherds, and the second being miniature corn cobs, all discarded on the ground.
The Anasazi were known farmers, having grown corn, squash, and beans. They were also the first known people to have domesticated turkeys, having done so some 2,000 years ago. The corn cobs among the ruins are certainly artifacts, a product of the Anasazi’s farming skills. Never in my wildest imagination did I believe that I would ever hold an 800+ year old corn cob in my hand.
Then I noticed the hand prints! Dozens of orange and white prints spread out across the wall. I got a bit choked up as the entire picture unfolded. There was so much here, so much of these people who lived here hundreds, or even thousands of years ago. The homes that they built, the pottery that they created, the crops that they grew, all with their own hands…and here they were, those very same hands, the paint bleeding into the walls. Powerful stuff!
On the walk back to the Jeep, I couldn’t help but get pissed off. My mind raced, thinking about the people like those busted in Blanding some years back, and even those early expeditions that led to the looting of these sites in the late 1800s. It is disgusting to think that some people feel an entitled right to take things from history. As much as some of these people thought that they had a connection to these sites, they didn’t. Otherwise they would have felt what I felt, that I was in someones home. Eight hundred years ago the Anasazi vanished mysteriously, leaving behind their belongings. But they’re still there. They’re watching. I could feel them.
My day was only half over, and what I had already seen well made up for the mess that was the day prior. I traveled a little further north up Butler Wash Road, and again parked. This time I was in pursuit of a petroglyph panel, which has been named the “Procession Panel.”
The hike to “Procession Panel” was the longest of the day at roughly one and a half miles in each direction. For the most part many of the Comb Ridge ruins are located just a short distance past Butler Wash, “Procession Panel” is however located along the ridge line. On top of being the longest, it also proved to be the most confusing, with a large number of social trails leading in all directions, long swaths of poorly marked slickstone. In the summer I can imagine this being a brutal trail, with nowhere to escape the sun.
The panel name is derived from the main theme of the petroglyphs at the site, 179 small human figures in three separate lines forming around a large centralized circle. Several petroglyphs of animals, mostly elk and bighorn sheep join the panel. I’ve heard it explained that the figures are all coming together to a centralized location, a “procession.” I can agree with this idea, but the more that I’ve thought about it, I’ve grown curious to if there is not something more here. Is it too far-fetched to think that the circle represents the earth, and that the people and animals represent those from across the globe? Maybe the Anasazi knew that the earth was round long before the European explorers of the 1400s, after all, the Anasazi had to come from somewhere.
My idea is nothing more than a theory concocted in my mind. Whatever the symbolism means, we will likely never know. But I think that it is important to sometimes think a little outside of the box.
After returning from “Procession Panel” I was feeling pretty tired, I was surprised when I looked down at my Garmen Vivoactive to find that somehow my short hikes managed to turn into nearly ten miles from excess wandering. Despite there being four more sites along Comb Ridge, I decided one more for the day was enough. I chose the Monarch Cave Ruins.
The Monarch Cave ruins sit in a beautiful, highly vegetated box canyon, surrounded by red rock cliffs. The hike out to them, more like a leisurely walk, coming in just shy of a mile in each direction. The ruins are tucked into a high alcove that overlooks the entire canyon, with a large dryfall located above. On the canyon floor is a large pool of water, collected from the seasons rain and snow melt off. It is no wonder that the Anasazi chose this location, this was prime real estate for growing crops, and likely a good source of water for much of the year.
The shelf leading up to the alcove extended several hundred feet before reaching the main dwelling. I walked up in high anticipation of visiting the dwellings, but was quickly slowed down by the high volume of habitational evidence along the shelf. One of the first thing that caught my attention were a series of moki steps leading vertically up the canyon wall to where pictographs were meticulously painted on the wall. Then there were again hand prints, in a larger volume than those at “Double Stack.” Some had swirled designs painted inside, and in addition to the orange and white colors, there was also green.
On a built up wall there was a broken portable metate and a dozen corn cobs sitting inside, with hundreds of pottery sherds surrounding it. I believe that this was a kitchen area, stationary metates and mortars ranging in size from a few inches long to a foot long were in the dozens. Pausing for a moment to reflect, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the community of people working vigorously, grinding away at seeds, corn, and beans.
The cliff dwelling was accessed by carefully walking out along the edge of the shelf. I can’t say that I was the biggest fan of doing so, but managed without screaming like my pants were on fire. A door, or passage like entrance brought me to the center of the alcove. The ruins were plentiful, and by the far the largest that I had seen so far during my stay at Cedar Mesa. Early explorers had noted that this dwelling was built in the manner of a defensive fort with large stone walls, holes for firing arrows, and rounded rim walls. If this was indeed a fort, who were the Anasazi fighting against, was it the Navajo or Ute? There is evidence suggesting that both of these tribes moved into Anasazi land before they finally disappeared.
With my very successful day coming to a close, I headed back to Blanding for a quick shower. I was feeling famished, and totally craving a beer, so I set off to Monticello in search of a decent meal, and something other than soda or water to drink. In the mood for a steak, I decided on the Line Camp Streakhouse, located about 10 miles north of town. Pulling into the driveway, I was thinking that I made a mistake, as they also serve as an RV Park, and hotel. The buildings looked straight out of a western movie with their rustic charm.
Inside I was greeted by a hostess that looked surprised to see me; I was their only customer. Normally that would be a sign to run for the hills, as opposed to eating, but I loved the charm of the old west themed dinning room, and early country music playing on the radio. I took a seat at the table of my choice, and proceeded to order a ribeye steak with mashed potatoes, and a bottle of Polygamy Porter. Yes, you read that correct. The claim is, is that the beer is so good that you have to take a six-pack home to share with the wives.
Being the only person in the place the service was top-notch, and my food quickly made it to the table. The ribeye was massive, and cooked to perfection, with a small pool of blood forming on my plate as I cut into it. The waitress offered up some mushrooms to top the steak with, which I naturally obliged. She brought out a pan of them, and generously loaded my steak. The food and the beer were to die for, and the perfect way to close out my day.