As we walked down the wash, ragged collections of cliffs and boulders reared up on both sides. Just as the wash took an abrupt left and tumbled down a steep sandstone cliff, we spotted a high, shaded south-facing alcove — prime real estate for an ancient Puebloan. We veered off-trail.
We clambered up boulders, gripping small nubs in the sandstone, and hopscotched around fields of pristine cryptobiotic soil, which, crusted with delicate cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses, prevents erosion and slows evaporation. (One human step destroys it, and it can take decades to regenerate.) After scurrying up the last rows of sandstone ledges, we arrived at the ledge to find . . . nothing. The dwellings we thought we’d seen were eroding clumps of mud.
“Good thing we’re patient,” said Amanda.
“Good thing we have a sense of humor,” added Ryan, dropping her pack. Behind us, the canyon spread out in an array of pleasing earth tones — muted green, red, beige, the unshakable blue of the sky. Protected by the rocks and out of the wind, we contemplated the view, the windless warmth and the luxury of having nowhere to be but here.
Motivated by the promise of unseen ruins, we decided to explore the rocky bench in case others lay hidden along it. After skirting around boulders that had dislodged from the cliffs and ducking under shrubs, we found a faint path that led to a wide stage of slickrock. Amanda gasped.
Just feet from where we stood, a wall of stones rose from a rocky ledge: the unmistakable work of human hands and minds. We approached slowly, so as not to disturb the animals — or perhaps the spirits — that lived there. Half a dozen stone-and-mortar structures stood in various states of preservation beneath the cliff. Mud plaster clung to the walls, and the black of long-cold fires scarred the wooden roof beams. Beneath our feet, potsherds cluttered the sand. We squatted and carefully sifted through the earth, as fine as flour.
“What do you think this is?” Ryan said, dusting off a cylindrical chunk of pottery the size of a Snickers bar.
“Check this out,” I said, holding up a potsherd painted with a grid and stripes. We were like enthralled children, intent on our discoveries. I wondered what kind of life belonged to the hand that had painted these designs, whether out of devotion or boredom, I’m not sure. Certainly, other visitors had been here, but there was remarkably little evidence of them. The hikers who discover this site seem to share an unspoken respect for its sacredness, leaving its potsherds where they found them for future travelers. I sifted through the sand, finding charcoal from old fires and tiny eaten corncobs. It felt as if I were standing among ghosts.
The ancient Puebloans who lived here between 700 and 2,000 years ago were, of course, real people. Archaeologists believe that they lived in small, dispersed clans, that they grew beans, corn and squash, built stone tools and wove yucca into sandals and string. They mostly left this area in the 13th century, probably chased away by a drought. But without written records, no one knows for sure. The details of their lives remain deliciously ripe for conjecture.
We followed the canyon as it dove farther into layers of wind-smoothed sandstone. Occasionally we spotted cairns, but otherwise we charted our own routes over and under boulders, through thickets of tamarisk and along the sides of cliffs. The quiet of the desert heightens my senses, and I started to notice things: icicles growing like seedlings from seeps in the rock, the mint color of the buffalo bushes, the sound of the wind scouring slickrock, and the tracks of mice and lizards.