A few miles later, in a swath of reeds, grasses and cottonwood, Ryan stepped off the trail and into a clearing to discover another crumbling ruin. This time, a haunting pictograph watched over the structures as they slowly returned to the sand. Distinctly humanoid, the figure had a cross hatch, which looked like a plant or an antler, rising from the head. Perhaps its maker was just passing the time, but I studied it as if it were some message sent down the centuries. What could it have meant?
That afternoon, as we hiked back to camp, the wind suddenly lost its resolve and left us in stillness. Finally we took off our down coats and sopped up the undiluted warmth of the sun. I come here for moments like this.
To many, Cedar Mesa’s landscape seems lifeless and forbidding. That’s because the desert doesn’t reveal its beauty quickly. Noticing how alive it is takes time. The landscape is vibrant not only with the defiant hues of wildflowers and the stirrings of hidden creatures but also with the stories of its human past. Still, this is not a place that’s easy or obvious for human habitation, and I walked the dry wash knowing that we are temporary interlopers, much like the Anasazi.
The next day, we drove about 10 miles east to Road Canyon, a gash in the mesa that, like the others, is imperceptible from the road. You have to find it on foot. We wound through pinon and juniper forest and descended rocky benches, like a grand staircase fit for a glamorous entrance. I lost myself in thoughts about the desert’s both loud and quiet beauty, from boiling thunderstorms to the small persistence of toads hatched in the brief phenomenon of a puddle.
“Ruins!” yelled Amanda, shattering my reverie. I followed her pointing finger to a row of cliffs on the other side of the canyon. Squinting, I could make out the square, dark maws of windows, intriguing and spooky. Naturally, we wanted to figure out how to get there.
We darted up the steep slickrock ramps, squeezed around boulders and skirted beneath the cliff to where three dwellings sat overlooking their small kingdom. Peering inside, we spotted a mess of discarded corncobs. Above the houses, red handprints dotted the wall.
Amanda and Ryan walked farther to see whether they could find more ruins, but I wanted to stay. I held my hand close to an ancient print, as if reaching through centuries to whoever had stood in this exact spot in the past. I sat down and watched Amanda and Ryan explore, full of both curiosity and reverence.
Even though we were alone and it felt as if we were the first people to discover these ruins, we knew that many had come before us — prospectors and cattle rustlers, Mormon pioneers and modern travelers. That doesn’t diminish the power of the mysteries that still live here.
Even with frequent trips, I know that I’ve uncovered only a minuscule part of Cedar Mesa. But the more unsolvable questions I find, the more they tug at me to return.