Staring at the “Arrival: Imminent” message flashing on the screen of my Garmin Etrex, I stumbled into the canyon below the Banister Ruins cliff dwellings in Grand Gulch Utah at about midnight. I couldn’t be sure where I was, because darkness obscured the familiar landmark of the ruins.
I dropped the 50-lb pack with 10 days of freeze-dried foods and other paraphernalia, marked the spot on the e-Trex GPS, and then tried to follow the shifting arrow to the spring that was supposed to be there.
Instead, I would confront an 800-year-old secret for which my technology would be no match. The nemesis of an ancient people would confound my high-tech gadgets and leave me with a renewed sense of wonder and uncertainty.
I checked the coordinates with my nifty waterproof map of the Cedar Mesa Plateau and the lines looked pretty close.
But pretty close isn’t very comforting when it took four and a half hours to hike supposedly three miles through a desert in July; you want your water and you want it now. I had used a liter and a half of my three-liter stash. I had passed by areas where only three years ago there had been water holes—one I had even camped near at that time because it was so convenient. Granted, that had been in June of that year. Here, in July, three years into one of the worst droughts the southwest has seen recently, all those water holes were dust. It was disconcerting.
The little flashing arrow on the Etrex pointed in one direction in the dry, dusty underbrush, then another. I bushwhacked through the growth until I was in the 47-foot margin of error claimed by the GPS. The base of one of the 200-foot sandstone bluffs loomed before me. Of course! Springs occur at the base of such bluffs at the outside bend in a river. I was saved. But when I reached the cliff, under it was only sand and dried, dusty sagebrush.
The Anasazi were an ancient culture living in the Four Corners area of what are now Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona, beginning approximately in A.D. 700. The Anasazi, often called the “Ancient Ones” or “Ancestral Puebloans” were a culture evolved from loose bands of wandering basket makers who found areas like Grand Gulch filled with water, flora and fauna. In those days, the canyon would be a great place to settle down. However, some time in A.D. 1200 or so, a severe drought hit the area—so the anthropologists say—and the culture was forced to migrate further south. Left behind were the ruins of their lives, preserved startlingly well by the dry desert air. Hand-fashioned wooden implements, adobe walls and ceilings, corncribs, the wooden railing on the “banister” of the Bannister ruins, all look like they were built yesterday. In the corncrib of one cliff ruin lie the remains of their corn—corncobs, some with grains intact.
A day’s drive away from Grand Gulch, the ancient cultural center of Chaco Canyon, with its sunken adobe sun-calendars still faithfully marking the seasons, stands as the grandest height this civilization achieved, rivaling and indeed surpassing most other archeological sites in the contiguous states.
The Grand Gulch civilization, though lacking in the scale of architecture found at Chaco, still has the power to awe on a personal level. Scattered throughout the canyon trail from Kane Gulch to Collins Spring are numerous sites, including cliff dwellings, kivas, cliff paintings and other signs that these ancient people once thrived in this lonely canyon. I say once thrived, because they sure aren’t there now.
I had hiked the Cedar Mesa Plateau three times prior to this trip, once through Grand Gulch by myself. That was an auspicious hike. The day I arrived the park rangers had just reopened the canyon after having it closed for a week—a sheriff’s deputy had been shot and killed in a nearby town and the suspect was believed hiding in the canyon. A couple of sweeps by FBI agents and rangers turned up his caches but not the man. Thus, the authorities reopened the canyon. I saw two other hikers while on that visit—a ranger and a man I believed to be an agent. Both looked me up and down, asked me whom I was, where I was going and told me to carry plenty of water. I had the usual three liters.
That trip taught me an important lesson. On a solo hike, nobody can hear you scream. While hiking at a very good clip through the boulder-strewn dry creek bed I stepped into a hole and my ankle went pop! I fell with my 50-lb pack in anguish. That is when I realized that I was down there, alone, for days, and if I had broken my leg, I was in big, big trouble. I might even die.
After I released the clips attaching me turtle-like to my pack, I crawled up into some shade with a Nalgene bottle of water in my hand and contemplated my situation. Okay, worse case scenario (before the book), what did I need to survive? Water. Could I walk enough to get to water?
I looked over to my right and voila; there was a long, cool pool of water in the shade of a cliff about a hundred yards away. It was within crawling distance. Regardless of what a doctor might say, I had just happened to bust my ankle in the right place. And after elevating the ankle for the day, wrapping around said ankle the only Ace bandage I’d brought, I determined that I’d just sprained it very badly. This meant I could walk out with my 50 lb pack, albeit in excruciating pain. Being I was halfway through the canyon, and I had paid a company to take my car around, finishing the hike through for the full 40 miles was actually the best option. So I did. Now I carry two Ace bandages.
This year’s July trip, however, was even more ambitious. I wanted to hike from one end of the canyon to the other, and then back again. Since hiking Grand Gulch one-way takes about five days, I packed enough for ten days. I had been so smart, too. I took a tarp instead of a tent. I measured my food according to a strict calorie-by-the-ounce method, which saves weight if not regularity when one is planning such a trip. I was going to cache some of the food two days in so it would be there for the return trip. That way I would need only have to carry that three pounds of rations at the end of the hike, when I’d be eating it. I had studiously entered the known springs of the canyon into my Garmin GPS so I would at least have those to rely upon for water.
Well, now that wasn’t working very well. My efforts at recording even the first spring had backfired. I found nothing but a sandy pit where the spring should be.
The night was dark. I was stumbling tired. The dust-covered brush showed whitely in my headlamp, reflecting the light back into my eyes, dazzling me. I tripped and cursed back to where I had left my pack, half-wondering if I would even find it. I did, and bedded down for the night after finishing off the half-liter. I wondered if the coordinates I had entered were even close. There were supposed to be ruins. Where were the ruins?
That morning I awoke. Staring beyond my feet, I saw the familiar crag of the Banister ruins on the far canyon wall. It lifted my spirits. I was in the right place after all. Nevertheless, I needed water. Badly. I would survive the hike out easily on just a liter of water, and the extra bottles of water and sport drink I had stored in the car would easily replenish me even if I used that water on the hike out.
That is, if I didn’t break my leg. Yes, more water would be a good idea.
I got up and explored a little. Within about thirty minutes, looking at the time-honored areas where water is supposed to be—the bend in the creek bed, beneath a bluff—I found a pool of water.
Such a pool was my pool of water! It lay about five feet long, two feet wide, and nine inches deep, filled with slime and bugs. Such joy! Such elation! I hurried back to my little camp and retrieved the water filter, my saucepan and lid, and all my water bottles, including the extra 2.5-liter collapsible water bottle I brought. I dipped the saucepan full of the murky gucky mess, let it settle a little, then wrapped my bandana around the end of the filter’s input hose and started pumping. I pumped a liter, and then filled my belly with the nectar. I pumped another liter, and drank that too. I cleaned the filter. On the third liter, the silt pre-filter clogged. I backwashed it. By the fourth liter, the pre-filter was irretrievably lost. I pulled it off and continued pumping. By dipping the water into the saucepan and filtering it, I filled all my bottles—five and half liters worth. Then, seining out the bigger bugs by stretching my bandanna over the mouth of the pan, I filled it straight out of the pool and hauled the extra potful back to camp. That was my cook water for breakfast. I made coffee and spent the rest of the morning languishing in the riches of the moisture I had just scored.
I considered my options now. With a working spring here, I could continue after all. I could push on to the next programmed spring, Big Pour Off, and then use that one as a staging point for the next spring, and so on through the whole canyon. Just like before.
However, the day was very hot. The little thermometer on my belly pouch hit 105, and I decided to sit out the day and just think about it. After all, wasn’t this a vacation? Just snoozing, writing in my journal, and moving my Therma-Rester camp chair to chase the shade around the big cottonwood underneath which I camped, I used two more liters of my new-found water. At the end of the day I went back to fill them.
The pool had shrunk. It was about half the size it had been—about one and half by three feet. The water was much more murky, and the bugs were certainly on a first-name basis by now. The ones still alive, that is. Their home, my water, was disappearing before our eyes.
In the end, I hiked out. My water filter was clogging at a record pace, my only spring nearly gone. That following morning, as I picked the poor boiled bugs out of my cup of camp coffee, I mused on those wise, ancient Anasazi. They knew that discretion is the better part of survival. Now I did too.