In forgotten Utah, the thrill of discovery

Despite the area's desolate beauty, travelers routinely overlook it in favor of better-known national park sites such as Canyonlands, Arches, Mesa Verde and Chaco. They're missing out.

SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POSTMay 12, 2013 

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An ancestral Puebloan pictograph adorns a sandstone cliff in Slickhorn Canyon in southeastern Utah's Cedar Mesa.

Well after nightfall on a recent Friday, I steered my sedan through a barren patch of desert in southeastern Utah. Outside the windows, juniper, pinyon and sage jerked in the wind. No headlights lit the road except for my tenuous beams, a feeble match for the sea of darkness.

I'd just inched up a mess of nerve-fraying switchbacks on Highway 261, where I'd peered past an unguarded edge into a vertiginous gulf of night below. Now the frozen mud ruts of a county road scraped the bottom of my car, and quite honestly, I didn't know precisely where I was. At that moment, I questioned the wisdom of my weekend mission: camping and finding ruins on Utah's Cedar Mesa. It was 11 p.m., about 20 degrees and very windy - hardly ideal weather for camping.

"Do you want to just pull over soon and set up our tents?" asked Amanda, one of my two travel companions. I veered left onto a small, flat spot and she bounded out of the car, disappearing into the darkness. A few moments later, she returned, arms beckoning.

"It's perfect!" she called.

It was. Despite the howling cold, the sky was clear and stars spilled across it, competing in grandeur only with the rising moon, the shape of a peach stone. Amanda, Ryan and I set up our tents in the flat sand. Before drifting off, I watched the moon cast juniper shadows on the tent, turning the dome into a glowing web of branches.

ANCIENT ENEMY

At least twice a year, I return to this 70-mile-long plateau. In a forgotten corner of Utah between the towns of Blanding and Bluff, Cedar Mesa is a riddle of canyons, moss-draped oases and sandstone spires. Cedar Mesa, which is on land administered by the Bureau of Land Management, harbors an array of colorful geological formations and hundreds of ruins from ancestral Puebloans, also commonly called the Anasazi, or "ancient enemy" in Navajo. Many sites have never been excavated, named or mapped, and few modern eyes have seen them. Although ruins in national parks can be larger and more elaborate, Cedar Mesa offers a rare slice of solitude and the thrill of discovery.

Discovering these ruins, however, requires an investment of time and patience, because they're all tucked in canyons reachable only on foot. Unlike the National Park Service, the BLM provides few signs, only rough roads and no paved trails. But Cedar Mesa's wildness is what preserves it. It's also a large part of its appeal and the reason it lures me from my Colorado home, a half-day's drive away.

The next morning, I woke to wind against my tent and the slanted light of the desert, a tepid bath in the 23-degree air. Wearing our hats and down coats, we drank tea before poking around the juniper forest to figure out where we were. Nearby, we found a stake marking a trail, which we surmised was the fourth fork of Slickhorn Canyon.

We set off along the path of aging footprints armed with a ragged, dated guidebook, even though we knew that Cedar Mesa defies guides and maps. It's a place you must discover with your senses, not with your nose in some dusty pages.

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.

POTSHERDS AND MUD

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 sifted through the earth, as fine as flour.

The ancient Puebloans who lived here between 700 and 2,000 years ago were, of course, real people. Archaeologists believe 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.

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.

ELUSIVE ENERGY

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.

'RUINS!'

The next day, we drove 10 miles east to Road Canyon, a gash in the mesa that, like the others, is imperceptible from the road. We wound through pinyon 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 many had come before - prospectors and cattle rustlers, Mormon pioneers and modern travelers. That doesn't diminish the power of the mysteries that still live here.

Siber is a freelance writer based in Durango, Colo., katesiber.com.

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