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Where Would I Go?
Exploring a lost civilization and the lessons it holds for our own.

Dawn at the confluence of Kane Gulch and Grand Gulch, southern Utah. Mid-March. Cold. Our camp sits in the shade of cottonwoods below Junction Ruins, which perch overhead in a seam of sandstone. There is ice in the water jug, as there has been each morning of our five-day hike. I am wearing every layer of clothing I’ve brought, and it isn’t enough. I jog from foot to foot. The wait for the first cup of coffee is anguished.

I glance again at the top layer of cliff-dwelling structures. It has suddenly been washed in morning light, a warm slit of sun that brings out the texture of ancient habitation, walls a thousand years old, maybe more. Besides making me ache for that tantalizing bath of daylight, the sight makes me long to know who lived there, what they wore, when they got up each day, how they talked, what dreams lingered at the edges of their consciousness.

Sun animates the cliff face. Simple walls and roof beams stand out in relief. I will something to move. I will someone to emerge, stooping, out of a door, to stretch and look around, to turn his or her face into the glow of the same enduring, predictable flame that I am waiting for in the cottonwoods.

In March high-desert weather is a decided crapshoot. Each spring break our family of five joins forces with another Montana family of four to make a desert sojourn. Our children have known each other since birth, and wilderness trips have been a yearly theme since the kids were in diapers.

“Think like the ancients” has been our trip mantra. We tell the kids to imagine where they would put a dwelling if they had to live here, where the sun will strike in the morning but where shade will rest on summer afternoons.

We’ve gotten good at spotting sites. They tend to be located on a specific orientation, or in a particularly amenable layer of undercut strata. The kids are also remarkably good at climbing like the ancients, scrambling up to some pretty inaccessible redoubts, sometimes finding weathered, chipped-out handholds on the way.

When it comes to guessing where the morning sun will strike, however, we’ve been batting zero. Despite our best calculations, some errant pillar or ridge always blocks the early warmth. This morning we’ve parked ourselves squarely behind a rock formation that screens the rising sun. While the ruins bask in light, our camp, just below, will be the last spot to receive the day.

To be in these canyons and gulches is haunting. Bullet, Kane, Grand, Toadie, Sheik’s, Coyote—where signs of the Pueblo culture persist everywhere—dwellings and petroglyphs and pottery shards, even bone fragments. Although the looting of artifacts was once common, taking any archaeological souvenirs is now strictly forbidden, and a remarkable litter of cultural remnants still lie about. Being here is haunting, but sacred, stirring, and provocative as well. Also, to be honest, frustrating. There is so much we are clueless about. So much obvious wisdom and tenacity and sheer inventiveness left secret.


It’s the little things that really penetrate. The dished grooves worn in sandstone from the grinding of corn. A patterned fragment of pottery from the curved neck of a jug, precisely the same curve at the neck of a vase in my kitchen at home. A scatter of small corn cobs, whose kernels were consumed by people at least 800 years earlier. The imprint of an index finger in the dried mud of a wall.

Intimate things that fire the imagination, so that I see women bent shoulder to shoulder at the work of grinding, or I smell juniper smoke wafting from a cook fire, or I picture a young boy crouched next to a wall with clay on his hands, thinking his thoughts as he works.

They had a long run, the people who thrived on these airy faces of rock. An occupation that spanned at least a millennium, off and on. The same millennium during which the Normans were conquering, the Vikings were sailing, and the Huns were attacking Germanic tribes.

While the Roman Empire kept lurching through centuries, people in Grand Gulch and its tributaries were snaring rabbits and holding ceremonies in kivas and knitting the fabric of their culture. They were expressing their notions and messages and abstractions on gritty panels of rock—the same panels I stand in front of now, trying to figure out what the hell they meant.

In 2005 the spring is uncommonly wet. Grand Gulch is flowing top to bottom, small tributaries are running; springs that haven’t produced in years are gushing water. While Montana, where we drove from, is mired in drought and poised on the brink of fire season, the desert Southwest is blooming like nobody can remember. Strange weather. The weather of climates on the cusp. Calamity-breeding weather. Weather that has people shaking their heads.

Just as, perhaps, the Pueblo dwellers in 1250 were shaking their heads as drought clamped down on them, year after year. Drought is the pat answer for what we postulate drove the Pueblo in the mid-1200s, to begin abandoning the Grand Gulch region.

I can relate to the growing unease of a people who watch tributaries go dry, the hot, blue dome of sky persist day on day.

This theory is a vaguely informed conjecture, based largely on tree-ring studies. No doubt the truth is a good deal more complex. Drought almost certainly figured in the equation, but there is also evidence of a population boom that strained the resource base, and of territorial tension marked by gruesome outbursts of violence. Evidence that suggests some dire cultural strife.

Then, too, there is the cultural legacy of nomadism, a world view that encompassed moving on as a part of the weave of life. Perhaps the whole enterprise teetered at some intuitively understood tipping point that required a geographic shift—time to go.

While I sense strains in the social and cultural fabric of my own society, perhaps similar to the unease experienced by the ancient residents of Grand Gulch, climate change is the theme that resonates, because despite what anyone says, something is afoot. I think we all understand this. Cycles are shifting, storm patterns are more severe and less predictable, plant and animal boundaries are on the move.

These days I read the precipitation tables in the newspaper as regularly as I check sports scores. We plant our garden almost a month earlier than we did 15 years ago. I turn the furnace pilot light off on May 1, not June 1, as I used to. Last winter I managed to ride my road bike for exercise every month but December.

So in my way, I can relate to the growing unease of a people who watch tributaries go dry, the hot, blue dome of sky persist day on day without the relief of cloud. It has been happening in Montana for the past decade. It makes ranchers sell their land instead of their crops. It makes rivers go dry. It provokes cataclysmic fire seasons.

And I can imagine the slow rise of desperation, back in the 1200s, when carrying water took up a greater and greater percentage of the day’s chores, when crops shriveled and game migrated away.

Then, the wrenching decision to pack up, take what you can, and leave home. The walls you built, the ground you farmed, the paths you walked, the favorite perch from which you loved to greet the first light of day. To walk away from all of it. No matter how nomadic your traditions, leaving a place where you had left your mark would be excruciating. I have contemplated it myself.

When does the place I call home change to the point that I won’t recognize it as the same refreshing, sustaining, alluring place I came to 25 years ago? What if, one winter, there is no snow? What if the forests die off? Where would I go? What will I give up? How would I start over again?

I am 54. My children will bear the brunt of the choices I make. There is little to guide me when it comes to decisions like these. In my culture, there is no equivalent to the meetings of elders that took place in the kivas we have seen. So I study the indecipherable symbols left on protected walls of rock by people in a different time and dimension of existence. I hunt blindly for clues.

The very first night of our hike we climbed high above the valley floor of Bullet Canyon to camp on the rock. We carried our water from the stream. Ravens rowed through the evening air. Instead of pitching tents we spread our sleeping bags out on a flat shelf of cross-bedded sandstone under the open sky.

There were ruins nearby, pasted into niches in the cliffs. Storage granaries, dwellings, the black stains of long-cold fires, designs pecked in the rock. I was surprised, at this first encounter, by the power of my need to connect.

“I wonder if our house will still be intact a thousand years after we leave it,” I said.

All night we lay on rock that had once been sand dunes. The moon was thin as a fingernail, the stars sharp as glints of ice. It was cold. I kept waking up to the slow wheel of constellations overhead: the Big Dipper, Orion, the Pleiades. The same stars that the ancients would have had their names for, their understanding of.

Whenever I woke, I sensed the faint imprint of the people who carried the rocks and mixed the mud and built the walls that have endured so long. In the pale, shivery light of dawn I escaped the sleeping bag and went down to start water to boil.

The stove roared. I hugged myself next to the faint warmth. I kept glancing up to the mute remains of a culture once as secure and self-assured as mine is now, and as shrouded in mystery as mine might be in a millennium. A strange longing built up in me. I willed something to move.

I willed a man, a father, to stoop out of a low doorway, to stretch out the soreness from a night on the ground, and assess the day. And then I willed him to make his way down, moving across the sensuous layers of ancient dune, across the gulf of time, across all the things more than time, to stand with me and anticipate the sun.

Alan Kesselheim, a frequent contributor to Audubon, is the author of eight books.


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