Archive for the ‘Native Americans’ Category

Rural America: The Desert Southwest   3 comments

The ranch land near Zion Canyon in Utah is among the most scenic in the country.

We might as well face it.  America is no longer what it once was.  Not long ago this was a country that relied on small-scale farming and ranching.  They fed the cities with their increasingly important manufacturing economies.  Perhaps more importantly they helped to form the country’s very identity.  Farms, ranches and small towns have traditionally been a well that we drew upon to create a dynamic, growing nation.  Many American thinkers and inventors were born and raised in small-town farming communities.   To take a more specific example, American fighter pilots in both world wars learned their bold flying skills as young men in crop-dusting planes.  There are countless other examples.

Nearly every region of the country has become more developed and populated.  Cities have grown steadily; suburban areas surrounding them have grown even faster.   And it’s these so-called exurban areas that have spilled out into formerly rural areas.  Large parts of rural America have literally been paved over, changing them for the foreseeable future.  But it’s not all gone, not by a long shot.  You can still experience much of this country’s rural charm if you’re willing to leave the cities, get off the main highways and slow down.

And that is what this series is all about: travelling off the beaten track to experience some of the country’s rural charm. The introductory post discussed the growing rural-urban divide in America, but Part II left politics behind and focused on my home-region, the Pacific Northwest.  This post will zero in on a unique part of the country: the amazing Desert Southwest.

It’s always fun finding an old buckboard wagon. In the dry air of the Southwest, they are well preserved.

Geography & History

The unique geography of the Desert Southwest is centered on an enormous geographic feature called the Colorado Plateau.  This large chunk of elevated land extends across southwest Colorado, southern Utah and northern parts of Arizona and New Mexico.  But the desert SW region extends west of the Plateau into the southern Great Basin of Nevada and SE California.

It also includes the low, hot deserts of southern Arizona, and actually continues south into Mexico, though it’s a different culture altogether there.  Anyone considering a trip into the far southwest of the U.S., however, should seriously consider Baja California as an extension.  The peninsula is amazing, the people friendly, and it is far safer than mainland Mexico at the moment.

What draws visitors today presented challenges to early explorers and settlers.  It is an arid region of vast treeless plains on one hand, and steep bare-rock canyons and mountains on the other.  Rivers are often incised into inaccessible canyons and follow torturous routes.  One can’t easily follow a river for a distance then take a shortcut across a meander to save days of travel.  And if you do manage to exit a precipitous canyon, water is very difficult to find.

The beautiful Baja Peninsula, Mexico, is an extension of the Desert SW of the U.S.


Ancient Ones to Spain to Mexico to USA

This region has been occupied for thousands of years by native groups.  Spanish explorers entered the region beginning in the 16th century.  During America’s westward expansion in the 1800s, the Desert Southwest was merely a barrier to cross in order to reach California.  Most of it then belonged to Spain, and all roads led to Santa Fe.  This still-beautiful city was the only significant settlement in the entire region.  Today you can see some of the earliest buildings constructed by white people on the North American continent in Santa Fe and Taos, New Mexico (see image below).

But you do not have to travel very far to see houses built long before that.  Chaco Canyon and other sites are what remains of the ancient ones.  Ancestral Puebloans (aka Anasazi), and before them the Basketmakers, inhabited these parts for thousands of years.  They had success farming maize (corn) and beans, and they even mined for copper, silver and gold.

A hike in New Mexico’s Chaco Canyon takes you past the so-called Supernova pictograph.

Despite the area’s harsh climate and geography, this region has the longest history of European incursion in the west.  That is because the Catholic Church in Spain, specifically the Jesuits, established missions here going back to the 16th century.  Santa Fe was founded in 1608.  That’s 12 years before 102 travellers aboard a ship called the Mayflower landed at Plymouth Rock.

The San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe, originally built in 1610.

Santa Fe is the oldest capital city on American soil.  It served as the capital of New Mexico for Spain, then Mexico after their war of independence.  It was not long Mexico’s, as in the 1840s first Texas, then the U.S. military fought for control of New Mexico.  It was ceded to the U.S. in 1848 after the Mexican-American War.

Taos to the north is also very old.  The famous American frontiersman, Kit Carson, who first arrived in Santa Fe in 1826 and made his fame as a mountain man, scout and fierce fighter, lived there for years with his Mexican wife Josefa.  They had eight children together.

Window on the historic Kit Carson home: Taos, NM

The famous Santa Fe trail, like the Oregon Trail to the north, began as a trading route that later became much more important as a route carrying American settlers west.  Unlike the Oregon Trail it traveled through truly hostile (American) Indian country.  The Apaches and Comanche did not tolerate trespassers and were feared much more than most tribes to the north (some Sioux bands excepted).

An old trading post on the Santa Fe Trail, New Mexico.

Mining in the Southwest

The Desert Southwest has from the beginning of European exploration been a target of mining.  While ranching and farming faced the realities of the region’s dry, harsh climate and geography, mining had “only” to overcome the fierce Apache.  I mentioned the early missionary efforts by Spain.  If you know anything about imperial Spain, you know their desire to bring savage tribes into the Catholic fold was only surpassed by their lust for silver and gold.

When the U.S. took control of the Southwest, mining continued.  But since the American military generally had more success putting down native tribes than had the Spanish and Mexicans, and because the U.S. government put in place several incentives and subsidies (e.g. the 1872 Mining Act), mining bloomed in the region.  For visitors interested in history and in exploring rural parts of the region, the remains of mines large and small are not hard to find.  And so are the ghost towns that once boomed in support of the miners.

Old mine workings like this one are not hard to find if you ramble around exploring in the Southwest. This is in New Mexico’s Mogollon Mtns.

In the early 1850s Mormons began to settle the Desert Southwest.  Originally settling the Salt Lake Valley, they soon pushed south into canyon country.  The remains of their homesteads are visible in many places, and often in very scenic locations (see image below).  Like the Catholics long before them, they too founded missions in order to convert the natives.

Cowboys & Indians

One final piece of the region’s history has perhaps received much more attention than it deserves from a historical perspective.  Stories of the old west that romanticize cowboys and outlaws have always had the power to capture our attention.  In the Desert SW you can visit the old hideouts of legends like Billy the Kid, Butch Cassidy, James Averill and the Hole in the Wall Gang.  It’s also easy to visit old movie sets and eat at the same cafes, drink at the same bars as did old-time movie stars like John Wayne and Gregory Peck.

Billy the Kid started young. Click image for the source webpage.

For example, Kanab, Utah celebrates the era of Hollywood westerns at the same time it enjoys its location close to scenic wonders like Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.  Monument Valley is a place where the Navajo Nation shares the spotlight not only with the dramatic scenery but with the area’s history as setting for the famous collaboration between director John Ford and actor John Wayne.

The old Mormon homestead at Capitol Reef National Park, Utah.

Road Tripping the Southwest

It is somewhat overwhelming to contemplate a trip to this enormous region.  You can too easily bite off more than you can chew.  And you can’t have a good time if you’re behind the wheel for your whole vacation.  Decide what you’d most like to see and how much time you have.  Then decide whether you can swing several trips (preferable) or must choose the one area that most ignites your imagination.

In succeeding posts we will travel from west to east in a series of road trips.  They are those I have done, many several times, and I chose them because they not only visit spectacular natural wonders but take off down two-lane country roads with only locals (mostly bovine) for company.  The idea is to get you off the beaten track to see the charm of the rural Southwest.  I’ll repeat myself:  whatever you do don’t try to see everything at once.  You can’t travel, for example, from Anza Borrego in California’s Mojave to New Mexico’s high desert and hope to see much outside of gas stations and roadside eateries.  That is, unless you have at least 3 months to travel.  Thanks for reading!

Sunset at Monument Valley.

Visiting Zion National Park: Part II   7 comments

The area around Zion remains sparsely populated enough to get a feel for what ancient people saw as they passed through.

This continues the series on Zion National Park in Utah.  We’ll focus this time on the history of American Indians in this part of the desert southwest.  Check out Part I for Zion’s pre-human history – its geology.  If you plan on visiting Zion, or any other place, with photography being a big deal for you, I recommend learning about the place instead of perusing photo after photo of it.

In other words, find out what’s interesting about to you about the place.   Try to tailor your visit so you hit spots that feature those interesting aspects, even if they’re outside of your planned destination (in this case the park).  Resist the temptation to visit too many spots based merely on your admiration for the photos others have captured there.  Sorry, end of lecture!



If you’re interested in the natural and human history of Zion, you’d do well to visit an interesting little museum upon arrival.  The Zion Natural History Museum is located on the left not far past the west entrance.  Turn left just after passing the turnoff for the campground, which is on the right.  While worthwhile, by far most cultural artifacts are not on display here.  They are housed in Springdale at park headquarters in a large collection of more than 20,000 items.

If you have a keen interest, you can make an appointment to see this collection.  Just email the curator at  You’re not guaranteed to get in, and it may help to have a group so they make the time for you.  Your goal is to find an NPS staff member with time to give you a personal (and free) tour of the collection.  You can learn some basics by reading in the Park Service’s website for Zion, along with other sites (go beyond Wikipedia!).  But if you can make time for the hands-on approach, you’ll get much more out of it.

View up Zion Canyon at dusk.

View of East Temple at dusk.


The first people in North America were hunters traveling with and hunting herds of wooly mammoths, gathering plants for food and medicine along the way.  Most of the evidence we have for these people comes from their spear points and other stone tools like scrapers.  The points, called Clovis and (slightly later) Folsom, are distinctively fluted and usually associated with mammoth remains at kill sites, tagging them as belonging to these ancient hunter/gatherers even where direct dating is impossible (which it usually is).

Although to my knowledge there have been no Clovis or Folsom sites documented for Zion itself, there have been points found north and west of the park.  So it’s reasonable to assume these wanderers walked the canyons and plateaus of what would thousands of years later become known as Zion National Park.  The fact that these canyons are subject to dramatic flash floods means that archaeological evidence tends to be swept away.

Somewhat more evidence ties later hunter/gatherers to the Zion area about 8000 years ago.  These hunter/gatherers, who hunted bison and smaller mammals (mammoths, sloths and other ice-age megafauna had been hunted to extinction), may have even set up seasonal camps.  But there are precious little remains to go off of.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.

Beaver-tail (or prickly pear) cactus with dried fruits growing in east Zion. A staple of American Indians for thousands of years, the fruits were eaten fresh and raw or made into a jelly. The nopales (cactus pads) were sliced and eaten, and also used to treat wounds and swelling.


There is evidence of these ancient farmers at Zion.  Basket-weavers, known for their baskets woven of willow and other plants, lived here between about 300 B.C. and 500 A.D.  Since their artifacts degrade easily, they are very rare.  Not much evidence was left behind at Zion, but what there is points to early farming.  These people were succeeded by two groups in the so-called Formative Period from 500 to 1300 A.D.


These people lived in the north of the region up on the plateaus near springs.  Some farmed a cold-tolerant form of corn, some led a more mobile hunting/gathering lifestyle, and some were semi-nomadic.  These hunters did not use bows and arrows.  Rather they threw spears (or arrows) using an ingenious implement called an atlatl.  Atlatls extend the reach of your arm, increasing leverage and speed greatly.  I’ve tried them and they do indeed fling the arrow fast.  But I realized right away that to gain accuracy would require much practice.

Both of these groups, left behind rock art.  It’s very sad that much of this art has been vandalized by clueless visitors.  More remote sites like the Cave Valley petroglyphs off of Kolob Terrace Road are in much better shape.  But even these have been damaged.  As a result, good luck getting any ranger to tell you how to get to this rock art.  The Parowan Fremont sketched unique art characterized by anthropomorphs with triangular or trapezoidal bodies and limbs.

Fremont rock art is characterized by anthopomorphic figures with blocky triangular bodies.  The squiggly line at left represents a journey.


Farming the southern canyon bottoms were an Ancestral Puebloan group known as the Virgin Anasazi.  As the name “puebloan” suggests, they were sedentary, occupying small settlements.  They were farmers who left behind food storage sites (see below) along with stones for grinding grains called manos and metates.  Later on the farmers began building stone and masonry structures alongside their partly underground dwellings and storage sites.

The two groups evidently had some contact, even though they lived in different environments. They traded tool-making stone and very likely food and medicinal plants as well.  There is no evidence for conflict between them, though some suggest the arrival of Southern Paiute and other tribes from the north may have had something to do with their leaving the area.


There is an ancient grain-storage site you can hike to from Zion’s visitor center.  Ask a ranger for directions to the trailhead for the Archaeology Trail.  It’s short, steep and you get a good view of the canyon.  There is not much left of the 1000 year-old Virgin Anasazi site, so get the ranger to give you a few tips to see what there is to see.  But it’s definitely a great way to stretch your legs when you stop at the visitor center.  You can ponder the reasons why the Ancestral Puebloans left their dwellings so abruptly, almost as if they intended to return after visiting friends or relatives elsewhere.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.

Frozen dew at the end of autumn, Zion National Park.


The main tribe to enter the area from the north were the Southern Paiute.  Arriving around 1100 B.C., they obviously coexisted with the nearby farmers for some 200 years.  But their lifestyles were very different.  They hunted and gathered plants, occupying pit-houses and other semi-permanent structures only seasonally.  As such, these nomadic people were well equipped to handle the series of droughts interspersed with catastrophic flooding that began on the Colorado Plateau about 1300 A.D.  They remained while the Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont people left.

These tribes were the ones who greeted white Euro-Americans in the late 1700s.  And when I say greet I don’t necessarily mean warmly.  Many died from diseases brought west by the invaders; the rest were defeated and placed on reservations.  Such is the march of “progress”, but that’s the subject for next post.  We’ll continue with the story of Brigham Young and his flock of Mormons.  Have a great weekend!

The setting sun turns East Zion's cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

The setting sun turns East Zion’s cliffs orange above a vernal pool.

Valley of Fire, Nevada   4 comments

The Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada has a history of visitors that goes back thousands of years before Sunday drivers from nearby Vegas.

This is Nevada’s oldest and largest state park, located about an hour’s drive from Sin City.  On my way out of southwestern Utah (sad), I turned off Interstate 15 and slept near the entrance to the park.  The stars were affected by the bright half-moon but were nonetheless amazing.  So I did a couple starscapes (see below).  In the morning the sun rose into a clear sky and light became harsh within a half hour.  I captured the photo above about 15 minutes after sunrise.

The fall-blooming desert chicory adds color to Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada.

I had stopped at a small picnic area called Lone Rock, which is at the turnoff for “the cabins”.  There was nobody around, it being early on Black Friday, so the rock was indeed lonely.  But I was joined in spirit by those moccasin-clad travelers of a different age.  It was a big surprise to find these petroglyphs on a rock behind the Lone Rock.  There are other better-known rock art panels throughout this park, like Atlatl Rock on the Petroglyph Canyon Trail.  Park at Mouse’s Tank.  They date from as old as Fremont Basketmaker people, about 3000 years ago, but there is also art from as recent as several hundred years ago.

I stopped at a little pull-off with a sign explaining some geology – pretty basic stuff, of course, but interesting.  I wanted to do a hike into the maze of shallow canyons and slickrock that you view when you stop at Rainbow Vista.  It was still early, with nobody around.  There is a military firing range not too far away, and the boom-boom of the big guns echoed off the rocks.  This is one drawback to a visit here, but quiet does return when they stop.

It was during one of these quiet periods that I heard what sounded like somebody knocking rocks together.  I looked around and finally saw some movement in the distance.  There was a small herd of sheep some 1/2 mile away, and they were running around, making the noise.  I thought I was hearing their hooves knocking on the rocks, but I noticed as I drew closer to them that the rams were butting heads.

A desert bighorn ram at Valley of Fire State Park in Nevada watches for danger as the herd he is part of gets down to the business of mating season.

I stalked closer, using the terrain to conceal myself.  I cursed the fact that my 100-400 lens had been stolen.  In fact, I had only brought my little Canon S95 point and shoot camera with me on the hike, as I thought I would only be shooting pictures of the odd flower or cactus.  Dumb!  I got my first good view of them, but they had seen me first.  Some of the rams had enormous full-curl horns.

Several large rams make up the most obvious part of a November mating herd of desert bighorn sheep in Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

It was very clearly mating season, and so the extent of their interest in me varied enormously between the sexes.  The females kept leading the herd away from me (there were a couple young ones).  Meanwhile the males only glanced my way from time to time.  I stalked them for quite some time, even crawling on my belly along washes to get close enough.  I was hoping the photos taken with my p & s camera would show more than specks for animals.

Seldom noted during the discussion of the battles between bighorn rams is the point of it all.

Not surprisingly, the pictures did not turn out that well.  I am sitting here right now in Vegas thinking about a return.  I wonder if I could find the herd.  When I finished my bighorn hike and got back to the road, I noticed that traffic had gone from an occasional car to a stream of them.  The horde had arrived from town, having finished their Black Friday morning shopping.  It was actually crowded; such a change from the quiet and empty morning hours.

I left and drove through the enormous desert landscape of Lake Mead Recreation Area.  The lights of Vegas formed a glowing dome above the horizon as the November dusk quickly took over.


One more Page: Antelope Canyon and Night Balloons   2 comments

An Arizona slot canyon catches a tumbleweed.

Hot air balloons are illuminated at night during the Page, Arizona Balloon Regatta.

I stayed one more day and night in Page, Arizona.  I am so glad I did!  I broke down and did the tourist thing at Antelope Canyon.  While this time of year sees the sun only peeking into the upper parts of this 150-foot deep slot canyon, it is still a great place to photograph.  Yes it is one of the most over-photographed places in the American Southwest, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t visit this incredible natural wonder if you find yourself in the neighborhood.

A beam of light penetrates Antelope Canyon in Arizona.

Your best bet if you have wheels is to drive the short distance out to the Navajo Tribal Park, where you will pay $6 for entry, then $25 for a tour of the canyon.  You can also book a somewhat more expensive trip direct from Page.  You can’t miss the signs in town.  If you go during mid-day, you will pay more ($40), since that is when the sun during summer shines directly into the canyon, and it is more crowded.  So make the tour at 10 a.m., or after 2 p.m.  If you really want that sunbeam onto the canyon floor shot, go in mid-April or later.  April is perfect, since it is a bit less crowded (and cooler) than high summer.

Traveling through an Arizona slot canyon in black and white.

In Arizona near Lake Powell, a small alcove in the Navajo Sandstone catches a small sand dune.

You will board the back of a truck rigged with benches and bounce along a sand track for 4 or 5 miles to the canyon’s lower entrance.  You only tour the lower 1/4 mile or so of the slot, but this is enough for the hour+  tour, believe me!  Although there are plenty of people in the canyon, it is just wide enough to allow you to pass.  People are pretty good about not getting in your shot, though you will need to be a bit resourceful in this regard.  I pointed my camera up for the most part, so people could pass under my shot.

Your exposures will be long, and flash is not a great idea (most guides do not allow them), so definitely bring a good tripod.  A wide angle lens is necessary, but also bring a longer lens, say a fast 50 mm. and maybe a 70-200 as well.  You will see compositions that require some isolation from surrounding darker or cluttered areas.  Get low, get high, include a lot of the wall, shoot straight down the slot, shoot straight up.  Do anything for variety.  Remember, this place has been shot to death.

You can take a tour specifically focused on photography, but then you might have a guide telling you where and how to shoot.  Unless you’re a beginner, be careful what type of guide you hire.  I noticed while I was there that the photo guides definitely have favorite spots to shoot, and were mostly telling not suggesting where to shoot.  This further compounds the problem of too many similar shots of the place being out there on the web.

There are two other sections of the canyon you can explore.  One is the lower canyon, just across the road from the upper’s staging area.  It costs $20 to hike this, and it is more of an independent hike than the upper slot.  It is also much wider and less of a slot canyon than the upper.  There is also a higher upper portion of the slot canyon, above the more popular section.  My guide told me it is possible to book a tour to explore this section, which is way less crowded but still a nice narrow, sculpted slot canyon.

After this I took a neat hike, just to explore some of the slickrock country visible from the highway.  I love doing this.  Nobody else ever thinks about just parking and taking off cross-country.  I believe I might have been on Navajo land in part, so I was risking an encounter to some degree.  Scrambling around, “friction hiking” the slickrock alcoves was very cool (image left).  But something happened to my heel, and now I have symptoms of the dreaded plantar fasciitis.

Later that evening, the weekend’s main event took place.  On the Saturday night of the Balloon Regatta weekend in Page, all the balloonists inflate their balloons along the main street in Page, and fire up their burners.  Instead of launching, the balloon pilots illuminate their balloons for everyone.  There is food, games and activities for kids, a beer garden, and a general atmosphere of festivity in the air.  I was pretty happy with the pictures I got of the glowing balloons.  It was a bit like shooting fireworks, where you open the shutter for a fairly long spell during the action and hope for good shots.  Since the pilots use walkie talkies to synchronize their burners, it’s easy to tell when to fire the shutter.  I set my exposure off of one of the glowing balloons, and then left the camera on manual and zoomed back out for the shots.

The Page Balloon Regatta culminates in a panoply of glowing balloons.

It was a great long weekend in Page, on the shores of Lake Powell.  Warm weather, fun people, and red rock canyon country all around you.  What more could you ask for?  It was on to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon for me after that, and that is the subject of my next post.

The sun peeks into the narrow confines of Antelope Canyon, Arizona.

The Ancient Ones V: Hopi Mesas   Leave a comment

While at Monument Valley (see previous two posts), I heard from a fellow traveler of the Hopi Mesas in northeast Arizona.  I was immediately intrigued.  I thought I had never heard of them, but later that evening I realized that the name rang a distant bell in my mind.  The reason for my interest at this moment was obvious to me.  This trip has had a theme that I never intended when I started out.  What had started out as a quest to photograph fall colors and wildlife has recently become a trip back in time, to those lonely mesas and canyons once inhabited by the Ancestral Puebloans (Anasazi).  I found only their ghosts in the stone pueblos and cliff dwellings.  While those experiences were certainly magical, they were somehow incomplete.

View from Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in NE Arizona.

The Ancient Ones did not disappear of course, but migrated to the west and south.  The modern Hopi, along with other tribes, are their descendants.  I realized on that last night in Monument Valley that I very much wanted to meet living and breathing Puebloans.  And so the thought of visiting the three mesas deep within the Hopi reservation had enormous appeal.  Add to this the fact that many Hopi continue to live traditionally, and the draw for me was great enough to take the long detour south. If you follow Arizona Highway 264, you will pass, from east to west, the First, Second and Third Mesas.  There are a total of 12 villages on the Hopi reservation, all centered in this region.  Further west, you’ll find Moenkopi, a village adjacent to the much more modern Tuba City.

The village of Oraibi has been continuously inhabited for nearly 800 years.

I approached the Hopi Mesas from the west, camping just before reaching Third Mesa.  In the morning, I drove into the village of Old Oraibi (pronounced “Oraivi”).  Oraibi (image above) is a unique village.  Native Americans have lived there since the 1100s.  That makes it one of this continent’s oldest continuously inhabited communities.  It was certainly one of the first places that the Ancestral Puebloans settled on their migration out from the Four Corners region. Oraibi lacks electrical power, though the lines pass a mere few hundred yards from its stone houses.  Some of the houses definitely remain as they were originally built nearly a thousand years ago.  Newer roofs, windows, and the like have been added of course, a few have solar panels on them, and there are generators.   But the walls, floors, interiors, and most of the woodwork is original.  The residents keep the interiors in a tidy original form as well.  They live in close accord with the rhythms of the sun and seasons, in peace and quiet away from modern intrusions.  I don’t want to exaggerate.  They also drive trucks, have occasional domestic and community disputes, and leave for school and jobs on the outside.

The First Mesa and the village of Walpi is visible from Second Mesa.

A Hopi man from Old Oraibi shows me one of his childhood swimming holes, a deep water pocket atop Third Mesa in Arizona.

As the lone tourist I attracted some attention as I drove in.  I quickly met a young man who directed me to a table of crafts for sale.  A few men sat carving kachina dolls and working on other artwork.  After a bit of talk, I wandered off.  I felt the eyes of the inhabitants keeping watch from their small windows.  I took a picture of an old uninhabited stone building, and was immediately approached by a woman in a Suburban.  She told me in a very stern manner that taking pictures was not allowed, nor was wandering alone.  So I apologized and put my camera away. I hitched on to a young man standing in a nearby doorway.  We spoke for awhile and I got the full story.  Some tourists have in the past abused the privilege of their visit.  They had snapped pictures of dances and ceremonies without permission, traipsed across sacred ground, and even collected shrine articles.  I was told that if I was caught taking pictures, my camera would be confiscated and held for 30 days.  30 days!  Needless to say I didn’t take any more photos.

Back at the crafts table, I was invited by one of the men for a walk to view some rock art.  Some of the petroglyphs were obviously very recent, but others looked old and were similar to those I had seen in the ancient sites.  We scrambled along the edge of the mesa, and he showed me the places where they played as children.  There are waterpockets on the top of the mesa.  These are natural depressions in the sandstone where water collects during summer thunderstorms.  Some were pretty big, and he told me they had played and swam in these natural swimming pools as children.  They hold water for quite some time after storms, and form a very important source of fresh water.

It was a beautiful morning, and it was a delightful walk.  I saw subtle features that would have escaped my notice if I was alone.  He allowed me to take some pictures, since we were away from the village.  I really enjoyed the personal and casual nature of the tour.   He showed me the old church, built by Mennonite missionaries during the Spanish expansion in this area.  Lightning had struck the church twice.  On the second occasion, it was mostly destroyed and all the worshippers inside killed.  I don’t need to tell you what this signified to the villagers who were resisting conversion.  He asked only a modest amount of money for his time, which I appreciated.

After bidding the guys goodbye, I drove down and back up to Second Mesa.  At the community center/museum, I ran into some trick or treaters (it was Halloween).  I just love native American children, the smaller the cuter.  The brother and sister posed for my camera, and the photo was not the best.  I did not re-position them in the shade, nor try for a better photo.  They were on a very important mission after all, and far be it from me to interrupt it.  I picked up a hitch-hiking older Hopi gentleman on the way back west to Tuba City.  I learned some things from him about their ways.

Two Hopi children from Second Mesa in Arizona are somewhat annoyed at having their trick or treating interrupted.

A young American Indian boy in Tuba City enjoys a Halloween hot dog and Charl knows just how often kids drop their food.

For instance, the coming of age rituals do not necessarily take place at a specific age.  The boys are initiated when they are ready; they’re not forced into it.  As in the old times, they are dry land farmers who do not irrigate their crops.  Instead they depend on natural rainfall and snow melt.  Thus their springtime rain dances and rituals still hold immense importance.  The god called Maasau (sp?), the guardian of the world, is responsible for the care of all animals, things and people, including outsiders like me.  In fact, elders will often give eagle feathers to outsiders who become close friends.  Eagle feathers are worn as protection, and one will last one year before it is replaced.   A very peaceful and gentle people the Hopi are.

When I got to Tuba City, I was approached by a slightly drunken man.  At first he cursed me, but I thought nothing of it.  I have seen enough drunk native Americans to know it is definitely the liquor with them, not their nature.  He needed a ride home, which was all the way back at the Mesas (an hour’s drive).  I didn’t want to backtrack, but was thinking of relenting when he admitted he had been coughing up blood.  So I took him to the emergency room instead.

I was going to leave Tuba City but the sight of so many cute trick or treaters made me stay awhile.  Towards sunset I visited a roadside stand that some families had set up.  They were serving free hamburgers and hot dogs to all trick or treaters, plus their parents.  I tried to pay them, having no costume after all, but they refused.  A woman even cooked me up some fry bread.  So I hung about for awhile, talking with various friendly folks.  I’m not certain but I believe both Navajos and Hopis live around Tuba City.  No matter, they are equally as friendly (though they apparently do not like each other, because of land disputes primarily).

I really hope I get the opportunity to come back and spend enough time to make real friends with some of these fine people.  They are poor but very giving, and very easy to talk to.  They are quite guarded about their religious beliefs and much of their people’s history.  But I think I could eventually be invited into their (very traditional) homes, eat with them, go horseback riding.  I might even one day be lucky enough to receive an eagle feather from an elder.  I could use all the protection (from myself?) that I can get!  Headed over toward the Grand Canyon!

Free hot dogs and burgers draw a crowd on Halloween evening in Tuba City, on Reservation land in northern Arizona.

Shooting the Moon at Monument Valley   6 comments

The moon was near its full phase while at Monument Valley recently. I did some photography which included wonderful Luna, so I thought it might be time for a little photography talk. Don’t get too used to it though; I get bored easily with photography how-to (I’d rather do it than talk about it).

The full moon rises between Monument Valley’s famous stone sentinels.

As many photographers know, “shooting the moon” when it’s full can yield killer shots, but it can also be a pain trying to deal with the high contrast.  To be successful, be persistent, and keep in mind the following:

  • The moon needs to be one day before the full phase if you want to shoot it rising at sunset and include the foreground landscape.  It is ideal when at sunset the moon is as close to 24 hours before full phase as possible.  Realize that the moon’s full phase occurs at a specific time; it doesn’t stay exactly full all day and night.  One day before full means the moon will rise just before the sun sets.  This puts it in a good low position, where it appears bigger and is close in brightness to the foreground landscape.  A full moon means it rises right at sunset, which is really a little too late.  You’ll have a darker foreground, with too bright a moon, all of which means major contrast.  If you shoot when it’s more than one day before full, the moon will be too high at sunset.
  • The fact is that on some months, the moon’s full phase does not occur near the time of your local sunset.  Instead, it occurs closer to mid-day, or midnight.  And so you won’t hit that magical 24-hours before full phase, where the moon has fully cleared the horizon at the same time the sunset is at its peak.  It’s worth checking the actual time of the full moon.
  • A reflective landscape helps enormously, since your foreground will always be darker than the moon. In fact, the more reflective the landscape, the easier it is to get good shots even when the moon is very near full. Monument Valley, and really any desert landscape, is just the ticket. Snowy landscapes are also good.
  • A good view toward the eastern horizon is ideal, so you’ll catch the moon at the moment it rises.  You will have more options in terms of exposure, and the moon will be naturally color-saturated when it is adjacent to the horizon. Of course, as with any landscape photo, you’ll want an interesting composition.  It might be better in some cases to let it rise a little ways.
  • If you don’t like what you came up with, just wait a day or so.  On the day after full moon, get up before sunrise and make sure you have an interesting view toward the western horizon.  This time you’ll be photographing a setting moon at sunrise, instead of a rising moon at sunset.
  • All of the above assumes you want a fairly evenly exposed landscape shot.  But there are two other general options.(A)You can simply allow the moon to blow out (making it look like a little sun) while exposing for the foreground. This works best with a smaller moon; that is, shorter focal lengths (35 mm or less). See my image of the Totem Poles, where the moon is not technically blown out, but lacks details and is too small to form a major picture element.(B) You can use a longer focal length (300 mm or more) for a very big moon, and expose for the moon’s details.  Then you can place an interesting subject(s) in front of the moon and let your subject go black in silhouette.  If you don’t want to do a silhouette, you could use artificial lighting for fill light on your subject.  For the big moon/silhouette effect, it doesn’t really matter what phase the moon is in, though the most popular style is to use a full moon.
  • Speaking of focal length, remember that the shorter your focal length, and the further from the horizon the moon is, the smaller it will appear.  Also, the further from the horizon the moon is, the whiter and brighter it will be.  Again, the image of the Totem Poles is an example.
  • There is no chance to balance the brightness of the moon with your foreground when it is well above the horizon.  See next point for an option.
  • If you want to include the moon’s details when it is much brighter than your foreground, you will need to shoot a separate frame for the moon, then add this well-exposed moon back into your first shot using Photoshop (or Elements).  This is called compositing, and you can find many tutorials on the web.  Zoom in to the moon and turn on your spot metering.  Place the center focusing point right in the center of the moon, then snap the picture.  During your photoshopping, it might be tempting to make the moon much bigger.  Although it is probably okay to enlarge the moon by just a fraction, making it a lot bigger is not a great idea in my opinion.  You will see these sorts of silly, amateurish pictures all over the web, and they all look fake.  A better plan is to use medium focal lengths (50-70 mm) so that your moon is naturally bigger.

    Sand dunes and the Totem Poles in Monument Valley as the sun sets and the moon rises.

What with all this knowledge about shooting the moon, you would think I got super excellent shots at Monument Valley.  Well, the first night I tried, in the sand dunes by the Totem Poles, the moon had risen too high by the time the sun had set enough for nice color in the landscape.  So I just let the moon go bright and didn’t worry too much about it being small.  This is an example of making the best of your situation, rather than being disappointed that the shot you had in mind is not there.

On the next night, the moon almost rose too late.  This was one of those months, described above, when the full phase was much less than 24 hours after sunset time.  I knew this might be a problem, so I got to a high point with a pretty good view toward the east.  The dramatic monoliths that make Monument Valley famous formed nice framing elements for the moon.  I knew I had to shoot within a few minutes of the moonrise, while the moon was not too bright, and also showed some nice color.  I used the longest focal length I had – 200 mm.

Sadly, my 100-400L has been stolen on this trip (no more wildlife photography for the foreseeable future – bah!).  I tried for a very simple composition, just a few sandstone towers plus the moon (see top image).  It would have been better if I was able to zoom closer.  I did not want to move closer since then my viewpoint would have been lower.  Looking up at the towers would have made them appear a little shorter, and I would not have had a full view of the moon until it had risen too high.

By the time the moon had risen above the rock towers, it was too bright in comparison to the rapidly darkening landscape.  Though the shots I got are dramatic, they are also fairly two-dimensional, without much of a foreground.  This is a common drawback to using longer focal lengths in landscape photography.  I’m sure I could find a better place from which to get this type of shot at Monument, but since you only get two chances per month, that would mean hanging out here for quite a long time before I got it right.

At Monument Valley, dusk and the sand create a peaceful scene.

The succeeding night was bright with the essentially full moon, and it was tempting to get moonlit landscape shots.  But I had done some of that the previous night, and I had done a lot of staying up late and getting up early over this week.  So I found a lonely spot along the Douglas Mesa Road and drifted off to a deep sleep.  Next morning after breakfast I was on the way out, heading south. I saw a woman on the side of the road with a hand-painted sign that read simply “Fry Bread”.  I realized I had not had any of this Navajo staple on my trip, so I stopped and had her make me a couple.  They were delicious, and cheap!  The same thing was available at the restaurant for $5; she was charging $1 apiece.  I talked with her for awhile, letting her daughter pet my dog.

Friendly and down-to-earth she was, so I enjoyed chatting.  I finally drove off in a great mood.  There was no better way to bid goodbye to Monument Valley than to talk with this Navajo woman while chomping down on a hot Fry Bread covered in honey and cinnamon.  I was on my way to the Hopi Mesas, which is the subject of my next post.

The moon clears the horizon at Monument Valley, Arizona.

Monument Valley   2 comments

View of some of Monument Valley’s stone monoliths from the south.

I’ve seen my share of western movies.  In fact, I have to be honest and admit that they are one of my favorite film genres.  I have always wished I was born in St Louis during the mid-1800s.  When I was young I would certainly have headed west to be a mountain man, a guide on the Oregon Trail, or simply a cowboy.  John Wayne (the Duke) was most definitely a giant of western movies.  All this preamble is to say that some of my first impressions of the western landscape are of Monument Valley.

Old portraits of John Wayne appear throughout Monument Valley.

It was an area favored by John Ford and other directors at an early stage, and from the late 1930s through the 50s, large tent camps full of movie crews popped up from time to time amongst the buttes and mesas.  The era of big westerns, such as 1938s Stagecoach (the Duke’s breakout film) eventually came to an end.  But the valley still attracts crews filming car commercials and the like.  John Wayne’s image is a more common sight here than pictures of any Navajo.

Monument Valley is big country.  Lying in the arid American desert southwest, it straddles the Arizona/Utah border.  The valley is characterized by towering sandstone monoliths.  The rocks are reddish from iron oxides. Combine this with the fact that the monoliths take on such a variety of tall buttes, towers and extremely narrow fins, and also because the area between the monoliths is flat and mostly treeless, and you have a landscape that is dramatic in the extreme.  As a backdrop to wagon trains, or to big men in cowboy hats riding horses, it simply can’t be beat.  Photographers are drawn to the valley of course, and in the right light it certainly can yield amazing compositions.

The light was not bad during my visit just before Halloween.  When I arrived in the late afternoon on my first day, there were some promising clouds in the western sky, and so instead of trying to drive through the entire valley, I parked along Highway 163 near its high point and took off walking.  The countryside is easy to hike in this area, no trails required.

Of course, you want to be cautious about where you walk, since it is all Navajo land.  There are areas where one or a few families live, sort of like very small villages.  But by and large, the land is empty of people, so there is not much chance of being hassled.  Signs will warn you of private roads, or where trespassing is particularly frowned upon.  I found some pretty nice pictures in this area just west of Mitten Buttes, primarily because I was just high enough in elevation that trees, yucca and other interesting shrubs formed nice foreground elements.

I drove out onto the vast flat part of the valley lying north of Mitten Buttes, looking for a place to park and sleep.  I was tired and did not hunt in my usual careful way, so wound up parking fairly close to lights that indicated a settlement.  Soon a pair of headlights appeared, bouncing over the sagebrush, heading my way.  I pulled up to meet them (always a good thing), and was greeted by a three young American Indian men in a Bronco.

The driver informed me that I was on their land (which I knew).  But he also added that they were just checking to make sure I wasn’t a drunk or up to no good.  I offered to find someplace else to camp, but he waved me off.  He said I was welcome to camp there, as long as I didn’t hang around too long in the morning.  I was fine with that!  In fact, I was very pleasantly surprised by their attitude.  I know that, were this land owned by a white person, and I was discovered there in the dark, that I would very likely be ordered off the land unless I wanted to deal with the police.

These native guys were naturally concerned about who was driving on their land.  But they were reasonable, able to tell immediately that I didn’t pose any danger.  Why not let me sleep a few hundred yards from their modest little houses?  What I’m saying is that they were not paranoid about a stranger, unlike so many folks I run into on the road.  They were secure men, secure in their judgment, and secure in their ability to handle me if they turned out to be wrong about me.  I like that because that’s the way I am.  And to think at Ship Rock I was worried about camping on Navajo land.  I should know better by now.  American Indians are more similar to the locals I met in African villages, or high in the Nepali Himalaya than they are to white Americans.  They are real!

The wind often blows through Monument Valley. piling sand dunes up against Rain God Mesa.

Over the course of the day, while taking care of laundry and the other necessary road trip duties, and while treating myself to a rare hot breakfast, I noticed a few things.  I never knew how much tourist traffic there was in Monument Valley.  This was the time of year when things wind down, and yet plenty of tourists were here.  There is an infrastructure under the name Gouldings – lodge, RV camp, restaurant.  Obviously this is not a Navajo-owned company, but they do provide jobs.  There are plenty of tour buses filled with overseas tourists (especially Japanese), and open-air tour vehicles ply the roads.  These are very much like safari vehicles in Africa, where the passengers sit above and behind the driver.  On the the gravel road that loops through the heart of the valley, this means a dusty ride.  It costs $5 to enter the tribal park and drive the scenic but very rough loop (such a deal!).

But as I was driving this spectacular loop, getting bumped and jolted by the rocks and dips, one thing was obvious: you don’t want to do this during peak season.  I can imagine that in late spring and summer, driving through the tribal park would resemble a sort of long, dust-choked follow-the-leader game.  I can’t recommend doing this drive unless you are visiting at a less-busy time, as I did.  Or perhaps you could start out at dawn.  You can certainly see much of Monument Valley without ever entering the tribal park.  There are other roads, including the one that heads out onto Douglas Mesa, and the road that goes to Oliato Trading Post and beyond.  Both of these roads explore the far western reaches of Monument Valley.

The Tribal Park is definitely worthwhile though.  Even the view from the spectacularly located visitor center is well worth the $5 entry fee.  From here, you can easily scan the loop road to see exactly how crowded with vehicles it is.  And finally, you can take a nice 3+ mile hike from near the visitor center.  Called the Wildcat Trail, it is a sandy desert walk that loops round the Mittens.

A lizard made its way across the sand in Monument Valley, Arizona.

I braved the dusty loop road through the tribal park late on my second afternoon in the valley.  I spied some decent-sized sand dunes from the far end of the loop road. Beyond the dunes stands several tall sandstone spires, called the “totem poles”.  And so I decided this was as good a place for a sunset photo walk as any.  I’m not sure it was legal to hike off-trail, but nobody hassled me about it.  I love photographing in sand dunes, and was looking forward to some shots of the rising near-full moon as well.  For some how-to discussion on moon shots (not on a rocket ship!), and using Monument Valley as an example, be sure to catch the next blog post.  It was not as colorful a sunset as the previous evening’s was, though there was some cloud cover to the west.  I still find it difficult sometimes to identify the types of clouds that will lead to a colorful sunset.

Desert sands and backlit rabbitbrush cover the southern portion of Monument Valley in Arizona.

I ended up shooting until dark, and since I was tired and the place had literally cleared out, I decided to just park it there and sleep.  Although it is not okay to camp inside the Tribal Park, I guessed (correctly) that nobody would be out there to hassle me.  If somebody did come by, I would have just apologized and left.  I think I know the Navajos well enough now to safely assume no undue officiousness on their part.  I shot some moon-lit landscapes, then slept until dawn.  I was alone when the sun first touched the rocks, burning them orange.  That little bit of sunshine was all it took to begin warming the clear, frigid air.  It warmed to 70 degrees that day!

Though hanging around on the Navajo reservation does involve small sacrifices (modern society’s conveniences, like a cheap grocery store, for e.g.), I really am getting used to it.  It is a bit like visiting a country like Mexico.  It takes a while to get used to, but once you’re there for a time, you begin to absorb and embrace the differences.  You begin thinking like the locals.  You begin to really be in the place, to really feel it.

Monument Valley shows off rare clouds at sunset.


Utah’s San Juan River   1 comment

The San Juan River flows through southeastern Utah near the town of Bluff.

The San Juan River surprised me. Never having traveled through the Beehive State’s southeastern corner, I had no idea it was such a significant and beautiful river basin. Rising in Colorado’s mountains of the same name (which I posted on recently), the San Juan enters canyon country in Utah and flows for hundreds of twisted, lonely miles, finally winding up in Lake Powell. This is the reservoir that, sadly, covers both Glen Canyon and the confluence of the San Juan and Colorado Rivers.

Just west of the town of Bluff, Utah I stopped at a boat launch/campground called Sand Island. Here there is an enormous petroglyph panel, hundreds of feet long, with a dizzying variety of Native American rock art. Wandering down to the riverside, I was floored when I saw how much water the San Juan was carrying. This is the driest part of the year, after all. The sun approached the horizon, the light grew golden, and I took the opportunity for a great little photo walk along the river.

A full moon shines on the Goosenecks, a series of incised meanders on the San Juan River in SE Utah.

The San Juan cuts some truly spectacular canyons on its way west, including the famous Goosenecks. This series of what geologists call entrenched meanders can be viewed from a state park off Hwy. 163. If you’ve never seen pictures of the Goosenecks, try to imagine a lazy river meandering across a broad river valley. Then imagine that pattern cut deeply into layered sandstone to form a rugged meandering canyon.

The sun rises behind a cottonwood tree in one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

This is the layer-cake geology of the Colorado Plateau, a stacked geological movie through the Paleozoic Era.  Frozen in time are huge sand seas, big river basins, seaside salt pans (as in the Middle East), coral reefs and muddy ocean bottoms.  The canyons of this region cut into this record.  The rivers had no choice as the entire region was lifted straight up during formation of the Rocky Mountains.

Ship Rock in northern New Mexico is formed from a spectacular dike that runs for miles across the desert.

I camped out on the Navajo Reservation in northern New Mexico.  Although I was a bit nervous about this, being visible for miles in the flat and treeless sage plain, I wanted to get moonlight and dawn pictures of Ship Rock.  For some reason I got little sleep, dreaming of my van being invaded by a group of angry natives.  I suppose it is all those old western movies to blame, when the wagon circle was attacked by the “savages”.  But there was a bright side to this; I got pictures of the stars after the moon had set – beautiful!

Ship Rock stands under a glowing moon in the northeastern New Mexico desert.

Ship Rock is an enormous volcanic plug sticking out of the desert.  The monolith trails out on either end (but more obviously on the south) into a spectacular dike.  A dike, in the geological sense that is, is a tabular sheet of magma that invades upward into a fissure or fault in the earth’s crust.  It hardens when it cools, just like lava.  Then, many millions of years later, when (if) the area is uplifted and eroded, the dike is left standing up because of its superior hardness compared to surrounding rocks.  It then resembles the natural version of a dike built to hold back water.  The one that Ship Rock is connected to is a classic “textbook example” of a dike.

Melting ice forms patterns on sandstone in a spring found while hiking one of Valley of the Gods’ many canyons.

A cottonwood tree frames one of the rock ramparts in Valley of the Gods, Utah.


I also visited an area that seems to be known mostly to locals: Valley of the Gods.  This is a beautiful area of canyons and monoliths that is quite similar to the better-known Monument Valley to the south.  You need to drive a gravel loop road 16+ miles long to get in here.  It’s a wilderness study area, and is connected to an equally wild and huge area called Cedar Mesa to the north.

I camped along the gravel road, then in the morning took a hike up a canyon.  Quite a few vehicles were driving the loop, it being a weekend.  But nobody else was hiking, that is unless you count a horseman I ran into.  He was a nice fella, smoking a cigar as he rode.  As I scratched his horse behind the ears, I thought of my own horse back home.  Could she handle this rugged country?  It might take some getting used to.  I miss her and Khallie (the filly) both.

I traveled south from Valley of the Gods, past the Goosenecks (that I had visited in moonlight the night before) and on towards Monument Valley.  I came upon a just-completed wedding ceremony at riverside in the town of Mexican Hat.  Guess what the town is named for.  You got it, a rocky pinnacle with a sombrero-shaped top.

The happy couple were rafting down the river when I stopped and joined the wedding party in watching them float down the San Juan through town.  I didn’t take any pictures, feeling the wedding photographer might not like it.  But I did feel a bit sad and lonely, as I always do when I see weddings.  Not for long though.  It was a gorgeous day and Monument Valley at sunset was waiting not far away.  That will be the subject of my next post.

By the way, if you’re interested in downloading any of these copyrighted photos, please click on one and you’ll be taken to my website.  There you can browse my photos and order any of them, for download or as beautifully made prints (framed or unframed).  These particular photos will be up soon, but if you want one right away, just email me.  Thanks for your interest and cooperation in not trying to download any illegally.




Along the San Juan River in SE Utah, fall holds on in late October under a nearly full moon.

The Ancient Ones IV: Hovenweep   2 comments

In Little Ruin Canyon the moon illuminates Square Tower, with Hovenweep Castle visible on the rim beyond.

A clan symbol etched into a wall at Painted Hand Pueblo in SW Colorado is of a figure bearing a torch.

This is getting to be quite the series of posts, and it’s because the ancients and their remnants in the Four Corners is just so darn cool!  There is a large swath of empty country along the SW Colorado/SE Utah border called Canyons of the Ancients.  It is a high plateau incised by shallow sandstone canyons, and is mostly preserved as Canyons of the Ancients National Monument, along with Hovenweep N.M.  Definitely you should visit the Anasazi Heritage Center near Cortez, CO to plan your visit.  They were very helpful.

One of my pioneer heroes, the famous western photographer William Henry Jackson, came here in 1874.  It was he who first used the name Hovenweep, which is a Ute word meaning deserted valley.  And that is what the main site at Hovenweep is, though it is more a canyon than a valley.  Little Ruin Canyon, as it’s called, is compact and scenic.  It is crowded with the stone towers for which the place is famous.  There is a strong atmosphere of desertion, a ghost-like feel.  All of the structures date from the 13th century, and all are well preserved in the desert air.  There is a 2-mile loop trail encircling the canyon, and it starts just in back of the visitor center.

I drove from the east down the beautiful McElmo Canyon, arriving at Hovenweep just after dark.  Since there was a moon and since I had slept until 10 a.m. next to Ship Rock (late night photography there), I was wide awake after dinner.  So I decided on a whim to hike the loop trail in the moonlight.  It was a magical time, and since nobody else was around I was able to get some interesting angles on the structures.  Way cool.  I almost expected to see the faint glow of a torch in the top of a tower, as a lone brave kept watch throughout the night.

This area has been inhabited by people since the ice age, but as with other evidence of the Ancestral Puebloans throughout the Four Corners Region, the 1100s and 1200s saw the population increase greatly.  At the same time, they built their elaborate stone pueblos.  At Hovenweep and in the adjacent Canyons of the Ancients, the people built a variety of towers as part of their pueblos.

The towers that make this place unique are mostly circular.  But there are also square, oval and D-shaped examples.  They are mostly built near springs, and many have a commanding view of the canyon approaches.  They also have line of sight communication with each other, at least when you consider smoke signals rising from them.  Whether they were used as lookouts (for enemies and/or prey animals), for communication, were ceremonial, or all of the above, we just don’t know for sure.  It’s hard not to be reminded of castles, however, when one sees them for the first time.  In fact, a few are named as such.  Hovenweep Castle, Cutthroat Castle, and a few others really did make me think of the tower-house castles of Europe, though on a much smaller scale of course.

Although there is not much evidence of warfare between clans in this area, it’s known that the area was, in the late 13th century, growing dry and getting crowded both.  Water, in the form of canyon-bottom springs, was a very precious resource, and worth protecting.  Although I have no doubt the towers were used for more than one thing, I think their spectacular locations (on canyon rims, on top of huge boulders, etc.) was certainly in part defensive.

The iconic towers of Hovenweep Castle, an Ancestral Puebloan site in the Four Corners region of the American Southwest.

Another interesting nugget I picked up, from a Hopi source no less, was that hawks and falcons were kept in the tops of the towers.  Now I had no idea that American Indians practiced falconry, currently or in ancient times.  So this is definitely an interesting avenue to explore.

After an awesome moonlight photo walk at Little Ruin Canyon, I left the visitor center area for an area that promised to be more peaceful come morning.  Though it was past midnight, I drove up County Road 10 and camped on the rim of a canyon near the Painted Hand Pueblo.  I was in the larger Canyons of the Ancients N.M. now.  At sunrise I hiked down the jeep track to the Cutthroat Site, which is at the head of a small canyon near a spring.

Along the San Juan River in southeastern Utah, a petroglyph panel over 100 feet long contains many drawings from a thousand years ago or more.

Being there alone, as the morning light rapidly grew in intensity, with only a curious rock wren for company, gave rise to some interesting feelings.  It was a bit sad, reflecting that these people had taken such care to build their secure homes, only to have to abandon them after only 2-3 generations.  I thought about the turkeys running around the place, the sound of kids playing, elders sitting in the shade, unable to travel much beyond home in this rugged country.

After coffee, I strolled down to Painted Hand.  Here there are several pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (chiseled).  One symbol, the figure of a person with upraised arms, struck me as the emblem of a clan.  Later I learned this was so.  It really reminded me of  medieval coats of arms.  Again back to the castle analogy.  This is fascinating stuff!  As I traveled westward, away from Hovenweep, I followed the beautiful San Juan River into country in which it is much harder to find evidence of the Ancient Ones.  But even as I enter Navajo country, where it is modern American Indian culture you encounter, I will continue to search for their ancient art and their dwellings.

Hovenweep Castle in the Four Corners region of the U.S. stands silent under the stars. Jupiter is at lower right.

The Ancient Ones II: Chaco Canyon Intro.   2 comments

The ruins of an Ancestral Puebloan Greathouse, Penyasco Blanco sits on the rim of Chaco Canyon in New Mexico.

I have finally made it to Chaco Canyon.  This is one of those places I’ve been intrigued with for a long long time.  In fact, as I approached the Ancestral Puebloan (aka Anasazi) site in northwestern New Mexico, on the long and torturous washboard road, I reminded myself not to expect too much.  It is far too easy, I learned a while back in my traveling days, to hype a place up in your mind, and to have inflated expectations as a result.  I did not want to be disappointed because of my own biases.

The Animas River of northern New Mexico flows peacefully through the town of Aztec as the sun goes down.

The approach, however, gives a definite impression of a dry, dusty and rather inhospitable place.  Once you are here, and in the canyon proper, it is a little nicer.  But it is dry, especially now, in the midst of a rainless late summer/fall.  No monsoon moisture has seeped up from the Gulf of Mexico in quite awhile in these parts, and the forecast shows nothing but sun sun sun.  There is an El Nino developing in the Pacific right now, and once that is in place, winter should be somewhat wetter than normal throughout the desert southwest.  If you live here, you pray for that.  But it also requires extreme caution around the arroyos, which can send a flash flood down upon you in…well, a flash.

Chaco Canyon was the center of the Ancestral Puebloans world, and it was a world not much wetter than it is now.  I’ve heard it described as their New York City.  But Chicago might be a better analogy, a Chicago during its glory days as a center for agricultural and livestock trade.  Chaco was where the ancient ones built their grandest structures.   Everything is aligned on N-S and E-W axes, and there are features of the buildings that make it obvious that these people were very much aware of the movements of the sun, stars,  moon and planets.

One thing you’ll notice is that these sights are mutually visible, by line of sight.  In fact, the Chacoans built signaling towers for communication throughout the canyon and beyond.  They used fires (the classic American Indian smoke signal), and also “reflective rock”, which I’m guessing would have been mica.  This enabled them to relay signals for tens of miles at the least, and very likely throughout their territory.


A constant feature of these ancient pueblos is the kiva. Similar to finding a church in even the smallest mountain settlement or ghost town, a kiva is found even in the smallest clan-sized dwelling.  Kivas are round stone structures built mostly below ground and roofed with cribbed wooden beams.  Like churches, mosques and synagogues, kivas were used for religious ceremonies.  

And yet, they were multi-purpose living spaces as well.  At Chaco Canyon, there are few to no fireplace hearths found in the rooms of the great houses, but every kiva had one.  Also, the first archaeologists found pottery, grinding stones, and other artifacts that indicate kivas were very much lived in.  

Today’s Puebloans continue to use them in a similar way as their ancestors, but they are more strictly relegated to ceremonies, not so much living rooms.  The degree of preservation amongst the ancient kivas varies greatly.  Mesa Verde has some nicely preserved examples.  At one site, Spruce Tree House, you can descend into a fully enclosed kiva.  And at Aztec Ruins, north of Chaco, the great kiva is fully restored.  At Chaco, though the kivas are numerous and some very large, you cannot enter any of the well preserved ones.

 I descended into the kiva at Mesa Verde’s Spruce Tree House.  There is a certain feeling you get doing this, sort of creepy and magical at the same time.  If there were American Indians inside chanting, with a fire going, I think my body would literally buzz off the hook with chills.  A possible goal for the future I think, to be invited into a functioning kiva.  It’s really the living, breathing American Indian that I most enjoy on a physical-emotional level.  These ancient sites are interesting on a scientific level, and they are certainly sited in spectacular locales, but the lack of native guides at places like Mesa Verde does take something away from the experience.  At Chaco, you see more native peoples, working as (I guess) seasonal park staff.

The waxing half-moon illuminates the evening sky at Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.


My next post will go into more detail about my visit, and what to see and do at Chaco Canyon.

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