May 27, 2021 – A Bird Could Not Fly Over the Route

At first sight, Utah as seen from New Mexico left everything to our imagination. That would soon change.

From New Mexico, we entered southeastern Utah, by-passing the famous Four Corners Monument which at the time was closed. Entering Utah meant something special to us. If New Mexico is the “Land of Enchantment”, Utah is the “Land of Spectacular” and what awaited us was beyond expectations.

Bluff was built in the shadows of the Navajo Twin Peaks, seen here. Directly below them is the Twin Rocks Trading Post.

The four weeks spent in the state was one long continuous view of changing colors that swiped valleys, canyons, bluffs, buttes, mesas and arches like a painter’s brush dipped in a wide sampling of earthy tones and pastels of purple, pink, rusty red, orange and yellow.

A view from under the Owachomo Bridge within Natural Bridges National Monument, only 60 miles from Bluff.

Our consciousness was filled with geologic stories of how these rocks formed over millions of years and what our short time on earth allows us to witness at this miniscule point in time. If one ever desires to feel most insignificant, simply come to Utah. The land is overwhelming and at every corner, it presents itself in new ways. It is no wonder that Utah contains five National Parks and seven National Monuments.

Ancient Ruins, like this one named ‘House on Fire’ can be seen up close if you are willing to traverse some of the challenging Utah terrain. This one is in Bears Ears National Monument. Read more about these ancient ruins from our previous blog.

Much of our time was spent in the southeast region of Utah which is known for its diverse rock formations and colors, dramatic canyons and spectacular rock arches and spires. We were in the center of the Colorado Plateau where the most jaw dropping scenery is concentrated around the Green, San Juan and Colorado Rivers and their tributaries, all of which have been eroding away for millions of years. Some of the landscape has been altered from the construction of the Glen Canyon Dam and creation of Lake Powell as well as the mining industry. But that portion of Utah’s story is for another time.

Only a short 5-mile drive from Bluff, I could easily access the Butler Wash area, on the east side of Comb Ridge and explore the interesting rock terrain. Utah, like much of the western U.S. is experiencing a severe drought. In this image, I stand in a bone-dry wash.

We began our explorations of Utah in Bluff, hardly a spit of a town on the San Juan River. Not far from the Four Corners, Bluff is east of the more popular Glen Canyon and Lake Powell. Making Bluff our home base for one week gave us time to explore Valley of the Gods, Bears Ears Monument, and Natural Bridges Monument. The famous Monument Valley was nearby but not accessible as the Navajo Nation remained shutdown due to COVID. Despite the famous Forrest Gump Point, we were in the most unassuming portion of Utah; pushed into the shadows of Bryce & Zion, Grand Escalante, Canyonlands and Arches. Yet, it is here where we learned of an extraordinary story that began our education into Utah’s history of pioneers.

Panoramic view of Valley of the Gods with ‘Lady in the Bathtub” Butte on the right at the end of the middle ridge.

By 1879, a large concentration of Mormon communities existed in the Utah territory – mostly in the Salt Lake region. With the mission of expanding their presence in Utah’s country, Latter Day Saints (LDS) leaders urged families to migrate to other regions and set up communities. One of those leaders, LDS Church President John Taylor convinced 70 families (250 men, women and children) comfortably settled in southwestern Utah to form a wagon train, travel east and settle near the San Juan River. “Answering the call from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints”, the San Juan Expedition began in early fall of 1879 with the expectation of arriving at the destination in three months. The goal was to create a more direct route to the largely unknown territory, cutting out several hundred miles of travel.

The 180 mile ‘Hole-in-the-rock trail was created to make a shorter path between southwest and southeast Utah.

By December of 1879, the expedition consisting of about 80 wagons and teams had made its way to Escalante, following a well-traveled route. About 40 miles east of Escalante, the party stood on the edge of the unknown territory that lay ahead. On December 2, scouts returned with a report. One described the potential route as follows “A bird couldn’t fly over the route, to say nothing of getting wagons through.” Council was held and one leader promised the party that if they continued the journey, a road would be built and crops raised the next season. That’s all it took. With strong faith and supplies for a 6-week journey, the party began blazing an eastern trail.

An original wagon, used by the San Juan Expedition in 1879-80. The story of how Bluff, Utah came to be is wonderfully told at Bluff Fort Historic Site located in the center of the tiny town of Bluff.

What the 250 (+2) men, women and children subsequently encountered paled in comparison to the 1300-mile handcart migration to Salt Lake City from Missouri that many of the party members had experienced prior to this move. And it took twice as long as originally planned.

Replicas of the handcarts pulled from Missouri to Salt Lake during the 1300-mile Mormon Migration of 1847 as seen at Bluff Fort Historic Site.

About one third of the way into the journey, the wagon train arrived at a natural crevice on the 1000-ft cliff above the Colorado River gorge. The company prepared to blast a passageway through what is now called the “Hole-in-the-Rock”. A raft was built to carry the wagons, people and horses across the Colorado River. Among the party were two brothers, coal miners from Wales having expertise in blasting powder. They were among several men who were lowered over the cliff and dangled midair to drill holes in the rock and fill them with blasting powder. This went on during winter storms.

A member of the expedition, Kumen Jones, wrote the following: “After about six weeks work and waiting for powder, etc., a start was made to move the wagons down the hold. Long ropes were provided and about 20 men and boys held on to the wagons to make sure that there would be no accidents, through brakes giving way (brakes created with chains), or horses cutting up their long lay off, but all went smooth and safe. And by the 28th (of January), most of the wagons were across the river and work had commenced again on the Cottonwood Canyon another very rough proposition”.

The Hole-in-the-rock as it is today after the creation of Lake Powell.
From the Bluff Fort Historic Site. If you visit Bluff, I highly recommend you visit the well maintained exhibit. And while there, you will most likely hear the story from one of the expedition’s ancestors.

Ahead of them were some of the most desolate and rough country imaginable (as described by party members). They encountered more deep canyons and high rock formations standing in the way of a direct path. Near the end of their expedition, they came onto Comb Ridge, another rock formation that impeded their route. By now, the anticipated 6-week journey had turned into 6 months. The group was hungry and worn out.

The west side of Comb Ridge, as the pioneers would have seen them at first encounter.

The pioneers came to the south end of Comb Ridge where they built a road over what they called the “San Juan Hill”. Charles Redd wrote the following: “Aside from the Hole-in-the-Rock, itself, this was the steepest crossing on the journey. Here again seven span of horses were used, so that when some of the horses were on their knees, fighting to get up to find a foothold, the still-erect horses could plunge upward against the sharp grade. On the worst slopes the men were forced to beat their jaded animals into giving all they had. After several pulls, rests, and pulls, many of the horses took to spasms and near-convulsions, so exhausted were they.”

An artist’s rendition of the San Juan Expedition.
Butler Wash awaits the expedition after traversing up and over the Comb Ridge.

At last, off the Comb Ridge and across Butler Wash, the settlers reached the Bluff area on April 6, 1880. Seven miles short of the original destination on Montezuma Creek, the exhausted travelers could go no further. Hence, the town of ‘Bluff’ came into existence. Except for one horse, no lives were lost, and two babies were born during the grueling 6-mon journey. To acquire supplies in Escalante, the newly blazed 180-mile route continued to be used as a means of getting in and out of the San Juan area for about one year.

The San Juan River and the reason for settling Bluff, Utah.

We travel with a full-ton pickup that pulls our home, a 33-ft fifth wheel. A truck and an RV – that’s all we have. The Mormon settlers lived in wagons pulled by horses– all they had. Of course, little comparison can be made, yet I could not help think about those wagon trains in Utah’s unknown territory as we drove our truck down wash-board, narrow and bumpy gravel roads just to get to spectacular lands discovered and preserved long ago.

Our home for the week, surrounded by Bluffs in Bluff, Utah.

Our good fortune allows us to settle our very comfortable home in Bluff for a week so that we could venture out on our mini-expeditions into Utah’s wild frontier that is Bears Ears National Monument, Natural Bridges National Monument, Valley of the Gods and Monument Valley. And if we must drive our GPS-guided and air-conditioned truck on a gravel road or two, so be it. I guess we’ll just have to suck it up for the next several weeks as we continue to blaze our trail through Utah. Onward we go.

Away from the RV for the night, we awoke to Valley of the Gods.

By the way, fear of destroying our road tires (attached to the truck that pulls our home), we avoided driving up the Moki Dugway which rewards you with a grand view from Muley Point. But we did see a similar view from Goosenecks State Park, accessed via maintained paved roads. We learn as we go, so stay tuned as the truck tire story continues in Moab.

Enjoy a few more images from our time in Bluff, Utah.

May 20, 2021 – Our Visit to Northern New Mexico was Ruined

The road to Chaco Cultural National Historical Park is a long one. We learned the road is not maintained to help ward off looters and vandals.
On a well maintained paved road is a lookout where you can view Frijoles Canyon, location of the Bandelier National Monument and a large number of ancient cliff dwellings.
Among all the ruins we visited, Mesa Verde enjoys the highest status of National Park. It’s obvious from their Visitor Center, much grander than the modest buildings of Chaco Cultural, Aztec NM and Bandelier NM.

Up until the construction of steel girder skyscrapers in Chicago during the 1880s, the largest and tallest buildings erected in North America were constructed in stone in America’s southwest by the Ancient Pueblos (formally known as the Anasazi). The ruins of these buildings can be seen at Chaco Cultural National Historical Park. While parked in Northern New Mexico for a couple weeks, we had time to explore Chaco Canyon ruins as well as those of Mesa Verde National Park, Aztec National Monument and Bandelier National Monument.

An impressive sculpture and an artist’s rendition of a Mesa Verde cliff dweller.

Within the four corners region of the country, these Ancient Pueblo ruins offer a glimpse into a collapsed civilization steeped in mystery. They do not, however indicate a single culture and one single collapse, but instead a whole series of them, all before Columbus set foot on the New World in 1492. Still, the Ancient Puebloans did not completely vanish – remaining are modern descendants – Zuni and Hopi for example. But wrapped in theories and conjectures intertwined with archeological evidence is the question that is foremost on people’s minds when visiting Chaco or Mesa Verde and that is “Why would anyone build such an advanced city in that wasteland or on the side of a cliff, and why having gone through so much trouble to build it, abandon it?”

Archeology has uncovered much of Chaco Canyon pueblos, but it was an archeological blunder in 1942 that caused an avalanche of boulders to tumble off the cliff onto much of the ruins. It was too costly to attempt to recover what was lost, so a trail was built over the rocks for visitors to walk around the ruins.

This got me thinking about Jared Diamond’s book “Guns, Germs and Steel” which I read way too long ago to remember much of anything substantial. But what I do remember is that embedded deeply in Diamond’s book are very convincing answers to the $1,000,000 question, “Why did some civilizations collapse while others did not?” To that end, how would Diamond address the mysteries behind the Ancient Pueblo ruins of the Southwest?

It is difficult to imagine a large city where thousands once lived in this now barren land.

No longer having the book I read years ago, I searched online and was able to access Chapter 4 of Diamond’s book, which is devoted to the Ancient Pueblos. So, to answer the question as to why these Pueblo cities were abandoned, here is my condensed answer from Diamond’s lengthy explanation – lack of resources and all the nasty things that come with that. Consider, for example the Puebloans in Chaco Canyon. Remember, they are the ones that built the largest city in North America before Chicago’s skyscrapers.

How did Ancient Pueblos get over the mesas? They built steps, that’s how!

Around 500 AD, people began building underground pithouses in the canyon. Over time, construction increased into multi-story and multi-room buildings, and large cirular kivas. This meant that Chaco was experiencing a population growth (thought to be in the thousands at any given time), which meant they had sustainable water and food. Evidence also indicates there was trading going on with maintained roads connecting various Pueblos to the larger Chaco Pueblo. Chaco Pueblo may very well have been a city surrounded by smaller communities, much like a modern-day civilization.

(Enjoy this slideshow of Chaco Cultural National Historical Park)

This went on for hundreds of years, but over time, Chaco Pueblo became more dependent upon imports because they simply no longer had adequate resources. As we all know too well, population growth increases demand, which puts stress on the environment. Eventually, the environmental impact from water management parallel with reoccurring droughts as well as deforestation (pinyon and juniper) created significant environmental problems. With that comes a host of problems, starvation, social unrest, and violence. However long it took to get so bad, it appears that the evacuation of Chaco was planned and happened very quickly as few items were left behind.

(Enjoy this slideshow of views from the road to Mesa Verde National Park).

But here is the other thing that came to my mind during our visit to the ancient ruins. While the Ancient Pueblos were cutting stones to perfection using rudimentary tools (not metal) and appeared to have no written language, Eurasia was experiencing the High and Late Middle Ages that led up to the Renaissance period, including the invention of the printing press. Why such a difference? Again, I turn to Jared Diamond’s book. He explains it this way -significant food surpluses appeared earlier in Eurasia than in America. Eventually, farming became so successful in Eurasia that communities grew more crops than they needed. Since it was not necessary for everyone to farm – specialized trades popped up everywhere. People could indulge in intellectual, scientific, or artistic pursuits. Communities grew bigger and cities arose – the source of civilization. As people became more specialized, communities reaped the rewards of intellectual and technical advances.

(Enjoy this slideshow from Mesa Verde National Park)

And trade was big across Eurasia and eventually expanded across the seas. Diamond indicates that Eurasia’s east-west orientation gave it a less varied climate across its land mass, thus allowing domesticated crops and animals to migrate more easily. East-west Trade routes including the Silk Road were great in number. That’s not to say Eurasia didn’t have its own set of issues, i.e., warring tribes, feudalism, violence, slavery, religious persecution, and not the least of which was the Justinianic and bubonic plagues. Nevertheless, the region of the world thrived.

(Enjoy this slideshow from Bandelier National Monument & please note the pictographs, not petroglyphs in some of the images. In one image, you will see a preserved pictograph, maintained behind plexiglass. Pictographs are painted on the walls, whereas petroglyphs are carved.)

While so many advances were happening across Eurasia from 500 to 1500 AD, the Ancient Puebloans were essentially stuck in a vacuum of sorts. Given the harsh and unforgiving environment they were in, there were far fewer people, and that alone might explain the disparities across the globe. Trade, exchange of ideas, innovation, and specialization outside of self-sustained farming come with increased populations over the land. While some of the Ancient Puebloans enjoyed a robust population for hundreds of years, it was all they had. Simply put, how many people are going to venture over badlands, mesas and canyons and provide a physical connection between communities?

That’s it, that’s my two cents worth. I hope my armchair analyses of ancient southwestern pueblo history did not ruin your day!

One last thing. While admiring the ancient architecture of the Ancient Pueblo, we also took the time to admire the impressive Rio Grande Gorge Bridge while parked near Taos. Spanning 1280 feet, it’s construction began in 1963 and ended in 1965. Depending on the source, it’s height is 650′, one of the highest in the U.S. Enjoy the slideshow of the bridge and the view from it. And think about those Ancient Pueblos that were unable to cross it.