Upon mention of the word, Utah, I tend to immediately think of two things, canyons and Mormons. Each of which we have had our fill of on this trip. All towns prominently feature a church, always the same design and usually near the center of town. Mormon towns are unlike most rural towns I’ve seen in the US, mainly because they are not falling apart. The buildings are generally new, there are many active businesses, kids roam around on their own and rarely do you come across yards full of junk. At least on the surface, there doesn’t appear to be drug issues or homeless milling about, but I am told that the former is often hidden away to avoid a household looking bad. As for the latter, the homeless are often bussed off to nearby states. Living in these communities can be very difficult if you are not part of the church as there are often large families within each town and nearly no public social events (especially nightlife), both of which make it hard to make friends as an outsider.
After travelling through Mormon country for nearly a month, the aesthetic difference of other communities was stark. We entered the Navajo reservation after leaving our camp near the Colorado River and would continue to pass in and out over the course of the next week. Navajo Nation is the largest reservation in the US, spanning 3 states with over 200,000 residents. Each town has the stereotypical look of a run down locale. Dilapidated houses, yards full of old cars and tires, boarded up businesses, stray dogs, and broken glass & trash all along the side of the road. Despite the apparent poverty, many of the homes would have newer vehicles parked in front of their homes. Another oddity was that nearly every other house on the reservation had a few to a half dozen old tires on their roof.
From Navajo Nation we continued on to the Hopi Reservation. The Hopi were not recognized as an independent people until well after the establishment of the Navajo Reservation. As such, Navajo gained title to lands that were historically Hopi (at least theirs in the years prior to the treaty), including many sacred areas. None of this helped ease tensions among these traditional rivals. Decades later, once the US government recognized them as independent, they finally gave them their own land. Inside of the Navajo Reservation. Yes, the Hopi reservation is within the Navajo Reservation. Did I mention that they traditionally do not get along?
We stayed one very quiet night on the rez before continuing on back into Utah. Just north of Monument Valley, we entered BLM land once more, taking the steep switchbacks of the Mogi Dugway above Gooseneck State Park and Valley of the Gods, establishing camp at Muley Point. The view was outstanding, the best to date of the trip. We camped near the edge of the rim, gazing out to the south over the canyons of the San Juan River and at the formations of Monument Valley that rose up beyond.
After a few days meandering up top, we continued north into Anasazi country. Eager to find some of the many ruins and cliff dwellings in the area, we set out immediately after resupplying in Blanding, walking up the South Fork of Mule Canyon. Eyes wide and binoculars at hand, we were ready to inspect any possible opening in the rocks above. Early on, we would end up finding a alcove tucked away in some trees up high, with a remaining wall and pottery sherds strewn across the ground. Continuing on the main trail brought us to the well visited “House of Fire,” (pictured at top) a set of a few small rooms built into the rock wall. The rock above the rooms lights up in the early morning light, giving the appearance that the dwelling is on fire, hence the name. After a few false leads, we turned back, returning south and camping at the Bullet Canyon trailhead.
Bullet Canyon offered us relatively easy access into Grand Gulch, the center of Anasazi activity in the area and full of remnants and ruins. We set off down trail the next day with the goal of finding the “perfect kiva.” After a couple hours and no clues, we sat down to rest and give ‘Din a chance to eat. Looking back up valley, Alana spotted 3 moons about 1000 ft up on the rock face and a 1/2 mile distant. After confirming it with binoculars, we scrambled up towards the top to see what we could find. The moons were perched on the wall behind a small knob that protruded out from the face, with some type of ruins situated below. We looked from every angle and tried multiple routes, multiple times, over the next hour, but could not find a safe way to make it up and back down the last ~15 feet. Why would they choose an area like this with such difficult access? What were they afraid of? It’s hard to imagine the skill required to regularly climb areas like this with such massive exposure. Not to mention along with carrying water, wood and food to these sites. Satisfied that we had tried everything, we returned to the rim and followed deer tracks through the scrub brush back to camp.
We were excited about the next few days of hiking around the nearby canyons and trying to find ruins. We talked of extending our visit in this area or continuing north and hiking around the Canyonlands, instead of going to Dark Canyon as originally planned. However, when we woke the next morning, our plans went out the window. Snow covered the tent, as well as the surrounding area, and we found ourselves in a cloud. A winter weather advisory was in effect for nearly all of southeast Utah and temperatures looked to remain cooler for the coming days with snow continuing in higher elevations. Not wanting to stick around camp in the snow, we scrambled to make new plans. New Mexico seemed to still be relatively warm, so after packing up, we descended out of the clouds and continued southeast. Leaving the Anasazi behind and into the world of the Chacoans.