November 11, 2013
Author: Chilton Williamson

Excerpt from The Hundredth Meridian

It was in the spring of 1925 that a young Easterner named Clyde Kluckhohn, on sabbatical from Princeton to spend a year working on a cattle ranch near Ramah, New Mexico, first learned from a Zuñi Indian of the natural phenomenon called Nonne-zoche Not-se-lid (meaning Rainbow of Stone), standing at the very end of the Navajo world but considered by those few of them who had seen it more wonderful than the Great Cañon itself. “Far, far,” the Zuñi explained, “-hard on horses-no water-no food-nothing but rock and rock.” Kluckhohn, though green as a willow-wand still after a year out West, concluded nevertheless that Nonne-zoche Not-sel-lid was one of the things he was determined to see before returning to the East and school. Barely able to control a riding horse, and with scarcely a notion how to load a pack animal, he purchased two horses from a local livsetock dealer and set out from Ramah. After several mishaps along even this short way, Kluckhohn arrived in Albuquerque where he met up with a “knight of the road” named Roy Anderson, a youth his own age from New York City en route to Chicago astride a gelding called Bill. Though traveling in different directions, the two men agreed to meet up in Santa Fe in ten days’ time and set out on an expedition together, westward across the land of the Navajo in search of Nonne-zoche Not-sel-lid.

***

Among patriots of the rural American West generally, and the Colorado Plateau in particular, the great cause for celebration is the present condition of Lake Powell (“Lake Foul” to Ed Abbey), whose apparent impending demise would reverse the preservationist movement’s colossal defeat in the late 1950s, when it lost the legal battle to prevent the construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River and the flooding of the mystical maze of slickrock canyons behind it with 253 square miles of water encircled by 1900 miles of shoreline. Two decades of drought in the West, aggravated by explosive population growth downstream in southern Nevada and California, have shrunk the lake dramatically, leaving marinas high and dry while raising the drowned canyon systems into view again. Saturated by lake water after forty years’ submersion, the sandstone rock releases captured moisture like a pressed sponge to irrigate the slickrock wilderness, watering the germinating flora and succouring the fauna the vegetation attracts. For Abbey, Glen Canyon was simply the most beautiful place on earth. The back-of-beyond grapevine (sustained nowadays by electronic technology in addition to smoke signaling, drumming, and subversive conversation over three-two beers) has it that Glen Canyon is not only visible nowadays but visitable, by oldfashioned pedal locomotion. After discovering that even the New York Times was wise to the liberation of Glen Canyon, I called Tom Sheeley in Flagstaff to suggest we make our spring backpack trip there. Tom, while intrigued, cautioned that skiffs, kayaks, or rafts might be necessary for part of the trip down from the Escalante Plateau to the Colorado River. When an intervening concert tour caused him to abandon plans for the trip, I phoned Don Eason in Ft. Collins with a similar proposition. Don is a design engineer, a man who can make a computer talk the way Tom Sheeley makes a classical guitar sing. Within days, he’d provided me with a series of links proving, beyond argument, that the waters of Lake Powell have not receded sufficiently to make Glen Canyon navigable on foot. Why not, he offered by way of an alternative, a hike from Navajo Mountain on the Arizona-Utah border down to Rainbow Bridge, spanning Bridge Creek a mile or so upstream of the lake’s present waterline? I made encouraging noises in response and was rewarded with a set of aerial photos of the terrain, posted by electronic mail. It was sixteen years since I’d last hiked on the Navajo Reservation. And we’d be hiking on clean, hard rock-not slogging through mud and silt and over the frames of wrecked houseboats and exploded jet skis. Rainbow Bridge it is, then! I typed into the message box. Don’t forget alcohol on the reservation is strictly illegal, Don replied.

***

Traveling by an arduous route over frequently nonexistent trails indicated by local bushwhackers (“You can’t miss it!”), their lives frequently jeopardized by a series of bad horse trades, Clyde Kluckhohn and Roy Anderson made their way over the Jemez Mountains and across northwestern New Mexico to the Land of the Dineh. Here their candid naivete, humility in attempting to master a nearly impossible language, adventurous pluck, and touching greenness won them the trust and friendship of the Navajo even in advance, as word of their approach preceded them from one village to the next until they arrived at last at Kayenta, Arizona and the trading post of John Wetherill– the legendary rancher, explorer, and pothunter who discovered Mesa Verde and whose private excavations were directly responsible for the Antiquities Act of 1906 urged by President Roosevelt, later to be himself a guest of the Wetherills. Among the many discoveries Wetherill made famous was Rainbow Bridge, which he was away visiting with his good friends Zane Grey and Jesse Lasky when the young adventurers presented themselves to Mrs. Wetherill. Disregarding warnings against attempting to find their way, unguided, around Navajo Mountain and down through the sandstone maze to the Bridge, Kluckhohn and Anderson rode out from Kayenta a few days later on fresh mounts, uneasily aware as they went of their hosts’ expectation that only the rare luck of meeting John Wetherill himself, returning along the trail, stood between them and destruction in the roseate heart of the desert wilderness.

***

Don had brought his sons Brendan and Colin, aged fourteen and eleven, along on the expedition, making a party of four. At the end of a long day’s drive from Fort Collins, we reached the Valley of the Gods a few miles north of Mexican Hat, Utah and camped on the soft red floor of the desert below Cedar Mesa, two thousand vertical feet overhead. We rose next morning as the towering sandstone chimneys standing round began to glow and ate a breakfast of fruit bars, cold cereal, and water while as we struck the tents, stuffed the sleeping bags, and loaded the gear back into into the Montero. By ten o’clock Kayenta was behind us and we were passing the turnoff to Betatakin. Approaching Nat-sis-an–Navajo Mountain–from the southeast by a washboard reservation road, we lost a half-hour when we stopped to change a tire for a Navajo family stranded by a flat and completely helpless without a jack, using the Montero’s to install the doughnut they carried for a spare in a trunk filled with wooden totem poles carved in China. The two-track trails diverging from the trunk road were unmarked, resulting in the loss of another ninety minutes as Don maneuvered in compound-low over the rock-cobbled and boulder-strewn apron of the dark whalebacked monolith of Nat-sis-an (sacred to the Dineh and marking one of the four corners of the historic Navajo nation) in search of the route leading to the trailhead. The third try proved lucky, but it was two o’clock already when we shouldered the packs at last and stood poised with our hiking staffs in hand and laden with water-weight (two and a half liters per person) to survey the vast labyrinth of purple, red, pink, lavender, buff, and yellow rock into which we were preparing to descend.

“Seven miles to water,” Don said. “We should make it down with daylight to spare, so long as we maintain a good pace and just keep moving.”

***

The Kluckhohn-Anderson party, with their horses, traveled by the North Trail to the Rainbow Bridge, approaching the wilderness of rock they called the Moon by way of the north face of Nat-sis-an. Both trails, north and south, were “developed” over the years by John Wetherill, in places with the aid of a few charges of dynamite. How much of this “development” was accomplished by 1925 I have no idea; according to Kluckhohn’s personal account in his wonderful book To the Foot of the Rainbow, it must have been minimal. In this land of tight-spaced red domes, dubbed “planet tops” by Clyde and Roy, the obvious path appeared to be around and between these stone hemispheres. When a way round proved impossible, they considered the impossible-and discovered the marks of horse-shoe nails in the soft sandstone hummocks. Wetherill’s “trail” led over, not around, the great bald-rock domes, up cliffs so steep and slippery that we in our boots could not walk up them; we clung to our horses’ necks with our hands and pressed our spurs into their flanks..In one place we went across a ledge so narrow that our horses could not stand on it with their feet, parallel, and it was quite a nice drop to the little cañon below. There again we clung to our horses’ necks and prayed.

What Wetherill’s Hollywood and East Coast dudes must have made of this experience is a matter for entertaining speculation.

Past the domes, including the horror Kluckhohn and Anderson named Glass Mountain, were twisting converging canyons leading to Zane Grey’s Surprise Valley, a lovely self-contained oasis surrounded entirely by red sandstone walls breached by two narrow apertures and whose sole exit amounted to “an exhausting perpendicular process.” Beyond Surprise Valley, the adventurers came to Nonne-zoche Boco–Bridge Cañon itself! But even here Wetherill’s trail, crossing and recrossing the slippery rocks of the creekbed, burrowing through thick groves of oak and willow, and traversing rock ledges twenty feet above the canyon floor, offered only partial respite from the ordeal it had so consistently presented. The tired horses, inattentive and careless of their footing, stumbled and fell, causing their disappointed riders to make camp finally in a place they felt in their bones to be less than a day’s journey from their destination.

***

Topographical maps don’t lie, exactly, but they have been known to dissemble-as our map, downloaded from the internet, certainly did. The South Trail is said to be tougher than the North-in fact, it has the reputation of being the most strenuous in southeastern Utah. The traverse along the westerly base of Navajo Mountain proved rougher by far than either Don or I had expected, actually gaining elevation on its way to the pass above Cliff Creek from which the descent to “the Moon” begins. In a change of plans, we camped for the night on a windswept promontory a half-mile short of the pass and made an early start next morning, struggling down a long tongue of avalanched rubble to the creek bottom where we found water at last. Here we established our base camp on a grassy bench above the creek beneath a sandstone overhang screened by piñon pines-a natural campsite where John Wetherill and Zane Grey had doubtless proceded us a time or two, or more. Sleepy from fatigue and shrimp jambolaya reconstituted with creek water, we fell asleep listening to a performance by the full canyonlands orchestra-frogs, bullbats, owls, coyotes, with now and then a cougar joining in-whose crescendi were loud enough to make conversation between the tents finally impossible. Don arose at a little past dawn to take photographs, and at nine we resumed the march to the Bridge, under saddle still but carrying only a liter of water apiece and lunch in the deflated packs.

Redbud Pass, like a mountain arisen between the pressing walls of a slickrock canyon, is one of the places where Wetherill notably employed his dynamite. Either the trail over it has significantly deteriorated since his day, or the horses he rode belonged to the winged breed-there can be no other explanation. We scrambled up the gravelly steep on the south side, spidered down over boulders on the north, and hiked on another mile to Echo Park, where Rosebud and Bridge Canyons meet. If Echo Park were not in fact where Kluckhohn and Andersen spent their last night before reaching Not-se-lid, they failed to avail themselves of God’s own Hampton Inn, prepared especially for them from the beginning of time. As for Don, Brendan, Colin, and me-we kept walking.