Saturday 4/9: We had a long drive in the dark to Mexican Hat UT. (The town is named for a rock formation.) I discovered that the car’s USB plug wouldn’t charge my phone. The car’s manual claimed that its “infotainment system” was compatible with iPhones. Regardless, my phone refused to have anything to do with the car. This was a problem because I was navigating with my phone. I ran my battery down to 2%, turning it on occasionally to check our progress.
Our room at the San Juan Inn was trapezoidal, and it had no windows other than in the front and back doors. A palm-sized spider was on the inside knob of the back door. Usually I grab a spider with toilet paper and flush it to oblivion; but this one looked too big for that to be a good idea. Maybe it was dead? It moved between the door-window and its curtain. Uneasily, we decided to ignore it.
Before we could go to bed we had to organize our things for tomorrow’s river float; the tour company had sent a list of recommended bad-weather gear, and tomorrow would start out cold.
San Juan River
Sunday 4/10: Early in the morning, we presented ourselves at Wild Rivers Expeditions in Bluff UT. A young woman named Kim drove us to the launch site. A single mother of two, she’d studied to be an x-ray technician but couldn’t find a job. Now she drives the shuttle van and works for the county library, and hopes to become a river guide. Our guide, a nice young Navajo man named Greg who wore glasses and sported a faint beard and moustache, was readying a big rubber raft when we arrived. We were the only customers that day, so we got a private tour.
The San Juan River was about 40 feet wide, its water an opaque green-brown, peaceful-looking but moving steadily. Greg said the river was rising due to rain two days ago. He estimated the flow at 1,000 cubic feet per second. “Imagine a thousand basketballs floating past you every second, and you’ve got it,” he explained. Our raft was about 18 feet long; a steel frame with two big storage boxes that doubled as seats spanned the middle third of the raft. There were two oars. Greg said they were just for backup in case the small outboard motor failed. He spent a long time pulling the motor’s cord before it sputtered to life.
We glided downstream at a good pace. Now and then we heard a clunk when the propeller enclosure struck an underwater rock. The gravel banks were lined with brush and trees. Cottonwood, a gnarled, branchy tree with deep grooves in its bark, is native. Russian olive and tamarisk were planted to stabilize the riverbank and stop the San Juan from changing its course. These invasive species have become a nuisance; both have thorns, and the thorns of the Russian olive are long and poisonous. We also saw Mexican grass, from which the Navajo made and still make an antiseptic. Greg turned the boat upstream from time to time to point out sights. An ancient ladder of chipped-out steps in a cliff wall brought an interesting insight. The Pueblo Indians, while building their cliff dwellings, chipped such steps. In addition to the steps they needed, they made dummy ladders that led to dead ends, to confuse attackers. We saw lots of animals, including two types of herons, Canadian geese, ducks in mated pairs, deer, bighorn sheep and cattle. When we landed, we saw lizards and wild horses.
We stopped for a short hike to Butler Wash to see the petroglyphs. The ancestors of the Pueblo Indians made them about 13 centuries ago, prior to their cliff-dwelling period. We used to call these people “Anasazi;” now the term is considered politically incorrect, but the Navajo still use it. Greg told us that “Anasazi” is a Navajo word meaning “Enemy of the people.” (Dictionary.com translates “Anasazi” as “Ancestors of the enemies.”) Greg said that some Navajos who take the river trip won’t come up from the raft to see the petroglyphs. And he recalled that he once felt very uneasy in a Pueblo ruin. The drawings include pictures of medicine men; so they might have had a magical purpose.
Our next stop was a longer hike to River House, a restored cliff dwelling ruin. It followed the typical design; small square-sided stone buildings sheltered within a natural amphitheater in a south-facing cliff. Greg pointed out that this arrangement provided cool shade in the summer while admitting sun in the winter for warmth. The community’s fields would have been on the gently sloping ground between the cliff dwelling and the river. We were allowed to climb up into the ruin and go into the buildings. They had square windows and T-shaped doorways. Their floors were the stone base of the amphitheater. Small, aligned holes in the walls near the ceiling once held wooden roof beams. Greg pointed out some datura plants below the amphitheater; they might be remains of a medicinal herb garden.
Our raft carried us on into a canyon. Its walls were beautifully layered pink and white sandstone. White Navajo sandstone stood above a yellow layer close to the water (“Old Yeller”), and Paradox sandstone below. (Later, Alice told us that the Paradox layer is named after the valley in which it was first documented. That Colorado valley was so named because the Dolores River cuts across the valley from side to side, rather than flowing down its middle like rivers in most valleys.). Greg said that geologists who take float trips down this river are interested in Old Yeller because, in some places, oil is trapped under it.
In the canyon the river quickened and modest rapids appeared. Midway down the canyon, we landed on a sandy beach and set up a folding table in the shade of some small trees for lunch. Lunch was a generous collection of rolls, cold cuts, tuna salad and fresh fruit and vegetables. We set off into more rapids, and a cold headwind developed. The lower canyon walls were more chaotic and deformed. In one area, tectonic forces had broken huge sections of bedrock and rotated them 90 degrees; sediment laid down in horizontal layers was now vertical. In another, the sandstone layers were warped from squeezing (which, I suppose, is still going on). We saw that Old Yeller now appeared at the cliff tops.
At our landing, the Mexican Hat campground, we saw a tent that had blown into the river. The owner was retrieving it; he’d set it up over his boat to make a floating bedroom. He was playing music while he worked, and he didn’t seem particularly upset. Kim and her kids arrived in a van towing a flatbed trailer. She and Greg winched the raft up onto the trailer and brought us back to Bluff.
Pat and I visited Fort Bluff, a private museum that was originally the compound built by the 1879 Hole In The Rock (San Juan) expedition. Small log cabins (newly constructed and not authentic) represented families descended from expedition members. They were furnished with antiques provided by the families. Each cabin had an audio system that played readings of expedition diaries and journals. The struggle to cross the rugged land and establish the town of Bluff made for impressive and evocative stories. The Joseph Barton cabin, built by the great grandfather of a museum docent with whom we talked, was a partly restored original. Unlike the trim little modern cabins, its logs were crooked and had big gaps between them. This and the other original cabins had been built of cottonwood, the only building material then available. Cottonwood trees are gnarled and crooked, and they take up a great deal of water. The logs shrank and warped for years afterward, requiring constant recaulking.
When we returned to the San Juan Inn, the maintenance man came to tell us that he hadn’t found the spider, so he’d sprayed the room. The spray was probably worse for us than the spider. After he left, Pat found the spider back between the back-door window and curtain.
We had dinner in the inn’s café. I chose an “Indian Taco” consisting of Indian fry-bread (a bready pancake with a rim like a plate) filled with chili and beans and accompaniments.
Monday 4/11: This morning Pat found that the spider had moved to the wall above the bathroom sink. She caught it in a plastic container. It was colored the same light tan as Navajo sandstone, and it had black feet and head. The owner of the inn said it was a banana spider. They are known to jump and bite. She let it go over the fence on a bluff above the river.
We followed U-261 up the west side of Valley Of The Gods to a tall, layered cliff face. Here the road turned to gravel. This section of U-261 is called the “Mokee (Moqui) Dugway;” depending on the weather, it can be impassable even for 4WD vehicles. It wound up the cliff for three miles with a 10% grade, and then turned back to paved highway. We stopped at a pullout at the summit to look at the view, and noticed a woman selling turquoise jewelry.
We stopped again at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. I asked a ranger about road access to the Mule Canyon trailhead. I learned that there are actually three canyon trails here; lower and upper Mule Canyon and Arch Canyon. Were the roads drivable? She looked out the window at our rental SUV and wasn’t very impressed. “You can get to the trailheads all right, but I don’t recommend the back-country roads beyond that point.” If it rained, she warned, the roads would become more difficult.
We turned east on U-95, and stopped in a pass at Salvation Knoll. From here, a scouting party from the 1879 Hole In The Rock expedition had seen the Blue Mountains, a crucial landmark. We followed a short, pretty trail up the knoll to a 360 degree view of Cedar Mesa, a broad forested plateau. To the north, clouds standing on pillars of rain crowded against the mountains.
A few miles beyond, we stopped for a roadside picnic at the Mule Canyon pueblo ruin. Here was a restored stonewalled kiva (an underground temple consisting of a circular pit with stone benches along its sides). A tunnel had originally connected the kiva to an apartment house. Another tunnel had run from the kiva to a tower. The tower was visible from another pueblo, and so might have been used for signaling. A second, earth-walled kiva hadn’t been restored. Only the stone kiva and the foundations of the house and tower remain today.
We drove down to the Lower Mule Canyon trailhead, resolving to watch the weather and retreat to the paved highway if rain set in (it never did). We hiked in to House On Fire, a small, primitive cliff dwelling. The canyon held a chaotic mix of forest, rock outcroppings and dry washes (gullies that flood during rainstorms). The stream was nearly dry, and we were able to walk in its bed for much of the way; it was sand, gravel and mud with sections of flat sandstone. We met two women who told us that House On Fire was so named because at certain times of day sunlight reflects from the cliff above. A spring in a cave next to the ruin still flows. On our way back, we walked thru a culvert under the road to the south end of the canyon. This end looked intriguing too–but we were out of time.
We continued east on U-95 to U-163, then north to Moab. The clouds that had been lurking all day were now stuck on the Blue Mountains west of our route; we drove thru a bit of rain north of Monticello. In Moab, we picked up our daughter Alice (who is a ranger at Arches National Park) and went to Jeffry’s Steak House for a late dinner. Her wife Jenn had stomach flu and couldn’t come. I had salmon filet drowned in a rich sauce.