Grand Gulch: a hike into history
September 30, 2009
GRAND GULCH, Utah – Last weekend I spent three perfect, bluebird days in Utah’s Grand Gulch, which is known for an abundance of cliff dwellings, rock art and other remnants of ancient Native American cultures. I’ve backpacked into Grand Gulch three times and every time I’ve seen new things – hidden structures in shady alcoves, bizarre figures etched in the rock, stone slabs with deep indentations from people grinding corn.
This visit, a backpack of roughly 24 miles (not including exploratory offshoots), was colored by a Sept. 23 talk at the Wheeler Opera House by Craig Childs, an author well-versed in the ancient mysteries of the Southwest. Childs’ talk touched on many topics, including the warfare and killing that preceded the Anasazis’ disappearance from the Four Corners region. He spoke of the cliff dwellings as defensive structures and noted that many ruins include large “shields” painted on the walls as if to repel enemies.
At least one famous site in Grand Gulch includes three giant, moon-like shields painted like beacons above a multilevel dwelling. Were these symbols of warfare or mysticism? I have no idea, but it’s fascinating to wander the canyons and wonder.
Another site we found, not shown on the maps, has tiny peepholes in its mud-and-stone walls that would have enabled the inhabitants to watch for intruders without being seen. The holes point in all directions, up and down the canyon, but the walls are otherwise solid, without windows. The people were hiding, or so it seems.
Another alcove had been occupied as far back as 6500 B.C., according to the Bureau of Land Management. Several different styles of artwork decorated this amazing site; there were large, shield-like figures painted with deep red pigments, and a few feet away there were wild, abstract lines, squiggles, rakes and circles in strokes of yellow, green, brown and black. There were dozens of handprints on the ceiling, all of them small by our standards. One large, red figure appeared to show a baby being born – feet first, in breech.
Lots of life, and death, happened in these places.
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My buddy and I pondered these mysteries for two and a half days without seeing a single other hiker in the canyon – probably owing to a lack of water in the springs and potholes.
But that’s a story for another day.