Andersen: Finding wonder in a canyon portal |

Andersen: Finding wonder in a canyon portal

The portal is found in an innocuous-looking wash on a forested mesa. It begins with a slight depression in the sandy earth where the rain runs and the snowmelt seeps. Thirty miles later, that wash has grown into a deep canyon of incredible complexity.

Schlepping a heavy backpack, I walk with my son, Tait, and our friend Cooper into the time portal of this narrow, winding gulch in southeastern Utah. As the canyon deepens with each step, we gradually lose ourselves in its many labyrinths.

We are voyeurs to a geological process that has fashioned something beyond the human sense of time and space. This hidden defile in the Earth reveals a slow but ceaseless erosion that continues to deepen as long as there is water and gravity.

As the world turns, as the demands of contemporary life ratchet higher and higher, as technology fills our every waking moment with inputs, these labyrinthine canyons become immeasurably important.

They harbor souls in need of rejuvenation, bodies in need of restoration, minds in need of respite. They are open-air history museums replete with the fingerprints of ancient peoples and the mysterious antiquities they left for us to ponder.

These canyons offer journeys for the adventuresome. They are hidden sanctuaries rich with color and light and an abundance of diverse life. They are national treasures deserving reverence and protection.

As we descend, we are walking away from the world, entering another realm revealed within the Earth’s tortured crust. We are walking into a crack in the mantle; a rift in the epidermis. We are spelunkers leaving behind the round Earth for a fractured line in the bedrock.

We drop through the layers, hemmed in by rising, vertical walls bearing shades of color, like a slice of Neapolitan ice cream. We follow a slight trickle of clear spring water along the canyon floor, lost here in the sandy bottom, emerging there on a slickrock boulevard where the gently burbling stream links reflecting pools that capture shards of the setting sun.

The air is cooling as we set up camp beneath the wide, sheltering limbs of a huge juniper tree. I am reminded of a poem by Joyce Kilmer, an English poet who died in World War I.

“I think that I shall never see / A poem lovely as a tree / A tree whose hungry mouth is pressed / Upon the earth’s sweet, flowing breast / A tree that looks at God all day / And lifts its leafy arms to pray / Poems are made by fools like me / But only God can make a tree.”

I sleep with my head pillowed at the trunk of this magnificent being; this living mark of time that’s over 1,000 years old. This tree has lived steadfastly in this dynamic place, withstanding heat, cold, floods and fires. I wonder how many people it has comforted with summer shade, as a break from the cold winds of winter, as a supply of fragrant fuel for fires.

Morning comes clear and cold in early November, the sky a thin, pale blue. We set off eagerly for a day hike up the main canyon. Soon we’re clambering up to a high ledge that leads to a series of ancient Anasazi granaries. On the wall are petroglyphs illustrating deer, sheep, spirals and strange human forms. We speculate on what they mean, who made them and why. Our imaginations are awakened.

Later, from a narrow canyon floor canopied with trees and brush, we notice a high overhang of rock arching over like a standing wave. Beneath the roof is a built stone wall. We scrabble up a rocky escarpment dotted with cactuses and find a lithic site strewn with pottery and corncobs. On the floor of the ledge is a square hole with a ladder.

We climb down into the cool chamber of the kiva, its walls plastered and painted. The kiva makes us quiet and contemplative. We speak in whispers. Here is a sacred space formed into the rock by human hands. Here is a portal to the mysterious past; a place for infinite wonder.

Paul Andersen’s column appears on Mondays when he’s not lost in a time warp. He can be reached at

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