Paul Andersen: Exploring a time portal canyon

Paul Andersen
Fair Game

The past revealed itself last week in a stack of stones on a sandstone ledge in a remote desert canyon. My son and I clambered up a steep debris fan, wanting to touch the past as a reminder of our own fragile existence.

The ruins of the granary stood humbly as a monument to the laborious ingenuity of a people who vanished 800 years ago, when they melted away from canyon refuges they marked with pictographs and petroglyphs, the ancient graffiti of a lost culture.

Walking down a canyon is like entering a time portal. The farther you go, the deeper you walk through time. The granary, with its hand-stacked walls and finger-pressed mortar, is recent compared with the geologic strata that stand in timeless layers all around.

My son and I paid homage to the builders of that granary for their material privation, their sand-ground teeth from eating corn mashed on sandstone slabs, their familiarity with canyons and water rationing. Theirs was an existence often considered primitive — until you hold one of their arrowheads and realize the superb craftsmanship there.

Still, that granary represented a failed civilization whose disappearance is speculated to be from internecine wars, cannibalism and a long-term drought that ultimately spelled their doom.

Mystery shrouds the past with questions about humanity, questions my son and I entertained while shouldering our packs to the deeper gorges, where the story of the earth is written in rock walls and punctuated in pinnacles and spires.

The present arrived with dramatic immediacy two days later as a rattlesnake buzzed softly in a rock crevice along the remote trail we walked above sheer cliffs dropping into a green swath of riparian ecosystem where a stream flowed, where water is the lifeblood of all living things.

I watched my son, just a step away from the rattler, slowly convulse, as if a puppet master were pulling invisible strings. His reaction was involuntary and visceral, a response to instinct and self-preservation as deeply embedded as the snake’s innermost trigger to shake that rattle.

The present came again when I brushed a prickly-pear cactus with my bare foot at a slickrock camp. The needles pincushioned my sole. I discovered that an instantaneous reaction to pain is a channel to the moment, which is often difficult to achieve otherwise.

We humans are time-challenged, usually living in the past or the future until a moment of clarity brings us to the now. Only then do we inhabit our bodies instead of our minds as sensation focuses everything on a finite point of being.

The future came the day of our return. Re-entry posed a challenge after a quiet week in the wilderness, where few others venture, where we learned appreciation for silence and a renewed love for water and its splashing paean to gravity.

We arrived home long before we got there in the car, our minds working out scenarios, plotting strategies, filling the gaps of what was to come. The culture we had abandoned the week before was dispassionate about our absence, uncaring about our now-heightened sensibilities. It quickly took precedence.

Not long after we had dragged dusty packs into our home, I was online reading the news. Here the past, present and future collided in a cacophony of raw imagery, much of it unsettling.

As I scrolled through a barrage of ever-changing yet perversely similar accounts of the human situation, I felt a wedge of reality penetrate my wilderness mind like the flash flood my son and I had witnessed after a downpour turned a dry streambed into a roar of muddy, churning water.

That night I read in Al Gore’s book “The Future” a tsunami of challenges, the intractable quandaries of existence that to Gore are just as immediate as that rattlesnake was for my son and just as burning as those cactus spines were to me.

We live mostly in the past and the future, perilously straddling the present, which is where we make decisions in flashpoints. Time blurs all else as we walk in our own canyon worlds.

Paul Andersen’s column appears Mondays. He can be reached by email at