July 18, 2012
Everyone knows what to see at Mesa Verde National Park in southwestern Colorado: the cliff dwellings of the Pueblo people who occupied the Four Corners region from A.D. 600 to 1300. Soon, though, there will be good reason to stop at the entrance because the park is building a new Visitor and Research Center, scheduled to open late this year, that will give a state-of-the-art museum to its remarkable collection of archaeological artifacts, ethnographic material on the Native Americans of the Southwest and Santa Fe Indian School painting. Considered as a whole, it’s one of the oldest and biggest museums in the national park system.
Another one of its treasures is a collection of jewelry and ceramics given to Mesa Verde in the 1940s by architect Mary Jane Colter. Born in Pittsburgh in 1869, she attended the California School of Design in San Francisco, then went to create and decorate buildings for the Fred Harvey Company which ran shops, restaurants and hotels along the Sante Fe Railway. Among her masterworks are Hopi House, Lookout Studio, Hermit’s Rest and the Watchtower on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, all stunning examples of the American Arts and Crafts movement that take their inspiration from Hopi, Zuni and Navajo design, as well as Spanish-Mexican hacienda architecture. Between 1900 and 1940 Colter also worked on landmark train stations in Chicago, St. Louis, Kansas City and Los Angeles.
At a time when women spent their time in the kitchen and parlor, Colter made her way in a man’s world, striding over construction sites and seeking artifacts all over the old Southwest, her hair in an untidy French roll, her radio tuned to a Mexican music station. On forays around the Four Corners region she collected baskets, jewelry and pots, while getting to know the Native American craftspeople who made them. She used most of the treasures she found to decorate Harvey Company buildings, but kept some for herself, eventually retiring to Santa Fe where she died in 1958.
Colter was a close friend of the archaeologist Jesse L. Nusbaum, who excavated Mesa Verde’s Balcony House and served as the park’s superintendent from 1921 to 1946. So the museum there seemed to Colter a suitable home for her art.
But she never wanted the 530 pieces of jewelry she bequeathed to Mesa Verde to be known as the Mary Colter Collection. “I think she didn’t want it to be about her. She wanted it to be about the artists,” said curator Tara Travis. Later some of Colter’s ceramics were added from the old Southwest Museum in Los Angeles.
When the new Visitor and Research Center opens at Mesa Verde, 30 Colter pieces will be on display, including a silver Navajo pin shaped like a biplane, heishi necklaces made of delicately strung shells, and tie slides carved from the vertebrae of cows and goats—all showing, as Travis explained, that “Colter had an interest in how artists used materials—shells, stones, turquoise and silver—and everyday objects to create works of art.”
The mastery of the Native Americans who made them should be overwhelmingly apparent. But I can’t think of it as anything other than the Mary Jane Colter Collection.
May 30, 2012
Whenever my brother John tells me he’s planning a trip, right away I start angling to go along because he likes places no one else would think of, usually backpacking destinations in the great outdoors. It doesn’t hurt that he has the necessary gear and skills. I doubt I’d know how to pitch a tent or light a camp stove if it weren’t for John. When we pack up in the morning, he stands over me like a Marine, making sure I shake out the ground cloth before I fold it up.
In the car on the way we don’t need the radio; we pass the time arguing, usually at high volume.
I drive the highways, then he takes over on dirt roads, bombing over sand traps and potholes while I shriek. He hates things to go smoothly; when they threaten to he puts an edge on the adventure by telling me we might be low on gas or lost, a stratagem that made me insist on turning back halfway to the isolated Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. Both of us vividly remember the episode, forever defining us as travelers: I’m the wuss, he’s the nut.
But that’s another story. This one’s about the best trip we ever took, to Fish and Owl Creeks in the badlands of southeastern Utah. How John found out about the 16-mile loop trail on BLM land descending about 1,500 feet into a pair of narrow canyons that scrawl across an otherwise empty space on the map I do not know. He’s got a secret file folder full of such expeditions, I guess.
We reached the trail head about 50 miles north of Mexican Hat with afternoon shadows lengthening over the plateau, known as Cedar Mesa. That’s mesa, not butte; if you don’t know the difference between the two, you’re too much of a greenhorn to tackle Fish and Owl, which should not be attempted by inexperienced hikers, according to a map we got from the BLM. The trail is rough and hard to follow, marked chiefly by cairns; water is intermittent; and if something bad happens, help is not at hand.
For all these reasons, I advocated camping on top that night and starting out the next morning. But John overruled me, herding me into Owl Creek like a goat boy. We had to scramble down big boulders—me mostly on my tush—before reaching the bottom of the canyon, which narrows as it descends. Occasionally, I took my eyes off the trail long enough to appreciate the view at our shoulders of precariously stacked hoodoos and Cedar Mesa sandstone cliffs. Meanwhile, John was ever on the lookout for Anasazi rock art and cliff dwellings said to be hidden on benches above the creek.
By the time we finally stopped and set up camp, I was feeling surprisingly comfortable in the wilderness. John made freeze-dried lasagna for dinner and invited me to drink as much bottled water as I liked, thereby lightening the load; no problem when we ran out, he said, because—yum, yum—he’d use his purifier to treat the brackish water we found in sloughs.
I slept tight that night, blinking my eyes open to see a dark sky full of stars when I rolled over in my bag.
The next day’s hike took us deeper into Fish and finally to its confluence with Owl, where we turned downstream. Owl had stretches of running water, small hanging gardens and sandy shoulders where the path was easy to follow. I was ambling along when I realized my brother had stopped, bending over the trail where he’d found a mountain lion track.
Or were things just going along too smoothly for John? I bet on that.
We doubled back at one point, in search of a natural arch described on the map, but never found it. A mile or so short of the exit back onto the mesa, by which we’d close the loop, we found a second campsite, ringed by cottonwood trees, close to a flowing section of the creek. I took a dip, dried off in the sun, and figured I’d found paradise in a crack below Cedar Mesa.
More freeze-dried comestibles for dinner, another night in the bag, followed by a very stiff climb out of the canyon, John showing me where to step. For the last bit he took my backpack so I could manage the climb out, then handed it up to me when I got on top.
We were resting before finishing the last lap back to where we’d parked when a car drove up. A man and woman got out, preparing to start the loop hike the other way round, from Owl to Fish. Only, they didn’t have a map. So we gave them ours, crumpled and splotched, but no less welcome, told them about our beautiful second night campsite and exchanged addresses, promising—as travelers often do when they cross paths in outlandish places—to later exchange notes on our adventures.
I forgot all about it, though I could have told them how I made John drive 100 miles out of the way that day to clean up in a public swimming pool and buy groceries in the town of Blanding before car-camping that night at Natural Bridges National Monument, where John made sure I knew the difference between a natural bridge and an arch.
We went on from there to the infamous Maze and to a family reunion in the Colorado Rockies, where I celebrated my 40th birthday by climbing 14,259-foot Long’s Peak. So by the time I got home several weeks later those were the stories I told about the trip.
A couple of months passed and then I got a letter with a Boston return address from the couple John and I met at the lip of Owl Creek, enclosing the map we lent them and telling a tale that made my skin creep.
They found our cottonwood campsite and settled in, then woke up in the middle of the night to the sound of screaming, hair-raisingly high-pitched and so close at hand they’d have sworn someone was being tortured just outside the tent.
Only one creature makes a noise like that: a mountain lion.
It went on for 30 minutes, at least, while they huddled inside, scared out of their wits. Then it stopped, though they didn’t go out until morning, when they found tracks right outside the tent. Each print was as big as a hand, with pad and four claws clearly marked.
I’d never want to come that close to a mountain lion, though I admit I’m a little envious it happened to them, not us. Never mind. I’ve appropriated the story; it’s mine now, too, because I’ve been to Fish and Owl. Travelers tales are like that. Free to pass around.
March 15, 2012
Temperature: 68 degrees Fahrenheit. Sky: blue. Breeze: light.
Those were the idyllic conditions when my family and I visited California’s Joshua Tree National Park. Summer time is a different story, of course, with temperatures across the 550,000-acre park where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet routinely over 100.
Stuffed into a rented Toyota Camry, we entered Joshua Tree from the north and hiked the one-mile Hidden Valley loop. In the isolated canyon once favored by cattle rustlers, it’s said, we talked to a ranger about pinyon pine trees (bearing the nuts used in pesto sauce), watched rock climbers suspended along one of the geometrically-fractured joints that cross-hatch Joshua Tree cliffs, and picnicked in the shade of a Mojave yucca. Then it was on to Barker Dam (built around 1900 to create a reservoir for livestock); the boulder heaps at Jumbo Rocks; and 4,500-foot Sheep Pass leading east toward the wide, hazy Pinto Basin.
When we finally reached Cottonwood Springs we learned that torrential rainfall the previous September had flooded the road, closed trails, campgrounds and the visitor center on the south side of the park. Consequently, we couldn’t hike to Lost Palms Oasis visited by desert tortoises and bighorn sheep. But on the way out of the park we got a surprise; my niece Sarah saw it first.
“Stop!” she cried from the back seat.
I thought she’d chipped a tooth on trail mix, but it turns out she‘d seen ocotillo, miraculously blooming in winter. We pulled over and piled out to inspect about two dozen tall, spiny ocotillo plants pointing flame-red fingers into the sky. They usually bloom in the spring; in fact, March is the month for wildflower viewing in Joshua Tree. But September rains had apparently fooled them, presenting us with a gift on a delightful day in the desert.
January 24, 2012
Unpacking a box of books recently I found my old copy of No Longer on the Map, a small classic of literary geography published in 1972. The author Raymond H. Ramsay reveals his M.O. in the preface:
Many places are no longer on the map, but no mystery attaches to [them] because the names were political, not geographical. The territories have been given new names, or divided into smaller units or incorporated into larger ones.
The Kingdom of El Dorado is quite a different case, as are the Strait of Anian, Norumbega, Grocland, and the Isle of Satanaxio. These are no longer on the map because they never existed. Then how did they come to be mapped at all? That is quite a story.
Of course, the more no-longer-on-the-map a place is, the more I want to go there, and Satanaxio is at the top of my list.
According to Ramsay, it was first shown on a 1507 map by Johann Ruysch, and then again on maps by Gerhardus Mercator (of Mercator projection fame) and Abraham Ortelius (creator of the first modern atlas). Roughly located near the mouth of Hudson Bay, Santaxio was thought by some to be an outlet of hell with an opening on the earth’s surface leading into the infernal core; so maybe I’ll make it a quick visit.
Looking back through No Longer on the Map made me think of all the other places I wish I could visit but can’t, places lost in time that once really existed. For instance, you cannot travel through the British Raj on the eve of the Mutiny or have cocktails in the 1950s New York of Mary McCarthy. The Southwest Chief no longer stops at dusty crossroads in northern Arizona where Navajo weavers show their work and passengers alight to visit the Grand Canyon in Harvey Cars. Villages in the Queen Charlotte Islands off the coast of British Columbia where the Haida people raised monstrous totems and roof beams decorated with Raven and Bear are deserted now, victims of disease brought by white traders, and Malacca, once the crossroads of Asia visited by Arab dhows, Chinese treasure ships and European men-of-war, is no longer even on the Strait of Malacca because of waterfront reclamation.
Perhaps it’s time travel I want after all. When I was a little girl I loved Williamsburg and Carcassonne. But historical theme parks, no matter how authentically-recreated, now make me sad somehow; the burnish is always too bright, the effort too hard.
Some of the places I most desperately want to see aren’t even there anymore. I have taken a motor boat up Lake Powell sounding for Glen Canyon, obliterated in the 1960s by a dam that flooded a 200 mile stretch of the Colorado River gorge every bit as marvelous as the Grand Canyon, if we’re to believe the one-armed 19th century explorer John Wesley Powell. Gone with the backed-up water are the Navajo holy place at the confluence of the Colorado and San Juan Rivers, the Crossing of the Fathers where missionary-explorers Silvestre Velez de Escalante and Francisco Dominguez found a ford in 1776 after their expedition had failed to reach California, and Hole-in-the-Rock, another Colorado River crossing forged in the brutal winter of 1880 by Mormons who cut a 1,200 foot trail down sandstone cliffs to reach it.
I want to see those places, but at the same time love Lake Powell, a weird, unnatural, tropical cocktail in the desert where house boaters tie up at islands that used to be mesas to barbecue and drink beer, which I don’t begrudge them.
Nobody, however willing they may be to follow Edward Abbey into tight, wild places, has a special right to the marvels of the American Southwest. I’d never have gotten there myself without a rented motor boat and excellent advice from the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area tourist information office.
We are here on earth now. It is no longer virgin, but more complex.
What long-vanished place would you most like to visit?
November 4, 2011
The artist and adventurer Everett Ruess was 20 years old when he vanished into wild and lonely Davis Gulch, a drainage of the Escalante River in southern Utah. He’d been tramping alone for 8 months across some of the roughest, most isolated country in the nation with burros to carry his gear and the odd volume of Emerson. Occasionally he stopped in settlements like dusty little Escalante to pick up mail from his parents. Two sheep herders reported meeting him on the slick rock tableland outside town on Nov. 21, 1934. Then nothing.
The woodblock prints and writing he left behind, collected in W.L. Rusho‘s 1983 Edward Ruess: Vagabond for Beauty, still captivate wilderness lovers. But it’s the mystery of his disappearance that has made him a cult hero among backpackers, climbers, canyoneers and other desert rats. Did he fall from a cliff while looking for arrowheads? Could he have committed suicide or been murdered by cattle rustlers? Or, drawn as he was to the blank spaces on the map, did he engineer his own disappearance, intentionally leaving family, friends and civilization behind?
His strange story—part cautionary tale, part siren song—has been told many times by Edward Abbey, Wallace Stegner and other writers. Jon Krakauer found similarities between Ruess and Chris McCandless, the subject of Krakauer’s 1996 bestseller Into the Wild. This year a new book, Finding Everett Ruess, by David Roberts, adds another chapter to the Ruess riddle.
The book landed at the top of my reading list not because I’m a fan; to my mind Ruess’s evocations of the desert Southwest lack cultural and historical perspective. But I have been to Davis Gulch, now part of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and there’s nothing lacking about that. Hiking in from its confluence with the Escalante was an unforgettable experience, not to be repeated anytime soon because access is dictated by the water level on Lake Powell, which has risen since then, backing up into tributaries like Davis Gulch.
But a drought that peaked in 2005 made it possible for my brother John, backcountry ranger Bill Wolverton and me to explore the gulch, starting in flats of quick sand at its mouth. Farther up the canyon we saw 75 foot high La Gorce Arch and squeezed through a subway where the canyon walls narrow before leaving Davis by the livestock trail at its head, presumably the route Ruess took down.
Roberts went the same way to research a 1999 article for National Geographic Adventure that revisited the mystery, uncovering new hints about the possible murder of Ruess by Escalante locals.
But 10 years later the writer heard of a skeleton buried in a crack along Comb Ridge some 50 miles east of Davis Gulch in the Navajo Reservation. Tests on a DNA sample suggested that the remains were those of Everett Ruess, causing Roberts and fellow investigators to re-imagine the wanderer’s last steps, hypothesizing that he must have left Davis Gulch, crossed the Colorado River to die in the isolated northern part of the Navajo Reservation. But the findings, published in National Geographic Adventure, had to be retracted when a state-of-the-art U.S. military lab determined that the Comb Ridge bones were not those of Everett Ruess.
Roberts tells the whole story of the misidentification of the Comb Ridge remains, an interesting twist in the Everett Ruess saga. But in the end we’re left no wiser, still hearing only faint whispers of the vagabond of Ruess’ poem “Wilderness Song:”