Canyon Interludes
by Paul W. Rea

Chapter 7
Moonlit Faces on the Wall

Snow drifting into silent ruins, icy winds neighing in the
rimrock, a great homed owl cruising, silent as death.
—Rob Schultheis

[p.127]Like mangroves in a lagoon, rounded junipers spot the uplands of Cedar Mesa where blue-gray sagebrush floods the broad drainages. As it takes flight, a flock of mountain bluebirds flashes azure feathers. Purple vetch and dwarf red paintbrush are already blooming, and bright spring grass rings a dormant anthill. Lovely as it is, this mesa doesn’t hint at the spectacular canyons that incise it, hundreds of feet below.

There, where snow clings to the north-facing walls of Bullet Canyon, ice still rings the shaded pools. Bleached beeplant stalks bristle along the stream. Except for a single fly basking on a protected boulder, the insects remain inactive [p.128] here. An Anasazi watchtower reminds John and me that we’re entering the Grand Gulch canyon system, one of the glories of southern Utah and one of the world’s great archaeological areas. In fact, we’re hiking where Richard Weatherill, the early cowboy digger, built a stock trail before the turn of the century.

It’s mid-March, so we’re descending into spring. After hibernation in a crevice, a mourning cloak butterfly warms itself on a rock, velvet wings quivering, legs stretching back to life. It feebly flutters into the sunshine where it rests, slowly fanning its chocolate-brown wings until the warmth gets its juices flowing. Soon it whuffs by my face and lights on a yellow pussy willow. When another mourning cloak dances by, the pair pirouette skyward into the deep-blue sky.

John and I stride down a giant chute where the canyon bottom rounds into slickrock walls, shelves, and bowls while the horizon narrows. These colorful walls are Cedar Mesa sandstone about 250 million years old that runs from four to twelve hundred feet thick. As early geologist Herbert E. Gregory observes, classic Southwest sandstones differ: “cross-bedding in the Cedar Mesa seems neither so prominent nor so uniform as that in the Coconino and resembles little the great curves of the Navajo.”

Though this bedrock weathers into slabs that make fine footholds, with such heavy packs we zigzag and lean inward toward the walls. We lower ourselves into a bowl, toes groping for footholds. While John wonders how he’ll climb back up these drops, I ponder what this narrow trench is like after a cloudburst.

As though to welcome back admirers, the canyon regales us with the melodious call of a rufous-sided towhee with a black head, white markings, and a brick breast. Throat bulg-[p.129]ing, he sings a melodious “drink your teeeee” (popularly rendered as “towhee”) to attract a female. In the meantime his song signals “no trespassing” to other males that might enter his territory. As he forages through last years’ leaves, he hops backward noisily, his red eyes alert for anything that crawls.

Beneath the flume stand Fremont cottonwoods scarred by flash floods. These cottonwoods commemorate John C. Fremont, the early explorer and botanist who camped in their welcome shade. Trees that grow here absorb seasonal beatings from flash floods, which usually occur in August. With their deeply furrowed bark to minimize the wounds that can lead to infestation by insects, cottonwoods can take these hard knocks. One twisted trunk stretches across the sand like a fallen log, then rises into a tree whose knobby twigs end in swollen buds. After it got knocked down, this scarred survivor got back up, alive and ready to grow.

Its deep greens set against the buff sand, an inconspicuous chimaya blooms nearby. A member of the carrot family, the chimaya sprouts clusters of golden flowers above its fleecy fronds. This and other early spring plants spread mats of dark foliage just above the ground to pick up reflected sunlight and lingering heat. Above us, on a talus slope, a round-leaf buffaloberry unfolds its pale-yellow buds. Farther up, other buffaloberry bushes silver the steep slopes. A plant unique to the Colorado Plateau, the buffaloberry derives its unusual silvery quality from tiny stalked hairs that, under magnification, resemble the dried tops of Queen Anne’s lace.

Since chimaya, buffaloberry, bladderpod, wallflower, and other early bloomers sport yellow flowers, they indicate that insects which pollinate spring flowers are attracted to yellow. Many of these are flies, which are essential early spring polli-[p.130]nators. Hummingbirds, which are drawn to red blooms, don’t arrive until bugle-shaped flowers suck as scarlet gilia and penstemon bloom in May or June.

Beneath a slab of sandstone crawls a bumblebee in its brown pupal case. This dormant bee feels cool but soon warms to life in my hand, where it feebly stirs its crude claw-like legs. Once back in the cold sand, however, it attempts to dig back in. There’s no rushing growth; this bumblebee needs more time and more warmth to mature. Later on it will become a cinnamon-colored adult fully an inch long, ready for flowers of all colors. As I carefully replace the slab over the insect, I consider that regard for living beings increases the esteem we feel for ourselves.

Further downcanyon, deeper into spring, a pool is full of life. As I peer in, a wolf spider streaks for cover. Water striders shoot across the pool, their feet denting the surface film and casting oval shadows on the sand and slime below. The Anasazi sometimes used images of striders to mark the center of petroglyphs, apparently because of their cross shape and affinity for water. The smaller beady-black whirligig beetles are more frenetic. In response to predators below and above the surface, they have evolved two pair of eyes, a nearly unique adaptation in the vast world of insects. Spiders, striders, and whirligig beetles all hibernate, so when spring comes they must feed and breed before these pools dry up, as they often do.

As the canyon widens, our eyes scan the walls for Perfect Kiva Ruin, abandoned centuries ago by the Anasazi and reconstructed recently by the Bureau of Land Management. A wall once enclosed this cliff dwelling, possibly to retain turkeys, dogs, or children. Below the kiva lies a midden heap resembling the caked feces of a pack-rat burrow. Since mid-[p.131]den heaps served as both trash dumps and burial grounds, they’ve often attracted diggers, legal and otherwise.

This is called Perfect Kiva Ruin because it was discovered with the kiva roof intact, which is remarkable because cattle have trampled so many sites. A ladder allows us to descend into the nether world, a place where Anasazi males communed with ghostly kachinas—and with the sacred earth. Shelves and storage holes large enough for a hand are indented into the wall. Rocks surround the fire pit, and the hole in its center represents the sipapu, the nave of the earth through which all life emerged. Blackened adobe masonry still coats the walls, probably because the ancient ones often burned their buildings when they abandoned them. After minutes of revery my mind drifts toward wonder.

Emerging from this subterranean sanctuary makes the canyon above look overexposed, surreal: I squint and rub my eyes as though waking into a world revealed. Did the Anasazi hold their religious ceremonies underground not only to engage the earth but also to emerge into a spiritualized realm of radiant light?

Above the kiva only one residential room remains, but it is well preserved, with its stone-and-mud masonry unbroken. Inside a T-shaped door, possibly designed to afford better entry for someone bearing a load, a shaft of light shoots through a smoke vent—an unusual feature. Outside, John located other relics: grooved boulders used to sharpen sticks, miniature corn cobs, bleached squash stems, twisted willow ties used to fasten branches for mud-and-wattle construction, and pieces of yucca fiber still wrapped around the turkey feathers that once lined blankets. To touch what the Anasazi made is to connect with them, to wonder how many fellow humans did this blanket warm? At a time when vandals have [p.132] scrawled obscenities into priceless petroglyphs, artifacts such as these speak well of previous visitors.

In fact, hikers are now helping to catch and prosecute backcountry vandals. In 1992 hikers observed a professor from Ricks College in Idaho who looked on as his sons scrawled their names on precious pictographs in Canyonlands National Park. Other hikers reported this to a ranger who apprehended father and sons. Later, according to the Federal Archaeology Report, the three faced felony charges and paid stiff fines. But crimes against rock art are hardly the only threat, for illegal pot hunting has been a weekend hobby in southeast Utah for a long time. In recent years it’s declined, partly because hikers now photograph thieves, but it still goes on.

Under the overhang a “yellow man” pictograph inscribes the buff sandstone and mud balls remain right where they stuck, over seven centuries ago. Perhaps mischievous children threw these balls when the masonry mud was still wet. Or perhaps, like the one-inch sandstone balls nearby that were used for hunting or for games, adults threw them in some more organized context. I heave a similar-sized rock as high as I can, watching it strike far below the highest mud balls. Did someone propel these balls with a stick? It’s well known that some Southwestern tribes used atlatls, or throwing sticks, to shoot projectiles with greater force.

After this immersion in prehistory, we camp in the next alcove. As I sprawl on the bedrock, deep breaths settle me into a bowl where my body flows like putty, filling the basin. These cemented grains of sand have stayed intact for over 200 million years and most will remain firm far beyond my lifetime. In relation to this rock, my life is as inconsequential as the grain of sand that breaks loose in a spring thaw. In Wind in the Rock Ann Zwinger speaks to a similar experience [p.133] with time: “I could sit here for eons and watch as these sandstone walls crumble, grain by grain, and fall to floor this dry wash…. The rock is ephemeral, the wind, eternal.” In this sandstone, however, I also see the ancient waves and winds frozen in time, with each ripple affirming a world where sand grains either blow in the winds or trickle in an hour glass.

Nearby Jailhouse Ruin takes its misleading name from sticks in windows probably intended to keep people out, not in. Like smoke holes, windows were relatively rare in Anasazi architecture. An inaccessible upper tier of rooms, plus the wall protecting them, were built well: their masonry is still solid. A long slit in this wall apparently shielded archers or served as a chute to roll rocks onto potential intruders. Farther along this ledge stands a “guardhouse” that looks up and down the canyon.

 While defensive sites do not necessarily imply hostilities, they do suggest that these Anasazi definitely paid attention to defense. Possibly because these were outposts—located “on point” relative to Grand Gulch—they required more protection. The close cultural similarities between, say, the Mesa Verde and Grand Gulch Anasazi may mislead us into concluding that there were few intratribal conflicts. To assume this would commit the mistake of thinking that because Mayan cities resembled one another closely, they did not fight each other. Security was clearly a factor in Anasazi life, though it’s not exactly clear why. One clue might lie with the clay figurines that anthropologist Sally Cole found here during stabilization. These exhibit a distinctly Fremont Indian style that could suggest forced incursions into Anasazi territory.

As the sun halos a lonely cloud with gold, it also gilds the rock ramparts. As we toast near our fire, shadows creep up the [p.134] canyon walls. Doves whir, seeming to send a warning. A few other birds cheep, then everything falls quiet except for the wind that whistles through the ruins.

Since one learns to filter out a lot in today’s world, it’s exhilarating to open all the senses. For minutes on end all is still. Suddenly a mouse rustles the leaves behind us. Immediately an owl hoots hoarsely, whooooo … whooooo, echoing from all directions at once. The mouse continues rustling, oblivious as it scratches for food. This mouse lives dangerously, for the uncanny hearing of long-eared owls enables them to hone in on mice, even those that scamper under the snow.

Many cultures have believed that owls embody souls in torment or other sinister tendencies. While the Greeks revered owls as symbols of victory and wisdom, they also regarded them as prophets of doom. Both the Greeks and Romans, believing that bad repels bad, tried to ward off evil with images of owls. Farmers in some cultures still hang a dead owl on a barn to scare off other birds. Owls are impressive to both eye and ear, especially at night, but as a result they’ve tended to become associated with a lot of fears and superstitions.

Moonlight now floods the rocks across the way. This is not the usual bluish moonlight since it glows slightly orange, tinted by the lingering twilight. Here, more perceptibly than in Grand Canyon, moon shadows retreat down the canyon wall. There, because the walls often remain a great distance away, it’s difficult to see moon shadows moving. Here, however, the walls rise right behind our campsite so we can watch planetary motion as rhythmic as the tides. At day’s end, sun shadows rise; after dark, moon shadows ebb.

As our fire dies down, we slide into our bags, shivering, [p.135] to wait for the moonrise above the rim. We place bets on when it will be. Five minutes, then ten. Still no moon. At last the sky silvers, silhouetting scattered trees on the mesa top. Finally a marble mound bulges from the slickrock: the full moon beams into our rapt faces. In the brilliant moonlight the circles the Anasazi painted stare at us like watchful eyes. Some archaeologists believe that these circles are sun and moon symbols used in solstice rituals, while others note that circles are prominent icons in cultures where the reverent whirl or dance in a circle. Native American writer Paula Gunn Allen indicates that her mother taught her how ‘‘‘Life is a circle, and everything has a place in it.’ That’s how I met the sacred loop.”

Nearby the moonlight animates three “dancing man” figures. We’re not the first visitors to sense strange energies near these ruins. The Navajo have long believed that the spirits of the Anasazi haunt these sites and have even tried to exorcise them by defacing petroglyphs. Earl Shumway, a notorious local pothunter, also tells strange tales. In an interview summarized by Robert S. McPherson in Sacred Land, Sacred View, Shumway recounts digging an Anasazi grave where a rattlesnake bit him: “He dreamed of ‘three long knives leaping out of the ground and stabbing him in the heart,’ which he associated with the body in the grave. He had uncovered an albino medicine man who had a ‘little pouch full of arrowheads and pouches of different smokes, herbs and pipes.’” Later a wall collapsed on Shumway. He returned a second time only to break his ankle, and a third time on crutches only to encounter a nest of giant red ants. Yet even this was not enough to deter Shumway.

Our breath now steams in the cold silver light. During the night I rejoice that we have down bags instead of turkey-[p.136]feather blankets. After a long night, the morning sun sparkles on the frost. The slush clogging our canteens needs melting before we can brew coffee. Like campers around a fire—no, like an amoeba engulfing its food—my body encircles the stove to absorb every calorie of heat. John inhales the steam from his coffee as he takes breakfast in his bag.

Freed from our back packs, today we’ll explore downcanyon. Hiking with only day packs and canteens, we set out for lower Grand Gulch. After dead ending in a thicket of willows and tamarisk, we retrace our route to the main trail. From higher ground, this tangle looks inviting: its pastel colors—pinks, oranges, browns, greens—blur together like an impressionist watercolor. Treading over the tracks of mice, pack rats, and other nocturnal critters, I feel like the first human in an untrodden desert garden.

More pictographs decorate the walls along our route. One roughly grooved panel presents two dominant figures with broad, perfectly flat shoulders, slightly tapered trapezoidal shields or bodies, and drooping hands and feet. Except for the absence of heads, these are typical of Basket maker Period “little men,” or anthropomorphs. These pictographs may represent gods. Polly Schaafsma, an authority on Utah rock art, suggests that these imposing figures “not only had ceremonial import but … were probably representations either of supernatural beings themselves or of shamans.” The Anasazi may have assumed these images to contain the spiritual force of the beings represented. The handprints that appear around the supernatural figures may have identified people who offered prayers to the divine beings.

Mystery certainly enhances the fascination of rock art. To interpret it, we try to approximate the beliefs of ancient cultures drastically different from ours. While this is probably [p.137] impossible for non-Indians, the Pueblo peoples of New Mexico and the Hopi of Arizona, both descended from the Anasazi, do offer some clues. Even these tribes, however, suffer from a cultural disconnection, and our limited understanding of rock art archetypes may contribute to our sense of having lost our way.

Nor are attempts to understand the Anasazi mere academic exercises. The “ancient alien ones” survived in the arid Southwest for centuries and evolved complex responses to this environment; their experience can teach us things. In many areas, for instance, they thrived until their wood cutting led to erosion that jeopardized their canyon-bottom farming areas or until their numbers had outgrown their fuel and food supplies. The Anasazi did not just disappear: erosion and overpopulation, exacerbated by the long drought of 1276-99, apparently coupled with disease and incursions by enemies to hasten their demise.

After reaching the confluence, we enter Grand Gulch. Here, where the canyon walls open to let in more sunshine, spring is more strongly under way. As we ply the brush, some catkins and pussy willows are yellow, others lavender or lime green. Black carpenter bees and small flies luxuriate in these fuzzy spring blooms. In one alcove the dark gray branches of large hackberry trees, their bark ruggedly ridged, feather subtly into a cliff in the shade. Boldly colorful as this canyon country is, it also exhibits shades of gray that would have thrilled master photographer Ansel Adams, the master of such subtle nuances.

A hairy woodpecker flies rhythmically, much like a kingfisher. It utters a “peek” as it spreads its wings to land on a cottonwood, then it hammers out several volleys, stopping to look around after each burst. Drumming serves the same [p.138] function for woodpeckers that singing does for most other birds: it attracts the opposite sex. We’re probably within this fellow’s territory, which woodpeckers often define between favorite perches. So we move on.

Enticed by a side canyon, we tread softly up a sandbank of soft spring grass. Reveling in its softness, I wonder how long this grass can last once the sun begins to blast this sandy soil; grasses in arid regions go to seed quickly and remain dormant through long droughts. In a thicket of box elders, withered leaves from last year slow the upsurge of the new growth. As I sit and ponder, orange-and-black box elder beetles that have hibernated under the dried leaves are crawling on my boot.

Life abounds beneath this leaf litter. As famed biologist E. O. Wilson suggests in Biophilia, a clod is not mere dirt. Beyond the innumerable micro-organisms, soil houses dozens of insects, mites, spiders, nematodes, and earthworms. The genetic data contained in one handful of humus would overflow a large library. Multiplied infinitely by all the handfuls of earth everywhere, all this information comprises the basis of ever-continuing evolution.

Like it or not, we’re connected to all this life. We share breath with plants, imbibe the same water as animals, and carry much of the same genetic makeup. Equally famous biologist Lewis Thomas remarks that “For all our elegance and eloquence as a species, for all our massive frontal lobes, for all our music, we have not progressed all that far from our microbial forebears. They are still with us. Or, to put it another way, we are part of them.”

Out of our insecurities or vain wishes to feel superior, we fear both cultural differences and the implacable otherness of nature. If we consider nature’s own purposes, which ultimately include our own, it becomes apparent that diversity is [p.139] crucial. Genetic differences allow each species to adapt, survive, and continue the flow of evolutionary change. From the viewpoint of ongoing life, of regulating the earth’s atmosphere and temperature, grasses are probably as important as humans. Poet Walt Whitman understood that sprouting leaves of grass imply rebirth, miracles, and interconnections. When I get up to leave, I find that I’ve left my imprint on the spring grass, and it has left wrinkles on me.

With hardly a sound, a magnificent red-tailed hawk swoops down the side canyon, utters high-pitched cries, and does a circle-eight before soaring away. Redtails are buteo hawks, raptors with heavy bodies and long, wide, deeply notched wings. With a wingspread often reaching three feet, thick wings with five “finger” feathers, and scalloped gray and cinnamon plumage, these are truly impressive birds. This hawk is screaming at us, the latest intruders in its hunting territory.

In this side canyon we walk barefoot through new grass and sunbathe fully—two rites of spring. The sun’s rays throb on my closed eyelids, spawning catsup-colored dots. A curious bee fans my face, momentarily blowing away the warmth from the sun. As John rests, I slip away to explore barefoot, amazed at the varied temperatures of the moist sand. I hone in on the hum that animates a huge old cottonwood literally crawling with honeybees. Carried through another winter by their honey, these harbingers of spring pursue their comings and goings through the vibrant air. Twigs quiver as the bees suck. This male cottonwood is dropping sticky bud bracts to unfold maroon, pollen-rich catkins that resemble kernels of Indian corn.

Nearby this great tree of life a brook heralds an enticing side canyon that snakes away from Grand Gulch. This drain-[p.140]age soon narrows down as smooth walls rise hundreds of feet overhead, curling in and out of drainages. After meandering about a mile, it ends in a pool below a drip. I feel like the only human alive.

A small ruin up the cliff begs for exploration. But how to get there? There are no footholds in the rock, no makeshift ladders left by other explorers. Ignoring my weak ankle, I look for shelves to approach the ruin by sliding along the rock face, toes on a narrow ledge. A juniper tree, its loose and stringy bark offering little assurance, enables me to reach the first ledge. As I stand up slowly, fingers groping for grips, I wonder whether this ledge is wide enough to sidestep my way toward the ruin. This looks possible, at least to where the cliff curves out of sight. The rock face sandpapers my knees when the cliff gets steeper.

As my hands perspire, they pick up loose sand that hardly helps me grip the rock. One at a time, ever so slowly, I wipe them in my hair. After thirty-five feet of toeing along the ledge, face against the cliff, I can’t go on; it’s just too sheer. O.K. I could return along the ledge, but if I’m going to have to jump anyway, why not jump from here and spare myself having to cling on the way back?

No, that would be a stupid thing to do. This is the first serious hike since my accident. Last spring I got exuberant, pranced on some boulders, and tried to bounce off one that wobbled, spun, and dropped me down. My badly crushed ankle kept me hobbling all summer. If I mess up here, I might do permanent damage. And John might not locate me for days. This is no place to play desert bighorn and jump off a cliff.

How to turn around? Since my canteen won’t fit between me and the rock, I toss it down, swivel very carefully, [p.141] and spider down with hands and feet gripping. My good ankle will have to absorb the impact. Skidding slows me down, but I still hit the sand hard and stumble into a yucca blade that punctures my calf. The blood drips down my leg but soon coagulates. Luckily my weak ankle feels no worse.

Before I can compose myself, however, a block of sandstone drops with a hollow thud. Broken slabs grate down the talus slope, sounding like crushed bones. Dust drifts into the grainy beams of sunlight. Strange. Why would this happen now? It’s nowhere near as hot nor as cold as these rocks get, so contraction should not be the cause. I might suspect the spirits of the Anasazi whose home I’d tried to visit but my mind doesn’t accept supernatural causes—at least not in daylight.

Rock falls seem fast and infrequent, but they actually represent the cumulative effects of unseen minute changes. “So slowly, oh, so slowly have the great changes been brought about,” concluded naturalist John Burroughs: “One summer day … a section of stone wall opposite me . . . suddenly fell down…. It was the sudden summing up of a half century or more of atomic changes in the wall. A grain or two yielded to the pressure of long years, and gravity did the rest.” And so it goes with human change as well; after a long, dark winter of discontent, of changes too small to notice, warmth returns and people burst into bloom.

John and I return to Bullet Canyon, enthralled by the glowing colors. Past the confluence, a wall of spires like those in the Needles District of Canyonlands thrusts toward the sky. Two rounded rocks resembling geodes cap the top layer of creamy sandstone. Back at our campsite, the painted eyes watch us from a distance.

More fuzzy contrails stripe the sky. Why are there so many jet trails in this area? When the military continues to [p.142] commandeer still more airspace in the West, it often channels commercial flights down narrow flyways. In fact, so much of Nevada’s air space is restricted to military aircraft—Nellis Air Force Base is larger than any National Park—that civilian planes often must zigzag across the Great Basin. Given the military superiority it already exhibits, why does this country play expensive, consumptive, and destructive war games? Regardless of which machines intrude on our experiences in nature, their disturbance isn’t just momentary. They remind us of the security-hungry society we’d hoped to forget, diminishing our awakening consciousness of life’s interconnectedness, of wilderness still beyond industrialism.

Tonight will feature neither a sunset nor a moonrise, for the glare from overcast skies grays the rocks. As purplish rings encircle the moon, we retreat to our bags. John reads a Tony Hillerman mystery, while I scribble notes in my journal, switching from elbow to elbow until they both ache.

After a night of damp cold, gray dawn seeps into our tent. Soon an insistent pitter-patter sounds the alarm. I pull my bag over my head in hopes that the rain will go away; instead it begins to freeze and bows in our tent. We’ll have to face the weather before we get snowed in. We pull on heavy clothes and eat quickly, huddled in our sagging shelter. Then we plunge into the storm. Wind and rain now chasten my exposed back as I hurriedly roll up the nylon, sand and sticks and all.

We ready ourselves for a long hike out. From beneath these rain hoods we won’t take in the scenery; we’ll see our boots today. Once underway I watch the stones underfoot, their colors intensified by the rain. For the first mile or so I feel deprived of sights beyond the drops on my visor, beyond the streaks of the rain. I feel alone, encapsulated in plastic, [p.143] although John hikes only ten feet away. With visibility reduced, we lose the trail often and mumble irritably. No familiar landmarks indicate that we’re making headway; we can’t even tell if we’re in the right canyon. My weak ankle wobbles, raising doubts throughout a moody, meditative morning that descends into self-pity.

As the rain becomes sleet, my mind turns inward. First I try to become the pain in my ankle, then I focus on the pleasures of movement. Boots and jeans already soaked, I splash through the cold puddles like a drenched schoolboy. Later on shivers of joy accompany a sense of cozy self-containment as the sleet splats on my raincoat. Without mental guidance from above, the physical me climbs over slippery rock, stays balanced, and ignores the pain. Mind and body approach unity, though mind stays ready to attend to the body’s calls for concentration. The present prevails as the cadences of my steps and my breaths coalesce, three footfalls per inhalation, three per exhalation. Sharp cold air in, soft warm air out. Now beyond self-pity, I generate a glow affirming that, yes, I’m happy to hike here, rain or shine, fully alive.

The slickrock, especially in the chute, has become very slick indeed. The runoff spouts from the rimrocks, splattering into plunge basins like a pitcher pours watermelon juice into a bowl. As John picks his way up the rock steps, I wonder what his rainy day has felt like. We trudge on, legs shaky from the cold and the strain, my ankle now rolling. The Anasazi guard tower appears through the sleet. “Not much farther, we’re almost there,” I pant. Finally there’s the break in the wall. I climb out on all fours so as not to slip on the slush. At last, the mesa rim.

We hug in celebration—raincoats, wet packs, cold hands, and all. I pull back my hood and take snow in the face to see [p.144] all around. Winter’s back big time. Clusters of winged crystals frost the junipers whose bare branches protest against the snowy sky and bend under the weight, their shriveled berries never having appeared so gray. Cedar Mesa doesn’t look like this every day.

Although my VW van whines and coughs and chugs, it finally does start. The heater, however, doesn’t kick in until forty miles later, just as we arrive in Blanding. We’re looking for a cheap motel but we can’t pass up food. Any well-heated restaurant will do. With mud-caked jeans and matted hair, we look like drowned desert rats.

This place is very Utah, a decidedly white-bread state where copies of Dan Valentine’s American Essays often sit beside the napkin racks. Without so much as a glance at the menu, we order the large country-fried steaks. Before we can hit the salad bar, though, we find that this is where the guys bring their gals for a pre-prom dinner. While we tear into our grub, boys fiddle with their cufflinks and girls adjust their corsages. We try to keep our muddy jeans under the table, aware that we probably detract from the romantic atmosphere in other ways as well.

As John and I chow down, my mind wanders westward. Back in Bullet Canyon the butterflies have slipped into a crack, the bees are fanning their wings against the cold, and those cottonwood catkins are holding on against the wind. Beneath the faces on the wall, the spring snow is falling gently on early yellow flowers and on a hunched hawk, now too wet to extend a feather. As the owl hoots, mice freeze and rabbits shiver. Silences follow before the owl flaps into the flake-filled air. Often we expect spring to arrive with no wintry “relapses,” but springtime in the Southwest comes in ebbs and flows.

Birds Raining from the Sky

[p.145]Eared grebes in their fresh gray and white winter plumage were flying at night. On their migration from the Great Salt Lake to Baja California, these red-eyed diving birds began thudding down through the fog and snow onto roofs and windshields. Apparently attracted by asphalt that glistened like water, the survivors proved helpless because grebes can’t take flight from land. Benefactors in the Utah town of Beaver boxed them up and released them on lakes, but half of the grebes died soon afterward. Nor is this the first such incident. Storms forced down mass-migrating birds in December 1928 as well.

Fortunately, nature provides for such losses. To allow some of their chicks to survive, grebes lay so many eggs that they oversupply predators. Evolution could not, however, anticipate the human disturbances that have caused eared grebes to decline. About one million, over half of the world population, fly south from the Great Salt Lake each fall. But winter habitat has become a problem. Because of over-appropriation of the Colorado River, water levels have dropped drastically. Concentrated in these dwindling backwaters, toxic chemicals from agricultural runoff have affected birds by the hundreds of thousands. According to the Fish and Wildlife Service, such toxins don’t kill birds outright but instead weaken their immune systems, which leaves them vulnerable and eventually reduces their ability to breed. Hatchlings often exhibit grotesque deformities. Did poison-induced diseases weaken these grebes, making them more desperate for shelter?

[p.146]While the Great Basin west of the Colorado Plateau still ranks among the continent’s great flyways, bird populations are dropping for other species as well. As Terry Tempest Williams wonders in Refuge, how can we protect threatened waterfowl? The Western Hemisphere Shorebird Reserve Network has identified Bear River Migratory Bird Refuge and Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge as crucial habitats, which they certainly are. While these wetlands do provide stopovers for water birds, they aren’t entirely safe havens; one of them experiences destructive fluctuations in water levels and the other abuts a bombing range and a proving ground for chemical weapons. Because synthetic reservoirs store water but often don’t offer essential food-rich habitats for birds, preserving the salty, temporary lakes of the Great Basin is crucial for many birds’ survival. In rainy years, at least, invertebrates such as tadpole shrimp proliferate in these “playas.” When the playas are full, a feast fuels the birds for their strenuous journeys.

Especially in the arid Southwest, it’s essential to halt the destruction of the few remaining wetlands. Here more than elsewhere a missing link in the chain of splashdown spots can finish off a flock of hungry, tired, possibly weakened fliers. Given the excessive thirst of sprawling communities such as St. George and Las Vegas, saving wetlands will be difficult. Most Americans feel compassion when they see birds in trouble, but few understand that by the time birds lie stunned on the pavement, it’s often too late.