Saturday, March 26, 2016

Spring Break: Cedar Mesa Ruins

A structure in Step Canyon, one of the side canyons of Grand Gulch on its northwest side.
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We spent our spring break on Cedar Mesa (Utah) again this year, along with my sister, Kim, her husband T and son Ruess (named after Everett), my other sister’s son, Manny, and our Laramie friends, Dave Fay and Amy Fluet and their kids, Sam and Eliza. It was a big group, so we camped at Natural Bridges, but we left each day to explore a different canyon or site.

We don’t go to Cedar Mesa every year, but it’s one of my favorite places. Not only are the canyons beautiful, but they are full of the remains of thousands of years of human use. The last major occupation, not counting our group, ended suddenly around 1200 A.D. for reasons that remain unclear: drought or conflict are the most common explanations. It’s estimated that at least a half million people must be buried across the mesa, many near cliff dwellings that can still be visited, or associated with pit houses that are harder to find. Unfortunately, many (most?) of the sites have been ravaged by pot hunters, most infamously from Blanding, though certainly not exclusively so. I’ve never found an intact pot, though potsherds are everywhere.

I recently read Finders Keepers: A Tale of Archaeological Plunder and Obsession, by the Craig Childs, the long-time desert explorer and writer. Childs does an exceptional job of probing the tension between our urge to find and keep treasures (or more basely to sell them for financial gain) and the value of leaving sites and artifacts intact out of respect for their originators and for the enjoyment of those who will come exploring after us. “At this point,” Childs says in the book, “considering all that has been removed, it is worth leaving the last pieces where they lie.”

I think it is Childs (I’ve read several of his books on the SW) who speaks of living museums, places where he has found and left significant artifacts, mapped only in his memory.

I haven’t spent enough time on Cedar Mesa to join the ranks of those (there are more than a few) who know of secret sites and perhaps have their own living museums of intact artifacts, but I have poked my head into enough hidden alcoves, some obscure, to know that little has been left undisturbed. Cedar Mesa is a beautiful place, and too topographically complex for any one person to ever know completely, and that gives every canyon its own mystique.

An unusually large potsherd: Step Canyon

Bei in Step Canyon

Bei looking at potsherds washed downslope from a midden and ruin. Step Canyon.

Sam Fay levitating his sister, Eliza, at the trailhead for Collins Spring Canyon.

Random stuff in an old cowboy camp under an alcove in Collins Spring Canyon.

Bei, Eliza and T in the "Narrows" of Grand Gulch, just downstream of its junction with Collins Spring Canyon.

Kim and T hiking out to the Citadel Ruin, which is perched on a peninsula of sandstone high above Road Canyon.

The down-scramble to the Citadel approach.

Ellen just before the long rock bridge to the Citadel.

Lunch at the Citadel, with Sam Fay using his orange skin to illustrate the level of recent Presidential Primary debate. And from another time: Nixon's head is in the background.

The Citadel.

The Citadel ruin, from the approach.

Leaving the Citadel site by crossing the sandstone rib that leads to it.

Desert pothole near the Citadel.

Descending into McCloyd Canyon to visit the Moon House ruin.

Inside the front hallway of the Moon House. 

Kim emerging from the Moon House.

The painted hallway of the Moon House.

Cousins: Bei, Manny, and Ruess.  

A smaller ruin near the Moon House.

Ruins along the ledge to the right of the Moon House.

Family photo at the Moon House. Top L to R: T, Manny, Ruess. Bottom L to R: Ellen, Bei, Kim, me.

The Fluet-Fays at the Moon House: L to R: Amy, Sam, Eliza, Dave.

Hiking on the ledge below the Moon House.

Climbing back out of McCloyd Canyon.

Kim and her family put the rest of us to shame at mealtime. Here they cook pre-prepped Kielbasa, while the rest of us prepare our pitiful camping food. They were kind enough to share with those of us who crave meat.

A ruin in the Fishmouth Cave area along Comb Ridge, south of Hwy. 95.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Winter in Eastern Wyoming

Abandoned farmhouse and cows north of Manville, Wyoming. January 2016/
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In January, before classes and teaching started again, I drove from Laramie to Eastern Wyoming, spending the night in Lusk, where my friend, Doug Scambler, works for a couple of days every other week as a child psychologist, before circling back home via Guernsey the next morning. Doug generously shared his hotel room and the inside information that Lusk: population 1,567, has a pizza place, called The Pizza Place, with perhaps the best pizza in Wyoming, thanks to its pizza-savvy owners, transplants from Chicago.

I started the trip in early morning light, driving first through Sybille Canyon and then to Wheatland for less superlative food--a fast food burger--before heading north and then east to photograph the small towns of Shawnee, Lost Springs, and Manville along Highway 18. I arrived in Lusk with a little time to spare before meeting Doug for dinner.

Ten miles to the east, a dark cloud of smoke billowed up from the prairie, so I drove out to investigate. The smoke originated from a ranch, recently purchased by a rancher who, with his son, stopped to talk with me while I took some pictures (none great) of the evening light streaming through the smoke. His family had been in the area for generations, but he had purchased this place recently and was burning brush and old piles of junk that the previous owner had left behind he told me, shaking his head.

The conversation circled around to all of the abandoned farms in that part of Wyoming and the hardscrabble history of the place. He recommended a book called “TheChildren’s Blizzard,” about a sudden prairie storm in 1888 that killed hundreds of children trying to get home from school. I related my experience of seeing the impact of the flu of 1918 memorialized in rural cemeteries across Wyoming. He told me that during that flu, his grandmother had walked with his mother to a neighbor’s house to check on her, afraid to go in for fear of germs but shouting through to the open window to ask if she was alright. The neighbor replied that she was fine, but her child was dead. It’s hard to imagine that life could be so raw and desperate just 100 years ago, though I know that people today have their own struggles.

Chance encounters on road trips are often the most memorable and interesting, and I’m often surprised by how willing locals are to tell stories to strangers passing through. If I weren't such an introvert, I'd spend more time trying to seek out these encounters. Instead, I take pictures of places where there are very few people.

Old boxcars south of Bosler, Wyoming, with the Laramie Range in the background.

Piles of dirt along the Union Pacific Railroad.

Fallow field, Sybille Canyon.

Shawnee, Wyoming: Established in 1887 and now nearly abandoned.

Lost Springs!

The Lost Bar in Lost Springs.

Lost Springs, settled in the 1880s and named for a spring that nobody could find was originally a railroad town with 200 residents.  In the 2010 census, it's population was 4 (Wikipedia).

Classic architecture in Lusk, Wyoming.

Lusk is named for a cattleman named Frank Lusk, who established a ranch in the area in 1880 when Colorado got too crowded for him. He had contemplated moving farther east in Colorado towards the Nebraska line, but on an earlier trip had been impressed with the people living in Wyoming, so he decided to go there instead (Wikipedia). 

A shed in Lusk. A catastrophic flood damaged Lusk in June 2015, and perhaps is responsible for this end of the shed being bowed in.

Flood damage, Lusk.

Flood damage and bathtub rings, Lusk.

House and barns, Jay Em, Wyoming

Jay Em was originally a watering hole along the Texas Trail, and the town was established between 1912 and 1915 to support ranchers in the area. It's named after a ranch called the J Rolling M, owned by Jim Moore and established in the late 1800s (Wikipedia).

Garage, Jay Em.

Railyard, Guernsey, Wyoming.