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Traversing the American Southwest

What insights emerge after spending 87 days living in the backcountry of the American southwest?

October 19, 2007

What insights emerge after spending 87 days living in the backcountry of the American southwest?

A century-and-a-half ago, a one-armed Civil War veteran by the name of John Wesley Powell led ten men in four boats to explore the unmapped wilderness of the American West.

At the time of Powell’s trip in 1869, the canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers were unnamed — and there was very little written about the people who lived in them.

In his book entitled “The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons,” John Wesley Powell tells the story of his 99-day voyage down treacherous whitewater rapids and through 1,500-feet-high vermillion-colored cliffs.

It is partly an adventure story but also a serious account of the people and environment he encountered in the American Southwest.

This past spring, I spent 87 days living in the backcountry of the American Southwest and the Rocky Mountains. While Powell’s expedition began in May at Green River City in Wyoming, mine began in February in Lander, Wyoming.

From there, our 15-person expedition spent 17 days exploring the Wind River Mountains on cross-country skis with 60-pound packs, holding everything we would need to stay reasonably comfortable — while learning backcountry survival and how to leave no environmental trace of our presence.

The experience made me agree with Powell’s view of the snows in the Wind River Range as “everlasting.” It also gave me a deep appreciation for the source of the water that anyone who spends any amount of time in the Southwest depends on for survival.

There are places in the Wind River Range where, even in June, the snow is more than 20 feet deep. It engulfs trees, boulders and cliffs that would otherwise be visible but for the perpetual snowfall, which often makes it very hard to see anything aside from snow and clouds.

These seemingly endless blizzards are the result of a melting pot of meteorology. Pacific warm fronts clash with Canadian cold fronts, high pressure systems with low pressure systems, wet cumulus clouds with bitterly arid north winds.

When this melting pot of meteorological activity collides with the tallest mountains of North America, you get this enormous dumping of snow throughout the Wind River Range and the Rocky Mountains, which ultimately feeds into the Green and Colorado rivers.

All this snow also made it possible for me and my group to sleep in make-shift igloos, which are hollowed out piles of snow called a “Quincy,” for the entire time we spent in the mountains.

In March, as the temperature began to warm in the Wind River Range, we followed the snow melt along the Green River from Wyoming to Utah, where we launched our boats at Vernal, a village of about 8,000 people, for the 135-mile trip through Desolation Canyon to Green River, Utah. During this 18-day expedition, we learned how to read rapids, rig boats and lead a group.

As Powell had documented in his book and we soon learned on our own, the environment in Southern Utah and Arizona is both varied and fragile. In the spring, temperatures range from below freezing to sweltering on any given day.

At one moment, the sun is pouring down on a brilliant red rock gorge. At another moment, the scenery has changed to broad green valleys and the weather to hail or a violent rain.

The rapids in the gorges can also be truly treacherous. Powell gave some of the worse ones names that have stuck to this day, including “Disaster Falls,” Triplet Falls” and “Hell’s Half Mile,” to name a few.

Despite this tough environment, the canyons have a rich history, as evidenced by the pictographs and petroglyphs along their walls. There were three prehistoric societies in the American Southwest — the Fremont in Central Utah, the Hohokam from southern Arizona and the Anasazi.

They lived in the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. All three cultivated the soil by irrigation and built canals to store water. While very little is known about the Fremont and the Hohokam, the cliff dwellings of the Anasazi have inspired a great deal of research.

We encountered their ruins mainly when we were rock climbing and hiking along the side canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers while trying to avoid flash floods.

The term Anasazi is a Navajo word that means “ancestral enemies.” Although the term offends the Hopi Indians, who are the direct descendents of the Anasazi, archaeologists have been using it since the 1920s.

It is easier to say than the term “ancient peoples,” which the Hopi prefer — and a better way to distinguish their culture from that of the Hohokam and the Fremont. The Anasazi flourished for about seven centuries, from about AD 600 to some time between 1150 and 1350.

Their cliff dwellings in the American Southwest are to the United States what the pyramids are to Egypt or the Stonehenge to the United Kingdom — the most captivating and studied ancient monuments the people of the United States have.

The question that consumes anyone who sees the remains of the Anasazi is, What happened to them? Why did they leave the river floors, move up to the cliffs and then abandon the cliff dwellings? What were they afraid of? Who was their enemy?

In his prize-winning 2004 book, “Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed,” Jared Diamond speculates that the immediate cause of their downfall was a drought that began in about 1130 AD.

Diamond makes a very convincing case that environmental degradation and climate change were at the root of the Anasazis’ crisis. However, his argument raises the question of whether the drought could have been overcome had the population been organized differently or less divided against itself.

Powell, for his part, believed that conflict played a decisive role in the collapse of the Anasazi. From his perspective, all the cliff dwellings were built and occupied for defensive purposes against the marauding Navajo.

It was they who ultimately caused the Anasazi civilization to fall apart — though not die out altogether, as many integrated into the modern Zuni and Hopi Indian societies.

With no written records, very little is known about the human hand that guided the Anasazis’ development and response to crisis. However, I tend to agree with the view that the only way to reasonably explain why the Anasazi moved off the canyon floors and into cliff dwellings, which are so far away from water and arable land, is that they were driven there by conflict.

Many of the cliff dwellings can only be reached by a kind of “hand-and-toe trail,” or line of shallow steps gouged in a precipice.

While the Anasazi were obviously excellent climbers, these trails are life threatening. Having climbed these cliffs with the aid of rock-climbing shoes, crampons and a nylon rope, I can appreciate what it required of them.

There is no evidence at any of the sites that the Anasazi used rope or ladders to reach their cliff dwellings. In short, as a climber, it is hard to imagine the Anasazi taking such risks if they were not trying to protect themselves against a force they considered more dangerous than the dangers inherent in living on the cliffs.