Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part One

As often happens, this offering of field notes runs long–so long I’ve broken it into parts.  Even more of interest to me than usual unfolded during this trip to Crossfire Canyon (not the canyon’s real name).  Because of the nature of this experience, some of the material leans toward the technological, so many thanks in advance to those who read the series all the way through.

In the planetary equivalent of a full house, a total lunar eclipse late on December 20th combined with the arrival of the 2010 winter solstice on the 21st to lay down a winning cosmic hand.  My family and I watched part of Earth’s occulting of the moon.  It was like seeing the moon speed through its full set of phases, waning then waxing in a few hours instead of a month’s time, with the “dark phase” played by the moon wearing a smoky red vizard. Except we didn’t make it to that climactic red phase.  When the shadow-serpent had swallowed two-thirds of the egg, clouds from a drenching storm out of the Pacific that had discombobulated parts of California rolled into southern Utah and eclipsed the eclipse.

Solstice morning I slipped out of bed, leaving my disabled daughter, over whose rest I keep close watch all night, sleeping soundly.  Sometimes she suffers choking fits, or her limbs become tangled and she can’t stretch them out.  Sometimes she suffers other difficulties that require attention.  If all goes well through the night, I take the chance and leave the house during the morning hours when she’s still sleeping.  This day seemed a good bet, so I went through my usual warm-up routine and set out for Crossfire Canyon.

Rain had let up but the storm system still prowled close by.  I guessed I had a few hours before it pounced again, and I had purpose.  I was on a haiku hunt, hoping to come into conjunction with an arrangement of rain-glazed oak leaves, some trick of light or bend in perspective–I was searching for any chance to fall into alignment with canyon particulars igniting insight that I could work into seventeen syllables. If I found and faceted to my satisfaction a jewel of connectivity, I meant to post it on WIZ to mark the year’s shortest span of daylight in this hemisphere—about nine and a quarter hours’ worth, depending on where you live.  You might have suffered sunrise later than average, courtesy of a mountain range close on your eastern flank, or an early sunset due to the same to your west. Or both, like Moab does, the narrowly set sandstone walls east and west of town stubbing the day down further.  I live on an open mesa, no mountains east or west for sixty miles or more either direction, only a low morning-side horizon trimmed in junipers that the sun crests abruptly, and a long, flat mesa to the west that daylight takes its sweet time fading below.

As I walked toward Crossfire’s trailhead, a car tagged with government plates and heading in the same direction passed by.  It crossed the cattle guard at the end of the road, drove onto BLM land, and parked at the trailhead.  The driver sat in the car shuffling papers as I approached, and we waved to each other as I dropped over the edge onto Coyote Way (for this name, see here and here) and descended the trail into the canyon.  Last night’s eclipsing rain had damped down the dust; footing was good if a little shifty in places.  Humidity-fluffed soils pillowed my steps comfortably, even during short, downhill bounds.

When I reached the canyon’s bottom I found that cattle had harrowed the trail.  All that weight on the hoof had churned into a choppy, puddle-pitted mess the ATV track that the canyon has been busily re-absorbing.  A horse’s hoof prints mixed with the cows’ cloven prints, and I guessed that a rider had moved his herd down canyon.  The air around the trail, usually scented this time of year with tinctures of sage (especially after rain), rabbit brush, decaying leaves, or other notes of native odor had turned gamy from the effluvium of manure and bovine musk.  I turned south, thinking I might travel outside of my usual route and walk down canyon a piece.  But the way proved messy and foul, too much work for too little pleasure.  A better haikuist would no doubt have transcended the miasma or found in cattle droppings seventeen rubies and emeralds of truth and beauty. That day, I saw only dung and mud.  After months of helping my family hold it together in the wake of my husband’s stroke, my tired mind wanted low-hanging fruits of beauty within easy reach.  Disappointed, I slid, sank, pulled my feet out of sucking mud, and turned back the way I’d come.  As I paused at one of my usual stops above Crossfire Creek to listen to the ice-free and energetic waterway chatter around the beaver dams, I turned to see the driver of the government-fleet car walking toward me.

I greeted him and asked, “What agency are you with?”  “BLM,” he said.  I offered my name, he gave his. He asked a question the observant pose when they come across me in the canyon—how did I get down there?  He had used the now-closed-to-vehicles trail that almost everyone takes into the canyon and hadn’t seen my tracks, yet there I was.  “Did you come down through there?” he asked, pointing to the way I had in fact taken.  The quickness with which his eye had singled out the wrinkle of a trail on the canyon’s flank unsettled me.  “There are lots of ways into the canyon on the west side,” I answered evasively.  “Not so many coming down from the east rim.”

He was persistent.  “Is there a cattle trail through there?” he asked, indicating my route again.  Because I hike alone and enter the canyon by a lesser-known track, itself something of a local secret, I dislike letting on where I go and how I get there and told him so.  “Okay,” he said, grasping the situation.  “I’m an archaeologist,” and he explained that he was looking for historic cattle trails in the canyon, so on and so forth.

“Oh! In that case, yes, there’s a trail through there,” I said.  Knowing the man was an archaeologist loosened my tongue, because over the years I’ve hung out with enough archaeologists to know that, generally, they hold information about cultural and natural features close to their chests.  We spoke briefly of other archaeologists we both knew, providing each other social and professional contexts.  I’m not an archaeologist, but I’ve enjoyed their company tremendously over the years and worked with good crews on prehistoric sites and a couple of historic ones.  We chatted about the trail, then I asked why he was in the canyon that day.  He’d come to locate some rock art sites to compare their current condition to documentation that previous site surveyors had produced.

“Ooo, rock art!” I said.  I’d searched for rock art in the canyon and found very little.  “Cool!  Would you mind if I …” I pantomimed my hope that he’d let me tag along.  He thought for a moment then said it would be all right.  He only asked that I …

“… don’t tell anyone.  I know.  I won’t,” I said.  My promise not to reveal the location of the rock art panels is the usual verbal agreement a person enters into with his or her guide to vulnerable sights in the backrocks.  At my assurance, we set off tramping up-slope toward an Ancestral Puebloan ruin I knew of on the bench above the creek.  The archaeologist said that the rock art was composed of knife-sharpening grooves.  “I know what they are and I’ve seen them, but I haven’t the eye to pick them out,” I said.  This seemed like a perfect chance to learn something new.  I find learning something new even more toothsome than those low-hanging fruits of beauty that sometimes offer themselves to hand.  But both together—fountain of youth stuff, the bliss of beauty and the wow-wee of discovery that sustains eternal jeunesse in an unhardened human mind.

Read part two here.

6 thoughts on “Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part One”

  1. I love the way the distaste with fresh signs of a recent cattle drive is followed by delight with a person who studies signs of ancient cattle drives.

  2. What can I say? I’m easy.

    But I guarantee that if he’d been a cow my reception would have been consistent with my initial distaste. (“Distaste”? Ick.)

    I cut from the piece my chat with the BLM guy about whether or not the trail I use into the canyon is a cattle trail. I told him it might be a cattle trail–it’s worn deeply in places from long years of some kind of consistent foot use and from water runoff. But it’s steep here and there and unstable along at least one section, and over the five years I’ve used it I’ve seen signs of only a couple or three cows bothering to use it to reach the mesa top.

    However, I’d heard tell of a historic trail that Ute Indians following the canyon used to reach the ranch of the Mormon settler who owned most of the ground directly above. Some wonder if this might be that trail.

  3. Sounds like a beautiful walk. I liked the picture of the after-effects of the rainstorm, walking in a canyon. And I know what you mean by trying to find “haikus.”

  4. Maybe you’ll have some haiku to offer next time we run a WIZ haiku chain.

    If I remember right, last February we did a dish washing haiku chain. I’ll see if I can come up with something equally off-the-beaten haiku trail for this winter.

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