ON THE BANKS OF THE SAN JUAN -- Before there were wagon roads or cattle trails, the rivers were super highways for indigenous people. The San Juan was one. An enormous history of its early users is inscribed on a cliff face not far from our campsite, if only we could translate it.
Many of our fellow campers are travelers on the early Americans' water highway, river rafters setting out from Sand Island to explore what's left of Glen Canyon on the way to Lake Powell. A visitor from Oregon is fishing but catching nothing. It is a leisurely, lazy Fall day, even for the trout.
Higher up on Boulder Mountain, the aspen have already turned golden. Now, along the river, the cottonwoods are beginning to follow.
To me, the most striking petroglyph on the nearby cliff is the top to bottom squiggle depicting Comb Ridge, our destination for today. This saw-toothed, 80-mile-long, north-south monocline is one of the most dominant and mystical landmarks in the southwest.
As we study the terrain from an overlook on Butler Wash, an Arizona man and his two sons join us. "We want to climb to the top of the ridge," he tells us. "But it's been years since I've been here and I've forgotten the route across Butler Wash."
"I think there are several," I answer. "You just have to scout 'em out."
It is, I tell myself, a forgivable evasion. I know that we are not far from a long-ago campsite, from which we crossed the big wash to a slickrock plateau, which we traversed in the hope of finding one of the many ancient Anasazi ruins in this canyon-entwined wilderness. The Anasazi, whose cultural center was Chaco Canyon in New Mexico, were superb builders with rock, and many of their structures still stand not only at Chaco and Mesa Verde but in countless outposts in the canyons of southeast Utah, northeast Arizona, southwest Colorado and northwest New Mexico -- the Four Corners region.
Today we mean to explore our slickrock plateau in another direction, looking for side canyons that promise to divulge another ruin like the one whose discovery thrilled us many years ago. We don't want company; the stillness and serenity are the primary rewards of braving this rough country. (I'm still being defensive about my evasiveness with the Arizonan.)
Never mind. As we crest one escarpment, we can see for miles around us; the Arizonans' SUV is parking near our truck. They will find our "secret" route across the wash, and make way for the ridge. Their path will be far enough south of ours to preserve our tranquility. It's a big place. I hope they reach the top of the ridge. It would be a fine experience for a man and his two sons.
We find a promising side canyon. During a water and trail-mix break, we study it through the binoculars. We think we see a ruin in an alcove half a mile up-canyon. Even with the binoculars, we can't be certain. Natural rock and the shadows of the Autumn-angled sun can deceive you into thinking you're seeing a ruin, because you so want to see one. We'll explore further another time.
We haven't taken a GPS device on our little walk, so we can't record coordinates, but we mark the approximate site on a topo map. We'll come back another day and walk up this canyon from Butler Wash road. Perhaps we'll be rewarded by finding a ruin. Perhaps not. There are other rewards for coming to this place, spiritual ones, if you will: you can feel the sacredness of its antiquity and its rugged beauty.
We will come back another day. We must come back another day.