Preserving Our Past to Warn of the Future: A Reunion with Spirit House

I'm currently hiking and camping in New Mexico and Utah, which explains this off-topic post. I'll continue to cover big news when I'm able to access email, and will also upload and time-phase these entries for posting when I come into town for gas and supplies. To find more of this type of writing based on past trips, look to the folder link at left titled Not Here but There: A Wilderness Journal.
I hadn't thought about it before I reached Utah, but once I neared the border I knew where I wanted to hike first when I arrived.  Six years ago, I took a month-long, solo cross-country trip to hike and write in the Southwest. Then, as now, what I wanted to see most was Spirit House.
There are thousands of ruins spread across the Southwest, each of them interesting and all of them extremely delicate. The greatest number of the most dramatic, like Mesa Verde in Colorado, are protected through heavy supervision. Others, like Walnut Canyon, in Arizona, can only be viewed from nearby walkways. Some, like Canyon de Chelle, are located in the middle of Native American reservations. Canyon de Chelle, perhaps the most spectacular of these, may only be viewed by car from afar, unless accompanied on foot by a guide. 
But the great majority of Native American ruins, including the hundreds of cliff dwellings in the Four Corners region, have no such effective protection. Happily, some of these sites are noted on topographical maps, most are sufficiently remote and (in the case of cliff dwellings) often hard to reach without technical climbing skills as well. That hasn't saved them from being picked clean long ago of all of their artifacts, but those activities have for the most part left their fabric largely intact. With the very small budgets of their nominal protecting agencies (the staff of the national parks, national forests, and the Bureau of Land Management), the most that can be done to protect them against further destruction is to avoid publicizing their locations, and hope for the best. 

Given that many truly spectacular ruins are available to general public viewing, it’s a pragmatic solution, so long as the true gems don’t become too well known.   And Spirit House is one of those gems. Until comparatively recently, few knew of its special charms, let alone exactly where it was located. And anyone in the know who was curious to see it first hand had to be willing to go to some effort to do so.
Then, two things changed. First, a jeep track was cut from the nearest dirt road almost to the edge of the canyon in which Spirit House is located. Ironically, it was cut for the convenience of archaeologists. And second, a book about Anasazi ruins was published that not only eulogized Spirit House, but referred to it by its real name – which, by the way, "Spirit House" is not. For the most part, the author had shown pretty good discretion throughout the book. Those ruins that were already easily found on available maps he discussed freely. Those that he visited on reservations he neither named nor located geographically. 
But for some reason, he "outed" Spirit House by name, if not by location – quite. The result was that it passed from a hidden treasure known to only a few to a challenge to find – a "must see" ruin for people, like me, that bought the book because they have a serious interest in ancient places, and don’t mind going to some trouble to visit them.
It didn’t take me too much trouble to find out where Spirit House was located, once I arrived in Utah. The author claimed to have stumbled on it while ascending a canyon searching for ruins, but I doubt that’s true. He was gathering material for his book, and had obviously done his homework first to learn where to look, and what was worth seeing. I expect that he was mostly trying to heighten the drama a bit in the telling, or to make the ruin seem even more remote than it is, and hence more exotic. By claiming to have discovered the ruin unexpectedly, I suppose he hoped to make the account of his visit one of the high points of his book (which it is). 
With the advent of the Web since then, the cat is definitively out of the bag. I just did a Google search of "Spirit House" ruin OR "cliff dwelling" and would guess about 70 of the 1,140 hits refer to Spirit House. Many have driving and hiking directions, and one is a video at youtube, adding latitude and longitude coordinates as well, inviting visitors to zoom in using Google Earth. The author of the highest ranked Google hit describes how s/he first learned of Spirit House by word of mouth, and how difficult it was to find out from rangers and other protective staff how to find it. S/he goes on to describe how wonderful Spirit House is – and to give detailed directions on how to get there as well. 
Why all the interest in this one site? As cliff dwellings go, Spirit House is hardly the largest, nor the grandest, nor the most dramatically situated. With 49 rooms spread along a quarter mile of ledge in a pleasingly sinuous, but otherwise unremarkable canyon, it is for the most part typical of the hundreds of other ruins scattered throughout the Four Corners area. And yet it remains perhaps the best loved, if not the best kept secret, among Anasazi ruins.
Despite its notoriety, Spirit House still has a few things working in its favor. It is far from any major city, and not very near to the closest minor one, either. And the nearest town with any significant tourist traffic is Moab, more than 150 miles away. Even with the increased ease of access that the recently added road provides, it’s still a long drive on paved roads, and then another long and bumpy stretch on an intermittently dirt and slickrock jeep track. That last leg is impassable after a good rain, and under the best of conditions requires a high clearance vehicle and the patience to creep slowly over many parts of the route.
When I was first at the end of this long road, I saw that the Bureau of Land Management had posted a sign at this point saying, in so many words, "OK, you found it. For a long time we didn’t acknowledge it at all, but since you’re here, we want to make a plea to you. Please be gentle. Don’t touch anything. Please don’t walk on the walls or take anything. This is a very special and fragile place." Now that sign is gone. Presumably the BLM’s strategy now reflects the (reasonable) idea that the less said the better. There are, after all, other dead end roads in southern Utah, so why confirm that this is the right one?
But for those that do make it to the end of the right road, it’s a short hike to a modestly deep canyon (the topographic maps says 500 feet from top to bottom; I’d say 350) that twists in a tight "S" shape just there, disappearing quickly in either direction. At the canyon’s bottom, there are cottonwoods and often intermittent pools of water; on the sides, there are long lines of exposed limestone and sandstone strata, with pinyon pine, juniper and smaller stuff exploiting the available cracks and fissures to eke out a tenuous existence. If you hike up and down the canyon to see additional ruins, as I did during my first visit, you can travel only a mile or two in either direction before encountering tall "pour overs" that will call your progress to a halt, unless you’ve brought climbing equipment. In short, you will need to exit the way you came.
It’s not far to Spirit House from the canyon’s rim, as the raven flies. But takes about a half hour to thread the way down the mostly slickrock chute that leads to the bottom of the canyon, and then to climb half way back up on the far side, slightly up canyon, and just around the bend. There’s no trail as such, but since I was last here visitors have placed more small rock cairns indicating the easiest route down. Following the cairns, it’s short of a technical climb, and for someone that’s fit, has solid boots and takes their, all will be fine. For someone out of shape, the 700 feet of total altitude change there and back again and the altitude may be more challenging.
Part way down, the easiest route takes a visitor around the bend up canyon. Then, suddenly, the main part of Spirit House can be seen almost directly across the canyon, and at about the same height.
What makes Spirit House so special is the sum of several subtle elements. Those elements together exemplify all that we find fascinating about the ancient people that, for a few hundred years, inhabited this austere landscape and lived a hard and provocative life before moving on. This fascination arises not only from the clear evidence of their presence, but also from what we conjecture about them and, I think, from what of ourselves we project upon them as well. The real includes the romance of the harsh and dramatic settings in which these ruins are found, and the undeniability of the abandonment of these carefully constructed dwellings. The conjectures focus on why the ancient inhabitants left the warm, secure, accessible pit houses on the rims of the same mesas, and moved to these often almost unreachable ledges, leaving their food and water sources at distance. Equally, we can only guess why all of these new dwellings, spread over hundreds of square miles, were so uniformly and contemporaneously abandoned.
And then there are the projected elements. Many in the modern find evidence of traits in these ancient peoples that we yearn for in our own societies today: a greater environmental sensitivity, a sense of spirituality and unity with our surroundings, and a more effective sense of community. How many of these projected sensibilities are likely justified in fact I will leave to another day, but suffice it to say that at Spirit House, they all seem very real indeed. 
There is also the sense of danger and foreboding that many cliff houses seem to exude. It is hard to assume motivations other than fear that would lead to a move from rim top to high canyon alcoves and ledges, echoing a sense of vulnerability that is easy to identify with in our modern world.
All of this, and more, can be found at Spirit House, as well as many intriguing questions, all without answers. The prominent running "M" pictograph that stands proud over the main dwelling area seems to defiantly proclaim the identity of those that lived there. But at the same time, the uncharacteristic wall that shields the corridor behind is pierced by multiple loopholes – each directed at a different part of the entire visible canyon, allowing vigilance without exposure. What real or imagined enemies inspired the fears that raised that otherwise useless wall?
And then there is the (again unusual) enigmatic stripe motif that pervades the cliff dwelling, vaguely disturbing, with its attached triangles, and parallel lines of dots. That design reappears throughout the main dwelling area, and the small, white dots reappear as chinked bits of light colored stones above doorways elsewhere. What artist conceived that pattern, and what did it indicate to those that lived there? To what do its symbols relate? A hoped-for unity with protecting spirits? Or is it merely artistic expression? 
There is also the discernible personality of those that lived here almost 800 years ago, displayed in their varying styles of workmanship. Those who built the main dwelling area display both superb craftsmanship as well as unconstrained creativity. The walls they built flow in expeditious curves, exploiting all available space and combining organically with the living stone that embraces them, resulting in an overall design that would have pleased a Bauhaus architect. And the pictographs weave the whole into one. 
But hundreds of yards away and around the bend of the canyon, there are more rooms – storage rooms, perhaps (they have no doors, as such) built on the same, long ledge. Five of these rooms were built by what looks to have been by the same, very regimented mason. The walls are plumb and their fronts are straight, and the windows all align. The straight joints marking the intersections of the rooms reveal that one was built, then another, and yet another, and at last (or at first) two more at the same time. There are no wall paintings, and only a line of small white stones above a single window grudgingly carry over the motif of the rooms built by the less constrained and more inspired craftsman who created the parts of Spirit House that make it memorable. 
Or perhaps, by the time these rooms were added, life was simply becoming more serious, and artistic sensibilities had become a meaningless luxury. The archaeologists tell us that after a time, the ratio of between living space and storage space shifted dramatically to the latter, perhaps as a result of droughts and failed harvests, and an urgent need to save more to survive a future that might hold less.
There are other styles as well. Next to the five storage rooms there had been small rooms and granaries built in a haphazard fashion. Those have largely tumbled down, or perhaps their stones were quarried to build the adjacent structures. In isolation part way along the ledge, there is a neat, beehive shaped granary, built in a style that is both utilitarian and at the same time elegant. Its stones protrude, the mud mortar extrudes, and the whole is pleasing in the way it blends into the massive, overhanging wall that protects it.
The overall effect of Spirit House is magical. Happily, the single modern item visible is an ammunition box left by the BLM, sitting on a rock. In that box is a small binder with basic information on the ruin and instructions on how to respect the site. There is also a haggard steno pad, recording the comments of visitors over the last several years. Despite the greater awareness of Spirit House, the BLM estimates that only about 1200 arrive here each year, and the steno pad supports that assumption: exactly 101 parties had chosen to leave their comments behind to date this year. Many visitors indicated that they, like me, were return pilgrims, some after decades of absence. Some were members of groups led by the cognoscenti. 
Most of the comments simply express awe and appreciation. Here is a sampling: 
In English, i have not enough words. In German, "Grossartig, Spirituell, bin absolute begeistert" [Assuming my high school German is up to the task: "Wonderful, spiritual, absolutely to be seen"]
Inspired and amazed
It is as amazing as I remembered it when I was 13 years old
My most favorite place in the world [Madeline, 12 years old]
No person could come here and remain as before 
Others grapple with the quandary of how to allow people to experience places such as this without overwhelming them: 
Take care of this profound place
The impact on this ruin since I first came here [40 years ago] has been very noticeable…May it last a little longer in this sacred canyon
Close the road and take down the cairns or pretty soon the beer drinkers with spray paint will be here. This was a special place and deserves to be visited only by those can find it
Secrecy is best
Clearly, there is a unity of reaction to such a place to more than more than justify its preservation. But there is, I think, an equally compelling rationale for why such an evocative place must survive. That reason is to make the all-too relevant experiences and lessons of our forebears real to us today, perhaps, but only perhaps, before it is too late. 
At most, we are told that only 25 to 30 people lived on this high perch. They had neighbors both up canyon and down, and at regular intervals across the vast mesa there are other canyons, each with its extended neighborhoods of dwellings, all variously larger and smaller than this, but none of the grandeur found elsewhere. Together they comprised a community of culturally related people that moved onto this high mesa in one millennium to exploit its resources, to make a home, and to raise their families. Pioneers into a new land, looking for something better, perhaps, just as emigrants have always done.
Presumably they found it, for a time, just as the centuries of immigrants have found their futures in America. But as is now happening in modern times in this same country, things began to change. Something happened, whether real or imagined, that first led to a move to the ledges and alcoves. And then something (or more likely some things) happened again, and total abandonment followed. The archaeological record does not suggest great wars or even significant regional conflicts as a cause for the first transition. Perhaps the terrors were xenophobic, or perhaps superstitious. Was the threat more perceived than real (as some would label global terrorism today, at least in comparison to our response), causing a reorientation of life that was far more extreme and limiting than was necessary? Was the behavior rational, or was it understandable more in the context of attaining a greater sense of perceived security, even at great cost, whether real or otherwise?
And was the great abandonment really the result of droughts, as first assumed in modern times, or was it perhaps due to resource depletion as well, as now seems at least as likely to have been a contributing cause? Some researchers now say that the mesas on which the cliff dwellings appear may well have been denuded of their slow-growing trees, all cut for firewood by the time of abandonment. Eventually, the trek for firewood must have become very long indeed. And, as populations grew, those that lived here became more vulnerable to fluctuations in the weather that had profound consequences. These factors, and (some think) the rise of new superstitions and cults in response to societal stress, may have led to the great out-migration, with the loose communities uniting in a common hope for a better future. 
Again, the parallels to the present are painfully obvious. Perhaps this very night some of the distant descendants of those that left these canyons hoping for better lives to the south are today struggling across the Mexican-American border, hoping for a better life for themselves and their families.
All of this heritage is precious, and worth preserving, even at the cost of maintaining its relative inaccessibility. These delicate walls have survived so many years intact, and it would be tragic to see them fall now under the boots of too many visitors. The small, thousand year old corncobs that still litter the floors of every granary have a story to tell that is not yet fully understood, and, perhaps, may never be truly known.
And perhaps that is as it should be, because the questions that the cliff dwellings help us ask ourselves are too important to our future to ignore. When the climate turned against these ancient peoples, they could only ask themselves what they had done to offend their gods, and leave in desperation to find new and greener lands. In our own case, we must ask, My God, what are we doing to ourselves? There are no other mesas to the south to which we can flee from global warming.
These mute habitations tell cautionary tales that make all too real the possible consequences of our own behavior today. They remind us that a future that is taken for granted while the earth is exploited without a care for tomorrow, can never be assumed. 


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