Wilderness: Where the Visitor Does Not Remain
Nov 12-13, 2021
Wishing you a Happy Advent as we count down to Christmas! (Note that there’s a lag between our experiences and this blog because I like to digest before I write.)
Have you been in the wilderness during 2021?
In my past life, as a pastor, I would be preaching Advent texts this month. For instance, Luke 3:2: “The word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”
I’ve often preached about wilderness as a state of the soul or spirit. In fact, I was so used to treating wilderness as metaphor that when I went on a pilgrimage to Israel/Palestine, one of the things I grappled with was the physical reality of wilderness and desert in the land where Jesus was born. (Here’s an article called “Wilderness” that I wrote for Eerdmans, who published “Chasing the Divine in the Holy Land.”)
Now that Doug and I are traveling in Big Blue, we are spending quite a bit of time in actual wilderness and desert. New thoughts are rolling through my head as we roll through the landscape.
When we were in Canyonlands I saw an interpretive sign with a definition of wilderness and found it to be evocative —
“Wilderness is a word of many meanings. From a place to be feared to a place to be revered, wilderness evokes images of wild animals, jagged mountains, vast prairies or deserts. For some, wilderness offers physical challenges, solitude or a respite from a complex, technological society.
On September 3, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Wilderness Act which legally defined wilderness as “. . an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” [sic] Just nine days later, on September 12, 1964, President Johnson signed the legislation establishing Canyonlands National Park.
(The sign went on to describe Stewart Udall’s role in establishing Canyonlands NP.)
This definition of wilderness echoes in my mind . . . where a visitor does not remain. We spent just two days at Canyonlands. We certainly did not remain long in that particular wilderness.
And soon we were on our way to another barren place, called Hovenweep.
Friday, Nov 12 — Driving to Hovenweep
We didn’t really know much about Hovenweep when we headed there. We just noticed some pictures of ruins that looked interesting. So we headed east from Canyonlands and ended up on a minor road, Route 262, taking it almost to the Colorado border. The road is paved, mostly. In some places there are dirt tracks running beside the roadway. Now and then a pickup truck would blast past us in a cloud of dust while we lurched from pothole to pothole. Obviously the dirt tracks were an improvement to the pavement.
The land we passed through was quite flat, with mountains to the east. I suppose we would be tempted to describe it as “the middle of nowhere” since there are few buildings, and nothing but sagebrush seems to grow.
Here and there, horses roam. Near a crossroads we notice two glossy brown horses that seem to be headed toward us — and there’s no fence separating us. Fortunately they seemed to be aware of our vehicle and stopped at the edge of the road. We passed them slowly. I wondered what these beautiful animals could find to eat in such a barren landscape.
The Basic Facts About Hovenweep
When we arrived, the Visitor Center was closed but a few outdoor exhibits explained the history of the place. There are four separate areas of ruins that spread across a number of canyons. Each area has structures that were built by the ancestral Puebloan people in the 1200s (contemporaneous with the buildings at Mesa Verde). It’s thought that more than a thousand people lived in these canyons at the time these structures were built. But no one knows even the most basic facts about them.
Why did they build these structures? Why did they leave soon after building them? Where did they go when they left here?
Now we circle back to the idea of wilderness.
One exhibit explains the origin of the name: “Hovenweep is a Paiute and Ute word meaning ‘deserted valley.’ It was the name given this extraordinary place by pioneer photographer William H. Jackson who visited here in 1874. It’s an apt description. As you scan the vast and lonely expanse surrounding you, it’s hard to imagine that these solitary canyons once echoed with the cries and laughter of hundreds of men, women and children.”
That last line felt like a gauntlet thrown down. Could we spend time in this wilderness and imagine these ruins full of life?
Camping at Hovenweep
First we get the camper set up in a beautiful spot with the Ute Mountain in the background.
Exploring the Square Tower structures in Little Ruin Canyon
From the campground we take a well-marked trail, lined with rocks, which leads to Little Ruin Canyon. The trail crosses slick rock and pockets of sagebrush. We soon come across the first ruin. A chain is up to keep people at a small distance — only five feet or so.
From that first ruin the trail continues on to loop around the canyon rim. The structures are spread out. Most are perched on the edge of the canyon wall, or tucked underneath it. Then the trail becomes rough and steep and dips down into the canyon and climbs back out the other side.
Each building is labelled with a name: Stronghold House, Eroded Boulder House, Twin Towers, Rim Rock House, Tower Point, Hovenweep Castle, and Hovenweep House.
This group of ruins is named for Square Tower, which is three stories tall. No one knows what the building was used for. It might have stood near a spring. Nearby are a series of checkdams, which were part of a system to divert water during storms. Obviously, water was essential for growing the corn, beans and squash that were the main food source for nearly a thousand people — a thousand people in this small canyon!
By the time we arrive back at camp, we feel that we have just scratched the surface of this impressive and unusual place. We decide to spend the next morning in the canyon, and to bring our binoculars.
Saturday, Nov 13 — Day Two at Hovenweep
In the morning we hike the trail again but this time in reverse. Although we spend a full three hours on the rim of the canyon, and in the base of the canyon, we don’t see a single other person. I suppose most people drive all morning to get here. Having the place to ourselves increases the feeling of wilderness.
A friend taught us a simple way of experiencing wilderness — to sit silently long enough to allow the wildlife to settle around you. So we move slowly, plunking ourselves down onto one of the handy flat rocks near each ruin. We soak in the sun and study the details of each building, and the relationships between the buildings.
With our binoculars we also watch for small mammals. Chipmunks dart among the rocks in the canyon and along its edge. We also see a jackrabbit and, most excitingly, a marmot. I happen to spy on a brown squirrel as she luxuriously dust-bathes, flipping over and over in a cloud of dust.
We also see birds — juncos, ravens, magpies, and shrikes. I still get terribly excited when I spot a mountain bluebird. Also, there’s a bat cave at the far end of the canyon with lots of guano streaked below it.
As we hike down into the canyon, it strikes us that we are walking through the same rock passages that ancient people used each day. The canyon bottom was where the crops were cultivated by hand, painstakingly, each plant given its allotment of precious water.
This place might feel like wilderness to me, but it was home to generations of people, possibly for centuries. We are visitors who will not remain long in this place of wilderness. But how grateful we are to have been here for these hours and days.
As we continue this year-long trek, I wonder what wilderness might lie ahead, and where we might be tempted to remain.