05 October 2018

Hovenweep Excursion [1986]

[passage from my journal, 4–5 October 1986]
omewhere short of the Colorado/Utah line TJ and I stopped because we were worried about the battery. We looked under the hood without accomplishing anything; and then this bearded character stopped to give us a hand. He said that what we were describing was normal for the car—so we decided to set off, with renewed confidence. Actually we decided to wait until R and M showed up, figuring that we had waited there long enough anyway—we might as well wait the rest of the time. I think it took about twenty minutes altogether before they showed up, but show up they did, and we took off together, the pickup in the lead. At some point in Utah we pulled aside to let some vehicle go by, and at that point we ended up following M’s car.
Utah 128, midday. We left Interstate 70 at Cisco, and soon found ourselves in a region of red rock walls and towers, alongside the Colorado River. From the maps it looks as if this is one of the few sections of the Colorado River that is visible from a road, and in a way it’s only technically part of the Colorado; it was originally called the Grand River, and then might be regarded as a mere tributary to the Colorado River. The Dolores (which we traveled alongside coming back) empties into the Colorado about the point we joined it, and I guess at one time that was the main course of the river (until the end of the Pliocene, anyway).
As near as I can figure it, the red rocks these rivers are cutting through were deposited here during the Triassic era, when the area was a low lying floodplain, after the retreat of the sea that had covered it during Permian times. (Moenkopi Formation)
Fisher Towers. M and R, who were in the lead at that point, turned off at Fisher Towers, and we had lunch there. These are bizarre columns of rock, shaped like gigantic chess pieces. F. A. Barnes says about them:
This type of rock tends to be eroded by rain into vertical towers with surfaces convoluted because of layers of differing hardness. Generally, caprocks, or harder uppermost slabs of rock, help rain erosion shape the slender spires.
The Fisher Towers, near Utah 128 to the northeast of Moab Valley, are outstanding examples of this type of spire.
I looked at a tower shaped like the Red Queen fairly closely—it was on the way to the toilets. Layers of fairly consistent red stuff were divided by some conglomerate that looked like solidified river gravel. There was a layer of harder green stuff—God knows what it was to start with. M thought it might be volcanic ash. It looked to me like (say) alternating riverbottom and riverbank, or better yet, lakebottom and lakebank. Anyway, it was fascinating to see, and made me wish I knew more about the geology of the whole place.
We had lunch there—TJ had packed eight slices of bread, some lunchmeat and some cheese, so we made sandwiches out of them and R and/or M came up with sour-cream-and-onion-flavored potato chips. We ate by a small dropoff and inadvertently fed the ants bits of potato chips, which they lugged off down the slope. When we left, we were leading again.
Arches. According to the maps we passed near Arches National Park (it must have been across the Colorado River to our right) but I wasn’t aware of it at the time. All that sticks in my mind are miles and miles of red spires and walls and towers.
Moab. After the miles of uninhabited land Moab looked a lot like civilization to me. It’s a fairly substantial town for being located in the middle of nowhere, and I don’t know what fuels it. TJ says it’s an old uranium mining town. Anyway, whatever the story on it is, we zipped right through it down US 163/191 into the Moab-Spanish valley. Although Pack Creek appears to run along the valley floor, the valley apparently was not created primarily by erosion, but rather by the dissolution of underlying salt layers and the subsequent collapse of the rock layers above them. The red bluffs south of the valley are apparently Entrada Sandstone, formed out of desert dunes that covered the area in the Jurassic.
Newspaper Rock. We turned west on Utah 211 to see Newspaper Rock, a State Historic Monument. There are a large number of petroglyphs there, scraped onto the face of a flat rock protected by an overhanging rock shelf. I took my first pictures of the trip there, some (I’m fairly sure) with the lenscap still on. Some of these petroglyphs are believed to go back as far as 8000 AE [=2000 BCE]; the interpretive material at the site conservatively observed that the images cannot be dated. This is safe, but not altogether true—evidence of style and content, while not as “safe” as radiocarbon dating or dendrochronology, could certainly provide some indication of date. Whatever the story is, there is certainly some fascinating material there—a ladder with hands, for instance, and seven-toed footprints. Some one had scratched his name there as recently as 1954, right under another name dated 1902—both well above the main area of pictures. When we left the Newspaper Rock Historic site R and TJ changed places, to give TJ a rest from driving, and R drove the pickup from then on.
US 163. We continued onward down US 163 through Monticello and Blanding. I don’t remember what the country looked like through there exactly, except that it was sunny and hot and dry. Somewhere after Blanding R began to get worried about the gasoline situation, but we didn’t attempt to do anything until after we had passed Hatch—this of course after we had turned off US 163 at the Hatch turnoff. We stopped and debated what to do. TJ was for turning back and getting the truck gassed up, but M was for going on and sending her car back to bring back gas if necessary. We ended up going on to the campground first, as it was getting dark, or rather it would be getting dark soon, and we wanted to get set up.
Hovenweep Campground. Considering that it is October, and that there was hardly anybody there when we went back in july, the campground was crowded. Quite a few people there, though a number of them did not appear to hang around to see the ruins the next day. I don’t know what the story was—some of them seemed to be classes of some kind, but others seemed perhaps merely to be retired folk, or something of that kind. M at once began building a fire and getting supper ready while TJ and R set up the tent. I helped lug things from the car and then went up the hill to see about paying for the campground. This was one of those places where you put the money in an envelope and shove it in a slot that (as far as one can tell) feeds straight into the earth. Later I looked about at some of the other cars, but none of them seemed to have camping permits—were we fools to pay? And yet Hovenweep is one of the better sites, and it was still October…. Maybe these other people were legitimate—some of them seemed like maybe they were ranger trainees or something. Whatever,
Anyway, we ate hamburger steak and potatoes and onions and green peppers that M cooked in foil on the campfire, and we drank whatever was available. The sky was very clear—we watched Venus, then Jupiter, then Mars and Saturn and Antares slowly appear. Mercury was supposed to be visible, but I couldn’t find it at all. (I never have seen Mercury, not to know what it was, anyway.)
Many Stars. It was so clear outside that we decided to sleep out, and we set up our sleeping bags beside the tent. The people in the campspace next to us stayed up talking for a couple of hours after we had retired, but then we retired early. We only had the people on one side to cope with, luckily, because there was no campspace to the other side of us; there was a space there that marked the start of a trail to the Holly ruins. When the sun set, Arcturus was still visible, Saturn was visible in Scorpio, Mars near Sagittarius, and Jupiter somewhere near Pisces. The summer triangle was directly overhead, and it was easy to see Sagitta and Vulpecula inside it. We were facing east, and Pegasus dominated the sky there; I also specifically noted Pisces, Perseus, Cassiopeia, and Cepheus; it was probably about this interval that I traced out the length of Draco; I know I’ve seen its stars before, but that’s not the same thing as seeing the constellation. When I woke up again after an interval of sleep (it has to have been around 11:30, though I didn’t look at my watch) Orion was lying on his side on the eastern horizon, only about half risen. Auriga and Taurus were also visible. The Big Dipper was low on the northern horizon, and I could see the stars of Camelopardalis close by Perseus. Pegasus was directly overhead. As I awoke at intervals (it was cold) during the night Orion got higher and higher in the sky, Jupiter disappeared behind me to the west, Gemini and Sirius and Procyon showed up, and I could see the stars that in the morning when I looked them up turned out to be Lepus and Monoceros. I looked for Cancer, but clouds moved in then and obscured it. And the sun rose and I had to go to the bathroom, so I got up and took off for the facilities provided. Weird pink and purple clouds hung over the eastern horizon where the sun was coming up. One of the best night’s seeing I’ve ever had—no moon at all.
Hovenweep Ruins. We got up and breakfasted on bacon and zuchini-bread, and then headed off to look at the ruins. I had to go back for my camera, as I had forgotten it, but otherwise things went okay. R and I caught up with TJ and M at Tower Point, where I took some pictures through its windows. We then headed off down the Twin Towers trail. I think I took a picture through the natural tunnel, and we all paused at the Petroglyphs to try to guess their meaning, if any. One of the three birds had been extensively vandalized. We stopped at this tower base built up on a boulder, that’s also clearly visible from Tower Point, but for some reason isn’t mentioned anywhere in the Trail Guide. We stopped at Round Tower, and climbed about inside Eroded Boulder House and Twin Towers. I think we were looking over Eroded Boulder House when this bizarre group of twelve (their count) or thirteen (our count) people came marching cheerily by, reciting the lines from Monty Python’s Holy Grail while marching the wrong way down the trail and ignoring the ruins. They disappeared while passing the petroglyphs without even a first glance. Unit Type House was the most interesting to me, with its Kiva and holes for determining the solstices.
Afterword. It was amazing crawling through the old Anasazi ruins and all that—got some good pictures too. On our way back we drove through Unaweep canyon. Ten or fifteen million years ago it used to be the Colorado river bed, apparently; then the river changed course and left us an amazing canyon—steep walls, bizarre towers—the whole bit.

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