The steep drop into Moqui Canyon
by Merry Palmer
I held my breath as we started down the 600-foot, orange sand dune into Moqui Canyon. With our fellow adventurer, Ned Smith, following in his Razor, Ted drove our Pioneer 500 to the end of the dugway’s first slope. He stopped, put on the parking brakes, and he and Ned climbed out to peer down the dubious road.
Before our excursion, I’d never heard of Moqui Canyon with its treacherous sand, but apparently getting stuck had been the fate of many vehicles.
The men had hoped winter moisture would firm the sand enough to drive to the bottom of the canyon, but after assessing the situation, they decided navigating the dugway was too risky, so we drove back to the top, put on our packs, and started the descent on foot.
Soon, my hubby looked over the side of the road and said, “It’ll be shorter this way,” and plunged down the steep slope.
Oggie followed and then Ned, the men sand-skiing most of the way and rump-sliding the rest. Oggie splayed out her feet, took a few steps, slid, took a few more steps, and slid.
I mostly slid, grateful for thick pants and even more grateful no prickly pears had embedded themselves in the soil. It was exhilarating, more fun than any amusement ride, and fast.
Even in the midst of the ride down, I knew hiking out would be a different story, but Atticus Finch’s advice to his daughter in the book, To Kill a Mockingbird, came to mind, “It’s not time to worry yet.” I landed on my feet at the bottom.
Although there are other ways to access the canyon, we’d driven along Highway 276, passed the Clay Hills Crossing, and entered from the east side.
Moqui is a derivative of the Ute name for Hopi, and the eleven-mile canyon has a number of documented Ancestral Puebloan ruins. We weren’t planning to hike eleven miles, but with Ted leading our small pack, we headed toward the nearest site.
The Anasazi weren’t the only canyon residents. Years after they vacated their rocky homes, early explorers left their names in the canyon’s caves, and goldminers worked the sandbars on the Colorado River.
Ranching even took place in that unlikely pastureland. Ned, who is Albert R. Lyman’s grandson, told us his grandfather helped run cattle in the area as a boy, and the cow droppings, tracks, and fencing showed it’s still being used today.
As we settled into a rhythm, I craned my neck to see the gorgeous red-and-buff cliffs, alcoves, hoodoo-like rocks, and side canyons.
As Ned shared memories about his granddad who, with his wife, first settled Blanding, I started to ponder the potential of places, even those as remote as Moqui Canyon or towns in San Juan County.
Before Albert R. Lyman and his wife set up their tent amidst the big sagebrush on what was then called White Mesa, Albert’s uncle, Walter C. Lyman, and Walter’s brother, Jody, journeyed from Bluff to the future Blanding.
While there, Walter had a vision in which he saw a beautiful city which served as an “educational and cultural center” for Native peoples. He also saw a shining temple on a hill.
Walter and Albert spent the rest of their lives developing the area, filling out, as it were, its spiritual template, with Albert setting up the first school in a tent and later providing education for Native American children.
Now, as our little crew plodded along the bottom of Moqui Canyon, our feet sank into the soil, leaving footprints, and we passed giant cottonwoods evidencing the moisture beneath the surface.
In a few miles, we spotted the Ancestral Puebloan ruin perched on a ledge, the talus slope beneath littered with tumbled boulders.
While the men climbed up to take pictures, Oggie and I stayed below, but when they returned, with their coaching, I could see more of the pictographs: Triangular figures, one obviously a successful hunter, a huge, white humanoid form, and bighorn sheep.
Ted also showed me pictures of yellow and blue hands painted on the cliff behind the boulders. I could imagine the Puebloan men in their kivas discussing strategies for staying safe, the spiritual well-being of their families, and stories about their gods. Did their artwork portray the same?
The canyon remained silent except for our quiet chatter and Oggie’s panting. After taking some deep drinks of water, we started back toward the dugway, spotting on the way some more pictographs in an impossibly high place.
Following Atticus Finch’s advice, I didn’t worry about the climb out until we started up the dune, and then, I was panting so hard I didn’t have room in my brain for worry.
We huffed a hundred yards, stopped to catch our breaths, puffed another hundred yards, and up we went until we caught sight of our ATVs parked at the top.
Although the distance still seemed daunting, we continued to climb until we reached our little vehicles.
Since then, I keep thinking about spiritual templates for individuals, families, communities, and places.
Moqui Canyon, in its silent magnificence, seems to be fulfilling the measure of its creation, but did the Ancestral Puebloans? Has Blanding, Bluff, Montezuma Creek, or Monticello? Have I?
No, but most of us keep climbing a hundred yards at a time, the climb itself—even up a massive sand dune—necessary to reach the goal.