Let me begin by stating—unequivocally and for the record—that I have never actually seen a ghost. I’m not even sure I believe in them; at least, not those intrusively bothersome kind from the horror movies, that tend to lurk nefariously in closets and behind shower curtains.
But I could definitely feel something—an ethereal, yet palpable, something—in our collective midst during a recent week-long trek through the Grand Gulch Primitive Area of Bears Ears.
My wife and I, and a brother-in-law, all knew, going in, that we would be encountering—almost at every turn—the homes, tools, and art, of an ancient people: the Anasazi (or Ancestral Puebloans, as scientists now call them). But I was not prepared for the ubiquitous physical evidence of their bygone presence in this timeworn red-rock region: petroglyphs, pictographs, cliff-dwellings, and innumerable artifacts.
On our very first morning in the Gulch, not more than two hours into our hike, we come across an incredibly preserved stone kiva, and I get the unnerving sense that the natives who built it, are somewhere nearby, watching us. Learning that such structures were believed by these ancients to be portals to the underworld only adds to this mystical mood. The feeling that we are in a sacred space is inescapable, as we tiptoe around the site, amid potsherds, corncobs and corn-grinding sticks atop worn boulders.
Scrambling up a steep escarpment onto a high ledge to inspect a surprisingly well-preserved cliff-dwelling, I marvel at the fossilized prints of those long-dead fingers, which, centuries earlier, had painstakingly pressed red mud firmly into the gaps between stones that would become the walls of their kitchen.
I squat next to this structure (on my haunches, as I believe those ancient ancestors likely had done), and try to imagine what it might’ve been like to actually live here—packed intimately together with my extended family; bright green stalks of corn carpeting the canyon floor; the sound of dried corn kernels being perpetually ground between stick and stone; and the constant patter of bare feet upon the high rock ledge that becomes both our balcony and lookout. My wife is probably sewing turkey feathers into a blanket with a crude needle made of bone. And I ponder what would’ve induced us to build our dwelling so far above the canyon floor. Was it to protect ourselves? Our crops? Our supply of water?
Water is certainly worth protecting. Every small spring, or tiny pool of surface water seems miraculous in this arid place. Thus, when we hike up the reassuringly named, “Dripping Water Canyon,” to discover a pool of spring-water so deep we can immerse our entire bodies, it feels positively spa-like—an improbable oasis in the middle of an expansive barrenness. We take our time filtering this priceless liquid into our hydration systems, all of us reluctant to leave such a cool and restorative place.
Again, I can imagine those ancient Anasazi people spending an entire day here, bathing and frolicking in these same pools, before filling their ceramic pots with this precious water for careful transport back to their high-rise apartment.
Not infrequently, we feel an eery sensation—as if ghostly eyes are peering down at us from the sheer walls above. Sometimes, these perceptions are merely our own imaginations; but, more often, the eyes are real—pictographs, drawn by our predecessors, upon an expansive cliff-wall: imposing figures with large round eyeballs and pigtail hair, along with many muddy handprints pressed against the same rock wall (not unlike the permanent handprints of modern-day children, pressed for posterity into the wet cement of their family’s newly poured patio).
Hiking alone on our last day in the Gulch, preoccupied with thoughts of these ancients, and of the signs they left of their existence, I suddenly hear my name being whispered upon the wind—not an imagined utterance, nor a voice in my head, but an audible articulation. I halt to listen more intently. There! It comes again—my own name! I am astounded beyond belief, yet positively electrified to be experiencing such a supernatural phenomenon in this imponderable place.
Walking on, I wonder how I will ever explain this to my comrades, or whether I’ll just keep the whole mystery to myself.
Smiling inscrutably, and feeling every bit the desert-dwelling mystic, I round a bend in the trail to encounter my brother-in-law in the very act of hollering my name.
“What a singular coincidence,” I muse, “that I should be hailed by both this mortal hiking buddy, and also by the spirit of an ancient Puebloan, at the very same time!”
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