Friday, March 3, 2017

Echoes of the Past

It was a glorious spring afternoon. Huge, fluffy, white, marshmallow clouds drifted slowly over the red rock cliffs of Bluff. The air was deliciously fresh—a recent thunder storm had swept across the sandscape, producing a feeling of freshness and visual harmony. The primitive landscape and refreshingly blue sky were too much to resist. Driving north, I spied an upcoming break in the range fence bordering the highway, I eased up on the accelerator. Edging off the blacktop, I rolled over the cattle guard and came to a stop.

I cranked down the window and inhaled the fragrance of the high desert air. Looking further afield, I noticed a heavily rutted dirt track drifting towards the mouth of a small canyon. That was all the invitation I needed. Pressing the 4WD button on the dash and slowly depressing the accelerator sent me off on a spontaneous Southwestern adventure.

The road was rough, but manageable. After all, what was an adventure without effort? I made my way across the plain graced with sandy hillocks, rabbit brush and Navajo tea. Dropping into an arroyo made me a bit nervous, because a recent mini flash flood had flushed and gouged out ever deepening ruts. The front tires pushed moist, but firm sand, into the cuts and made the going easier than I imagined. It seemed my destiny to visit the alluring canyon on this magnificent day.

Exiting the far side of the wash put me on a harshly angular hillside strewn with boulders pocked and pitted by weather extremes. A road that was almost nonexistent held my attention for another 200 yards. The Toyota probably would have held its grip on the precarious slope, but I decided it was more prudent to walk the remaining distance to the mouth of the canyon.

It was later in the day than I would have preferred to start my hike, but I was intrigued by the rippled blow sand, cluttered talus slopes and towering, weather-stained rimrock. It was not an overly large canyon, but more intimate and inviting than most. By the look of the old road and trail leading in, I assumed it had not been visited in quite some time. I stepped out of the truck, donned my straw hat and headed into the tender shadows of the rift.

The gently sloping trail led directly into the mouth of the canyon and allowed me to step back in time nearly a thousand years. The arroyo running the length of the narrow valley was not as deep as I would have imagined and the vegetation not as dense. This made traveling easy, since I had to cross the stream bed a number of times. At one point I came across an ant hill that contained a tiny turquoise bead blended into the mound of mini boulders. I assumed there might be more beads, but decided not to disturb the hill and its volatile residents.

Farther up the canyon I emerged from a dense patch of sagebrush and spotted a smattering of chipped stones on a side hill. Walking over and pushing the blackened, red earth around with the toe of my boot produced a small and beautifully crafted arrow head. Placing the point in the palm of my hand with the bead caused me to reflect on the makers and their lives in this idyllic setting. I carried my finds to a diminishing shaft of evening light and sat down to rest and consider the world around me.

As I reclined in the sand, the hauntingly melodious tones of a primitive flute began to reverberate through the ever deepening shadows. I sat bolt upright, and felt the hair on the back of my neck do the same. I had assumed I was alone. Evening had overtaken the red rock canyon and the source of the satiny smooth, earthy sounds emanating from the ancient musical instrument were untraceable in the diminishing light and undulating cliff face. The sound wrapped itself around randomly strewn boulders, stunted and twisted juniper trees, aromatic sage brush, and the depths of my imagination.

I caught the faint scent of cedar smoke on the cool breeze, which drifted down from the upper reaches of the canyon. My curiosity was getting the better of me and prodded me to discover the source of the mysterious music. A chill ran up my spine as I considered the possibility of a haunted Ancestral Puebloan ruin. It was getting late, and the thoughts of an unprotected night on the high desert dissuaded me from searching for the musical specter. I got up slowly, aware that I was probably being watched from some hidden cleft.

I carefully made my way back up the uneven track toward the mouth of the canyon. The music serenaded my movement and seemed to accelerate in tempo as I neared the rocky exit. I turned back to consider the circumstances of my melodious encounter and felt the sharpness of the arrowhead and the round shape of the bead in the palm of my hand. Striding to a nearby incline, I looked for and found a depression in a low sandstone ledge. I deposited my treasure in the hole, filled it full of small stones and packed it with moist sand. I stood up and looked back into the darkness of the canyon—it was then I realize the flute had fallen silent.

I made my way back across the rippled dunes interspersed with cleansing yucca, sand verbena and prickly pear cactus, towards the Toyota. As I reached the vehicle and fell into the familiar comfort of modern machinery, a full moon peeked over the rim rock. As I witnessed the drama of the soft golden orb's rise above the desert landscape, the haunting melody revisited my subconscious. The dream of that wondrous evening will forever remain in my memory, as will the wonder of the magical tune.

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