Meehan: Seeking the shimmer
May 24, 2016
We mostly idled away the days back then, my trusty shipmate standing watch over our sturdy craft with a book and a cocktail while I banged ankles and knees and elbows and such doing a bit of the old route-finding up in the rock.
Being deep within and atop exposed sections of that intricately layered and eroded geological strata known as the Glen Canyon Group bordered on the ecstatic. There was something about the Kayenta Formation at the bottom of the slots followed by a deep layer of Navajo Sandstone often capped with Carmel Formation that rubbed me the right way.
It was all about interpreting old hiking maps while tramping about in quite possibly the same pair of Vasque Sundowners Moses wore when he parted the Red Sea. Their comfort level, however, approached that of my old Neatsfoot-oil bathed Junior Gilliam baseball glove, the sweet spot of which, not unlike its operator, never saw much action.
We made a few trips to what I now like to refer to as, thinking positively, the extreme southwestern edge of the soon to be designated Bears Ears National Monument. The San Juan River Arm of Lake Foul became a favorite haunt with Louis L’Amour, of all people, providing the initial nudge.
His "The Haunted Mesa" had been lent to me by a workmate of the time and had wallowed in the bedside stack for a spell until no more Tony Hillerman Navajo mysteries were left to re-read. Did I mention that the northern boundary of the Navajo Nation reposed just across the narrow band of flat water along the opposite shore of the San Juan Arm?
Although certainly not by today’s standards, water level was low for that trip. That meant we couldn’t motor as far up the Arm as we wished and the negotiations with the red rock would involve burning more daylight than normal accessing trailheads into "Johnie’s Hole," a central plot location in the L’Amour novel.
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Utilizing his own brand of literary "magic realism," old Louis had his protagonist discover a shimmering portal into which the ancestral puebloans who once occupied the area had returned to a former world of their creation myth — thereby solving the mystery surrounding their collective disappearance from the Southwest circa 1300 A.D.
Having already visited many of the "ruins" throughout the Colorado Plateau that were deserted by the indigenous people in question back in the day, I found L’Amour’s handling of the "where did they go" question to be relatively inventive. So, obviously, I had to put my hiking boots on the ground of this small desert oasis to see if I could sense a similar vibe.
Getting there would involve that old nemesis "route finding," of course, and therein laid the rub. If one had trouble visualizing the destination, certainly following previous trails upon the slickrock wouldn’t necessarily be a "slam dunk." And with the round trip from boat to Johnie’s Hole and back needing to be accomplished during daylight, a sense of adventure pervaded the mission.
A couple of pre-imagined variables quickly asserted themselves into the equation. First, without Cairns to be seen anywhere, imprinting into short-term memory the directional relationships between hoodoos and buttes and mesas for my return trip became imperative. And secondly, it didn’t take long at all to lose sight of the boat.
Even with the mostly accurate Kelsey hiking guide in my pack, the time prior to locating the mouth of the tributary canyon to Johnie’s Hole saw me pretty much bruised and muddy but totally awash in the rapture inherent to wandering those seemingly sacred convolutions.
It’s always about the journey anyway in those parts, and this day of bushwhacking up Castle Creek played out as no exception. Although the "portal" didn’t call out to me with its signature shimmer, I did get to Johnie’s Hole and back to the boat in time for a relaxed evening put-put back to camp further down the San Juan.
The upside, in retrospect, was that, although the human footprint of earlier uranium mining dotted the landscape, nowhere did the telltale signs of relatively recent resource extraction technology come into play.
And that is why when this particular flashback day from nearly 30 years ago is screened in memory alongside the current movement for a Bears Ears National Monument, sites sacred to the oral history of the sovereign tribes involved become all that more meaningful. Protect Bears Ears!
Jay Meehan is a culture junkie and has been an observer, participant, and chronicler of the Park City and Wasatch County social scenes for more than 40 years.