Adventures from Back of Beyond

Saturday, September 16, 2006

A Prodigious Encounter

copyright 2006, all rights reserved

We step gingerly, shouldering heavy backpacks, wary of dislodging rocks on the person below. Descending silently, we are absorbed by stunning, austere beauty. The sky is devoid of clouds, a pure blue from zenith to horizon; it contrasts in razor sharpness with the intense rich cinnamon red of the jagged cliffs. We are immersed in in utter silence, broken only by our labored breathing and the crunch of boots on trail. A lone canyon wren's occasional descending trill echoes off the cliffs.

The trail from the rim to the Little Colorado River is only about 2.5 miles, but it’s not really a trail at all. Better to describe it as a poorly-defined and little-used route, in many places almost straight down. Once over the edge, the route immediately becomes extremely steep, exposed to acrophobic dropoffs, and treacherous with many loose rocks.

We move slowly, deliberately. Most every hand and toehold requires careful selection to avoid knocking loose rocks onto the person below. Eventually, we enter a steady rhythm of descent, which is calming. Grab, step, breathe. Grab, step, breathe. This is when I first notice many of the logical hand and toeholds are curiously worn smooth, much smoother than the rougher surrounding rock. In these places the dark patina of desert varnish has been rubbed off the natural rock face to a smoother finish and lighter color.

Slowly, I realize only one thing could smooth the rock like this. These smoother spots are evidence of centuries of human use. Native Americans, particularly Hopi Indians, have used this route, possibly for millennia.

With this awareness, the trail comes alive before me.

The difficult path before me now, even in this remote and precarious corner of Grand Canyon, was blazed and used continuously by hundreds generations of Native Americans enroute to one of their most important spiritual sites.

After several hours of tedious descent, red-faced from exertion, we finally reach the bottom of the gorge. There we are faced with a most incongruous sight -- the incredible turquoise blue water of the Little Colorado River, which creates a fragrant riparian habitat, a linear ribbon of abundant life at the bottom of this stark and dessicated gorge.

We stop to taste. The water is warm and bitter, hardly drinkable, overly saline and charged with minerals. We press on with some urgency, because daylight is waning and we need to cover more ground before making camp.

As we hike, I contemplate the spiritual importance of the Little Colorado River gorge to the Hopi, the Peaceful People. Not only is this the home of many of their kachina spirits, but it is the place where, after death, one's spirit resides permanently. From here the life-giving rain clouds originate, source of the precious water that sustains their meticulously tended crops of corn, beans, and squash. Perhaps most importantly, at the bottom of this gorge is the Sipapu.

Traditional Hopi believe all life once was underground and emerged to the surface from a single point — the Sipapu. So important is this emergence point that every kiva, the Hopis' traditional ceremonial structure, has a symbolic sipapu built in. The Sipapu is something I’ve wanted to see for decades, ever since I first learned about it. I intend to see it today.

That moment comes at dusk. There, along the north bank, larger than I expected, is a large brownish mound formed by built-up travertine, up and out of the river, house-sized, perhaps 30 feet high by 50 feet in diameter.

Unable to resist my curiousity, I have to look inside. Dropping my pack, I cautiously wade across the knee-deep river, walking on submerged travertine ridges where possible.

I approach slowly, respectfully, conscious that this is one of the Hopi's most revered sites. A slightly worn but obvious trail to the top leads to a large opening in the middle of the circular-shaped mound.

I am blown away by what I see – and hear – inside.