The Great Sage Plain
Stretching along an arc of southeastern Utah into southwestern Colorado, the Great Sage Plain contains the highest concentration of archaeological resources in North America.
The high, arid plateau is dominated by sage – intoxicatingly fragrant – the same stuff writer Zane Grey described most famously in his book Riders of the Purple Sage. The plain lies between the Abajo Mountains in southeastern Utah and the San Juans in southwestern Colorado, mostly at an elevation ranging from about 5,500 feet to 6,500 feet above sea level.
In the dry southwest, this is a relatively high biohabitat, but where precipitation – mostly from winter and summer storms – is sufficient to support dry farming. This was where prehistoric Native Americans could successfully grow corn, beans, squash, and cotton. This is where a prehistoric culture thrived, until these people mysteriously abandoned the region by about 1300 A.D.
These Ancestral Puebloans, as they're known today, constructed elaborate villages along the edges of the Great Sage Plain, including beautifully constructed masonry towers guarding their precious seeps and springs, the location of the fresh water that sustained them and was lifeblood of their villages. Using blocks of the ubiquitous sandstone found in the area, these prehistoric Indians were master masons.
The Great Sage Plain was our destination in late September and early October.
Cross Canyon is one of many deep canyons cut into the edge of the Great Sage Plain. Along its walls are literally hundreds of archaeological sites, including cliff dwellings and panels of rock art.
In two days of exploring Cross Canyon, we saw not a single other person. Cross Canyon appears to be a vast, quiet, and empty place – until you stop, walk around, and take a closer look.
Without too much difficulty, we located Indian ruins – cliff dwellings – with intact masonry walls. Centuries old mud used for mortar, preserved in the relatively dry climate, still held fast blocks of sandstone. We found petroglyphs, especially incised spirals, carved centuries ago into cliff faces. At least one spiral looked like it could have been a solar calendar.
Broken pieces of pottery, at least 800 years old if not older, abounded. Much of these broken ceramics were shards of plain corrugated grey ware, for everyday use. But many others were beautifully decorated black on white pieces with carefully painted symmetrical designs. Elsewhere we found many lithics, flakes of arrowhead chippings.
People were here, no doubt. They still are.
At one point we encountered a flowing artesian well. A stream of cool clear water, dozens of gallons a minute at least, flowed out from a simple standpipe into a series of two open bathtub-shaped tanks. Cattle drinkers.
There were no visible pumps, generators, or electrical lines anywhere around. This well appeared to be not much more than a mere pipe stuck into the ground, through which lots of water gushed out.
At the outflow from the tanks a lush pure stand of green watercress grew. Beyond that stood tall reeds and willows. This was a welcome oasis in an otherwise dry and dusty canyon in an arid region.
We checked out the well cautiously. The water was pure and sweet-tasting. Dunking our heads into the tanks, we found it exceptionally refreshing.
Further up the canyon, we found a mysterious cross, a crude wooden cross, and a few rocks. It looked like a shallow grave. Could this possibly be the spot where the remains of the notorious Jason McVean were found?
Cross Canyon was the last refuge, the point of a last stand, for a group of 3 anti-government survivalist-types in May of 1998. For reasons that are unknown still today, Jason McVean, Monte Pilon, and Robert Mason hijacked a water truck not far from here. In their escape, in which they fired more than 500 rounds from a variety of weapons, they killed a Cortez cop. In so doing, they set off one of the largest manhunts in the history of the Southwest.
Within about a year, the bodies of Pilon and Mason were found near Cross Canyon, apparent suicides. The fate of McVean remained a mystery for another 10 years or so, until June of 2007, when a cowboy riding range through this very canyon discovered his remains.
At the eastern edge of the Great Sage Plain rise the magnificent San Juan mountains of Colorado. Here like clockwork in late September and early October vast stands of aspens put on a spectacular show of color.
We drove a back road between Lone Cone and the high peaks of the Lizard Head wilderness. In terms of color change, we hit it just right.
Along Lone Cone’s beautifully symmetrical flanks, pure stands of aspens grew in a belt from roughly 7,000 to 8,000 feet above sea level. At this time, near the peak of color change, from a distance the aspens resembled soft yellow fur growing on the side of the mountain.
The aspens were interspersed with solid stands of shorter growing gambel oak, which in contrast to the yellow aspens, produced a deep rich red color change. In the distance stood the highest sculpted peaks of the San Juans near Telluride and Silverton, well above timberline. After an early season storm, they were dusted white with a light patina of snow. The overall visual effect was stunning.
At one point we noticed a large dark bird soaring. It was being harassed, dive bombed, by a smaller bird.
Using binoculars, I tried to identify the big bird. The mostly dark body and separate feathers outstretched like fingers at the wing tips identified this bird as a golden eagle. Golden eagles are a rare bird not commonly found in the southwest, but apparently are quite at home in this magnificent high country.
As I watched through the binoculars, suddenly the smaller bird swooped in. It was some type of hawk or falcon. It would repeatedly dive bomb the eagle from above.
To protect itself, the eagle at the last second would fold in one wing and turn its body upside down so the razor sharp talons were pointed skyward at the diving smaller bird. There'd be last second swerve by both, a near miss, then the eagle would unfold its wing, turn upright, and continue soaring on, all the while without flapping at all. A superb flyer.
Then the next next dive bombing run would come, and the process would be repeated. This continued several times. Eventually the eagle decided it’d had enough and flew off, dropping in elevation, and appearing slow and lumbering compared to the much smaller and more maneuverable hawk.
Ismay's Trading Post
"Walter Ismay" is how the old man introduced himself to me.
Smoking a cigarette, he looked like he was in at least his 80s. A laconic man, he avoided direct eye contact,. As the owner of this trading post, he was used to a lifetime of talking to Navajos, where long periods of silence and few words may be considered thoughtful and respectful, and direct eye contact may be considered threatening.
Ismay’s Trading Post is located right on the Colorado-Utah line, which is literally the eastern edge of the sprawling Navajo Reservation.
At first I was amazed his trading post was even open. It looked abandoned, not much more than a junk yard. The building was an old adobe structure so decrepit that the walls were literally falling apart. But “open” is what the sign read, so I walked in.
Cobwebs and dust filled the interior. The shelves were sparse. Mr. Ismay sold only a few items, mostly pop and candy to Navajos who'd drive in from just down the road.
We talked a bit about Indian ruins. He gave short direct answers to my questions. I asked him if he ever got out to explore the nearby canyons.
"I've been all over these canyons" he told me. And no doubt he knew them like the back of his wrinkled hand. He described in particular one large ruin not far away, and gave us directions.
On my way out, I noticed a bag of peaches, a white lunch size bag. It was at least 4 or 5 pounds of fruit. They looked home grown. I asked how much.
I got out my wallet and produced a dollar bill.