How to Kill a Rental Car #5: Day 5, Hovenweeping: At Cross-Purposes – Hovenweep, Utah

Day 5, Hovenweeping:
At Cross-Purposes

Holly Tower.

Our experiences in Moab had been amazing and could have kept Josh and me occupied for weeks, but there were too many things that we both wanted to do and the urge to move on was strong. I woke up with the sun, desiring a hot breakfast. The rain had subsided sometime during the night, leaving a fractured sky with lances of sunlight that pierced through to the ground. Of the two of us, I was typically the first one up. In our regular lives, I’m the more likely to be an early riser. Josh is a night-creature and somewhat of an insomniac, but the hiss of the camp stove heating water for breakfast was usually enough to rouse him.

After breakfast we quickly broke camp. We had fallen into routines. I generally dealt with food and washed up after meals. Josh was the packer/organizer and would deal with the gear. He insisted on having everything in the car in a particular place. On solo road trips I have a tendency to just chuck things in the back, to be sorted out “later.” I admit it was nice to be able to lay your hands on any little thing you were toting along in a matter of seconds, but the discipline of keeping the car neat was more than I usually had the patience for. Josh never complained, he just reorganized our things at every stop. So, with everything meticulously packed into our little Mitsubishi we bid Ken’s Lake goodbye and headed south away from Moab deeper into the canyonlands of Utah.

About 65 miles south of Moab is the town of Blanding. On the surface, Blanding looks like any number of small Utah towns. It’s an odd mix of Native American, Hispanic and Anglo faces wrapped in a tidy Mormon package. In other words, it’s bland. But there’s a gem wrapped in this tidy Mormon package.

Edge of Cedars State Park boasts one of the finest museums of Native American culture in the Four Corners region. For those interested in the ancient pueblo cultures that inhabited this area before the coming of the Spanish, Edge of Cedars will come as a pleasant surprise. On the grounds of the park is the ruin of a Puebloan village occupied from 750-1220 AD. Besides one exceedingly stupid exhibit where you push a button and get an insulting and rudimentary explanation of the differences between pioneer and Indian culture, the museums exhibits are very well-done. There is an impressive collection of ancient and contemporary Native American pottery and baskets, exhibits on the petroglyphs and rock art of the region, and a section on the ancient people’s astronomical technologies. There is even a gallery space of local photographers’ work.

I wandered around outside among the ruins while Josh lost himself in the museum. At various points around the grounds were bizarre human and animal figures. They were the two-dimensional petroglyph images rendered in life-size, three-dimensional form by a local artist. The effect was surreal, conjuring the mythological shadow world of the ancient southwest. There were human-animal spirit gods and dancing flute players, but the piece that interested me the most was a huge sculpture that cast sun and shadow images of herds of antelope, hunters and other shamanic images on the ground and surrounding walls.

My interests lean toward human history and culture, Josh’s toward abstract art and philosophy. I crave interaction while Josh requires solitude. When I would want to explore and play, Josh would rather sit alone and read; I even gave him a nickname on this trip: “Mr. Moody-broody-solitudey”.

However, being as analytical and introspective as he is, Josh is good with gadgets. Before we left Seattle, another friend of mine had insisted that we take his GPS. I said we’d take it simply to humor him, but Josh found it an interesting distraction on our long drives through the desert. Our goal today was to reach the Hovenweep National Monument, in the extreme southeast corner of Utah.

Once we left Route 191 and headed east toward Hovenweep, things began to look desolate. Josh began programming the GPS, just in case. This is the southwest, where if you stop your car on the side of the road and sit on the hood of your car, the thing you notice is the silence. Apart from the rustle of the wind in the sagebrush, there’s nothing. It’s just like the soundtracks to those early Clint Eastwood movies. If you do hear a car approaching, it seemingly takes an eternity for it to actually appear. This was open rangeland. Every so often we’d catch a glimpse of the remnants of a barbed wire fence, long decayed. Sleeping Ute Mountain loomed in the distance to the southeast.

Shadow antelope.

It’s a familiar story: Somewhere in far-off history, Sleeping Ute Mountain was a warrior god. He helped the Ute tribe fight some evil dudes. There’s a big battle between the warrior god and baddies. During the scuffle of the battle the combatants’ feet shaped the land into mountains and valleys. The warrior god was hurt, lay down, and fell into a deep sleep. The blood from his wounds turned into water which made the land fertile. The Sleeping warrior god changes his blanket each season: light green for spring, dark green for summer, yellow and red for fall, and white for winter. The Ute believe that when clouds gather on the highest peak, the warrior god is pleased with his people and rewards them with rain. They believe that the warrior god will one day rise again to help them fight against their enemies. (Lose the bit about the changing blanket and it’s essentially the same story of the Sleeping Giant on Kauai in the Hawaiian Islands… but that’s another travelogue altogether.)

Hovenweep itself is a cluster of ancient Puebloan communities similar to those at nearby Mesa Verde, but without the tourists. I understood that to get to the ruins you had to either have a high-clearance vehicle (which we did not) or be willing to hike several miles through the desert. It sounded perfect to me, and I was all excited to trek into the wilderness. We checked in at the visitor’s center and set up our camp.

“Okay… you ready to go?” I asked Josh. Clearly he was not.

“You go ahead, I think I’ll stay here and paint.”

I was annoyed, and it showed, but I understood that Josh wanted to spend some time by himself after being in my presence for so long.

“Are you pissed?” he asked. “Why can’t you go alone?”

All of a sudden I turned into a park ranger. I lectured him on the buddy system and why one should never strike out alone in the desert, especially in unfamiliar territory. I think I even said something about rattlesnakes, but I don’t quite recall. He tried to make a few pathetic excuses, but I said “Fine,” and walked off.

When it was all said and done, going our own ways was best. We clearly needed a break from each other. I had packed plenty of water, sunscreen, my hat, and some snacks. It was only four miles to Holly, which was the first of the three backcountry settlements. The trail was marked only by small rock cairns, and I lost my way a few times. After scrambling down a rock wall into the bottom of the canyon I pretty much had to follow the course of the wash for the first two miles. It had rained recently, washing away a few of the cairns and making it slippery in places. The trail ran across private as well as government land so I had to crawl through several stretches of barbed wire. Other than the crunch of my own boots and the skittering sound of lizards fleeing from my approach, it was completely silent. For anyone who likes to get off the beaten track, I highly recommend this hike. After the recent rain the desert smelled like the Carolina tide flats, like a salt marsh mixed in with thyme, sage and juniper.

Part of the Horseshoe settlement.

I spent an hour climbing around the towers of Holly, looking for shards of pottery and other artifacts. I discovered a few things and left them in place after inspecting them. The park brochure indicated that there were petroglyphs at Holly, but I never found them. I was so energized playing junior archeologist that I decided to continue on to the next settlements Horseshoe and Hackberry. While Holly is in a small canyon and may have housed a small population, Horseshoe and Hackberry were more like watch towers. Positioned on a canyon rim they commanded an excellent view of the desert to the south and Sleeping Ute.

I had lost track of the time and the afternoon was wearing away. Looking at the map in the park service brochure I determined that from my current position it would probably be easier to hike back to the road and come around to the campground from the park entrance. All together I hiked 14 miles that day. By the time I approached camp I was ready to be finished with walking. Maybe Josh had started something for dinner. It was about 7pm, and we had about an hour of light left that day.

Camp was deserted.

Where the hell was Josh? I sat for a few minutes and waited, going over the options of where he might be… up by the visitors center painting the ruin there, out on the bluff at the top of the canyon where I began my hike; he could be anywhere. Well, maybe he was nice and had left the car keys hidden somewhere. He had not.

After an hour the sun set, and I realized what had happened. The bastard had gone after me! I had been gone from camp for over five hours. After my little lecture about the ten thousand ways to die in the desert, he had panicked and charged to the rescue. Sweet, perhaps, but stupid. By now it was 8:30pm. I considered calling the rangers and starting a search, but thought better of it. They probably wouldn’t start a search until the next morning anyway, right? So I did what any good friend would do in a similar situation: I crawled in the tent and went to bed.

At about 10:30pm I heard footsteps approaching. Josh had made his way back to camp. I, of course, kept quiet, making him sweat for as long as possible until he opened the tent.

“Thank god you’re here!” he stammered, “I thought… well… let’s not spit up again.”

My suspicions were confirmed. I hadn’t returned from my hike and Josh had begun to worry. He felt guilty for bailing on our afternoon plan and was convinced I had fallen off a cliff or something. He grabbed a half-full bottle of water, his Leatherman, headlamp, and the GPS and took off down the trail after me. We had missed each other on the trail by 10 minutes. While he still had light, he followed my tracks down the dry wash. By sunset he had made it as far as Holly, where he lost my trail. For two hours he had backtracked in the dark, determined to get to the ranger station and start search and rescue.

It’s great to know you have a friend who cares enough to do something completely stupid for your benefit… real or imagined.

Web Resources

Traveler Article


Leave a Comment