After a peaceful night’s sleep, I woke to an early dawn in the desert scrub, the air filled with the scent of sagebrush and juniper. There were a handful of far-off sounds from vehicular traffic, but for the most part all was quietude with the occasional outburst of song from a passing bird. The stillness invited a contemplation that I enjoyed with my quick breakfast and hot coffee. There were some clouds in the sky, but not enough to obscure the rising sun from painting those same clouds vivid oranges and reds, bringing further cheer to an already sparkling morning.
Not wanting to hike during the heat of the day I soon made my way over to the trailhead that would allow me to hike from the campground at the Square Tower Unit of Hovenweep National Monument to first the Holly Unit and then the Horseshoe and Hackberry Unit. From Square Tower to Holly is approximately four miles distance. The trail is challenging only where it descends from the canyon rim soon after departing the trailhead. I had to scramble down rocks and pass through a narrow crack between two large rocks so as to enter into Little Ruin Canyon proper. The canyon isn’t particularly deep, but like so much of the Colorado Plateau the walls are nearly vertical in most places and access from the rim to the bottom or vice-versa is often challenging.
The canyon bottom is fairly barren, there being some of the ubiquitous desert scrub brush strewn about as Mother Nature would have it. The trail would sometimes follow the sandy wash, making footing a challenge as walking through sand always takes more effort than a hard pack surface does. After walking downstream along Little Ruin Canyon for about a half a mile, the trial makes a sharp left-hand turn and climbs a tributary, Keeley Canyon. Somewhere before this canyon terminates at the Holly Unit I pass from Utah back into Colorado and as I slowly climbed in elevation the vegetation became a bit more fuller and lush, cottonwoods and other species denoting the presence of water becoming more prominent.
In this canyon bottom all is quiet and peaceful. I felt truly isolated from the world at large, with no more responsibility on my shoulders than to pass through this natural setting without creating a trace of my passage beyond my footprints and whatever snapshots I saw fit to take. The sun began to shine early and the canyon caught the warmth, but at this early hour it was pleasant and not oppressive. I soon passed by my first ruin, a mound of undistinguished rubble that seemed to be set off by itself from other ruins. I stopped to observe and wonder, but otherwise soon continued on my way to the Holly Unit.
I knew that I was getting close to the Holly Unit when the trail climbed back out of the canyon bottom through another narrow defile and I scrambled back out onto the rim of the canyon, where I had a fine view of the surrounding country side plus long views all the way down to Shiprock and over to Sleeping Ute Mountain. The vegetation on the rim is a bit different, more sagebrush and not any cottonwood here. This is dry, challenging country and the thought crosses my mind, once again, that perhaps this area was a bit lusher when people originally settled the area.
Eventually, I spotted the ruins standing on the horizon, their walls of tan stone catching the still early light of the morning. I passed through the fence erected to keep out cattle and made my way to the ruins. Here are numerous structures, including one, the Holly House, that has the original beams used some eight hundred years ago, and another, the Holly Tower, that sits on a large boulder in the canyon and has hand and foot holds chipped from that same boulder upon which it sits.
Observing these ruins leaves me with a sense of wonder and awe. These walls, standing without maintenance for hundreds of years, may not be on the same scale as Greek or Roman ruins, but are still a reminder of the human will to endeavor and create. There are no people here besides myself, only the spirits of those who came before, not exactly ghosts but a presence, a presence that suggest thriving life. There are many theories and ideas about the reason or purpose for these structures but in the end regardless of purpose or intent the stonework endures and the mystery becomes almost irrelevant.
Now on top of the mesa, out of the canyons and their confining walls, I could see for miles in most directions. The time came for me to move some more, and I walked from the Holly Unit to the Horseshoe and Hackberry Unit not quite a mile away. The pinyon trees remind me that there is plenty of food here for people to eat. The Ancestral Puebloans, hunters and gatherers in addition to gardeners and raisers of livestock, left little behind when they migrated elsewhere after abandoning these structures. The exact reasons remain a mystery, but may be surmised keeping in mind that nothing is definitive.
At Horseshoe and Hackberry the ruins sit at the head of Hackberry Canyon, a tributary of Bridge Canyon which is the next drainage east of Little Ruin Canyon. Both these defiles drain into McElmo Creek and eventually south to the San Juan River. At the Hackberry Group lies what was thought to be the largest village or community of Ancestral Puebloans in the region. The National Park Service literature talks about the mystery of these villages demise, and how the mortar was made from clay, ash and sand. Each of these stones was shaped for fit, but no one is sure if the work was done by specialized masons or the community at large. These mysteries can overwhelm the mind and for the moment I put them all aside and just observe and respect what I can see, namely the numerous structures, walls and heaps of rubble from those centuries past.
The views from these groups allow fine observation of the canyon below as well as the surrounding land on the mesas. There seems to be some hint that some of the structures were used for defense, but it isn’t definitive. Human nature being what it is, it doesn’t seem unreasonable that warfare would have existed on some scale, but that is also rather presumptive.
Horseshoe, named for the shape of the pattern that the main body of buildings were laid out, and Hackberry are strewn with numerous ruins that create a further sense of wonder and speculation. No other people are here, and I am able to take plenty of time to stare and let my mind wander. The modern barriers are minimal, and allow, in places, a curious person to get a good, close-up look at some of the stone work and general architecture. There are even small diversions that control water for agriculture and the totality of this community boggles my mind. These people, however it is looked at, had at least a modicum of civilization in addition to the culture that all peoples have.
I have seen enough here and am ready to make my way back to the campground. I slowly hike back to the Holly Unit and revisit the towers and houses. This sight may not be the most extensive, but what is here is my favorite and appeals to me. I see some other visitors, but the sense of solitude is not disturbed. I revisit my favorite structure, the Holly Tower, and am happy to find that the sun has shifted enough to enhance its features. The way that the Holly House sits above the canyon rim captivates my sense of appropriateness and harmony. I am struck by a sense of the totality of the scene, almost overwhelming. How closely related were these builders to the peoples further south who built such monumental structures?
I hike back down Keeley Canyon, passing folks, who presumably got a late start, that were hiking up canyon in the beaming sun. It was warm, and the only sound nearby was the crunch of my shoes on the sand and gravel in the dry wash that the trail follows. The trail isn’t terribly long, four miles or so, just enough to allow me to process all that I saw and let my mind dwell on the meaning, if any, and lessons these ruins have for our modern society.
Reaching the campground, I suddenly feel exhausted and tired. No wonder, I began hiking at about eight this morning and it is now afternoon, about three. It has already been a long day of sightseeing and exploration. My tent is inviting in the warm afternoon sun and I am soon horizontally reposed. Most of the next two or three hours are spent either sleeping or reading materials about the ruins or some of the magazines that I brought along for the inevitable moments of quiet time like these.
As the evening approached, I began to feel rested. Thus, I took the opportunity to make a hike along the Little Ruin Trail. The Little Ruin Trail has the best preserved sets of ruins and these were further enhanced by the low angle of the light from the setting sun. Easily accessible from the campground and visitor center, there were numerous people out and about, and everyone was fascinated and entranced by the striking ruins sitting on the rim of the canyon as well as those that were in the bottom. So much effort and work were put into these structures long abandoned but still here hundreds of years later.
The setting sun inexorably sank further down towards the horizon before finally being eclipsed by the Earth’s curvature. The last golden rays struck the walls of the ruins and added hues and tones seen only at this moment. I walked back to my campsite and made supper as the sky slowly turned darker. Soon the first stars would be out and the night’s chill would encourage an addition of a layer of clothes to what I was already wearing. The fire was warm, though, and the clear sky sparkled with the many jewels of far-off stars and galaxies.
To bed, to sleep, to dream were all in my immediate future, but not before I spied a few meteors streaking across the darkness. Coyotes howled nearby, and reminded me that not all is solely human related, that there are other mysteries here and beyond. The night darkened to its deep, dark blue, nearly black, hue and the fire burned through all the fuel, ceasing the yellow light and flickering flame and changing to a steady orange glow emitting heat and comfort. Occasionally, whenever I felt a slight chill, I would stir the coals, sending up a stream of sparks concomitant with the ubiquitous crackling sound, all of which was comforting to my body and soul. Eventually the warmth decreased and the stars lost their power to stave off sleep, and sleep is what I did, and as I prepared to lose consciousness I also eagerly anticipated the next day.