A Church Not Made By Hands

Edge of the Cedars State Park

Petroglyph At the trailhead register a lot of people had complained that the path was a hard one to follow. The trail to Butler Wash ruins was, I think, less than a mile long but it meandered over slickrock and through sand and among ambiguous junipers.

If you made it to the end without becoming lost in the wilderness, though, then all the reconnoitering was worth it. There on the cliffs across a steep canyon silently sits a 20-room cliff dwelling, sheltered today by midday shadows and its own mystery.

'Time stands still' may be overwrought and overused to the point of meaningless these days, but if there is anywhere in America where the term still applies, it might very well be this place in southeastern Utah where the sounds of traffic fade, the sound of hawk wings flapping can be heard and, other than the fancy hiking shoes you wear or space-age plastic water bottle you carry, there is nothing to distinguish you from the millennia.

As we stood there transfixed, that terrific song by the Waterboys, 'A Church Not Made By Hands,' came to mind. My friend Staci said that we should stay to watch it darken.

Southeastern Utah is peppered with places like Butler Wash. A good guidebook to the area, Kathleen Rivers' 'Standing Rocks and Sleeping Rainbows: Mile by Mile Through Southeast Utah, points out some of the more accessible ones. Just down the road, in fact, are the Mule Canyon ruins. Here at Butler Wash, the cliff dwelling was probably occupied during a period of human history that scientists call the Great Pueblo Period, between about AD 1060 and AD 1250. The square kiva inside suggests that it was influenced by the Mesa Verde culture that flourished in Arizona at that time. Here, residents planted corn, beans and squash in the canyon below using relatively modern irrigation techniques. They also hunted. And then, like every single other ruin in the Southwest, it was abandoned 'inexplicably,' this one about 1300.

(Thought: When we abandon our towns, will we bother to write down why in a language our descendants will understand?)

The Museum

Early Day SomethingAnother ruin you can basically park next to is back in Blanding, at Edge of the Cedars State Park. Blanding is the administrative center of southeastern Utah, and the largest town in the region until you head west to Cortez, Colo., south to Window Rock, Ariz. or north to Moab. More than most others I have been to, I think, Edge of the Cedars and its excellent museum goes far to meld the mystery and beauty of Anasazi culture with today's art. That may sound odd, but the museum is pocketed by sculpture that evokes both cultures in a way that joins, not separates.

The Four Corners area, where Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona meet, is the traditional home to the Anasazi Indians, which can be thought of as precursors to today's Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and other Puebloan tribes, and the area is bounded by sacred mountains: San Francisco Peak, near Flagstaff, Ariz., Hesperus Peak near Durango, Colo., Taylor Mountain, near Gallup, N.M., and Blanca Peak, near Alamosa, Colo. The Anasazi comprised successive cultures of Indians here whose customs and art abilities gradually compounded upon each other.

Different cultures provide a different way to see the self, and of the primary mode to self-identification for Anasazi was their religion. Religious beliefs were based on natural events and animals and the relation people had to the Earth. All objects, Anasazi believed, had spirits.

If there is one lesson we can take from the Anasazi, it would be that in so many ways their culture succeeded where ours falls on its face. White people can only live in the desert - in small numbers, mind you - after extensive and detrimental modification to the surrounding topography. In comparison, thousands of Anasazi lived in settlements of astounding beauty which, although they survive to this day, are a nearly completely innocuous addition to the landscape.

Another great lesson would be that of how to make a good piece of pottery. Almost as much as they are known for building cities on cliffsides, the Anasazi are known for the beauty and durability of their pottery. Few human-made things today match the beauty, I think, of a black on white olla bowl. Edge of the Cedars museum contains hundreds of fantastic bowls, plates and baskets.

The museum gradually points the visitor outside to the ruin, which is a fairly extensive collection of foundations around a well-preserved kiva that you can climb down into. The ruin was put on the state historic registry in 1920 and the national registry in 1971.

At the quiet edge of the park is, I think, its best part. It is a small interpretive sculpture which through symbolism makes the connection between our world and the Anasazi's (assuming such a connection can ever be made). Like rock art, the sculpture creates a visual symbol more powerful than words where minds communicate past cultural barriers. Complex and imperfect, the message is not complete here until the viewer responds, and in the way we respond we might understand ourselves.

'I think we are here to heal,' says Staci as we walk back to the car.

Relaxing Particulars: Edge of the Cedars is open daily, year-round, except Thanksgiving and Christmas. The hours are 9 am to 6 pm April 16 through October 15, and 9 am to 5 pm from October 16 through April 15. Entrance, I think, costs $6 a car or $3 per person. To reach the park, start in the center of town and proceed west on Center Street for 6 blocks to 600 West. Turn north (right) and go 4 blocks to 400 North. Butler Wash is a short distance west on state Route 95. Blanding is the best place in the area to get gas and food; gas is also available in Bluff.

For information on the park, call (435) 678-2238 or email edgeofcedars@utah.gov

Blanding is the Utah starting spot for Trail of the Ancients, a semi-circle of roads that circles the Four Corners and passes dozens of historic and geologic sites. One could spend days or weeks exploring it.

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