My respirations were steadily increasing with the steepness of the terrain. I could feel my heart thumping as I made my way ever upward toward my objective. I had left my truck behind two days earlier, journeying northward by bike—traversing sandy washes, climbing up and over steep ridges, and cruising on tabletop mesas. Over a hundred miles of gravel, dirt and sand had passed under my tires. My slickrock camp the previous night was poised on the edge of a deep remote canyon far from any paved roads or population centers. I was virtually in the middle of nowhere.
At first light I departed camp and made my way down the steep canyon wall to the sage-filled valley below. I saw my objective immediately as it sat high on a cliff face peering unwaveringly over the valley as it has for nearly 1000 years. As I made my way down the valley my mind began to wander back in time…what was the landscape like 1000 thousand years ago…what would it be like to live in this environment—spending days farming in the valley and nights perched under an overhang high above the valley… what were daily interactions like…how were communities organized…etc. Such questions and many others were the impetus for this recent bike adventure: the Tour de Ancients.
My objective: Remnants of an ancient culture
As a dreamer and doer of sorts I always have something on my “Adventure To Do List.” The hard part is just trying to figure out which adventure to undertake. May is a great time to head to the desert as the trails of the high mountains can still be snow locked; desert temperatures are warm yet not unbearably hot; and water can usually easily be found—so a desert adventure it would be…now to find a willing partner or two. After putting the word out about possibly rappelling into remote slot canyons or packrafting a seldom-run desert river, I had lots of interest, but no strong commitments. As my scheduled departure date loomed quickly on the horizon, I made the decision to make this adventure a solo endeavor. To minimize my risk by traveling solo I decided to forgo the more adventurous pursuits—no solo canyoneering or paddling trips. Instead I would undertake an adventure on two wheels.
Signs left behind for hundreds of years
The canyons of the desert southwest are home to thousands of ancient Puebloan ruins and artifacts. The first well documented residents of the area were known as Basketmakers. Inhabiting the canyons from 200 to 700 AD, the Basketmaker culture was thought to evolve from nomadic people who learned to plant and cultivate corn. From 1060 to 1270 the Pueblo culture flourished. The Puebloans were capable architects and left behind sophisticated stone structures, many of which were located on cliffs high above the valley floors where their crops were grown.
Granaries high above the valley floor
Throughout my many wanderings of the southwest, I have visited numerous Puebloan ruins. These visits have always stirred in me a desire to learn more about this ancient culture as well as to spend more time exploring the canyons where they made their homes. With no willing partners for a high adventure this would be a great time to discover and explore some more ruins. Given the terrain (sand and more sand), the Mukluk would be the perfect tool for the trip. My goal was to load up the fatbike with all of my usual bikepacking gear, plus the necessary carriers to haul ten liters of water.
Loaded and ready for a desert adventure
Spring time in the desert
My tour began on the San Juan River where it cuts a path through a north to south uplift known as Comb Ridge. This geological formation is 80 miles long and is home to hundreds of Puebloan ruins. The ridge is bordered on either side by sandy washes. On the northern end of the ridge, BLM-managed roads run through the washes making the ridge easily accessible for exploration. I would ride north on the east side of the ridge until it ends in the Abajo Mountains. Once in the Abajo’s, my aim was to explore some remote canyons sandwiched between the mountains and the Colorado River to the west before returning via an old ATV route cutting sharply through the northern terminus of the ridge to its west side and then back to the truck. All in all, my week would be spent both riding and hiking with the goal to visit and explore as many ruins as possible.
The east side of Comb Ridge—the former home to many
It wasn’t long after leaving the truck that I was stashing the bike behind some sage and hiking down into a side canyon as it exited Comb Ridge. The early morning was cool and still. I paused on a small ledge halfway down the eastern canyon wall to take in my surroundings. The canyon floor was filled with grasses and tall reeds. Aged cottonwood trees were leafed out and standing tall as they have for many years. A pair of ravens pierced the stillness as they circled from above to land in a nearby tree and chat away to me…what were they trying to tell me? Were they welcoming me into their land or were they warning me to not disturb this former land of the ancients?
As my eyes scanned the surrounding canyon walls, I spied several small adobe structures perched under a southeast facing overhang near the base of the opposite canyon wall. Throughout the region many such dwellings are found under overhangs with similar aspects. It is believed that in the winter with the sun lower in the sky, these south aspect overhangs became mini solar collectors creating a warm home of such. Likewise, with the sun higher in the sky during summer months, the overhangs provided much needed shade. With water present in the bottom of the canyon and what looked like a spring seeping from the canyon wall nearby, I surmised that this dwelling was used as a home where the Puebloans lived on a daily basis versus just storing food (a granary) or acting as a lookout tower.
A common building site for the architects of the past
Once on the canyon floor the challenge was to find a path across the thickly vegetated wash. An added challenge was the steep eroded embankments of the wash which made things really tricky as I sought to get a firsthand view of the ruin I had spied from above. Scrambling on all fours up a crumbling sandy wall, I finally made it to my objective. There sitting under the steep canyon wall were the remnants of an ancient culture…a doorway into the past. As I crawled out of the wash and stood to inspect my surroundings, the croaking of the raven pair stopped and the canyon went silent. In front of the overhang, which protected the dwellings from the elements, was virtually a field of prickly pear cactus all in bloom for the spring. It was beautiful. Before embarking on this trip, I had heard that prickly pears are opportunists and will take root wherever soil has been significantly disturbed. Was I standing in the former garden of the people who once called these preserved structures home?
The Opportunist—the Prickly Pear
As I stepped gingerly through the field of cactus to the overhang, my eyes came upon something which stopped me in my tracks. I was standing in the dwelling’s midden pile—its refuse pile. Broken pieces of ancient clay pots (also known as potsherds) littered the ground below me. Some potsherds had intricate designs painted on them, while others had designs etched into them. I could not move without stepping on an ancient artifact. Consequently, I retraced my steps out of the midden pile and sought out another path to the structures.
Remnants of artifacts from a time long gone
A rare find—the lip of an ancient pot
Standing under the overhang and among the structures, the usual questions raced to the forefront of my mind. Though I was the only person within the ruin, I felt and saw the presence of others all around me. Tiny hand and finger prints could be seen in the mud walls of each structure where these former architects toiled building a place of shelter and storage. On the floor in the back of what appeared to be almost a small closet of sorts were many small dried corncobs. Additionally, on a large flat boulder lying under the center of the overhang was a metate (stone bowl) carved into the sandstone with a broken mano (grinding stone) resting nearby. These tools were essential items for grinding corn and other grains.
Corn cobs—a staple of the Puebloans
Metates carved deep into the sandstone
A broken Mano
Standing among these ancient stone walls and artifacts I thought to myself if only these walls could speak. It was as if the people who had lived here had only just left. I lingered a bit longer taking in the view up and down the canyon, my eyes searching for other signs of the ancients. Before long it was time to retrace my steps back to my bike and continue on my journey of exploration. Scenes such as the one above played out several more times as I took every opportunity to hike the many side canyons of Comb Ridge. I ended my day near the northern end of the ridge having only ridden 32 miles, but having hiked nearly 18. What a day! Making my evening’s camp underneath a group of cottonwood trees next to a creek, I easily drifted off to sleep dreaming of what it was like to walk among the ancients.
A great end to an already amazing day
TO BE CONTINUED….
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I grew up in a military family where we moved 13 times before I left for college. Consequently, I have the continual urge to explore and travel having climbed, kayaked, and biked all over our amazing planet. My passion for the outdoors drives me to seek out adventures which often times combine multiple modes of travel or activities (i.e. biking to a wilderness area and then backpacking in to climb a high peak). "Keeping life simple" is a guiding motto of my life and for me, bike travel epitomizes simplicity.