The sheltering stone

The cliff dwellings rest in a sun-cupped alcove a hundred feet above me. I had seen them earlier from a distance, when, still in morning shadow, they had appeared to be nothing but debris from the flash floods that created this Utah canyon.

But now with sunlight pouring down the precipice, it's clear the opening holds remnants not of mud but of masonry: houses stone-walled and solemn, perfectly preserved in the desert air.

For a moment I don't move. Others may have caught sight of them since the Anasazi Indians - the pre-Columbian ''Ancient Ones'' - abandoned the canyon, but for an instant I share a fleeting kinship with Weatherill at Mesa Verde, with Bingham in Incan Peru, with all those who have turned a corner to discover the stones of a lost civilization.

These cliff houses are inaccessible: Centuries have sheared away the ledges linking them to the ground. But the alcove seems to mark a boundary of some kind , and beyond this point the canyon becomes suddenly rich in ruins. As I continue downstream, each south-facing bend, splashed in sunlight, reflects Anasazi handiwork.

Most of these airy edifices can be reached only with a rope, but toward midday I glimpse some not far above the canyon floor. In minutes I've worked my way up to where storage granaries and a row of small-windowed houses with keyhole doorways have been tucked discreetly beneath an overhang.

Most startling to me is what I could not see from below: pieces of pottery, tools, and corncobs - enough to fill a small room of a museum - lying unprotected and unchronicled in the sand. Usually in the wilderness it is the awesome terrain - the overarching cliffs, the silent painted landscapes - that can humble a sojourner. But here it is something broken and man-made that instills in me a sense of my own transience, evoking the generations that have come and gone since these household effects were held in someone's hand.

A friend who is familiar with southern Utah canyons cannot speak about them without tears. They are being dismantled, he says, by looters who come to unearth burial mounds and sacred kivas for the relics. These little-known canyons - as rich in antiquity as Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelly, but lacking those parks' celebrity - are having their legacies funneled into black markets instead of museums. They are America's ''lost'' canyons, my friend says. Not undiscovered, but forgotten.

With his words in my ears, I resist the temptation even to touch the mosaic at my feet, and I continue the journey down the canyon. For the rest of the afternoon, I follow the stream bed as it curls past a score of other ruins. The stream itself is capricious. Never wider than a foot, it disappears entirely at times, sliding like quicksilver under the sand, then reappearing, providing a clue as to why the Anasazi eventually left, traveling to a water supply less ephemeral.

As a cold wind begins to whisk down the passageway, I can easily imagine an earlier evening at dusk: blankets being pulled tighter, pinon wood burning, fires glowing like orange ingots all along the cliff alcoves.

Hurrying on to find some shelter of my own, I scramble up to a rock terrace. I look immediately for ruins, but there are none, and I seize the thought - the sweet vanity - that I am the first person to venture up to this aerie.

It is then, in the midst of the reverie, that I see the petroglyph. Etched so faintly into the cliff as to be almost imperceptible, the drawing - a figure of a serpent flanked by sketches of bighorn sheep - dispels any lingering doubt I had as to the canyon's role for the Anasazi. The dwellings I've come across were merely houses; the canyon itself - every foot of it - was home.

As my eyes follow the sandstone wall up to a lilac evening sky, I recall the words of a writer who suggested the Indians passed through the land ''silently, leaving as little trace as sunlight through wind.'' Such evanescence may be a matter of perspective. From high overhead, from the inside of the airliners that regularly cross this corner of the Southwest, the canyon would appear to be simply an empty cleft in the wilderness. But for anyone entering these walls, each bend - with its relics and ruins and rock art - is a separate chord of discovery. Surrounded by the hush of the desert, the canyon has become a requiem in stone.

of stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read  of 5 free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Unlimited digital access $11/month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.