Ceiling House Ruin aka Fallen Roof Ruin in Mule Canyon: The fallen roof is lying in front of the ruins
When Utah tugged at my heart once again, I reached out to Craig Childs, whose books about the southwest exploration are high up in my list of favorites and he pointed me to Vaughn Hadenfeldt. “He knows a whopping bunch about that country, especially the archaeology.” Childs added. I googled Vaughn and from what I read, I was convinced Vaughn is my man. I called him up and we chatted for 15 minutes. He heard my detailed specifications for the trip patiently and promised to put together something suitable. I prodded him to send me an itinerary, give me a few choices.
“I don’t do itineraries.” He said, “You come over, we will have a great time.” For somebody who obsesses about minute details, I surprised myself by letting him get away with it. But boy, did he keep his word!
Everyday we packed into his squeaky clean truck at sunrise and drove deep into the southern Utah backcountry. Butler Wash, Cedar Mesa, Mule Canyon, Cigarette Springs, Moqi Dugway - the exotic, rugged names matched equally exotic and rugged landscapes. His long slim legs striding unhurried yet swift, his thumbs hooked into the loops of his backpack, Vaughn tackles the tough terrain with supreme ease. With over 25 years experience in this part of the world, he squirrels down 60 degree slopes with measured, optimum strides without needing support, his feet shod merely in open sandals. While I, in my fancy hiking shoes, had to scramble down half the time my butt on the rock. I quizzed him about the sandals.
“I can’t afford the socks.” He quipped.
Vaughn’s meticulously packed lunch: Tortilla, hummus, cucumber, tomatoes and avocados. Grapes for desert.
Vaughn is fiercely protective of the ruins and the land on which the Anasazi prodigiously built them. Leave them the way they are, he says fiercely. In front of the Furnace Ruins, his sharp eyes caught a man-made rocks arrangement. “They are not supposed to be here.” he insisted and in the 105 degree sweltering sun, proceeded to haul them away and dump them over the ledge. On the way to the Ceiling Ruins, he kicked away every alternate cairn. (Cairns are a small pile of rocks that trekkers build to mark trails.) “This is a preserved area,” he said, “We are not allowed to change it. If you need directions, read a map.”
Then why not taken down every cairn, I asked innocently. “If something happens to me down there, I want you to find your way back.” he said. The thought had not even occurred to me. “Kick them on the way out.” he added.
Outside the Ceiling Ruin, he noticed initials scratched into the bedrock by miscreants . “Cummon you people!” His voice trembled with pain - not anger, as he tried to erase the vandalism with his bear hands. To me he was a father mending to a wound to his offspring, so caringly his hands touched the rock.
A lucky Anasazi girl must have worn this pendant 800 years ago
Another day, I was busy setting up my camera for a composition. I noticed Vaughn scampering up a nearby hillock. I was busy shooting when he reappeared behind me, silent as a ghost. After my shot was done, he pulled out a dressed rock from his pocket and put it in my hand carefully. Undoubtedly it was an Anasazi artifact, easily 800 years old. He waited for me to interpret it. The groove must hold a stick and the stick can be tied through the holes. A small hammer? He shook his head. It was a pendant. A chain made of yucca or human hair would go through one set of holes and come out of the other. Worn facing the other side, a viewer would not know how the rock was hanging on the pendant.
The pendant is part of the outdoor museum of which Vaughn, along with a few of his friends, is a caretaker. I had read about the outdoor museum in Davis Robert’s In Search of the Ancient Ones. After several years of excavating Anasazi artifacts in the southwest, a closed knit group of archeologists had grown disillusioned with artifacts sitting in federal warehouses gathering dust waiting for funds or being stashed into glass cases in museums waiting for tourists – in either case, the artifacts loose their essence, their connection with the site they came from. Lately when the members of the group find artifacts during their backcountry jaunts, instead of turning it in to BLM, they leave the artifact in situ. As David Robert describes it succinctly in his book, “The artifact stays united with the landscape and the modern visitor had to do his homework to find it and appreciate both.
Vaughn at Mulley Point not too far from Edward Abbey’s favorite campsite
As much as I enjoyed walking with Vaughn, I looked forward to the breaks. Breaks was story time and Vaughn has plenty of them. He has walked with almost every southwest author I love reading – Fred Blackburn, Craig Childs, David Roberts. Edward Abbey, author of Desert Solitude, the moody book that inadvertently put Arches national park on the tourist map, was close to Vaughn. The fantastic story of Edward’s memorial service should be heard from Vaughn the way I did, standing on Edward’s favorite campground near Mulley Point. The story behind the Smithsonian story, the National Geographic story of the Anasazi ropes, the Everett Ruess story, the Comb Ridge traverse. Stories behind stories. Stories about stories, for hours I sat enthralled letting him speak in his quiet voice. No exaggeration, no purple prose, just a well told story of a life well lived.
Vaughn at the Edge of Cedar Mesa museum with the Anasazi ladder he discovered
On the last day, around 3 in the afternoon, we had visited two ruins including the pristine Target House. We had been to the mesmerizing panel of the Wolfman. It was blistering hot outside. Vaughn had a presentation to prepare for an event in Santa Fe the next day. “Let’s go back” I said when he asked me what I wanted to do next. Instead he drove me to Blanding. It was Sunday the next day and the museum would be closed, He did not want me to miss it.
It could easily be the last time I visit a museum with a guide who has contributed to the discovery and excavation of over two dozen prominently displayed artifacts.