The endless dendritic sprawl of Grand Gulch and its side canyons and side-side canyons; the perfect ivory architecture of Fish and Owl; the puzzle-box of John’s Canyon, and upper Dark Canyon, with its owl-haunted timber and vagrant black bears down from the alpine haunts of the Abajo Mountains; the obscure ante-chambers of the lower San Juan, Whirlwind, Steer and the rest, behind the back of beyond and hardly visited or known: I explored all these and more, by foot (usually) and raft (occasionally), in all four seasons. After awhile, I felt like I had visited or at least knew of every remarkable place out there, even the most seldom seen, like the Great Kiva discovered less than twenty years ago beneath an overhang in an abandoned oxbow of Grand, or that pour-off guarded hanging garden “Somewhere South of the Needles,” miraculously inhabited by a race of aerialistic deer who tiptoe in and out on invisible trails across the steep smooth sandstone…or that most enigmatic and sinister of petroglyphs, the Green Mask, with its long red hair, staring with cold blank eyes down-canyon… .
So I was properly amazed when someone showed me a photograph of a spot partway down a canyon I know well, a surreally dramatic place that looked like something out of Lord of the Rings: a narrow ramp of slickrock, with a sheer precipice dropping off a thousand feet on either side, leading from the edge of a mesa to an isolated tower with fortress-like stone walls beneath the topmost cliffs. “The Anasazi Castle,” people called it.
A few days later, we drove south to Cortez, took the back road around the north side of Sleeping Ute Mountain, west by southwest into Utah, and then a succession of ever-smaller and less road-like roads, ending up on a bumpy dirt and bedrock track littered with cobblestones. The directions we had turned out to be wrong: that certain turnoff that led to the trailhead was nearly half a mile further along than we’d thought. Somehow we sussed, lucked and guessed our way onto the right route, and a few minutes later we were parked at the trailhead by the canyon edge and hiking west along the rimrock.
A network of trails rambled through the pinyon/juniper, through sandy gullies, across rolling expanses of bare sandstone. Somehow we found the spot where the trail drops down off the rim onto steep slickrock, the route a combination of scrambling down ledges and between boulders and side-stepping from cairn to cairn across the steep-as-a-roof rock.
We could see the Castle clearly now, with the narrow ramp leading to it. The empty windows in the fortress walls stared down at us; it was easy to imagine the Anasazi sentinels looking out over the rimrock and the canyon floor far below, watching for enemies. Archeologists have recently uncovered evidence of a nightmarish cannibal cult, imported from Meso-America and based at Canyon de Chelly. Its members sharpened their teeth to wolf-like fangs; they swept across the Southwest, through the San Juan River drainage, slaughtering, cooking and devouring the inhabitants of the many small Anasazi communities.
I am just guessing, but I think this remote redoubt was built to defend against this threat; and it’s nice to report that when we crossed over the stone bridge and clambered up to the walls and chambers of the fort, they were totally intact: no sign that the place was ever conquered and pillaged.
It looked like the fort’s builders survived the period of war and invasion, and abandoned their stronghold when the threat was gone. Whatever ghosts there were, they were happy ghosts, the ancestors of generations who survived, and live on today in the Rio Grande and Hopi pueblos far to the south.