It was in the spring of 1925 that a young Easterner named Clyde Kluckhohn, on sabbatical from Princeton to spend a year working on a cattle ranch near Ramah, New Mexico, first learned from a Zuñi Indian of the natural phenomenon called Nonne-zoche Not-se-lid (meaning “Rainbow of Stone”), standing at the very end of the Navajo world but considered by those few who had seen it more wonderful than the Great Cañon itself. “Far, far,” the Zuñi explained, “hard on horses . . . no water . . . no food . . . nothing but rock and rock.” Kluckhohn, though still green as a willow-wand after a year out West, concluded nevertheless that Nonne-zoche Not-se-lid was one of the things he was determined to see before returning to the East and school. Barely able to control a riding horse, and with scarcely a notion how to load a pack animal, he purchased two horses from a local livestock dealer and set out from Ramah. After several mishaps along even this short way, Kluckhohn arrived in Albuquerque, where he met up with a “knight of the road” named Roy Anderson, a youth his own age from New York City en route to Chicago astride a gelding called Bill. Ten days later, they set out on an expedition together, westward across the land of the Navajo in search of Nonne-zoche Not-se-lid.
Among patriots of the rural American West, generally, and the Colorado Plateau, in particular, the great cause for celebration is the present condition of Lake Powell (“Lake Foul” to Ed Abbey), whose apparent impending demise would reverse the preservationist movement’s colossal defeat in the late 1950’s, when it lost the legal battle to prevent the construction of Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River and the flooding of the mystical maze of slickrock canyons behind it with 253 square miles of water encircled by 1,900 miles of shoreline. Two decades of drought in the West, aggravated by explosive population growth downstream in southern Nevada and California, have shrunk the lake dramatically, leaving marinas high and dry while raising the drowned canyon systems into view again. Saturated by lake water after 40 years’ submersion, the sandstone releases captured moisture like a pressed sponge to irrigate the slickrock wilderness, watering the germinating flora and succoring the fauna the vegetation attracts. For Abbey, Glen Canyon was simply the most beautiful place on earth. The back-of-beyond grapevine (sustained nowadays by electronic technology in addition to smoke signaling, drumming, and subversive conversation over three-two beers) has it that the canyon is not only visible but visitable by old-fashioned pedal locomotion. After discovering that even the New York Times was wise to the liberation of Glen Canyon, I called Tom Sheeley in Flagstaff to suggest we make our spring backpack trip there. Tom, while intrigued, cautioned that skiffs, kayaks, or rafts might be necessary for part of the trip down from the Escalante Plateau to the Colorado River. When an intervening concert tour caused him to abandon plans for the trip, I phoned Don Eason in Fort Collins with a similar proposition. Don is a design engineer, a man who can make a computer talk the way Tom Sheeley makes a classical guitar sing. Within days, he’d provided me with a series of links proving, beyond argument, that the waters of Lake Powell have not receded sufficiently to make Glen Canyon navigable on foot. Why not, he offered by way of an alternative, a hike from Navajo Mountain on the Arizona-Utah border down to Rainbow Bridge, spanning Bridge Creek a mile or so upstream of the lake’s present waterline?
Traveling by an arduous route over often nonexistent trails indicated by local bushwhackers (“You can’t miss it!”), their lives frequently jeopardized by a series of bad horse trades, Clyde Kluckhohn and Roy Anderson made their way over the Jemez Mountains and across northwestern New Mexico to the Land of the Dineh. Here, their candid naivete, humility in attempting to master a nearly impossible language, adventurous pluck, and touching greenness won them the trust and friendship of the Navajo even in advance, as word of their approach preceded them from one village to the next until they arrived at last at Kayenta, Arizona, and the trading post of John Wetherill—the legendary rancher, explorer, and pot hunter who discovered Mesa Verde and whose private excavations were directly responsible for the Antiquities Act of 1906 urged by President Roosevelt, later to be himself a guest of the Wetherills. Among the many discoveries Wetherill made famous was Rainbow Bridge, which he was away visiting with his good friends Zane Grey and Jesse Lasky when the young adventurers presented themselves to Mrs. Wetherill. Disregarding warnings against attempting to find their way, unguided, around Navajo Mountain and down through the sandstone maze to the bridge, Kluckhohn and Anderson rode out from Kayenta a few days later on fresh mounts, uneasily aware as they went of their hosts’ expectation that only the rare luck of meeting John Wetherill himself, returning along the trail, stood between them and destruction in the roseate heart of the desert wilderness.
Don had brought his sons Brendan and Cullen, aged 14 and 11, along on the expedition, making a party of four. At the end of a long day’s drive from Fort Collins, we reached the Valley of the Gods a few miles north of Mexican Hat, Utah, and camped on the soft red floor of the desert below Cedar Mesa, 2,000 vertical feet overhead. We rose next morning as the towering sandstone chimneys standing round began to glow, and by ten o’clock Kayenta was behind us, and we were passing the turnoff to Betatakin. Approaching Nat-sis-an—Navajo Mountain—from the southeast by a washboard reservation road, we lost a half-hour when we stopped to change a tire for a Navajo family stranded by a flat and completely helpless without a jack, using the Montero’s to install the doughnut they carried for a spare in a trunk filled with wooden totem poles carved in China. The two-track trails diverging from the trunk road were unmarked, resulting in the loss of another 90 minutes as Don maneuvered in compound-low over the rock-cobbled and boulder-strewn apron of the dark whale-backed monolith of Nat-sis-an in search of the route leading to the trailhead. The third try proved lucky, but it was two o’clock already when we shouldered the packs and stood poised with our hiking staffs in hand and laden with water weight (two-and-a-half liters per person) to survey the vast labyrinth of purple, red, pink, lavender, buff, and yellow rock into which we were preparing to descend.
“Seven miles to water,” Don said. “We should make it down with daylight to spare, so long as we maintain a good pace and just keep moving.”
The Kluckhohn-Anderson party traveled by the North Trail to the Rainbow Bridge, approaching the wilderness of rock they called the Moon by way of the north face of Nat-sis-an. Both trails, north and south, were “developed” over the years by John Wetherill, in places with the aid of a few charges of dynamite. How much of this “development” was accomplished by 1925, I have no idea; according to Kluckhohn’s personal account in his wonderful book To the Foot of the Rainbow, it must have been minimal. In this land of tight-spaced red domes, dubbed “planet tops” by Clyde and Roy, the obvious path appeared to be around and between these stone hemispheres. When a way round proved impossible, they considered the impossible—and discovered the marks of horseshoe nails in the soft sandstone hummocks. Wetherill’s “trail” led over, not around, the great bald-rock domes,
up cliffs so steep and slippery that we in our boots could not walk up them; we clung to our horses’ necks with our hands and pressed our spurs into their flanks. . . . In one place we went across a ledge so narrow that our horses could not stand on it with their feet parallel, and it was quite a nice drop to the little cañon below. There again we clung to our horses’ necks and prayed.
What Wetherill’s Hollywood and East Coast dudes must have made of this experience is a matter for entertaining speculation.
Past the domes, including the horror Kluckhohn and Anderson named Glass Mountain, were twisting, converging canyons leading to Zane Grey’s Surprise Valley, a lovely self-contained oasis surrounded entirely by red sandstone walls breached by two narrow apertures whose sole exit amounted to “an exhausting perpendicular process.” Beyond Surprise Valley, the adventurers came to Nonne-zoche Boco—Bridge Cañon itself! But even here, Wetherill’s trail, crossing and recrossing the slippery rocks of the creekbed, burrowing through thick groves of oak and willow, and traversing rock ledges 20 feet above the canyon floor, offered only partial respite from the ordeal it had so consistently presented. The tired horses, inattentive and careless of their footing, stumbled and fell, causing their disappointed riders to make camp finally in a place they felt in their bones to be less than a day’s journey from their destination.
Topographical maps don’t lie, exactly, but they have been known to dissemble—as our map, downloaded from the internet, certainly did. The South Trail is said to be tougher than the North—in fact, it has the reputation of being the most strenuous in southeastern Utah. The traverse along the westerly base of Navajo Mountain proved rougher by far than either Don or I had expected, actually gaining elevation on its way to the pass above Cliff Creek from which the descent to the Moon begins. In a change of plans, we camped for the night on a windswept promontory a half-mile short of the pass and made an early start next morning, struggling down a long tongue of avalanched rubble to the creek bottom, where we found water at last. Here, we established our base camp on a grassy bench above the creek beneath a sandstone overhang screened by piñon pines—a natural campsite where John Wetherill and Zane Grey had doubtless preceded us a time or two, or more. Sleepy from fatigue and shrimp jambalaya reconstituted with creek water, we fell asleep listening to a performance by the full canyonlands orchestra—frogs, bullbats, owls, coyotes, with now and then a cougar joining in—whose crescendi were loud enough to make conversation between the tents finally impossible. Don arose at a little past dawn to take photographs, and, at nine, we resumed the march to the bridge, under saddle still but carrying only a liter of water apiece and lunch in the deflated packs.
Redbud Pass, like a mountain arisen between the pressing walls of a slickrock canyon, is one of the places where Wetherill notably employed his dynamite. Either the trail over it has significantly deteriorated since his day, or the horses he rode belonged to the winged breed. We scrambled up the gravelly steep on the south side, spidered down over boulders on the north, and hiked on another mile to Echo Park, where Rosebud and Bridge Canyons meet. If Echo Park were not, in fact, where Kluckhohn and Anderson spent their last night before reaching Not-se-lid, they failed to avail themselves of God’s own Hampton Inn, prepared especially for them from the beginning of time. As for Don, Brendan, Cullen, and me—we kept walking.
“Oh!” Don exclaimed, as, lagging the hurrying boys around the final bend, we encountered Rainbow Bridge spanning the canyon ahead: tall enough and wide enough to accommodate the Capitol in Washington, with plenty of room to spare. Simple though his response was, I couldn’t think of anything to add to it.
“It was hard to believe that this thing was of cold hard stone,” Clyde Kluckhohn writes in his book.
We found that we had not realized the great size of the arch, for it is so wonderfully graceful and so perfectly proportioned that its beauty rather than its colossal size first engages the attention. . . . For hours we walked and sat and looked. . . . At last we slept. At the foot of the rainbow, we had not found the pot of gold but content and happiness.
Forty years later, the Kluckhohn-Anderson party could have power-boated directly under the bridge, following an inlet of Lake Powell. Today, the Eason-Williamson one could have struck within a mile of the thing, owing to the lake’s protracted evaporation.
But who would have Nonne-zoche Not-se-lid in that way, on those terms? No one but the sort of man who would be content with a whore in place of a lover, or a wife.
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