Like a lone desert tower, I sit on the red dirt, eyeing a storm over Navajo Mountain. It’s January, a cold and dark time to be out camping, even in the desert, but I cannot resist any opportunity for quixotic exploration across the Colorado Plateau. Be it canyons, history or artifacts, this is a place layered in secrets, steeped in mystery and covered in controversy.
During my explorations in the Southwest, my mind often bushwhacks through time. To a time long before Glen Canyon was dammed, before white men put this region on a map, and before humans stepped foot where dinosaurs roamed. My imaginary time travel has taken me down narrow slot canyons with Everett Reuss, on bumpy covered wagon rides down Hole in the Rock road, and to corn storage hubs in ancient Puebloan hideouts. Despite the perception that the golden age of discovery is long over here, the shifting layers of sand, strata and politics still draw a certain breed of mad ones, fools and wanderers as the landscape calls out over the faint zephyr winds, “Explorers wanted.”
So, on this trip back in time, I join Ansel Hall, perhaps best known and revered for his role as the National Park Service’s first chief naturalist between 1923-30. His efforts within the park system are punctuated by founding the first park museums and other educational endeavors, including self-publishing his own visitor guidebooks when the government would not produce them to his standards. A California native (like myself), Hall was entranced with exploring the Sierra Nevada, starting out as a ranger in Sequoia National Park and working his way up the Park Service hierarchy always with a focus on education.
In Kayenta, Ariz., circa 1932, alongside prominent local explorer John Wetherill, Hall became increasingly entranced by the area’s densely pocketed nooks, slithering canyons and vision-gripping mountains. “One cannot be long in the southwest without crossing the trail of John Wetherill,” Hall explains in his first “Help Wanted” ad, hoping to recruit 10 willing explorers (1933). “In the (eighteen) eighties he discovered Cliff Palace and many of the spectacular ruins of the Mesa Verde. Rainbow Bridge, Betatakin, Keet Seel, Inscription House and dozens of other names have been added to the map through his inquisitive and energetic quest for what lies on the other side of the mountain.”
To some, Wetherill was often considered less than savory in his exploratory and excavation methods. In the academic and conservations worlds, his process was a little more “cowboy” than other professionals in his field:
“‘Look at this!’ (Wetherill) walked over to the corner of the long low room and dragged out an enormous three-foot bone that he had found the week before, with the remark that he, ‘guessed the rest of the beast is still mostly underground.’” (Hall, A. California Monthly, Vol. 30 “Explorers Wanted,” 1933). Despite his lack of formal training, there is no denying his pivotal contributions to archaeology in the Four Corners.