John Wetherill near Rainbow Bridge in 1923. Courtesy of Harvey Leake.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-cha. The gears of my Jeep grind to a stop as I attempt to reverse out of my U-turn in the middle of the two-lane highway cutting across the backside of Navajo Mountain. It’s as if Sunny (the name of my stubborn old yellow mare) knew we were near the end of the paved road where her services were no longer required. Using fourth gear, the only one still working, I limp the old gal off the side of the road and tie her up next to an old metal water tank, “Bull Shit” streaked in red graffiti across it. I grab my pack and continue on without her, as is becoming far too customary on my desert expeditions.
A storm blew my Jeep north to canyon country over a month ago, when I began following a muddy road retracing the footsteps and stories of one of the Southwest’s most notable, misunderstood and elusive explorers – John Wetherill. John’s work spanned ranching in Mancos, owning a trading post in Kayenta and guiding the rich and famous in the desert. However, he is best known for his major contributions to U.S. archaeology, along with his brothers in the Wetherill clan, who differentiated the Basketmaker people from the Puebloans based on skull shapes, in addition to locating sites like Cliff Palace and Keet Seel. John is specifically written into the history books as the first white man to step foot under Rainbow Bridge. Despite his national renown and lifetime of accomplishments, John was a quiet guy who kept thin records, less than 15 pages scribbled in pencil, of his explorations (Blackburn, Fred. The Wetherills, 2006. P. 128-131). Unlike his more outspoken brother Richard, whom he out-lived by 30 years, John shunned spotlights on his accomplishments and often handed off the credit of his discoveries to the tourists he guided (Blackburn, p. 111).
The silence created additional space for trolls to fill in the blanks, accusing John and his brothers of unethical excavation practices like using dynamite in cultural sites and plundering artifacts for profit. All disproved in time, his fine work and revered reputation among natives and academics spoke volumes. Nary an explorer of the region, past or present, would deny being inspired by “Hosteen John” (a nickname respectfully given to him while living amongst the Navajo in Kayenta). Until the very end of his life in 1944, most adventurous souls (including Teddy Roosevelt) heading into the heart of what still remained a mysterious blank on modern maps, chose to hire him as their trusted guide.
John Wetherill in Glen Canyon. Courtesy of Harvey Leake
What little we know about John has been relayed through the reports of the men he guided and Wetherill family history, much of it passionately compiled by his great grandson Harvey Leake who is devoted to this documentation in addition to his day job as an electrician. My quixotic mission to “explore with John” began by meeting with Harvey in mid-February at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Disheveled and frazzled, my tan brimmed hat hiding my desert rat’s nest of bed head, I parked the Jeep and ran through the snow into the Shrine of the Ancients to make our 9 a.m. appointment. Harvey, already out-front waiting, greeted me eagerly while insisting we go inside to find a quiet corner to talk. As we took our seats, Harvey cannot hold back, “You got John all wrong!” It’s a direct criticism of my characterization of John in, “Explorers Wanted” (my last story for The Gulch, Issue 7). The admonishment is paired with an exuberant smile and a spark in his eyes – the kind that wells up when you are about to share something special, like a grandparent bestowing a birthday gift to a young child.
Ears wide open, I scribbled furious notes as Harvey set the record straight about John’s pedigree as a pioneering archaeologist and first-class human being. Stories about John could fill countless adventure novels and Western films, and perhaps that’s why his personal records are slim. The man seemingly used every precious second of his life tracing the lore of desert mysteries, while helping others curious spirits do the same. In terrain that at the time was still not completely mapped and is still in times of modern navigation tools seriously mysterious and seldom seen, John covered an unfathomable portion of it.
“When you get to a fork in the trail, will you choose the path of progress or the path of light?” -Harvey Leake
From here Harvey’s tone took an abrupt turn and he looked directly into my eyes, “When you get to a fork in the trail, will you choose the path of progress or the path of light?” he asked. Not exactly the dry history lesson I came here for. He explained this question is a tenant of the Wetherill family passed down to Harvey via their Quaker roots and life amongst the Navajo. The Quakers believe that human actions are directed by personal responsibility (“inner light”) as opposed to being puppeteered by God. The Navajo similarly believe in the personal choice to select positive thoughts and actions to impact the lives of not just themselves but the collective, as explained by Wolfkiller to John’s wife, Louisa, who translated many of his stories from Diné to English. Outliers in mostly Mormon Mancos, the Wetherill’s faith rooted in spiritual equality ultimately made them feel more at home amongst the Navajo, prompting their move. Reminding me that this was not a rhetorical question, Harvey asked me once again which path I would choose, to which I responded, “The path of light.”
Harvey smiled, and we proceeded to pull out maps, including a topo from 1953, to dissect an expedition route I planned to retrace. Two hours later, we’d hardly scratched the surface when Harvey needed to hit the road. Waving as we drove our separate ways, I rolled up a burrito and headed to the South Kaibab Trail. Looking down into the snow-frosted layers of geological time, I contemplated my next move in between bites of beans. Despite fully knowing that the tremendous recent snowfall would make canyon wandering impossible, I returned to the Jeep and pointed north on the highway. The “path of light” leading me to Cedar Mesa.
I kick my running shoes together, shaking off some of the red Utah mud they’ve become caked in as I’ve spent over a month of the Colorado Plateau’s wettest winter on record living outside in the same canyons that John also called home. During long dark nights, temperatures dipped into the single digits, I devoured accounts of John’s “discoveries” and adventures as told by his exploring contemporaries T. Mitchell Prudden, Neil Judd, Jesse Nusbaum, Ansel Hall and Charles Bernheimer. Burning the midnight oil (of my headlamp) I read that, “Nearly all the brothers’ archaeological excursions took place in winter, the only season they could spare from ranch work. The sheer logistics of Wetherill’s toil in Grand Gulch – up before dawn, working long into the night, camping in snowstorms, packing artifacts by horseback over 100 miles back to Mancos – testify to his diligence.” (Roberts, David. In Search of the Old Ones, p. 36) In these words I found comradeship for my efforts to stay warm at night wrapped in thrift store fur coats and down blankets, full days navigating new winter approaches into already sinuous canyons, and the reward of experiencing the details of this place in a way that few will ever know.
It’s far from an ideal time of year to be in Grand Gulch and surrounding canyons, the same area where John discovered the infamous Cave 7 burial site. And yet, stomping around in thigh-deep snow will remain some of my fondest passages through this landscape. Buried boulders made every step precipitous as I used a downed juniper branch to scout for ankle breakers and self-arrest on the ice-glazed slickrock. Low sunlight and the contrast of the white foreground brought new life to rock art as faded red handprints and etchings of spread eagles wings lurched from the rock to touch me. Cliff dwellings, woven into the pockets and folds of the landscape, now demurely peeked out from behind towering curtains of ice suspended from caves in mid-air. The surrounding sandstone walls were bedazzled by gleaming chandeliers of frozen hanging gardens.
It felt as though the snow and ice would cling to Cedar Mesa indefinitely – further freezing its portal into the past. A rare intimacy and stillness overtook me as I slowly moved through it. “The snow will be with us for several moons now, and if you roll in it and treat it as your friend, it will not seem nearly as cold to you.” (Wolfkiller, as translated by Louisa Wetherill, p.64) I clung to this guidance as I deepened my friendship with winter, the daily freeze-thaw cycle entertained me immensely, and the season momentarily felt eternal. And yet, the sound of dripping, then flowing, and eventually rushing water told otherwise as the sun rapidly melted the canyon Valhalla into a muddy oasis.
Even the heaviest winters are ephemeral in the desert. Today, the sun warms my back as I leave the broken-down Jeep behind and follow the dusty, dirt rez road to its true end, the place where the Rainbow Trail, blazed first by John, begins. Though there is a well-maintained trail laid out in front of me, I take a moment to comprehend what traversing this landscape sans maps or marked route felt like for John. I look over the unending expanse of slickrock domes, hidden canyons, river confluences, and untouchable mesas all butted up against the ribcage of Navajo Mountain, the heart of this landscape. At 10,300 feet, it is still covered in snow, and the occasional icy breeze blows down, making the contrasts of this region, the past and present, the known and unknown, all the more enticing.
Along this convoluted road from Bears Ears to the Rainbow Trail, I’ve serendipitously crossed paths with prolific writer David Roberts, whose award-winning work spans from mountaineering to the Colorado Plateau (his true love). He and his wife Sharon were visiting from Boston and graciously welcomed me to stay with them in Bluff as we spent several days trading stories and driving around Cedar Mesa. Mornings began with dark steaming cups of coffee as we both furiously edited our upcoming books. One afternoon drive around Cedar Mesa prompted continuous storytelling and beta exchanges – the passion for place buzzing louder than any song on the radio ever could. We stopped at the ghastly gash in Comb Ridge, where Highway 95 bisects it, and stared up at its grandeur. Despite both of us having traversed the ridge, (documented in David’s Sandstone Spine, which guided my own crossing last fall), we continued to dissect the ways we would do it if given another opportunity to explore an 80-mile-long swath of stone. Nights wound down with cold beer as we rotated between reading local history juxtaposed with each other’s stories. Before his departure back home to Boston, David connected me with researcher and John Wetherill chaser Fred Blackburn, along with a slew of tips and reading materials to keep my momentum humming.
I met up with Fred in Cortez over a greasy diner breakfast. He held back no profanities as his storytelling dove abruptly between Wetherill history and his own work as a BLM ranger, which he described as his “Vietnam” and “doing his time.” It is imperative to note that Fred’s extensive “reverse archaeology” helped document much of John’s discoveries and pinpoint their “lost” locations, most notably Cave 7. Our conception of John today is as much owed to Fred (and Harvey who has teamed up with him as an ally) and his tireless efforts to locate John’s poorly documented work. Plates cleaned, we moved our party (meeting is much too stiff a word after five cups of coffee, five strips of bacon and the expletives being launched between us), to Fred’s office. Digging through his extensive archives, we ultimately blew off discussion of John completely, shifting to the future of Bears Ears, a place Fred says he won’t return to, like many proclaim about Glen Canyon, now looted and maintained beyond his nostalgic recognition. We did manage to pull out the maps, and Fred excitedly drew his favorite route to Rainbow Bridge upon it, complete with notes for tracking water and rock art. So enraptured in our banter, Fred lost track of time and had to bolt for another appointment. He encouraged me to stay behind, and I lingered just long enough to peruse the photos on the wall and his historic book collection.
Despite having extensive information about John Wetherill directly from primary experts, my head spins, unable to process it all. I can’t yet put my finger on what could possibly be the missing piece. Rather than a clear picture of John, these encounters gifted me a treasure trove of maps, beta, clues, stories, laughter and genuine friendship only understood among the obsessed, or perhaps possessed, explorers of the Colorado Plateau. And above all, an even greater itch to get out and explore. David and Fred, and Harvey, are my Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, walking arm in arm down the path lit up in late-afternoon sunlight on the Rainbow Trail.