Magnificent Possession

Upper Missouri Breaks NM, Montana

Credit: Diane Frank/The Wilderness Society Photos

Who's to Protect What's Left of the West?

By James Conaway

The vermillion cliffs are a spectacular geological continuum extending all the way from the Grand Canyon in northern Arizona to the Escalante Mountains in southern Utah. Imagine a vast arc of flaming rock with the Colorado River at one end and the Utah border at the other, the cliffs' deep crimsons and magentas running along 25 miles of eternally stressed sandstone.

The cliffs can be seen from state highway Alternate 89, which takes the low road from Page, Ariz., to Kanab, Utah, once the southern hub of the Mormons' land of Deseret. This is the so-called Arizona Strip, cut off from southern access by the millennial crack of the canyon, as rich in prehistory as it is in geology, with distant plateaus with old Piute names—Shivwit, Uinkaret, Kaibab. Wind and water shaped them, the broad valleys silver-green with sagebrush and juniper, and the high forested tablelands of confusing, sometimes frightening aspect.

Atop the Vermillion Cliffs sits the Paria Plateau, named for the ancient occupiers of this back pocket of the West. The Paria have been gone from this landscape for roughly a thousand years, but they and other Native Americans left behind artifacts and ghostly remains of dwellings that serve as a palimpsest of ancient civilizations, if only you have eyes to see them.

Peter W. Bungart, an archaeologist, does. He explained that the Ancient Puebloans, once referred to as Anasazi ("ancient enemies" in Navajo), arrived c. 300 B.C. and introduced agriculture. "They made pottery," he said, "because they were growing squash, corn, and beans, which required pots."

He was standing on a sloping shoulder of the plateau, still under the Vermillion Cliffs. In shorts and brimmed canvas hat, a pack on his back containing lunch (bread and avocados), topo maps, a battery-run global positioning system (GPS) device, and other tools of the itinerant student of the long gone, Bungart looked like a day hiker. All around us, in red sand under blue sky, lay some of the pottery shards as well as knapped flint and smooth stones used as tools that had been cast in their millions by the elements and by various peoples across thousands of square miles.  

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