October 10, 2010

House of Rain, House of Pain

National Park Service Ranger Pat Jovesama, a Hopi Indian,  set off down the canyon trail at a deceptively slow amble that still kept him ahead of the group.

It had rained hard all night, one thunderstorm after another shaking our little pop-up trailer at the campground at Navajo National Monument* in northeastern Arizona.

"Administration," he said, in his soft, low-key Hopi way, might order him to abort the ranger hike to Bétatakin Ruin if the weather looked too bad.
Setting off in the sunshine down the Betatakin cliff dwellings trail.
So he did not pause to talk about flora and fauna, except to briefly point out the Ice Age-relict stand of aspen and Douglas fir—seemingly out of place here in northeast Arizona—in one side canyon.

Following him were the couple from Tahoe with their elementary school-aged two kids (getting credit for "independent study" from their charter school—what a deal!), the couple from Middlebury, Vermont, with the rented motor home (you see so many of those in the Southwest, rented at the Phoenix airport), and the middle-aged Navajo woman, herself a former park ranger at Mesa Verde, with her two teen-aged daughters. 
Part of Tsegi Caynon on the Kayenta Plateau in NE Arizona. We were walking from the rim to the bottom.
Down, down we went, hundreds of feet, almost to the bottom of Tsegi Canyon, when the word was passed forward to Ranger Pat: the Navajo woman had sprained (or maybe broken) her ankle on the loose rocks of the trail. We gathered around where she sat with her leg straight out in front of her.

Ranger Pat was doing something with his first aid kit. The woman from Vermont offered some Motrin, which were accepted.

Dilemma. He had to stay with the injured woman until help came. Unaccompanied visitors are not allowed at Bétatakin, lest they walk off with it or something, so we could not go farther. He had radioed for help, which was coming. The rest of us should just walk back out of the canyon to our vehicles.

Rain was coming too, we could feel it. (The forecast was "80 percent chance of heavy rain.") On the descent, I had noticed that one section was just steps cut lightly into the slick rock, and I had wondered what it would be like to try to climb them in pouring rain.

I hiked out with the Vermonters, who were the fastest. The two teenagers were not far behind us. ("See you later, Mom.") At the parking area we met two park rangers unloading a folding stretcher. Three men still seemed like too few to carry a rather chunky woman up the steep canyon trail.

We offered again to help, but one ranger explained that "liability issues" prevented it. The message: We are park professionals. You are park consumers. Stay on the trail.

One more ranger was coming, so maybe with four they could break into two teams.

Bétatakin cliff dwellings, from the easy trail near the visitor center.
And then later the storms did come again, lashing and rocking the trailer, only to end in a sunny late afternoon.  For the second time, M. and I walked out to the overlook where you can see the ruin from across the canyon, which is enough for many visitors.

The woman's injury might have been a blessing, she suggested, because otherwise the storm (which spawned tornadoes elsewhere in Arizona) would have caught us hiking out of the canyon. Her pain, our gain.

I have been to many other Anasazi/Ancestral Puebloan ruins. To be frank, I was mainly curious to hear how a Hopi ranger would discuss the ruin, which the Hopi call Talastima, meaning "Place of the Corn Tassel." (The Navajo name, Bétatakin, means "House on a Ledge.")

Park Service interpreters always give a bland, non-controversial spiel, and Hopis keep secrets, but still, I wanted to hear his spin on the history.

Lacking that, however, here is a quotation from Craig Childs' excellent history House of Rain, which I reviewed earlier.
[The dwellings were occupied for less than a century. Tree-ring data reveals that] Mesa Verde ... produced no tree-cutting dates after 1280. Finally the large Kayenta sites of Kiet Siel and Betatakin saw their last construction in 1285....The Anasazi made their last attempts to hunker down, and finally no one was left. Ten years after Mesa Verde fell, Kayenta went down right behind it, like the successive toppling of dominoes, a wave of immigrants and abandonments heading south, pushing down walls as they went, uprooting everyone.
*Yes, the monument protects ruins built by the ancestors of the Hopi tribe, but the Navajos lived there later and their reservation surrounds it, hence the name, I guess.


Heather Houlahan said...


Four people is in no way, shape, or form an adequate or safe number to carry out anyone on a stretcher, even on easy terrain.

If they'd dropped her and hurt her, she and the lawyer from the back cover of the yellow pages would have had their pick of rescue professionals to testify that this is one of the first things we teach in basic rescue/wilderness first aid classes.

The legal and, dare I say, moral exposure for "park professionals" is quite a bit higher than for any other schmuck.

Because if they do not know better, it is their business to know better.

If someone is going to go paternalistic on your ass, he'd damned well better be able to pull off the Daddy role.

Rant concluded.

Chas S. Clifton said...

Heather, I agree that four people is not enough, but being a mere park consumer, I don't know how the rescue played out. Maybe they were able to radio for more muscle. Or else it was a slow, fatiguing trip up out of the canyon!

Coloradocasters said...

This is still on my list of places to visit. Thanks for the post.