Standing at the fire-pit made of stacked Navajo Sandstone, it’s easy to imagine who has sat here beneath the bright stars. I can hear the fire crackle, the rise and fall of conversation, laughter, silent introspection of humanity beneath the universal diamonds of light. It’s smells smokey in my thoughts. In the rosy atmosphere of dusk, I can see the backside of West Temple from this vantage. It’s 8,000 vertical feet of the same Navajo Sandstone that rings the charcoal of a former fire. I’m already at an elevation nearing a mile-high. The city of Denver is at the level of this abandoned fire-pit.
Why am I here? It’s one of those stories about how chasing flying monkeys led to a second Grand Canyon that revealed a hidden plateau and I really just wanted see if I could test my geological knowledge and find petrified wood again. But instead I found a lost city.
Ah! You see the mind I have to live with?
Let me start with the flying monkeys. After writers at Carrot Ranch explored Oz, space and beyond I had to see the place from where the US Air Force launched live monkeys in test ejection seats for newly developed jets (1950s era). Every morning I look upon the point of Hurricane Mesa from my RV, knowing launch tracks and camera towers rust beneath the same sun that warms me while I swill coffee. Finally, I took to pestering my husband who was reluctant to go up another clay road. “It’s not raining,” I say. He loads his camera and our dog, and merrily we drive off.
Off, meaning into the wild red yonder, not off the cliff face we are now climbing with a truck limping from the last adventure up a mesa. The old Air Force road I almost convinced the Hub would be a decent route is proving to be a meandering, broken trail better suited for mules. I was certain it was a designated road on the map and in the books. No stopping now lest we slide off for certain, plunging to a death where I’d have to listen to my husband rant until we hit the ravines and boulders below.
At last the old farm truck lurches to crest the mesa. This is it! The place from where monkeys flew. A huge sign advises we go no further. “But I can’t see the tracks, the towers, what’s left of the base,” I say. My husband agrees with the writer of the rock-hounding book who got me excited for this place. It’s a big no-no to trespass on a fenced former Air Force base no matter the monkey business that took place where stunted cedar trees now grow, obscuring my chance of a view. Reluctantly, I point out the road that leads to petrified wood and agates as mentioned in the book.
I’m sulking as I pick my way through prickly pear cactus toward a wash. There’s rock strewn across the ground and I kneel for a closer look. Every. Piece. Petrified. Wood. Suddenly, I’m thinking, monkeys, what monkeys, there’s treasure everywhere! I stuff so much silicified wood into my pockets my pants hang close to falling off. Bobo trots past, panting, enjoying her romp. I find a raw agate the size of a softball and I’m panting. It’s maroon, streaked with black and caramel. Then I find another of near-opalized chalcedony. It’s smaller, like a golf-ball. I pick up a thumbnail-sized crystal that turns out to be a topaz. A topaz! I found a gem!
Swooning, pants sagging, I leave in the truck giddy with discovery. The Hub brags he found petrified wood. I refrain from saying even three blind mice could in such a littered geological field, and enjoy his rare excitement over rocks. We decide to see how far the road goes, marveling at seeps of water and hidden coulees. The road narrows and climbs again. This time we are topping the highest red layer of sandstone. Once on top of yet another, taller mesa behind the one that launched monkeys the land spreads all the way back toward what locals call the Kolab Terrace. I know we must be near the rim and I ask the Hub to stop.
We find the rim and it is a mini Grand Canyon that overlooks everything hidden by Zion Canyon. This is truly a back-country view seldom seen by tourists. We find RV neighbors who laugh upon recognizing us. They congratulate us on finding this semi-secret place. They sit in chairs perched a mile above the staggered mesas and canyons below. It’s like looking at a quilt in 3D. I’m dizzy, yet can’t resist sitting on the rim like I did once when I was 18 and saw the Grand Canyon which is only 140 miles south. I can almost see it from here.
Our neighbors are gathered to watch the super moon. They tell us the road is better going out toward Kolab. We drive on and stop when a massive golden orb rises behind West Temple in the distance. Wolves howl. Like a topaz for the ears. No one will admit to wolves near Zion, but Mexican gray wolves are suspected of ranging this far north of their country of origin. The only thing more perfect would be a flying monkey.
But that was two days before the Hub suggests we go up the mesa again.
He turns the truck the opposite direction and announces he want to see the mesa at the Coalpits Wash. But that is Zion National Park Wilderness, and access is by foot — no bikes, horses or dogs on that trail. He explains he means the road that goes back that way. Now I know which one, but it’s a driveway, not really a road. Part of the adventure is being proved wrong. The road is neither a driveway nor one leading to Coalpits Wash. It leads to the backside of Zion, to a hidden back-country, to the fire-pit of sandstone. To the lost city. Flying monkeys, what flying monkeys?
We crest another mesa and I recognize the geological level. “Stop!” The Hub is reluctant, wanting to explore more of the road. He stops and I hop out, eyes to the ground. Glass glitters and I see the fire-pit. It’s obviously a campsite full of modern humanity’s detritus. Then I see one, a piece of petrified wood. I was right! This is the level. Now I’m seeing shards of agates. Not the hunks from before, flakes. Flakes? I look around 360 degrees. Could it be? The city begins to unfold in my imagination.
I was 17 years old when the State of California published my archeological report of Alpine County. I won an Outstanding Science and Engineering Award from the Department of the Air Force of the United States of America that same year. Having grown up under the mentorship of “old-timers,” in a place full of layered history and anthropology, possessing a keen imagination, I learned to see lost cities. To me, it’s obvious. My mind flits through a list of factors — water source, flatness, elevation, food source, proximity to game, fire-pits. Old ones. Ancient ones.
This was a large encampment, and those who lived here long before the Mormons ever followed a prophet, centuries before Rock Creek had a station, long before the eras Danni studies in historical archaeology, the lost city prized what I do. Agates from broken pieces of petrified wood. The mineralization creates smooth, slick rock that is glass-like. It fractures like volcanic glass — obsidian — in conchoidal flakes to shape knives, scrapers, spearheads and arrowheads. Mars just upped the treasure hunt on me, though I know to be careful with my enthusiasm.
Chippings are debris, the cast-offs of artifacts. Artifacts are not legal to collect. When I was 18, I donated my personal collection to my county museum. When we packed up from Elmira Pond, in my hope chest I found remnants of that collection, probably pieces I had in dresser drawers or old jewelry tins. I gathered it all, including my long lost Air Force Award, original archaeological recordings and drawings of artifacts, maps, and my published work. It had lingered in the dark recesses of my hope chest, a painful reminder of my past. The time I studied to be an archaeologist. An old dream.
But I can still see. One doesn’t ever lose the sight. I let myself hypothesize and prove. Over there, by the fire pit, I’ll find lots of chippings. That was where there tools were crafted. Yes! More flakes, broken scrapers. Over there, near the scrubby pines, that’s where they fixed meals. Yes! I find a broken matate. And those flat rocks expanding past the trees to the rim. They crushed pinenuts and collected water. Yes! I find an old reservoir and pits. Many of the modern fire rings are built right on top of old ones. Shards of clay pigeons and brown beer bottle glass mingles with colorful chippings. Magical place and I lament I have no tobacco to offer the Ancestors. I will return with an offering. After all, this place was a gift to “see.”
Now I use my imagination to write historical fiction. Miracle of Ducks is not historical, but Danni’s career is. Her nemesis who she must befriend in Ike’s absence is Michael. He’s my conscience. He’s the one who calls Danni a bone-digger. He resents her interest in his ancestors and culture. She argues that she reads trash in the layers of dirt and that his ancestors would laugh at her carefully collecting pieces of debris to give the story of who lived there before. I felt as if Danni and Michael had traveled to this place with me. I cast the matate aside, beneath a juniper after showing the Hub, and taking a photo:
The exploration ends when Bobo tangles with a cactus and we have to pluck spines from her tender hide, nose and paws. As the sun sets I look across this lost city and can see the rim I had sat upon on the night of a super moon. As it does every night, the sun sets.
November 17, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that is told around a campfire. It can be a bonfire, burning trash can, a fire pit, something flaming outdoors. It can be a prop, and you can tell the story of anything — ghosts, ancients, jokes. Who is gathered and listening? Note the extended date (Happy Thanksgiving to US writers; may turkey take our minds off the one about to enter the White House.)
Respond by November 29, 2016 to be included in the compilation (published November 30). Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Looming Giants (from Rock Creek) by Charli Mills
“And then that German pinned me, my face to his backside. Without much thought, I bit through his pants and clenched until he cried for mercy! And that boys, is how I beat the German Giant from Kansas.” Cobb tipped his bitters bottle and the bonfire gathering cheered.
Sarah listened from the porch. The more Cobb drank, the louder he told stories. She wondered at these men, many converts from the British Isles, headed to Mormon Zion with handcarts and talk of multiple wives. The women sat in the shadows, exhausted, on guard to fighting giants of their own.
Reading Miracles (from Miracle of Ducks) by Charli MIlls
Campfire wasn’t light enough to read by. Danni shined her flashlight across the inky scrawl of penmanship no one today would have. She read aloud,
“The Lord will surely comfort Zion
and will look with compassion on all her ruins;
he will make her deserts like Eden.”
“Sounds biblical,” said Ike.
“It’s from the letters Max found in a cigar box. He said his father’s Mormon grandparents left Zion for a miracle in Idaho.”
“Oh, Ike. It’s just a story. It can reveal facts about pioneer migrations.”
By firelight, Ike grinned. Danni refused his miracles. Facts mattered.