This is my story of a day I spent drawing some ruins in the Bears Ears National Monument near Moab, Utah. Climbers call it Indian Creek.
November 18, 2022
My climbing buddy Dave and I had discovered this place a week before during a snowy rest day. He had seen the ruins from afar, but had never visited. What better time to find them than during a blizzard in November? So this was my second visit.
I’d hiked up in the sunny morning with Samantha, Gus and David. But they had descended, leaving me alone knowing I would be painting for hours. After an hour of work I was deep into the creative zone that only artists know. All of my India Ink lines were steady and true as I traced the edges of the stones protruding from the 900 year old mud based mortar. Drawing with ink forces me into the zone faster than any other medium because you can’t erase. You must draw perfectly, so you do.
Drawing this well is mesmerizing. Many activities, if you reach excellence, can have a flow state. But with art, you are creating something you can look at later and treasure. I feel fortunate to have the gift.
As I drew each stone on the paper I could almost feel the ancient artisan working with me, one stone at a time, building a structure that would keep his family safe from intruders and the howling wind.
It can feel like a higher power has taken over my hand and I’m just along for the ride. Now, obviously I know that neither God, Buddha nor Vishnu is directing my art…but it does seems as though I reach a higher or purer state of consciousness. I’ll be like, whoa! This is amazing work, who is this person?
While blowing on my fingers to keep them warm, I wondered how life was back then, trying to reach back through the 900 years that separated our parallel lives. What fluke of circumstance had placed me and these ancient people on this narrow ledge above the 60 foot tall cliff below the overhanging roof of orange sandstone. My mind wondered through all the old tales of mysticism concerning ghosts, spirits and afterlives. I was miles from another soul, and the bitter wind tugged at my clothes as I drew.
I kept feeling a presence and wondered if it was something dangerous, perhaps a mountain lion? Isolated cowboys ranch on the basin below and surely they had long ago pushed all the cougars out. There were three stories to the tower ruins. I’d peeked my head in the two lower rooms, being careful not to touch anything. It was all just bare dirt and small stones, with a ceiling of thin woven sticks over ancient timbers, as thick as my arm and covered by mortar.
But the upper third story was inaccessible. You would have to climb up the wall and stand on the protruding rafters…definitely not OSHA approved. It was pitch dark in the window of that upper story. As I shaded it in I was careful to leave it a little less dark on the right, as there was a tiny bit of reflected light getting in there.
At about 2 hours in I was freezing despite my thick down jacket. Temps were in the upper 30’s and the wind was light but bitterly cold. I was dehydrated, my water was still partially frozen from the 16 degree temps of the night before. A hot thermos would have been lovely. I realized this would just be a pen drawing, there wouldn’t be time to add color until I got home.
I was shading the back wall and the window there in the growing gloaming when my sense of a presence electrified. I looked up at the upper window and saw an ancient Anasazi Indian step outside onto the rafters.
Because I was in that higher state of consciousness, the appearance of an ancient Indian seemed plausible. I was like, well, he might be real, or he might be a figment of my imagination.
He had ragged dirty black hair down to his shoulders and looked about 40. He wore a brown leather tunic that fell to his knees. It was unadorned and dirty from long use. He was barefoot and simply stood there looking at me. His gaze was very direct, not threatening, but not friendly either.
His black eyes appeared bottomless. I could sense that he understood what I was doing. His peoples pictographs and petroglyphs are all over those canyons, so at some level he could see I was also a maker of marks. For a few wary moments we simply stared at each other across the 40 feet and the 900 years. There was no possibility of running away, the ledge on which I had placed my easel was far too narrow. Slowly I drew another stone…and when I looked back at the window he was gone.
I remember having a moment of: “What the hell just happened?” But I didn’t take a lot of time to think about whether he had really been there or not. I had a drawing to complete before my hands turned to blocks of ice. As I packed up my stuff though, I considered the possibility that he might have been real.
I know it sounds crazy, but maybe, just maybe, my intense hours long focus on rendering the precise edges of his stonework had caused a ripple, or rip in time that resonated back through the eons. He, or his soul, spirit, ghost, avatar, whatever…felt my focus on his life’s work and was pulled however briefly into my presence and that moment. Maybe he was thanking me for honoring his work.
Or was he just a homeless guy who is living up there right now..or the last living member of the ancient peoples? But there was no sound at all, only the sussing of the wind amongst the ancient stones. The dress and the overall vibe suggested he was not from this time. Plus, there was no sign of anyone living there currently. Everything was ancient… dirt and stone. Even the park service knew it was ancient. They had plastic signs on the ledge and in each room telling people not to steal artifacts and to leave no trace.
I packed up and skedaddled out of there, shivering as I stepped delicately over a few of the yawning gaps in the eroding path along the cliff towards the safety of the trail down. I saw my Tundra waiting patiently on the flat ground far below. I was very glad to get out of there. That was some trippy shit!
Later I told a few climber friends around the campfire about the experience. And on the way home I called a few more friends and got a number of different reactions. One guy said I might have had a mini stroke, with a resulting hallucination. Brett, a PHD scientist, said that it may not have been real, but it was real for me, and that’s all that matters. Several of my more open minded friends, Landon, Cass, said that my artistic mindset opened my ‘chakra’ to a much fuller state of awareness than is normal and this higher consciousness allowed me to see things that aren’t normally seen.
Others said it might have been an acid flashback, dating back to my last trip in the 1970’s. But why now when I’ve never had one before? Plus, I was stone cold sober. All I’d had was a cup of coffee in the morning. It’s true that I’d stood around a couple campfires the night before and inhaled some second hand wacky tabacky, but not nearly enough to get high. I may have simply had a daydream too, I mean who knows?
I had intentionally gone up there to have an experience. I knew that it was, in some respects, a holy place. There is much mystery surrounding these ancient abandoned dwellings. No one knows why they left their homes so suddenly though there are many theories. At the end of the day though, I have a drawing and a few photos to remind me of a remarkable day.
As far as the climbing goes, I’m putting the visual stuff first, with the more narrative story last. It’s taken me more than two weeks of part time work to write this trip report.
I left t-town at 4pm Saturday and got to Immigrant Springs campground at 10pm. With a 6am start I rolled into the Rest Area past Price at 11pm and Indian Creek the next day (Halloween Monday) at noon. Handsome Dave from Wenatchee was already there, and well warmed up from a week of climbing.
He had unknowingly grabbed the unofficial party site. When we pulled in there were costumed people setting up 3 foot tall speakers on the picnic table, connected to car batteries. More party ready people were drifting towards the site from all over the campground. The guy in the bright red crowned king style top hat said we were welcome to stay, but that we wouldn’t get much sleep. We bailed out to Beef Basin.
Tuesday Dave and I went to Nuclear wall AKA Sin Bad. You park at the wide spot on the right just beyond Donnelly, then hike up and way around back climbers right toward Donnelly to the sunny side.
Dave took me to a cool route called Hot Sex which was 5.9 reds and yellows. It has a double crack so you can choose whether to climbs reds in the corner or yellows on the right. I was very glad to have a nice hand crack option. This was my first day of climbing and I was rusty.
Wednesday we went to The Fin, which can be found by looking for the Broken Tooth, a 100 foot tower leaning on the buttress in back and to the right of The Fin.
Dave led : Nagasaki & an Undercling 8. I tried to lead the 8, but the slippery undercling stumped me. I’d like to go back when I’m more warmed up. The upper section was nice hands. Nagasaki is an 11. For me to get up an 11 on day two required some serious effort. It has a long section of greens (rattly fingers) that would be impossible except there is a 6 inch protrusion on the left. It runs up the cliff about 2 feet away from the main crack during the green section. So, if you get that high, you can set your back on it and chimney. But it’s so narrow that you never get a solid hip jam, your feet constantly feel like they are going to skate off…and the fingers are rattly nonsense. It’s solid 5.11.
Thursday we had two days of snow so did some exploring over by Jupiter crack on Sparks wall. Look for the black streaks. The rock was wet so I spent the next day painting and riding my unicycle. As I was painting I saw a couple other climbers painting nearby. He walked up the hill to look at my painting, and later I walked over to see her canvas and to compare our work. I couldn’t believe that they also had unicycles! I’ve never seen another unicycle in the wild.
Saturday Crystal from Durango joined us for 3 days. She had a little crag dog with a big personality. Between her and Dave they seemed to know everyone of consequence at the creek. She pointed out the well known developer named Devin who was walking around in blue jeans.
After scarfing up Climber Coffee they guided me out to Cat wall. It’s named for a little promontory on top of the wall to climbers right shaped like a cat holding it’s little paws up in the air. The road wasn’t too bad though I had to pull Dave’s sedan out of a hole.
On the way up we saw the Access Fund crew building the trail with a crew of native Americans. We later learned that Kyle and Lauryn work for the Access Fund 10 months a year building trails. Their work crew is on shorter rotations and is paid through the government America Works program…or Peace Corps…something along those lines. We’d look down at them as we were climbing and they seemed to spend a lot of time leaning on their pick axes…like a city works crew. But I don’t mean to sound critical. Moving heavy boulders and swinging sledgehammers is really hard work.
Despite the leisurely pace, they got stuff done. On the way up, the trail was clearly under construction, very rough. But as we came down after climbing all day the trail was amazing! They had moved and carved a lot of huge boulders, turning the trail into cleanly carved switchbacks.
Then I noticed their Access Fund van was parked at our campground in a government paid site. They were basically working a 9 to 5 job, every day. A week later when Sam arrived it turned out that her friend Gus was also a master trail builder for the government. As Gus said: “The community of federal trail builders is extremely small. We all know each other.” Kyle, Lauryn, Gus, Sam and Landon all hung around our small campfire talking trail building and some fascinating stories about the ancient peoples of the area.
Sunday Dave and Crystal took me to Fist Fight wall, it’s across from Donnelly. It’s in the book but not on Mountain Project…which is kind of cool. Neither had been there and the trail is still in it’s infancy. I love going to new crags. As long time creek climbers like to say: “Every crag is a Donnelly. There are Super Cracks and Incredible Hand Cracks all over, you just have to explore.” Beside avoiding crowds, going to lesser known crags means the climbs will be crisper. They won’t have those rounded off edges from thousands of boots. In the photo below, note how crisp the crack is.
Crystal did a beautiful job leading this, though I have to say her hands fit in the reds at the bottom. I was able to follow it cleanly by stemming across to the high boulder to avoid the reds and jump right into the yellows. There is a roof up high (bring a 70 meter) that would benefit from a couple #4’s. And it’s big down below as well, so having…dare I say four fours?…might be wise. I was able to jam my big mitts nicely in the roof and might be able to lead it next trip. There is a nice looking fist crack off to climbers right that we never got to.
Monday (also went again with Sam, Zac, william and Landon later) we went to Selfish wall up a long dirt road, very rough. My Tundra bottomed out going in and coming out. We had to get out and scout the holes for a safe passage. There was a Subaru up there but they have a shorter wheelbase so maybe it’s easier? It is beyond a gate towards the campground from beef meat basin. The gate is across from the large metal barn with just a roof, no walls. There is a lovely 5.9 up there that I called Mini Generic for obvious reasons. It’s actual name is Hand Solo. Crystal led a purple finger flake called Tag Team. There is a 5.9 off to climbers left I led called Instagram Sex Worker. It has a huge chopper flake at the top that did not look or feel safe as I pulled on it to reach the anchors. There are good Fist cracks off to climbers right that I have yet to check out.
— second trip did 5.8 Bromance with umbrella #6 top out
Tuesday was a rest day before a storm. I’d misjudged the weather in November. I thought it would be warm and only had my summer bag. I called Sue and had her put my 1979 Stevenson winter bag in the mail addressed to me, general delivery, the Moab Post Office. Handsome Dave (also known as Wenatchee Dave) left after two weeks at the creek. He didn’t like the looks of the bad weather approaching and I can’t blame him. I’m lucky to have hobbies like my guitar, unicycle and painting to keep me entertained when the weather shuts down the climbing.
Wednesday a huge 40 mph windstorm Tuesday PM through Wednesday AM, no precipitation at Creek Pasture CG but the place emptied out. Everyone must have been in town re-supplying.
Thursday the 10th Samantha rolled in at 8pm. We were communicating via my inReach so I managed to get my brand new stove top oven working on the first try. She arrived to hot pizza at the picnic table in 35 degrees weather! Her friends Zack and William also rolled in that night. Zack is the ukulele guy featured in the video above.
November 11 to 13, Friday through Sunday, Sam, Zack, William, Landon and I climbed at Cat wall, Selfish wall and the inner wall out to to climbers right of Chocolate corner…which Sam led cleanly. I led a 5.10 route called The Thing. It looked easy but I hung all over it. Still, it was fun and had some cool moves through barn door hand jams and chimneys. The anchor was glued in angle pitons. We did some other stuff but I didn’t keep good records. With a crowd that large it’s a party night and day, we had a blast. They left Sunday night.
Monday, Sam and I drove in for showers, shopping and I picked up my winter Stevenson bag. We got back in time to hike out to a new wall in back of Donelly called Habitado wall. In the parking lot Sam met some other seasonal friends from the valley: David, Annalisa and several others. There is some excellent climbing at Habitado wall. It’s so good that we went back the next day. There are eights and nines, and even two over hanging sport routes sort of similar to 9 gallon buckets at Smith. Gus showed up that night and we had more hot pizzas ready when he arrived.
Tuesday November 15
Went back to Havitado to climb the lightning bolt 5.9 yellow crack shown below. This thing is sooo good! It was also a nice little alcove out of the wind.
Wednesday Nov 17 Cat wall
Led Child Abuse 10b? I needed 8 blues 8 yellows. Hung when I ran out of gear. Easy jamming the whole way. There is one awkward move into a pod, but it’s very safe. It is an endurance fest. Sam, Gus, David & Annalise were all up there doing various things.
I led Bromance, a 5.8 off width with a tipped out 6 protecting a 40 footer
Thursday was a rest day from pushing hard on tens. We decided to climb the desert tower called South Six Shooter with Sam, Gus, Annalise, Boris, David and Katie. See video above. Thanks to Gus for offering to lead every pitch and carry the rack. Also thanks to Sam for carrying the rope and the beer. I carried…a harmonica? No, wait, Sam carried that too. With my super light mostly empty Hyperlight pack I was able to keep up with the young people. These guys can really move!
Friday was a true rest day…meaning no climbing. I hiked up to paint the ruins. See story at the top of the page. Later I hung out at our propane campfire with Kyle, Lauryn, Gus, Sam and Landon.
During a long period of good climbing weather I’ve noticed that most people run out of firewood. Because re-supply is an hour away in Moab, the campground goes dark, unless you have a propane campfire. My 5 gallon tank lasts at least 9 nights. We met some very nice people when they stopped by to warm their hands.
We met our neighbor Landon from site 7 a week earlier when he saw my campfire and walked over with a six pack. I also heard from Crystal that the best way to get a campsite in a crowded climber campground is to walk up to the fire with a six pack. “Y’all need any more beer?”
Cass was overdue but showed up later that night. She’d had a bunch of problems with her Sprinter, including a broken interior heater. I was standing around a campfire at the Squamish neighbors when a woman reached out to give me a hug. I was startled because I thought she had bailed. But it was super nice to have one of my homies from t-town show up. I’ve known her for about a year and we’ve been on a few trips and had some fun adventures. She is also a gym regular here when she is visiting her mom.
Earlier we’d seen the sign (below), and could hear the music and shouting from the unofficial ‘party site’. A couple Canadians had been over and said there were people getting naked. I didn’t think they would really do that in the 25 degree temps but Cass and I decided to check it out.
When we got there we saw a roaring bonfire with both men and women stripping naked…at least on the top half. They also had a set of large speakers pumping out rock and roll for the costumed booty shakers. Later I heard that the Halloween party was even wilder, and that there is a strong culture of skinny dipping in Yosemite, where many of these folks were from. Clearly I’m out of touch.
They were playing a drinking game that involved whiskey poured into the natural ‘cup’ formed by the clavicle bone. There are other cups on the body also…as you can imagine. Anyway, they poured it in, drank it out, and then other shenanigans ensued. It’s definitely a young persons game. I have distant 60 year old memories of my carefree hippy days when parties like these were the norm. But in my retirement, getting wasted is just not my thing. We enjoyed the show for half an hour and then left them to their fun.
Cass drove us in her Sprinter up to Pistol Whipped wall. The road was rough and her house on wheels was rocking and rattling like a ship at sea. We should have taken my Tundra. It’s the road that goes right at the fork past the Willows campground out at Beef Basin. We climbed Spaghetti Western and Short Dumb, which I ended up hang dogging to the second anchor.
This little red #1 crack is only rated 5.8. IMHO this rating is completely bogus if you have big hands like mine. I pulled on 4 reds to get above the chains where it turned into a very nice yellow and blue hand crack. The last 6 feet involved pulling on a loosely seated refrigerator sized block. As I pulled on the top, it creaked out away from the wall. I quickly let go and it thumped back in place like a dinosaur awakening. That block could kill someone some day.
I followed Landon up Super Crack. He flew up that thing so fast it was hard to believe. He was cruising towards the anchor when I suddenly felt a big fall. The guy who was racking nearby saw the 30 foot whip and called it correctly: “Victory whip!!!”
When I followed it to clean the anchors I fell out of the boulder move at the start. The secret seems to be to get your right hand fingers cammed into the crack on the left above the bulge. Once past that move I hiked up the rest like it was a long 5.8. Cass also TR’d Supercrack. She made some progress on hand-fist jamming. It was fun to see her smile.
Next I led The Incredible Hand Crack with one hang. I could have led TIHC clean but there was a crowd on it and we did Supercrack first…which made my arms tired. At my age, it takes weeks to build up the power for the creek. There was a crowd of young people top roping TIHC all morning. When I walked over and led it with one hang they were impressed and offered me a shot from their flask of whiskey.
At my side is Landon, my trusty belayer and neighbor in site 7. Landon is a really cool guy. He is an Air Force veteran and one of my only partners down there who would actually slow down to my hiking pace on the approaches. Most of my partners would leave me in the dust. And I get that, they are young and fit and loved to move. But Landon was a real gentleman and would hike along at my old man pace so we could talk about life and stuff.
I left Creek Pasture campground yesterday at dawn and drove up through Price and Salt Lake City to the open but deserted Farewell Bend State Park at 10PM.
At Salt Lake City google said I needed to drive 636 miles before turning right. Geez!
From Farewell Bend State park, Google Maps said I had a 7 hour drive home. Despite a 6 AM start I didn’t get home until 4PM thanks to a snowstorm on Snoqualmie Pass. Cars and trucks were stuck and flipped over everywhere. It doesn’t take a genius to know that there can be snow on the mountain passes. Why don’t people carry chains? My 4WD Tundra was a rock with Hakkapelita studless snow tires. But I think my windows blew a fuse. They froze in place and only the drivers side moves.
Since I’ve been home we’ve fallen back into our routine of ping pong twice a week plus skiing at Rainier and the occasional trip to the climbing gym. I set up my easel in the kitchen and tried to talk myself into being a studio artist. It was fun adding color to the rocks. I went a little crazy only because bright colors make me smile. I’m not trying to make something real. It is after all the story of a vision…or was it? I’ll probably never know what really happened up there.