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Backpacker Magazine – January 2014

Readers' Choice 2014: Dream Trips: Land of Secrets

Our winners discover ancient Puebloan ruins.

by: Steve Howe

This ledge west of Comb Ridge holds four kivas. (Steve Howe)
This ledge west of Comb Ridge holds four kivas. (Steve Howe)
Lou Ann and Marty Johnson (by Steve Howe)
Lou Ann and Marty Johnson (by Steve Howe)

“In Search Of”

Winner Lou Ann Johnson, 62,
of Buena Vista, CO

Guest Her husband Marty, 54

Where to Comb Ridge, Utah, June 19 to 22, 2013

Winning pitch Johnson’s proposed trek offered the perfect balance of mystery, romance, and a chance for success.

Our pulses race as we catch a glimpse of an ancient wall beyond the cliff brink above us. We scramble up a large boulder pile to access the sandstone rampart, and for a moment we feel like Bingham spotting Machu Picchu, Schliemann digging up Troy, Carter opening King Tut’s tomb. 

Immaculately laid blocks, punctuated by a series of windows, run in a line against the cliff. The ruin appears squashed between its bedrock foundation and a shaded overhang that acts as roof and as awning for a front porch with hundred-mile views from the
Abajo Mountains to the San Juan River.

In some ways, this thousand-year-old Ancestral Puebloan ruin is just a series of tiny, blocky rooms with all the architectural artistry of a strip mall. But it sits atop an isolated butte, at the far end of a slickrock peninsula. It’s like a house perched atop a huge ice cream cone set on a giant’s diving board—all surrounded by the striated red rock canyons of Cedar Mesa in southern Utah. The setting, the shaded breezes, our flush of success, the evocative call of a long vanished culture—it all combines to make the experience magical.

The three of us stand frozen, taking it in. My companions Lou Ann Johnson and her husband Marty—a registered nurse and a sheriff’s deputy, respectively—radiate an aura of quiet reverence. They’re long-time fans of Southwest archaeology, with equally long resumés as backpackers, paramedics, and park rangers, in places from Yosemite to the Grand Canyon. Thanks to the Girl Scouts, Lou Ann has been a backpacker since age 15. 

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