We’re five miles into our second day of hiking when Vaughn leads us to another ah-ha phenomenon: a circular stone kiva dug into a sandy bench beneath a cliff. Incredibly, two ladder rails protrude through a hatch in the log-and-adobe roof. I have the unnerving sense that the natives who built it are nearby, somewhere, watching us. It looks like a family walked away from here just yesterday.
I approach with the intention of going inside, but Vaughn vetoes all entry. The incredibly well-preserved structure is too delicate. “Plus, it’s a ceremonial chamber, and under the floor, beneath centuries of blow sand, there’s a hollow shaft called a sipapu, representing the place where humankind emerged from an underworld. You don’t want to fall through the floor into the underworld.” Convinced, we tiptoe around the site, seeing potsherds, corncobs, and quartz flakes from tool knapping. “It’s okay to pick them up and look, or take photos, but put everything back where you find it. Don’t take anything out of context,” Vaughn tells us.
Frankly, it amazes me that anything remains here at all, for the modern history of Grand Gulch is one of plunder. Four cowboy brothers who ranched around Mancos, Colorado, in the 1880s–the Wetherill boys–popularized the Ancestral Puebloan world when they discovered the ruins of Mesa Verde, the now-famous national park that attracts a half-million visitors annually. The trove of artifacts they found there spurred them on a quest into Four Corners’ prehistory, and by the 1890s they were horsepacking along Grand Gulch, digging up artifacts and “mummies,” as they called them. It was an era before archaeological discipline, when digs resembled hasty robberies and the booty was displayed in traveling road shows or sold to museums and collectors. By the time the 1906 Antiquities Act stopped the excavating free-for-all, thousands of artifacts and hundreds of disinterred corpses had been carted out.
In the early evening of our second day, we make camp by Shaw Arch, 11 miles from the river. The path, alternating between sandy streambeds and dusty game trails, leads under the span, opening magically onto a shaded and breezy grove and a spring. Dark red handprints daubed on the walls at head height and corn-grinding slicks atop boulders show that we’re not the first–by a long shot–to find this a good stopping point.
Vaughn dumps his pack, fetches water, and begins preparing hors d’oeuvres. “You know, there’s some controversy about this arch,” he muses while slicing cheese. “It’s named on maps for Merlin Shaw, a Mormon bishop and Boy Scout leader who died in 1963. Shaw’s admirers incorrectly persuaded the USGS that he’d discovered it, but locals have always called it Wetherill, or Grand Arch.” Vaughn petitioned the USGS to change the name, but Shaw Arch stuck. “Somewhere in these cottonwoods I’ve seen a log with an 1894 Richard Wetherill signature on it,” he says. “I doubt he missed seeing the arch.”