The next two days pass in similar fashion, with easy mileage (six to 10 up-canyon miles per day) through otherworldly geography. Side trips take us to more perfect ruins. At midday, when the temperature reaches 100°F and the air feels like hot syrup, we hug the shady canyon flanks. All I can think about is replenishing my water bottles.
Water, or lack of it, probably forced the ancient canyon dwellers out of here. Tree ring analysis of logs from ruins indicates a terrible drought from 1276 to 1299. The pressure on communities must have been extreme: A pot of water could have been worth more than life itself. Indeed, the archaeological record of the final phase of habitation in this canyon suggests warfare and even hints at cannibalism. By 1300, the canyons were empty, the inhabitants having marched south to the Rio Grande. Luckily, with Vaughn’s expertise, we find water in tiny springs and smooth, brine shrimp-filled potholes.
On our fifth and final day, I wake to another clear, cobalt sky framed by orange canyon walls. We haven’t seen another soul, and the only hint of modernity is a set of footprints in the sand. I slurp down a cup of acrid instant coffee, shoulder my pack, and fall into line with the group. Just past The Narrows, where the Gulch constricts to a 20-foot-wide slot, we veer west into Collins Canyon. We slog uphill for the last two miles on an old cattle trail that, at times, is literally chiseled into the canyon wall. A cliff dwelling’s dark and empty doorways look like ghost eyes peering down on us. The wall is covered with images of spear shafts and warriors that seem to guard the remainder of Grand Gulch, which winds ahead to the top of Cedar Mesa. And there’s the infamous line of musical notes india-inked on a cliff; researchers think Richard Wetherill’s wife, Marietta, penned them 110 years ago to mimic a canyon wren’s song.
Near the lip of the canyon, we file through a cave littered with saddle grease tins from the cowpoke era, then hit a 4WD road. Vaughn’s wife, Marcia, waits at the trailhead with the Far Out Expeditions van. She greets every sweat-stained body with a hug and aims us at a cooler packed with soda and Moosehead lager.
We sit on our packs with sighs of relief and knock back a few while looking out at the white caprock dotted with pockets of piñon and juniper. The depths of Grand Gulch vanish beneath the trees like a labyrinth of crevasses beneath a glacier. And I realize that nature’s best gifts are those that lie beneath the surface.