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Cave Sweet Cave

I’m sitting in a cave in an isolated desert canyon in southeastern Utah. This cave has been a transient vacation home for my 19-year-old son, Noah, and I during the last five days. It has given us shelter and served as a base camp from which we hiked to other nearby canyons. To get here, we hiked in over eight miles of challenging trails, our backpacks heavy with 10 days worth of supplies and equipment. We keep our cave life very simple since we’ve had to carry in everything we need.

The rock of our shelter is sandstone, eroded and shaped by the flushing rush of water from the mesa above during times of heavy rain and flash floods. The force of water rushing against large rocks nearby deposited a mound of fine sand that gives the cave’s floor a beachlike quality. The sand is soft and readily molds to one’s body. This sand was once canyon wall.

The canyon’s walls are more than 300 feet high, with their form and color changing with the light and shadows of the passing day. They are made up of horizontal strata of different kinds of sandstone that vary in their hues and vulnerability to erosive forces. Our cave was carved from one of the softer strata of sandstone. The entrance faces south, and is about 25 feet high, sloping back under the canyon wall to cover an area about 30 feet deep and 80 feet wide.

A large cottonwood tree helps camouflage the cave, one thick branch stretching out a good 30 feet across its opening. A slight hump in the branch provides a convenient spot to duck under to enter the cave, which is further obscured by a living screen of tall sagebrush and young juniper trees. A single plant with three stems, each with a few long yellow blossoms, attracts a hummingbird that includes it as a regular nectar stop.

The high path of the late spring sun brings little direct sunlight into our cave, providing daylong shade. The light color of the stone and sand and the cave’s broad opening provide a well-lighted daytime space. A single candle provides sufficient evening light. The sand in the back of the cave remains so cool that we bury our water bags in it to keep them cold.

Water is available about a tenth of a mile up the canyon via a path through the rocky wash and its crop of young willow trees, reeds and tamarisk. The wash shortly gives way to open rock that then rises like steps, protecting shallow pools heated by the sun and alive with algae and tadpoles that power themselves with soon-to-be-lost tails. Further up the canyon, hefty boulders surround a pool of fresh water that dribbles in from some unseen point under one of the large rocks.

The pool is an oasis where large green frogs bask in the sun, snagging flies with quick tongues while iridescent blue dragonflies patrol overhead, and cattails and reeds rise to the sky. We collect water using a hand-operated pump and filter. It takes a while to fill our water bags. As we pump on, the frogs settle down, swim to shore and sit down next to us without fear. Perhaps we attract bugs. When night arrives at the spring, an amphibian chorus erupts with at least four species of the critters composing strange vocal riffs and harmonics to accompany their water-based fertility rites. The desert nightlife also brings out bats who swoop down and take quick sips of water on the fly, snatch insects from the air and pass within inches of us on silent wings.

On the other side of the large rocks that form the western border of our cave is a much larger extension of the erosion that created our temporary stone home. Protected from the rush of water by a fall of stones long ago, the cave next door served as shelter and sacred space for the early people who harvested the nutritional riches of this desert thousands of years ago. These people lived between 6000 and 1500 B.C. (known by archaeologists as the Archaic Period), ate a diet of hunted and gathered foods, built simple shelters and knew how to paint.

On a large panel of stone about 50 feet above the current floor, hundreds of paintings, mainly in red and black, were left by these early people. Painted with hues made from the reds of the iron-rich earth and the blacks of charcoal and algae, these pictographs have been protected by the inaccessibility of their high span of stone. Some researchers believe these paintings helped make the site a sacred ceremonial center for later peoples who lived in the area.

Lower down on the walls can be found paintings of large human figures in red, white and yellow, left by a later people known as Basketmakers because of their fine basket work. The Basketmakers began cultivating corn and other crops, left behind many red handprints on the stone and at least a few elaborate burials where the interred had baskets placed over their heads and were wrapped in turkey feather blankets. These were ancestors of today’s Pueblo Indians. At the eastern end of this archaeological site, a small green mask looks down from an isolated spot high on the sandstone where it was painted. It looks as if it’s smiling upon us.

As we break camp in the early morning light, the moon still bright above the sandstone walls, we pause to thank the cave for its hospitality and the canyon for its rich teachings about desert life. We arrange our camp stones in a circle and look up to the green mask one last time and thank those who walked these trails long ago. We have learned much about the desert, the peoples who once lived here and about ourselves, providing a most excellent vacation adventure.

—Tom Nattell


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