BLUFF, Utah — Darkness was falling like a starry curtain as I pulled into this dusty town along the San Juan River.
It was mid-November, and a cold wind was blowing in from the desert. The lights of a lone café illuminated a sign ahead.
"Bluff, Utah Est. 650 AD."
My search had led me here, to a place where American history stretches deep into antiquity. I was chasing the Anasazi, Navajo for "Ancient Ones," the mysterious people who occupied these harsh lands from the 12th century BC until vanishing 700 years ago.
I'd stood in their magnificent Great Houses in Chaco Canyon, N.M., and palatial cliff dwellings in Mesa Verde, Colo. Although these places stoked the fires of imagination, they felt sterile and restricted, swept clean of the trappings of life.
I wanted a deeper, more natural connection. So I came to Bluff in southeastern Utah, gateway to Cedar Mesa, a 70-mile-long plateau that's home to one the largest collections of pre-Columbian ruins in the country.
"Cedar Mesa is a world-class place for archaeology," said Vaughn Hadenfeldt, a guide who runs Far Out Expeditions in the town of 250. "There are a great deal of sites that have never been recorded — thousands in fact."
But like many here, he was conflicted about what to reveal. Cedar Mesa, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management, has been plundered for generations. Despite arrests, looting continues.
"When you go to the Smithsonian, you don't smash the glass and take what you want," Hadenfeldt said. "It's the same here. Treat it like an outdoor museum."
I spent the night at the Recapture Lodge poring over maps and guidebooks, growing increasingly daunted by my quest.
Every major canyon on Cedar Mesa held Anasazi ruins. And countless relics lie undiscovered in nameless side canyons. These were rugged and remote places, reachable by rough dirt roads and strenuous hiking. Most required a BLM permit to enter.
With barely three days to explore, I focused on day hikes accessible by two-wheel-drive vehicles.
The first was Grand Gulch, a canyon with one of the greatest caches of ruins on the mesa.
I arrived early the next morning and followed a dry creek through fragrant junipers, plunging deeper and deeper into the canyon. Though alone, I felt the unnerving presence of others. Time after time, I spun around only to find rock and sky. In that bleary netherworld just before sunrise, the day took on a spooky if exhilarating feel, as if anything could happen.
And then it did.
At a junction near the lush canyon floor, I noticed what looked like puzzle pieces in the sand. High on a ledge stood five cliff houses, with more below. A haunting face, pecked into stone, kept watch.
I had stumbled into a prehistoric Anasazi village with all the detritus of daily life — grinding stones, mortars, bone tools — scattered about. Granaries holding ancient corncobs were tucked tightly against rock ceilings. Red handprints covered the walls.
Those "puzzle pieces" were actually shattered pottery, probably 1,000 years old.
Perhaps the hunters and farmers who lived here were driven out by drought or war — no one really knows — but they left behind a lot.
Moments later, two men approached through the cottonwoods.
"If you could get to those houses on that high ledge, you'd likely be the first person in there for the last 700 years," said Frank Lombardo, 75, of Palmer, Alaska. "But it looks impossible."
Lombardo, an Anasazi aficionado, examined some potsherds with zigzag patterns.
"The smooth bits are from bowls, the corrugated from pots," he said. "The idea that you can touch the past like this is truly amazing."
His friend Joe Moore, 62, also from Palmer, told of a nearby canyon with hundreds of white handprints covering the walls.
"You first see the roadside ruins," he said, "but when you get to know people around here and they deem you 'worthy,' they tell you about places like this."
More cliff houses lie farther down canyon. The biggest was impossible to reach without a death-defying climb, so I investigated the middens — archaic trash heaps — finding shattered mugs and bone awls.
I was alone,free to ramble, and time slipped away unnoticed. A gentle autumn sun bathed the canyon in rich pinks and reds. I drank in the expanse of Grand Gulch and thought of Richard Wetherill, a rancher and amateur archaeologist who led an expedition through here in 1893.
Wetherill's name pops up in any history of the Anasazi, sometimes as a reckless looter and other times as an intrepid explorer. But what he found was nothing short of fantastic — painted mummies, exquisite pottery and a prehistoric man cut nearly in half, then sewed up with a cord of human hair. One cave held 92 skeletal remains, many of them pierced by arrows. And beneath them lie an even older civilization, the Basketmaker Culture, which flourished between 1500 BC and AD 500.
"Some people deride Richard as a pothunter because he wasn't a trained archaeologist," Wetherill's grandson James Shaffner told me. "But he was the first to really illuminate the lives of the Anasazi."
I left the canyon and returned to Bluff, where I met an older couple outside a restaurant. We swapped stories about Anasazi sites, and I told them about the pottery I'd seen.
"I hope you took it!" the woman exclaimed.
"That would be illegal," I replied tepidly, noting that the BLM forbids removing anything from the sites.
"Oh, there's plenty of pottery out there," she snapped.
Her husband drew close, "Go to Huck's Trading Post. You won't believe your eyes."
How could I resist?
The next morning, I drove 25 miles to Blanding, Utah, where Hugh "Huck" Acton, 85, greeted me at his shop in a wheelchair and smudged red coveralls.
"It's $10 to see the Anasazi Museum," he announced in a croaky voice, a legacy of larynx cancer. "And you can only take one picture, so be sure it's the one you want."
He rolled into a dark room and began flicking switches. Case after case after case lighted up, revealing thousands of relics.
There were cradleboards, mugs that rattled, dolls made by Anasazi with human hair and a ladle with a tiny kachina painted on it. One wall held 462 stone axes, another sandals made of yucca fiber.
Huck, a former plumber, had reassembled hundreds of pots and bowls from fragments, using leftovers to create a giant map of the U.S.
"When I was young, I'd go into the ruins and find stuff no one had ever seen," he said. "People took things out of those canyons by the truckload."
As my eyes widened, Acton quickly explained that he'd collected everything on private land where it's legal. Other relics were donated.
"What happens when you're gone?" I asked.
"I'm taking it with me," he cackled, "just like the Pharaohs!"
I left Acton laughing and drove a few blocks to the Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum to see something even he couldn't match. Sitting inside a glass case was a ceremonial sash made of squirrel pelts and scarlet macaw feathers dating to 1150. Experts say the remarkable piece, found just north in Canyonlands National Park, offers solid evidence of contact between the Anasazi and the Aztecs.
Did the warlike Aztecs drive the Anasazi from the mesas into the cliffs?
I pondered this as I drove 20 miles southwest to Mule Canyon on Cedar Mesa to watch sunlight dance across the House on Fire ruin. The cliff dwelling shimmered, then radiated what looked like orange tongues of flame.
On the way back to Bluff, I stopped on the outskirts of town at Sand Island to marvel at a 100-yard petroglyph panel of god-like beings and animals, including what some believe is a mammoth.
Afterward, it was Navajo pizza on fry bread at the Twin Rocks Café and then bed.
On my last morning, I headed to Slickhorn Canyon and followed a steep trail to a ledge where a wooden ladder — a replica — protruded from an ancient perfectly intact kiva.
The Anasazi used kivas for religious rituals, as their likely descendants the Hopi and other Pueblo tribes do today.
A shaft of light pierced the entry, giving the subterranean interior an incandescent glow. I descended to the dirt floor beneath a roof blackened by ancient fires. The silence was nearly unbearable as the weight of past lives crowded in on me.
I had come to Cedar Mesa seeking a deeper connection to a vanished people and in a few days had explored their homes, their art and now sat inside their ceremonial chambers.
But I never shook the feeling of being watched, of walking with ghosts.
I emerged from the kiva into a light so bright that it staggered me. Ducking into an alcove, I found a potsherd with painted diamonds. I admit I wanted it but then recalled something that Hadenfeldt from Far Out Expeditions had told me.
"These are places where people lived and died and left the remnants of their lives behind," he said. "Think how wonderful it would be if your grandchildren could come here some day and find everything as it was."
I left the relic and walked away. And for the first time in days, I walked alone.