Jailhouse Ruin

This has to be what fear looks like.  

Walking down Bullet Canyon things would have opened up, a wide sandy plain thick with fat pinon and juniper trees, a tight band of tall cottonwoods and willows snaking along the dry wash.  The north wall opens into a series of budding side canyons, that run back for perhaps half a mile before you are up at the end of the slickrock and talus against 400 foot cliffs.  These canyons have deep overhangs at their heads, bays whose bottoms are never touched by rain or snow, and hardly by the wind, but face south and are high enough to be flooded by sun on even the shortest day of the year.  An ideal place to spend the winter.  

The point between two of those bays has a particularly deep set of ledges bedded into weaknesses at the base of the cliffs.  The apex of the turn from one canyon to another has an obvious stone and mortar wall tucked into it, an ancient stick poking straight out downcanyon, hinting at a far more elaborate and transitory structure during its prime almost 1000 years ago.  Closer examination reveals a gap between that wall and the cliff, through which a human can crawl, and access the walls beyond.  The jailhouse itself sits below these ledge rooms, invisible while you are seated above.  Small, oblong, slanted windows break the ledge walls at regular intervals, providing a narrow view of the rock slabs leading to the jailhouse.  Can we call them anything other than arrow slits?  They’re aimed with rude, jarring immediacy down to the approach slopes, places anyone wanting to approach (or leave) the jailhouse would have no choice but to cross.  And as if to further argue back against any thesis that this was not a defensive, defendable structure, you have the face.


Painted at the height of a standing modern human’s head, the face (and the swirling, multicolored disc 20 feet to the left) are pointed such that anyone walking down the canyon could never miss them.  I struggle to grasp a plainer message of watchfulness, defensiveness, perhaps of hostility.


Further down canyon, in Grand Gulch proper, I had seen many ruins built up in near impossible locations.  Rooms set into ledges, like the one at jailhouse, but high up near the canyon top.  Places built with rocks and mortar, places easy to see but difficult to get to, and impossible to sneak towards, places whose approach today would seemingly demand a rope or ladder.  Places where you wonder how on earth they gathered the water mixing mortar would have required.  Places whose effort, or both construction and getting to and from, would have made them rather less then friendly to everyday life, when that life involved tending corn in floodplains and stalking bighorns and deer with stone arrowheads.  

Today we know, or think we know, that these canyons were the late fringe of the civilization that blossomed in more logical places, like Mesa Verde, closer to the mountains, to more predictable water and presumably to more consistent hunting.  These people were also linked to the less logical, from a subsistence perspective, Chaco Canyon.  The historical weight and, from a modern perspective, mystery of Chaco and its inhabitants still vibrates the air when you visit.  Relative to the harsh, innocuous environment the buildings seems massive.  The rockwork, a millenia later, is still fine.  Do some study and you learn that the great kivas were roofed with timbers that must have weighed hundreds of pounds and had to have been carried 50 or more miles from the nearest such forests.  We also know, or think we know, that this civilization dispersed and fell apart in violence.  Our vague modern certainty is that survivors fled to places like Cedar Mesa, and brought their scars and paranoia with them.  It makes for a colored, if compelling, reading of a place like jailhouse ruin.



3 responses to “Jailhouse Ruin”

  1. Dave,
    Thank you for your imaginative and riveting descriptions of this land. Having grown up in the Four Corners and now living in Santa Fe–you are pulling on heart strings. If you need some more green chile let know.


  2. Sounds like a dandy trip and what a fascinating ruin- thanks.

  3. Good read Dave, thanks. What fear looks like indeed. While I want to imagine happy people raising children in the cliffs, of which I’m sure there was plenty of, an eerie feeling takes hold at times…especially while standing in spots that seem inexplicable save for being some sort of “last stand” fortification.

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