In which I go to the deserted valley

On the way back from Telluride weekend, or rather on the way up, I decided it was finally time to check out what in the world Hovenweep National Monument was. I had been curious about it for a while since it appeared on my radar as trips north to Utah and Colorado became more frequent. It must have been established recently as national monuments in the west tend to be like Vermilion Cliffs and Agua Fria (as I discovered, Hovenweep was actually established in 1923). You can find signs that point to Hovenweep along the highways of Northern Arizona, Western Colorado, and Eastern Utah, all of which seem to say “Hovenweep NM 42mi.”

What this means is that it is essentially in the middle of nowhere, no really…the several hundred square miles between major highways just north of the San Juan River to which no one except the 400 or so residents ever seems to go. There isn’t a great reason for this except that it is isolated. The mesas and valleys are reminiscent of the Old West. The white bedrock is being slowly carved away by some flowing rivers, which are bound by emerald green vegetation as only desert water can be, and they are capped by sage and rabbit-brush that blossoms and turns the mesas to a sea of yellow as they march towards the mountains beyond. There is even the occasional vineyard or ruin of an old church bordered and protected by the graying, desiccated logs and rusting barbed wire of the old ranches. The national monument itself is closest to the Town of Anath, and as you can’t tell me which of the three aforementioned states that town is in, you still have no idea in which state the monument also resides.

The name Hovenweep itself apparently means “deserted valley” and so, after several turns to complete an almost complete circle, you come to the relatively lush valley of Hovenweep surrounded by the most intact Puebloan ruins in the world. They do not have the size of Wupatki, Tuzigoot, or other places with neat names that would be great inspiration for characters in a Crash Bandicoot game, but they are prolific. Circular towers also seem to be a theme where much of the Puebloan architecture I have seen previously seems to be based on the square. The towers rise as the ruins of the watchtowers of Amon Hen and Amon Lhaw are described to. They bound the box canyon where life-giving water must at least once have been found. There are twin towers that loom on the far side of the canyon, and the foundations of a circular tower perched on a great boulder in the middle of the valley.

The entire area is bound by a surprisingly well kept trail and ranger station. The cutting edge of new visitor centers modeled in the adobe style gives the lie to claim of no services, and the trail is meticulously maintained and marked by rangers that must have little else to do in the middle of nowhere, except that there were a bunch of people there. I drove for nearly an hour without seeing a single car, and then there were twenty in the day parking lot of the national monument and a campground to boot.

I was relieved to find human life here and even a helpful ranger that may have patronized me a little when I said, “I have been seeing sings for this forever and have no idea what it is. So, what is Hovenweep all about?”

She directed me to the 2.2 mile loop trail, and on the theme of running that I did not really participate in over the whole Imogene pass run weekend, I decided to change out the clothes and brave the 18 minutes of desert.

This turned out to be much more intense than expected. The trail is really well maintained, but it also has entertaining rocks to slide through and boulders that create near-over hanging crevasses. The adventure running was on. I kept going for a bit, climbed to the other side of the valley, taking pictures at any hint or sight of ruin, and got to the slick-rock above. As I was running along here enjoying the day I stepped quickly past a bush that rattled and hissed. Actually, a rattlesnake had been sunning itself on the slick-rock and I had nearly stepped on it. We were both surprised, and while I didn’t see the strike, I definitely heard all indications of it.

Fortunately, my running stride took me past the snake and it had bad aim. It didn’t hit me, but continued to rattle menacingly. Against all common sense or reason, I stopped and turned around. It is not every day that you get to see a real rattlesnake in full attack position. It kept rattling with its head poised to strike as I tried to simultaneously watch and take a picture at the same time.

Now, the thing about rattlesnakes in my experience is that they are very much not out to get you. There was a time in the Grand Canyon on a rafting trip on which a Hungarian tried to kill an endangered rattlesnake because he thought the rattler would use its heat-sense to come find us in the night. Rattlesnakes do have heat-sensitive pits as they are pit vipers, but unless you are a mouse, the snake really has no reason to want to find you. Mostly, when you see these neat creatures, they are content to sit still and not be bothered nor bother anyone else.

This rattlesnake was not an exception. It moved steadily away from me under the bush in a looping motion of its body while maintaining its threat position as well as it could. I was a little exasperated as I wanted a good picture, but the snake was much more interested in moving away from me and into cover than pressing an attack or posing for a photo.

I continued on the run, and less than three hundred yards later, I jumped as high as my friend, who is deathly afraid of snakes, upon seeing a garter snake. There was another snake in the path, and I nearly stepped on that one as well. Of course, this one was non-venomous, but given the previous experience, I leaped as high as I could. The adrenaline rush from this encounter was way more intense than that of the actually dangerous one. I did not stay to ogle this snake but ran away fueled by the adrenaline.

I finished the run and thought a bunch about how neat it would be to have a 5k race around the ruins of the valley guarded, but now deserted by all but tourists and snakes.