Hunting Ground of the Ancients
The Flagstaff area is awash in echoes of the past, bits of human history scattered to the winds by modern civilization but remembered by a few who know where to look. Places like Wupatki, Walnut Canyon, Elden Pueblo, and the neighboring pueblos of Montezuma’s Castle and Tuzigoot speak of a people who shared a basic ideology, a form of architecture, and an underlying need to move and build again. Each settlement left its mark on the land, indelible despite centuries of abandonment and the wanton destruction of looters, empty windows gazing out on the same stars their builders watched through the long nights. But aside from these monumental centers there are lesser sites, more shadows than echoes, lacking the grand stonework but still carrying the mark of those ancient people. The dark cave and tumbled boulders of Picture Canyon and the hidden pool of Keyhole Sink are two such places not far from Flagstaff itself, masked by highways and subdivisions but still whispering of those who came and left. It is to this last place, Keyhole Sink, that I most recently hiked, intrigued by the writings and photos of others regarding its panels of petroglyphs, as well as its use as a tool for hunting deer through the forest. Its location is a matter of chance, located twenty miles west of town in the middle of Kaibab National Forest, centered on a dead-ended basalt box canyon much like that of Picture Canyon. The tall walls of the sink formation cause water to pool under their cover, providing a natural tank from which deer and other animals gladly drink. The water level is dependent on rain, and luckily the forecast had provided plenty, assuring a unique sight in a seldom-visited natural and historical landmark.
About halfway down the trail, while it still meandered through trees and rocky earth, I was startled by this reminder of where it was that I was visiting – the domain of the mountain lion, its pawprint fresh and heavy in the damp soil. The size of the print and its obviously recent creation served to sharpen my awareness, every dense thicket and outcrop of rough stone suddenly becoming a place to watch for movement, any noise suspect at the slightest provocation. By nature I am a quiet hiker, often going alone, but from that point I made a special effort to step a little louder, crunch pinecones under my feet, and make enough noise that anything observing me would know I was passing through. Determined to press on, I continued as the rocks grew into boulders, low ridges forming then rising as I was funneled between their walls, tracing along a fairly narrow path until the sink appeared ahead through a stand of misplaced aspens.
The rock walls quickly widened and became reddish basalt columns, circling back around to enclose a small meadow and, at the far end, a large muddy pool which rested against the stone. To the right was a small cavity in the rock near a square overhang, and to the left, past a series of angular tumbled boulders, was a larger indentation with light traces of carving in its so-called desert varnish. Scrambling over the rocks gave me a closer view, from which I could pick out animals, people, and a large keyhole shape which could only be a representation of the sink with deer, high up on the wall.
To the right of this panel was a bluff of rock which extended into the pool, and on its surface were carved many more petroglyphs of various shapes, ranging from a sun in the middle to people, bear paws, snakes, and more abstract designs. A close-up can be seen at the top of this post, with a filtered black-and-white below to highlight the carvings.
You may notice on both panels that some areas, including the depiction of the sink in the first image, are strangely discolored and faded. This is the result of vandals who have repeatedly spray-painted over the carvings, and the resulting dedicated cleanup by volunteers who work to protect the site. This has also happened to a lesser extent at Picture Canyon (ignoring its past use as a car and mattress dump). There is no excuse for such mindless destruction of artifacts made by those who came before us, and it shows the weakness of those who plaster some inconsequential name or sign over prehistory in a sorry attempt to draw attention to themselves. There is a distinction between a band of hunters carving symbols into stone 800 years ago, knowing it would be one of the few things they make to last into their descendants’ time, and a group or a single fool painting senseless lines or scratching out “Joe+Dani”, convinced of their own importance. To those who wonder why such places as Wupatki or Walnut Canyon are so closely maintained against the public – this is why. To those who commit these wanton acts of idiocy, know this – history will forget you. Your paint will fade, your names will wear away, and the petroglyphs and stone walls you so disgrace will outlast the memory of your selfishness. And to those who protect such places, those who scrub away the spraypaint and clean the garbage, who right the walls and salvage shattered bowls – those of us who can genuinely enjoy such places thank you for your work.
Now then. After backing out of the boulders surrounding the two carved panels (visible above as the indent to the left and prominence to the right) I decided to make my way to the top of the cliffs, where the hunters would lay in wait for their prey to come and drink from the pool, entering into an inescapable trap. The right side of the cliffs made for an easier ascent, and once on top a full view of the meadow and pool could be had. Wandering along its edge, I paused at the center where a shallow wash apparently cascades over the cliffs, leaving numerous round puddles in nooks within the rock. Some puddles were clear, and others had a strange blue tint which may be due to some algae or mineral, or runoff from TO Tank uphill. Some were quite small and others hosted moss at the bottom taking advantage of the ephemeral moisture. Each one reflected the overcast sky, creating a trail of mirrors back into the forest for a short way.
After exploring the left-hand rim of the sink I doubled back and made my way down and out, persuaded by the advancing afternoon and rumble of distant thunder. Once outside the sink a breeze picked up again, and it was only then I realized how still and silent the pool and meadow had been. Not even the rustle of aspens reached that far in, and the overall atmosphere had been one of tenseness or apprehension, as though the hunters were still waiting on top of the cliffs, watching the deer draw ever closer. The walk back to the trailhead went quickly, rock walls giving way to trees and finally Route 66, belying the apparent seclusion of the sink and its quiet water. And although I looked, I did not see the pawprint again.