Musings of a roaming nature nerd

Off the beaten cow path

Under a blue Utah sky, a proper reunion of hugs and smiles and chatter brought Jason and Kathryn and me back together after more than two years. Then, just as quickly it was time to get down to business. Equipped with a hand drawn map promising colors! slickrock! and awesomeness! we searched for a fence, a cattle guard and a gate, which would indicate our jumping off point. However, this being BLM grazing land we found a number of said locations. We finally chose one with fingers crossed that awesomeness! would indeed await.

Cross country travel (ie. not following designated trails) is challenging in the Colorado plateau, as one attempts to avoid crushing the delicate biological soil crust crust called Cryptobiotic Soil. This “living soil” is a cyanobacteria (or blue-green algae). When it’s wet it moves slowly across the ground binding together tiny grains into little sand towers, stabilizing the soil and preventing erosion. It also adds nitrogen to the nutrient poor desert soil allowing for plant growth and thus further soil stabilization. Without cryptobiotic soil, southwestern dust storms would be even larger than they already are and few plants would survive. Unfortunately one footstep can destroy decades or even centuries of work from this slow moving cyanobacteria. In an attempt not to “bust the crust” our relatively flat traverse became quite difficult!

Crypto towers- holding the world together!


Although we gingerly made our way through the little ancient towers, the free range cattle clearly took no heed so we ended up following their well trodden path as to not further the impact on the land elsewhere. We traversed plains of golden grasses and black brush, and passed through shadows of spring creeks, now dry with winter drought. We eventually gave up on the circuitous cow paths and started rock hopping wherever we could. Junipers, heavy with berries lined the edges of dry washes and popped up in unexpected groves where water must occasionally collect in underground reserves. In a region, which averages 7 inches of precipitation a year, it’s a wonder that trees as large as juniper survive at all. But, as with all desert life, one must adapt.

Junipers allow themselves to die while continuing to grow, giving off a sense of immortality in a seemingly desolate land. During a wet season the trees will thrive, but during drought they will sacrifice limbs and trunks in order to keep their core alive. As a result many juniper look half dead, yet still manage to hang on for hundreds of years! Their adaptation is almost as if a thirsty person allowed one of their fingers or arms to die off in order to send more nutrition and water to the heart and brain.  It may sound silly, but on a different scale this is kind of what happens with Juniper trees! Even in death, junipers’ parched skeletal branches reach skyward as reminders of their longevity and vitality.

A very lush and healthy Juniper.


We entered one such sparsely scattered juniper stand and rested in its shade. We discussed continuing toward a large slickrock outcropping in the distance (possibly our colorful, awesome destination?!) and in the end decided to go for it. Within moments awesomeness! was upon us, but not amidst the expected slickrock. Shining in the sand lay a lithic scatter. Razor sharp flakes of chert (a very hard sedimentary rock) lay strewn across the ground. We had stumbled upon the trash heap of ancient stone tool craftsmen! Flint knapping (as ancient stone craft is often called) involves chipping away at a hard rock, like chert, in order to form arrow heads, spear heads, digging tools like hoes and other handy items. The left over flakes were often just too small or oddly shaped to be particularly useful and were left behind in what are now called lithic scatters. The ones we discovered were both large and small. Shining in the sun, they looked as if they could have been discarded yesterday, not 1000 years ago.

Lithic Scatter


An imperfect and thus discarded spearhead???


If this exciting prehistoric find weren’t enough we hadn’t walked a hundred meters more before we came upon the rusty remnants of an old cowboy camp! Some numbered pottery indicated a date from the 1920s. Broken glass, bits of pottery, cans and tobacco tins littered the ground. An ornamental gun poked out from under a bush. As we wondered at the history around us, we also wondered what could have drawn both Cowboys and Indians, hundreds of years apart, to this same flat expanse amongst the junipers. Perhaps an invisible water source sustained both plant and human life. While the landscape was beautiful, no wise person of yester-year would have settled there simply based on beauty. Water, food sources and shelter always took precedence. For us it was to remain a mystery, but the discovery of such treasures alone gave us endless stories to ponder!

Pie Plate?



Ornamental gun


Having explored for 4 or 5 hours and starting to wane under the intensity of the sun, we headed for home, quite happy that our initial goal of colorful slickrock had been trumped by unplanned awesomeness! And isn’t that the way of life? When you deviate from the beaten path, if you chose to explore and learn and take a chance, then, as Kathryn mused “Adventure waits around every bend.”

Just before deviating from the beaten cow path...


2 Responses

  1. Dad

    So you mean it’s not just a bunch of dirt and dead brush!? :-) Amazing stories just below the surface. A pleasure to read, as always.

    March 12, 2012 at 5:49 pm

    • annie

      Thanks for reading Dad- I hope you make it out to the southwest/ CA this summer so we can have some adventures!

      March 14, 2012 at 5:16 pm