Not since the spring of ’91 has the high desert of Utah seen a mass migration of tumbleweeds like this year. The last great migration saw tumbleweeds by the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, eddied into alcoves and at the base of sandstone walls throughout the southeast corner of the state. The Needles District of Canyonlands and The Grabens were alleyways brimming with sun-bleached tumbleweeds, Cyclone Canyon, in particular, chock full.

Driven by the incessant spring winds of the Colorado Plateau, their numbers swollen perhaps by dry winters, they moved in successive waves across the landscape, rolling dervishes sucked into undercarriages of innocent automobiles, into drive trains of heretofore smoothly running bicycles, against the sides of tents, interrupting the snoring of surprised sleepers.

We strapped a couple attractive specimens onto the roof of the van, intending them as gifts for artistically inclined friends at home, only to be left with a couple lonely twigs rattling around upon return, lesson learned. Interior designers throughout the Southwest sell intact tumbleweeds for big bucks; we’re guessing that they don’t strap them on top of their vans. 

This spring, camped in a big valley, we waded through bristling schools of tumbleweeds in various states of decomposition in the underbrush in search of kindling for our evening fire. Once ensconced around the cozy firepan, we stood guard, ready to fend off passing tumbleweeds if the wind kicked up, lest they carry and spread the flame to unplanned and unwanted places.

A cold night yielded to a cool morning. Having driven in the evening before, we were loath to get back into the car, so we hiked across the dry streambed bordering our campsite and up the hill on the far side, destination unknown. Legs long used to slipping and sliding around on ice and snow reveled in the traction of slickrock and dry dirt.

Following the bed of a small drainage, a small knoll was attained, site, it soon became apparent, of an ancient pueblo. At the base of broken walls, which draped the round hill and seemed to rise from the red soil lay pottery fragments — cup handles, striped pieces of bowls — by the score.

The vantage afforded by just a slight elevation gain was impressive, 10 miles in either direction up and down the valley. The many dry watercourses bespoke a wetter history and more bountiful vegetation, a time, most likely, of plenty and peace. The fact that it was abandoned so quickly, so completely — who would leave their fields, their kitchenware, their shoes behind? — told a different story. Maybe the fact that in the 1930s, within 10 miles of here, 90 skeletons had been found in a group, many bearing evidence of abuse, has something to do with it.

A good chunk of the day was spent here, not very far from camp, poking around the old junk, then something subtly felt, unseen, unspoken, maybe the light breeze, finally stirred movement. Game trails up a gentle slope brought us to a sandstone fin and the base of it was followed to its end, toward a large side canyon. Fully expecting to be cliffed out, it was a pleasant surprise to come upon a small gap between the end of the fin and a free-standing tower, the rock smoothed by many feet, many years ago, an established path from a different time. Around the corner a big south-facing alcove opened before us, a large terrace home to a couple square towers, and the ruins of more.

To access the terrace involved careful negotiation of an exposed sloping ledge, but no great shakes and soon we enjoyed the large expanse of the balcony, winding through piles of stone blocks from walls brought down by time and weather and cows, their pies everywhere. The cattle had to have been nimble, as the only ways onto and off the porch involved careful scrambling.

Now, on the sun-warmed rock, once again in a time of plenty and peace — at least in this little corner of the globe — we enjoyed the nothingness of the early-spring desert, the afternoon sky cooling too soon, sitting among the wrack and ruin of a collapsed civilization. Traversing the long mezzanine, we had almost passed a set of square rooms perched on another ledge overhead before seeing them. These people had been hiding.  

Below, a river of cottonwoods, their new leaves the only green in a landscape of gray and brown, flowed down into the main valley. Descending the terrace, our little world for a while, we followed the river of green, a trail coalescing along the canyon bottom beside an intermittent stream, stopping in the last of the warmth for a dip in a cold pool bordered by a small ledge, waterbugs skittering away.

Spilled out of the mouth of the canyon, a two-track road along the valley bottom was joined back to camp. Our ramble had lasted six hours, covering only a few miles, but a few thousand years. The first hike of the season is a good tired. Happiness is a camp chair, a can of beer and a small, crackling fire.

Above the valley, a wall of vertical cliffs stretching out of sight burned strawberry and tangerine with the very last of the sun. Above this palisade afire, against the palest of blue skies, parallel to the uncontainable movement of tumbleweeds below, stampeded a herd of clouds like bison, purple and black, gathering from over the horizon in twos and threes, coming together into a crowd and hurtling themselves against the southern flanks of the mountains nearby, lost soon in night-shadow, wind sighs and dies, and time, when the embers fade, for bed.

Sean can be reached at seanmcnamara58@gmail.com.