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Slickhorn Canyon   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Mythical Kiva
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

Inside an alcove in a remote canyon in southern Utah lay a pristine 800-year-old Anasazi kiva. It was so well-preserved that the original wooden roof and ladder were still intact. Kuro-e read about it many years ago in a book by Terry Tempest Williams, she thought the story was fictional. After all, she had seen enough Anasazi ruins in various stages of collapse to be skeptical. Yet the vivid image of that mythical kiva has stayed with her all these years.

This morning, Kuro-e leaves her car at the head of a canyon and treks cross the forested mesa top. A freak storm is sweeping across the area. Wind-whipped rain and sleet pelt her face. She zips up her fleece pullover and quickens her pace, scolding herself for not bringing a raincoat. After an hour trudging through pinons and junipers, she emerges onto a slickrock bench. The rain has stopped, the sky turning blue, though the winds still unabated. Directly in front of her, a massive stone spire stands like a tower over the canyon. She circles along the canyon rim aiming for the tower and soon finds herself on top of two caprocks, each the size of a whale. Squeezed between the humpbacks is a narrow gap that drops down to the next level. She scoots down the gap, landing on a wide slickrock shelf below the rim.

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Ruin under Caprock   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Right under the caprock, she finds an Anasazi dwelling. Its stone-and-mortar walls smoothly plastered with adobe, its roof still intact, a long wooden tree trunk supporting the cross beams juts out from the side of the building. Inside the rectangular doorway is a sizable living quarter, roomy enough for a family. Across from that dwelling, two intact but empty granaries sat under another caprock. Stone cherts and pieces of corrugated pottery littered the ground. Stone piles suggested additional rooms that have since collapsed.

Continuing along the slickrock shelf down canyon, Kuro-e comes to a body-wide gap that plunges 15 feet straight down. She lowers her backpack down with a rope, then ties the rope around a stout juniper and set up a body-rappel to lower herself down. Once on solid ground, she sees a large alcove in the distance, halfway up the canyon side. She leaves the rope in place for her return trip, then picks her way across the scree slope towards the alcove.

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Perfect Kiva   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano 

The alcove swallows her in. The first things she notices are a pair of mealing bins fashioned with standing stone slabs. The metates are gone, but a few corncobs remain in the bins. Next to that, against the backwall, is a dwelling, its backwall blackened by fire, roof beams collapsed into a pile in front. Beyond that room is a free-standing granary built of large stone slabs and mud.

Kuro-e’s attention is drawn to the center of the alcove, where a slender ladder sticks out through a rectangular hole on the ground, outlined with stones in a circle. Kuro-e carefully climbs down the rickety ladder, its rungs fastened with vines rather than nails*. Inside the dim round room, she starts to make out a small sipapu on the ground in front of her. Four wide pilasters support the main beams of the roof, a square niche near the ground on the far wall. Between the pilasters are deep shelfs carved into the solid wall. As her eyes adjust to the darkness, she sees more details. On the east and west walls are two circles, one white and the other pale green, evoking images of the moon. She recalls the description of these ‘moons’ somewhere. Suddenly, she realizes this is the mythical kiva that she read about long ago. After all these years, she finally sees that kiva for herself. The story was real.

Upon exiting the kiva, somehow the alcove seems changed. The sandy ground is crisscrossed with busy footprints, but they are not hers, those are left by bare feet and yucca sandals. The collapsed dwelling by the backwall has been restored as if by magic, smoke wafting through an open window. The mealing bins no longer sit idle, she imagines a woman grinding corn over them. Closing her eyes, she smells food being cooked over a woodfire, she hears padding of children running. This place is no longer a fiction, people once lived and worked here. The perfect kiva is a myth no more.

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Kiva ladder   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

 

*The ladder is a replica. The original ladder has been removed and stored in Edge of Cedars Museum in Blanding.