Comb Ridge Pastel on paper Akiko Hirano
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong
Kuro-e stands breathless on top of Comb Ridge, an almost hundred-mile-long monocline that bisects the eastern corners of Utah and Arizona. To the north, the jagged ridgeline stretches out towards Abajo Mountains. To the south, the formation disappears over the horizon, reaching all the way to Monument Valley fifty miles away. Pinyon-covered Cedar Mesa to the west - now part of the Bear Ears National Monument – holds centuries-old Anasazi cliff dwellings in every canyon. Behind her, far beyond the red desert, snow-capped mountains in Colorado line the horizon a hundred miles away. The often-dry Comb Wash, fringed with green tamarisks, meanders along the ridge to join San Juan River. As far as eye can see, the only man-made structure is a two-lane highway that cuts a graceful arc through Comb Ridge towards Arizona.
On that highway, just below the ridge, stands a modest stone historical marker labeled Hobbs Wash. In the fall of 1879, 250 Mormon men, women, and children in 83 wagons embarked on one of the most audacious journeys over some of the most inhospitable uncharted terrains from Escalante to Bluff, Utah. The caravan was stopped by sheer cliffs that plunged almost 2,000-feet into the Colorado River gorge. Four men, led by George Hobbs, were sent to scout for a feasible route. On December 27, the four men arrived at a canyon under Comb Ridge, out of food, freezing and exhausted. Not knowing if he would survive, Hobbs carved his name on a rock. Eventually, they reached Montezuma (near present day Bluff) and returned to report to the main party. The following year, the main party blasted an exceedingly precarious route down the sheer cliffs at Hole-in-the-Rock and followed Hobbs’ route to reach Bluff. The 180-mile-long Hole-in-the-Rock Trail from Escalante to Bluff stands as a testament of the undaunted faith and courage of human spirits.
Lithics & pottery shards Photo Tim Wong
Long before the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition, Comb Ridge has been a formidable obstacle for Native Americans traveling across the region. Anasazi had created pathways across this barrier. One such possible pathway lies some ten miles north of where Kuro-e stands. She once followed a sandy path that cut through blackbrush on the east side of the range. A trail of broken pottery and stone flints half-buried in the sand led towards one of the many canyons along the range. She followed it and entered a gully dotted with greasewood and Mormon tea. As she continued, the gully deepened into a wide canyon surrounded by massive curvaceous sandstone cliffs hundreds of feet tall. Dark striated desert varnish decorated the orange cliffs. Hollow alcoves stared down at her like watchful eyes. Gnarly junipers grew from rocky niches and basins. After a couple of miles, she topped out on a broad saddle dotted with stands of blackbrush. The trail continued through the bushes straight to the edge of the ridge overlooking Comb Wash on the other side. She realized this could be an ancient pathway connecting the east and west sides of Comb Ridge.
A broad stone ramp rose from the saddle to the ridge crest. Under the crest was a large alcove cradling an Anasazi ruin. She scrambled up the slickrock to investigate. The site had a commanding view of the path below and the territory beyond. The buildings themselves were badly eroded, only some walls remained standing. The main structure was an unusually large rectangular room with rounded front corners. It was much larger than the typical living quarter in the area. Its backwall built on top of a flat boulder, the interior walls nicely smoothened. Behind the backwall were several smaller rooms, mostly collapsed. She found a few unpainted pottery shards and corn cobs around the dirt floor. Curiously, this ruin did not have a kiva. There were no implements for grinding corns common in most other ruins in the area, nor were the walls blackened by wood fires. There were also no pictographs and tool-sharpening grooves at the site, nor any water source nearby. She wondered if this was not a long-term residence, but a stopover for travelers crossing the ridge. If so, the large room might be meant for a traveling party.
Faint rumbling of a diesel engine brings Kuro-e’s thoughts back to the present. She looks down at the road below and catches a big tour bus making its way along the wide curve. Built in the 1970s, that two-lane highway is route 163, a thoroughfare that brings modern travelers and tourists to Arizona, right through the iconic landscape of the Monument Valley. Few would notice the Hobbs marker or remember that four men almost gave their lives blazing a trail to reach here barely over a century ago.
Ridgetop Ruin Pastel on paper Akiko Hirano