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Dawn over Cedar Mesa  Pastel on paper  Akiko Hirano

The Staff
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

October, 2023  

A Jeep crawls slowly up the steep and winding Moki Dugway in the dark, its yellow headlight sweeps back and forth off the cliff into the void at every turn. The car stops briefly at the crest of the climb, a thousand feet above Valley of the Gods. The vast landscape below seems dormant in the predawn light, the normally vibrant sandstone buttes muted and barely discernable. The car continues along the two-lane blacktop on top of the mesa dotted with sagebrush and pinyon. Far to the east, beyond the sage plain still blanketed by morning fog, the sky over Sleeping Ute Mountain starts to glow like a rainbow, cyan turning orange, red and gold.

Kuro-e steps out from the car when the sun casts long shadows over the slickrock. She hoists the pack on her back and starts down a dry wash. Slowly, she is swallowed by the deepening rocky canyon flanked by towering red cliffs. She gets around a couple of pour-offs, climbing down rockslides and landing in a jumble of boulder jams. The canyon floor seems untrodden, choked with thick brush and tall horsetail reeds. She fights through the tangles to make a trail. Eventually, the bush gets so thick she can no longer see her footing and falls through the covers into a muddy puddle. This can’t be the way! She stops to catch her breath and bandages up her scratched-up arms, then backtracks and tries to get around the tangles off to the side. Suddenly, she stumbles into a clearing right in front of a large alcove with a beautiful orange wall. Tucked under the arching wall are man-made structures.


Log Kiva Ruin   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

1262 AD

In the dim early morning light, an old man stood by his log shelter watching his clan busy gathering their belongings for the long journey. He would not be traveling with them; arthritis had kept him from walking far. After years of drought, most of their neighbors had left the area, but his clan was reluctant to abandon their leader. With the canyons emptying out, a heightened sense of urgency was creeping in; they had to follow their neighbors or faced starvation. Finally, the old man urged his clan to leave without him. He stood stolidly, weathered hands clasping a wooden staff, as his family gathered around to bid farewell. The old man held out his staff with both hands to offer it to his son, a gesture of transferring leadership. The surprised young man hesitated, then thrusted the staff back into his father’s hands, knowing the old man needed it. After a moment of silence, the two men came to an unspoken rapport - the staff would stay in the canyon, waiting for the young leader to return. Some day.

After the last of his clan departed, the old man limped over to a granary and quietly prepared a small dish of paint with red ochre. With a yucca brush, he painstakingly painted two figures on the wall - a large broad-shouldered leader adorned with elaborate headgear, and a smaller unadorned figure at a distance as if walking away. When he finished, he limped back to his shelter, reminiscing how his family had built it with logs and stones decades ago, and how they had carved into the hard floor to give a little more headroom, though still not enough to stand up inside. The roof had sagged under the weight of the slabs and mud, but it did not matter now. Just like himself, that old shelter had served its purpose. Carefully, he lifted his staff and left it leaning against the side of the dwelling, then turned and hobbled down the canyon, never looking back and never seen again.

Shaman pictoglyph

Father & Son Pictographs   Photo   Tim Wong

Kuro-e steps into the alcove and immediately recognizes one of the man-made structures is the ‘log kiva’ she has seen in some photographs. Unlike other kivas, this one has a front door but no entryway on the roof. It looks more like a regular dwelling than a ceremonial kiva. The dirt floor is scattered with corncobs and packrat droppings. Its most distinct feature is the double wall, built with wooden logs on the inside and reinforced with stone blocks outside. The dwelling is remarkably well-preserved, most of the roof still intact, though some of the exterior stones have fallen off, exposing the wooden logs and matted juniper bark fillers between the logs.

She walks to the far end of the alcove to examine a second structure. It is a double-deck granary with two chambers divided by a stick-and-mud partition. Part of the walls have collapsed, the interior turned into a packrat nest. Lying next to the granary is a heavy metate along with some corncobs. Her eyes are drawn to a pair of red pictographs on the alcove wall. She walked over to have a closer look. The two haunting figures appear to be telling a story, though she cannot understand their language. She walks back to the log shelter, looking for clues about what happened here. It is then she notices the wooden staff lying on the ground among some stone blocks fallen from the shelter wall.


The staff is made from a stout tree limb, tall as her chest, with a bulbous collar knob at one end and a worn tip at the other. Kuro-e holds it up, turning it around and feeling its heft in her hands. She tries to imagine what kind of person had used this staff. Somehow, she knows it belonged to the person with the elaborate headgear, and it was left there for a reason. She carefully returns the staff leaning against the remaining wall of the dwelling, then walks away, feeling extremely privileged to have held something so dear.


The Staff   Photo  Tim Wong

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