Discovering Moon House: Dag and Zook and The Fear of Falling

Thanksgiving Day 2018 was a memorable one. We spent the week in Blanding, UT. Unlike Moab to the north with its trendy, sporty persona, which I don’t much love, Blanding is unvarnished and unpretentious. I would rather feel like traveler as opposed to a tourist, if you get my meaning. In mock appreciation to the sporty set we took up the names Zook (short for Gadzooks) and Dag (short for Dag Nab It). We spent three full days in the area, hiking to House on Fire ruins, traveling Monument Valley, and taking the La Sal Mountain Loop over to Arches NP. It was all quite lovely. Those who know me well know that the desert, especially red canyon country, is the landscape that resonates most deeply with my soul.

I love the grim gaunt edges of the rocks, the great bare backbone of the Earth, rough brows and heaved up shoulders, round ribs and knees of the world’s skeleton protruded in lonely places.
Maynard Dixon

On Thanksgiving morning we decided to trek out to Moon House, a beautiful and well preserved ruin in Bears Ears National Monument. The guidebook advised us to budget 2 to 3 hours and to be ready for some “moderate scrambling”. Best laid plans of mice and men… We took Totoro, our Honda Pilot, 8.2 miles down Snow Flat Road. He did well–very sure-footed on the gravel–but it was a test of Dag’s skills and Totoro’s design, especially when parts of the road were along slickrock shelves. The second half of the drive we took very slowly, almost turning around at a particularly nasty rock that threatened our center of gravity. We managed to ease around to one side and get over it. Finally we made it to the trailhead, where the guide book told us to park and walk up the remaining couple of miles to McLloyd Canyon. Looking at this section of road, sandy and washed out in places, we decided that was a smart decision.

When we reached the rim we did not immediately locate the ruin, which is to the left part way down the canyon wall. There was a better vantage point along the rim to our left, but we didn’t confirm that until we were past the point of visiting that spot. Reaching Moon House is a dramatic descent down one side of the canyon and up the other. It’s an extremely picturesque place and the ruins are plentiful and attractive. About that moderate scrambling…

On the way down there is a rippled slickrock shelf that leans into the canyon and drops off. My husband and I are little people… Dag is 5’7 and I’m right at 5′. If we were a little taller, this might not have been as much of an issue. There are two possibilities. It looks as if someone has piled up some rocks under the lip of this shelf, but that means going straight out over the edge and you’ve really got to trust that the pile of rocks is there for your benefit. Option 2 is to walk to the right along the slickrock, which is steeper on this side, until you come to a small tree that you can grasp and lower yourself onto the trail below. At this point we were the only people on the trail (there would be two more parties behind us, comprised of taller folks) and we spent some time negotiating this perilous spot. I don’t think that a fall here, or more of a roll actually, would kill you, but you’d probably break something and getting help out here in the middle of nowhere is EXPENSIVE. Dag opts for the tree. After some moments of sheer terror, I follow, my running shoes slipping down off the slickrock as I manage to scoot across. I discarded my hiking boots two days earlier after they ate holes in the back of my heels. The tree takes a nice gash out of my jacket as I drop on to the trail. My legs are jelly. We spend a few minutes trying to ascertain whether or not the trail is going to get worse or not, but decide not to turn around after all that struggle. Moon House is closer now, and absolutely gorgeous.

The  rest of the way down is rocky and a bit steep but far from scary. There is a lovely wide place to cross to the other side of the canyon, passing by a large boulder. It is a great place to catch your breath before the last moderately difficult task of pulling yourself up to the next ledge. The route goes between two rocky protrusions that keep you from feeling as if you are going to go tumbling.  Once you traverse that, you find yourself on the Moon House patio. The ruins are right in front of you.

The BLM allows visitors to enter the outer wall, although we did not feel right doing so. As we came up the ruin side there was a gnarled tree. Usually if anybody sees or feels something weird, it’s me, but in this case Dag swore that he saw, out of the corner of his eye, a Native American man sitting on it. He seemed a friendly presence, but he commanded some respect as well. Moon House was visited by looters many times before it was set up as a park site. There was a smuggling ring in Blanding that was broken up a few years ago, resulting in some suicides in the community. Several of the items recovered came from Moon House. It didn’t feel good to identify in any way with that kind of activity.  Instead I thought about my mother, who is very unwell and dealing with end of life issues. I said a little prayer asking for help as we walked the canyon. There was much to be seen, and we certainly missed some things along the way. I feel it is important not to be greedy in the wilderness, be it for loot or experience. Greediness gets you into trouble–gets you over-extended and over-burdened. Perhaps it is not so different in everyday life.

Saying goodbye to the friendly canyon spirits, we hauled ourselves out of the canyon and headed for the car. We arrived at 11am and it was now nearing 3:30. We were several hours overtime and the weather forecast had indicated a 20 percent chance of snow in the late afternoon. As we walked the two miles back to the car, the snow arrived, a gentle dusting. As we took Totoro back over Snow Flat Road, it started to snow in earnest. We managed the 8.2 miles of gravel without incident and were very glad to reach pavement. We jokingly cried out “Tarmac!” in homage to Ewan McGregor and Charlie Boorman in Long Way Round and headed back to Blanding for our Thanksgiving feast of prime rib, mashed potatoes and megasalad, topped off with pumpkin pie with whipped cream (the real thing, baby!) There’s nothing quite so satisfying as the meal that follows the accomplishment of a quest.

What did all that scrambling tell me, other than I should keep myself in better shape? That I need to let myself risk falling and failing. I’ve always fit Synkroniciti into my other schedules, letting them set her pacing. Part of this is the result of putting my life back together three times, part of it is a legitimate fear that Synkroniciti will fail, or, perhaps more frightening, that she will succeed and draw me into a new place. One does not simply jump off the side of a cliff, neither will I quit everything else I am doing to follow Synkroniciti into thin air. But it is now time to edge my way toward new sights, to  puzzle out the landscape before me and, if needed, create new trail.

Nothing is achieved alone. Would you like to join me on my journey for a while? We all have different goals and different challenges such that we can never truly comprehend each other’s journeys, but we can certainly lend a hand when we cross paths and root for each other from our separate vantage points. Let’s get out there and find what 2019 has to offer. And if you slip along the way, take comfort in knowing you aren’t the only one out there.

Waving at you from the trail!

Zook

 

 

Beneath the Garden: Il Giardino di Ninfa, Part 1

Forty miles from Rome, the ancient city of Ninfa has been overtaken by a lush garden. What stories hide here?

In the Latina province of the Lazio region of central Italy there lies a garden. No ordinary garden, but a place considered by connoisseurs to be one of the most romantic in the world. Twenty acres of landscaped beauty comprises Il Giardino di Ninfa, part of a larger Italian Natural Monument, Il Parco Naturale Pantanello. Ancient and medieval ruins are embroidered with greenery and roses make tenacious toeholds between crumbling stones weathered by centuries. Grassy meadows give way to stands of oak, cypress and poplar, while plants imported from all over the globe take advantage of an abundance of water. Beneath all of this extreme beauty, there is the story of Ninfa, a community lost and regained several times over the course of history.

Ninfa means Nymph and the original settlement (as well as the river) was named for a nymphaeum, or temple dedicated to nymphs, that once stood on a island in the small lake. The earliest known reference to this structure is found in the letters of Pliny the Younger (AD 61-113), a famous Roman lawyer, magistrate and writer. Pliny was a survivor of the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 79, which took the life of his uncle, Pliny the Elder. He tells us the temple was dedicated to water nymphs;  water is key to Ninfa’s identity and value. Early residents knew it was wise to keep the nymphs happy, as floods and waterborne illnesses were unpredictable and could quickly overwhelm a community.

Those first residents were probably the Volsci, who were driven from the Liris river Valley in the northeast to the marshy regions near Rome after 600 BC. These were water people who worshiped water gods and made their living from fertile soil watered by so many rivers and streams. They were also, at times, fierce enemies of the Romans. In 304 BC, they were defeated for good and subsequently assimilated. Famous Romans of Volscian descent included Cicero and Caesar Augustus himself.

Over centuries, Ninfa grew from a prosperous agricultural community into a more worldly town, benefiting from its location on the Via Pedemontana near Rome. This was the high road at the feet of the mountains, which proved useful whenever the marshes flooded. The Appian Way was also nearby. It should have allowed local farmers to sell their produce far to the south and brought in other merchants and artisans, but it was prone to flooding. Ninfa was situated along the most important detour in central Italy and became rich off of tolls and customs trade.

By AD 1159, Ninfa was important enough that Pope Alexander III was crowned here in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore, following a disputed election that would have repercussions throughout Europe and result in decades of violence. This association with Papal politics proved deadly. A dozen years later, Frederick Barbarossa, Holy Roman Emperor, would burn the city, in an attempt to flush out Pope Alexander, who was hiding here. Ninfa had the resources to rebuild- this time, thanks to the Caetani family with their money and Papal connections.

At her height, she was  a cluster of more than 150 homes, with churches, mills, two hospitals, a castle (built near the lake where the nymphaeum had once stood) and a town hall. Recognizing what was coming, the Caetanis encircled the city with a 1500 yard defensive wall and guard towers. In the 14th century, those wonderful Papal connections were to embroil Ninfa in a Civil War that would cripple the city and make agriculture and commerce impossible. Importance brought intrigue and intrigue brought corruption and violence. The city dwindled.

In the 16th century, Cardinal Nicolò III Caetani gave Ninfa its last gasp, repopulating the city and commanding architect Francesco Perugino to build a lavish garden there. The respite was short lived, as the Cardinal died in 1585 and disasters continued to mount. The marshes began to flooding again and malaria broke out. Ninfa proved too weak to face the wrath of the water spirits. She did not survive the 17th century.

The land remained in the hands of the Caetani family, unused and forgotten until the early 20th century. We’ll explore the reinvention of Ninfa next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quote for Today: Edward Abbey

Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011 © Michael Holden with CCLicense

Temple of Transition, Burning Man 2011
© Michael Holden with CCLicense

I’d like to see North America become a dry, sunny, sandy region inhabited mainly by lizards, buzzards and a modest human population – about 25 million would be plenty – of pastoralists and prospectors (prospecting for truth), gathering once a year in the ruins of ancient, mysterious cities for great ceremonies of music, art, dance, poetry, joy, faith and renewal. That’s my dream of the American future. Like most such dreams, it will probably come true. That is why I’m still an optimist.

Edward AbbeyPostcards from Ed: Dispatches and Salvos from an American Iconoclast