In praise of place: Ballroom Cave in Upper Butler Wash
Comb Ridge is bordered on the east by the long north-south trending drainage called Butler Wash. The east-facing rocky cliffs and dished-out overhangs along this mostly dry creekbed preserve a number of ancestral puebloan ruins and petroglyphs. A great deal of visitor attention is paid to the section of the wash between 163 (W of Bluff) and 95 (W of Blanding), probably because this part of the wash is paralleled by a rough dirt road.
North of 95, access to the section known as Upper Butler Wash (or West Upper Butler Wash, to differentiate it from the part that branches off to the right just north of the highway) is by trail. The path follows the alternately sandy and rocky creekbed, which is graced with shade along much of its length courtesy of the abundant cottonwoods and associated riparian flora – quite a boon during hot cloudless days.
A walk up the wash is like living an adventure story right out of the movies – around each bend awaits … who knows what, really? All one knows for sure is that several prominent Anasazi ruins await the hiker who knows where to veer off the trail and scramble up the water-worn rock slopes to the cliff faces above. It’s enough to make a person want to explore every side-canyon, regardless of his or her carefully planned itinerary.
Specifics to be found on the internet vary, but approximately 1.7 miles up the wash from 95 is a clearly-marked (thanks, BLM!) divergence off to the left that climbs the rocky slope to Ballroom Cave. If you haven’t already spotted the ruins from the wash below, you’ll soon make them out as you approach up the steep path. This ruin is a classic example of something that looks modest from below turning into something downright spectacular upon arrival.
If there’s any question about the identity of the ruin in which you now stand, the government agency in charge has removed all doubt by providing the visitor with documentation stored in a handy waterproof ammo can stashed next to one of the two crumbling kivas to be found here. Within the printed pages are details of the timeframe during which the ruins were inhabited (1200 A.D., more or less) and reasoned speculations about the lifestyle and social organization of the builders and residents.
Evidence as to lifestyle includes numerous potsherds and a surprising abundance of ancient corncobs. There are also a large number of metates/grinding grooves in the boulders littering the overhang.
While the term “cave” is bandied about incautiously as applied to many southwestern ruin sites, here it is actually appropriate, as a vast cavern opens up downslope behind the observational and/or battlement masonry structure that today glares mutely out over the canyon below. There are said to be bats residing on the ceiling of the place, though a desultory appraisal did not reveal such to this explorer’s gaze.
It should go without saying at this point that removal of relics from a site such as this is llegal, immoral and a sure sign of downright assholery on the part of those doing the thievery. Aside from the federal offense aspect, disturbance of cultural artifacts ruins the ruin, if you’ll excuse the expression, for purposes of archaeological study. More importantly from a casual visitor’s standpoint, the actual presence here of such physical reminders of the past makes the journey a true adventure – a veritable walk back in time.
Frankly, it’s somewhat astonishing that sites such as this that are entirely unsupervised still contain pocketable antiquities of any variety. It gives me some hope for man’s better nature, and makes me think that the educational process must be having some positive effect in terms of instilling a respect for the past and fostering a mindfulness to support sharing it with others.
(NAH. It’s probably just that not many people have found the place – and those few who make the effort have a certain amount of respect for the idea of historical preservation.)
On our return trip down the wash back toward the highway we paused to clamber up a steep drainage to take in the view of Target Ruin (aka Bullseye Ruin). This improbably-sited masonry and jacal “mixed-use” structure shows remarkable preservation – undoubtedly due to the fact that it is inaccessible. It perches a dozen feet or more above us on a ledge that appears unreachable with anything short of a fireman’s ladder. Even a rappel from above looks like a sketchy proposition, given the broad brow of the overhang. So in the case of Target Ruin, one must be content to marvel from below at the resourcefulness of the builders and inhabitants.
(Are those Moki steps I see on the sandstone below the ruin? Or perhaps posthole anchors? Maybe just natural rock cavities that I’m “anthropomorphing” into something they’re not.)