Cedar Mesa, Utah
Standing on a wide stone shelf, looking across canyon as mid-morning sun lit the opposite side, I stood in silence viewing Moon House for the first time. I stared at the complex of 800-year-old rooms with multiple doorways. Here was an entire stone village with both McElmo style and Mesa Verde masonry, Kayenta Anasazi-style granaries with rounded horse-collar shaped doorways, and jacal construction of upright woven willows and adobe. In the canyon’s quiet with a breeze moving the cottonwood leaves below, I felt suspended in time.
As I hiked down the trail, I was approaching one of the last, best backcountry Anasazi sites in the Southwest, but I was still unprepared for what I found. It’s that sense of self-discovery that the Bureau of Land Management in their Monticello, Utah field office seeks to preserve with updated rules for visiting Moon House.
The magic of Moon House is not only the approach, the steep descent, and the route-finding up the other side, but also the inner chamber with its protective curtain wall containing 31 intentional loopholes strategically placed to aim arrows at intruders. Erected in 1262 A.D., as determined by tree-ring dating of wood samples, the wall shields a hidden courtyard similar to features in Medieval European castles built in the same time period.
Behind the stone wall a suite of rooms contains original 800-year-old plaster. Soot from ancient fires covers the ceiling. Anasazi finger impressions remain pressed into the adobe wattle-and-daub walls with their painted white symbols like downward pointing mountain peaks. In one of the rooms a painted white border, approximately six inches wide, with a top row of white dot thumb prints, includes the moon’s phases in negative relief, hence the name Moon House.
Years ago I sat in the back of that womb-like moon room. I marveled that despite being snug inside, over the top of the outer protective wall I could see visitors approaching from across the canyon and even hear their every word. So it seems that many aspects of Moon House were designed for defense. Recently the BLM obtained a “Save America’s Treasures” grant, and with the assistance of the National Park Service, mapped the entire 49-room Moon House complex that stretches ¼ mile in McCloyd Canyon. Volunteers carried in 750 pounds of sand to place on the rooms’ floors to absorb moisture from human breath, which can damage the delicate moon-phase paintings. For further protection, entering the rooms is now prohibited.
Southwestern archaeologist William Lipe knew such rules were coming. To the west of Cedar Mesa is Grand Gulch Wilderness Study Area and Lipe wrote, “In Grand Gulch we are moving into an era of managed remoteness, of planned romance. I think that is probably how it has to be if we are to preserve the qualities of the area at all in an increasingly mobile and exploitative society.” He added, “The challenge is to have effective management that does not itself overwhelm the values it is designed to protect.”
Because 3,000 visitors annually hike into Grand Gulch, backpackers must get overnight permits at the Kane Gulch Ranger Station. Beginning in January, hikers will need day use permits for a 1,600 acre two-mile stretch of McCloyd Canyon with Moon House in the middle between two large sandstone pour-offs within the Fish Creek Canyon Wilderness Study Area. Dogs, overnight camping, and fires along the rim are not permitted. To maintain that sense of “self-discovery,” daily visitation will be limited to 36 people including clients of commercial outfitters. Group size will not exceed twelve.
Monticello BLM Field Manager Tom Heinlein, with 1.8 million acres to oversee, explains that Moon House is “part of one huge Anasazi cultural landscape” and at 49 rooms one of the largest sites on Cedar Mesa. Heinlein says, “People come from around the world to visit southeast Utah, and we must maintain that back country discovery experience where eco-tourism success depends upon respectful visitors.”
Heinlein’s staff recommended that Moon House receive additional protections because like other Cedar Mesa sites now well known because of the internet, “the land is being hammered.” He continues, “We’re trying to be as flexible as we can to balance the protection of these fragile resources, while accommodating an appropriate level of heritage tourism.”
Occupied for only 40 years or a single generation and built in three distinct phases, archaeologist Lipe explains, “Moon House is important to the public because its wonderful preservation makes it easy for visitors to imagine what it would have been like to have lived there.”
So I’ve already paid $20 for my 2011 annual Cedar Mesa permit, or white plastic hangtag, to attach to my truck’s rearview mirror. Now I’ll have to contact the BLM in advance to bring friends to Moon House. I sigh over the increasing bureaucracy and the rules and regulations, but I have to respect the BLM’s intentions. When manager Tom Heinlein says, “We’re trying to look forward, more tourism is coming,” I know he’s right.
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The telephone number for permits from the BLM’s Monticello, Utah office is 435-587-1510.
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Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org