Ruins and Ladders

Welcome to 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days, hosted by Portrait of an Adoption. This series will feature guest posts by people with widely varying adoption experiences.

By Andrea Ross

After I told my parents I wanted to search for my birth family, we sent letters to the adoption agency and the Colorado Juvenile Court, asking for any information about my birth parents the Court would give us. But we were told that they were not at liberty to release any information that might identify my birth parents. It felt like a door had been slammed in my face, and I was furious.

How could the State of Colorado have more rights than I did to information about my birth, my family? It didn’t seem right, but I didn’t know what to do about it except to feel angry and defeated. My parents expressed their sympathy, but it didn’t help. I knew they didn’t really understand.

When my contract as a seasonal ranger at the Grand Canyon ended in May, my mom flew out to visit me. I’m sure my parents were wondering what effect searching would have on me and how my long wilderness treks played into my plans. They didn’t ask me about it, but I imagined they had noticed my growing unsettledness.

During her visit, I wanted to take my mom on an overnight hike to the Keet Seel ruins in Navajo National Monument, ancient dwellings that lie at the end of an eight-mile hike through a remote, wild canyon. The day before we were supposed to hit the trail, my mom and I dashed into a roadside motel’s office during a heavy downpour and rented the last room available.

In the room, I unfolded the topographic map of our route to the ruins on the motel bedspread. Tracing my finger along the dotted line that marked the trail, I said, “We’ll start up on this plateau at about 7,300 feet and descend into the canyon. There’ll be switchbacks for the thousand-foot drop. Then we’ll hike through this creek bed for about six miles.” I pointed to the braided blue line marking the meandering stream at the bottom of the canyon.

After studying the map for a moment, my mother looked out the motel window at the torrents of rain. She paused. “I’m flattered that you think I’m strong enough to do that hike,” she said after a minute, “but it sounds like a hard hike, and I’m not sure I’m up to it. Plus, if it’s going to keep raining like this, I don’t want to spend the night camping in the wet and cold.”

I really wanted to see the ruins, and I also really wanted her to see them, so I had convinced myself that she would be able to do it. I didn’t want to go alone.

“Are you sure, Mom?” I asked. “I could carry most of the stuff. I think you can do it,” I said, even though I could easily envision an unpleasant scene on the trail: she becoming angry with me for pushing her beyond her limits.

“Let’s see if there’s some other way for me to get there,” she replied.

The park had an equestrian outfitter, so my mother reserved a spot with a guided tour group on horseback to visit the ruins for the day. That meant I would hike in, camp for the night, and hike out by myself. I had backpacked a lot, but I had never done it alone, and I was nervous.

The next morning, my mom dropped me off at the trailhead, and I hugged her goodbye before hoisting my big green backpack onto my shoulders. As I hiked down the steep trail into Keet Seel Canyon, I noticed a vertical pattern of handholds and footholds running up the steep sandstone of the cliff next to the trail. It was a ladder of sorts, but I couldn’t see where it led. I wondered about trying to climb it, but I hurried on, eager to get to the ruins.

When I reached the canyon’s base, I trudged through many stream crossings and leapfrogged back and forth with my mom’s equestrian group. One woman was writing a travel guide to the southwest. She took a picture of me mucking through the stream wearing my big backpack, and I imagined a photograph of me published in a travel guide someday, hoping I would look brave and strong in it, hiking in solitude among the sandstone spires. I tried to inhabit that image of myself.

Mostly, though, I was lonely, even among the formations that rose from the bedrock in anthropomorphic shapes. I named them to keep my mind busy: Corn Mother, Three Muses, One Woman Standing. The names echoed with my footsteps as I plodded heavily along.

In the early afternoon, I watched my mother’s brown-and-white spotted horse trotting ahead of me, thinking about how I had recently told her, “I feel like I wasn’t wanted, Mom.”

“But you were wanted—you were so very much wanted by us,” she replied, not seeing my point of view. “Why are you so tough, Andrea? You’re too tough.” She was hurt by my toughness, my reluctance to make myself vulnerable to her or anyone else. But it wasn’t really toughness. I only had a thin, easily cracked outer shell protecting my very fragile insides, as tenuous as the newly formed skin beneath a scab. How could she not know that?

A few hours later, I arrived at the end of the trail. The ranger’s hut, a hexagonal building fashioned of juniper logs to look like a traditional Navajo Hogan, hunkered in the shade of the nearby cliffs. I saw that my mom’s group had just finished their tour of the ruins. They walked toward a picnic table below the cliff, and I joined them to eat lunch. I was sweaty, tired, and fixated on the cheese and crackers waiting for me somewhere in my pack.

“I’m so glad we found a way for me to come here,” my mom said when I caught up with her. “It’s amazing in there.” She smiled, gesturing behind her toward the alcove above us, in which many ancient sandstone buildings were visible. “So many rooms and artifacts! I saw a thousand-year-old corncob next to a grinding stone!”

“I’m glad you liked it,” I said, smiling faintly. “I can’t wait to go in there. I wish we could have gone together!” I was disappointed that she had gone in without me. I wanted to share the experience with her, to be together when we encountered the relics, the empty wind blowing through the crumbling buildings. I wanted to explore the ruins together, the same way I wanted to share my search experience. But I said nothing.

After lunch, my mother gave me a hug and left on horseback with her group. “See you tomorrow at noon,” she called back to me as she rode off down the wash. That was the plan we had made. And now I would be alone for almost twenty-four hours. I sat at the picnic table trying to decide what I should do first, pitch my tent or visit the ruins, when a young man clad in familiar National Park Service garb approached me. “Hi, I’m Mike, the ranger here. I can take you up to the ruins in a few minutes, if you’d like.”

I introduced myself and told him I was a fellow ranger at the Grand Canyon, and soon Mike took me on a tour of the largest cliff dwelling in Arizona: a huge settlement with kivas, or circular ceremonial chambers, many sandstone buildings with wooden ladders leading from one level to another, and thousands of objects from daily life as it was seven hundred years ago in the desert southwest: pottery, corncobs, grinding rocks, stone scrapers and knives. The village looked as if the population of Keet Seel had departed just days before, although it had been abandoned for centuries.

Perhaps that’s what made ruins so appealing to me—they still seemed inhabited, so I visited them, looking for traces of the people who’d left, knowing they weren’t my people, but hoping nonetheless to get ideas for how to find my own people.

I didn’t know what move I would make next in my quest to find my birth parents. Since petitioning the state government and the adoption agency for information hadn’t worked, I would have to take a different, probably sneakier, approach. Hiring a private investigator seemed like a good idea, but I didn’t have the money for it. Wandering around ruins had made me begin thinking of searching on my own.

Mike interrupted my thoughts. “There’s a skull—a human skull—sticking out of an arroyo up canyon from here,” he said, apropos of nothing. I looked up at him, startled by his presence, my eyes wide with surprise. “I’m not sure what to do about it,” he continued. “If I tell the Park Service, the archaeology department will probably want to catalog it and stabilize it or unearth it.”

“Can I see it?” I asked, barely containing my excitement. I tried to act as if I saw skulls on all my hikes, but I had never seen a human skull outside of a museum before, a skull in its native habitat. “I mean, yes; Arc. will probably want to check it out,” I added. I hadn’t worked for the Park Service for long, but I was well acquainted with its bureaucracy.

“The thing is,” Mike said, taking off his Park Service ball cap and wiping his sweaty head, “I really don’t want the skull to be disturbed.” We began descending the stairs leading away from the ruins, our steps echoing in the sandstone alcove like angry whispers.

“Makes sense to me,” I said. I found some shade and sat with my back against a boulder.

“Yeah, but all kinds of things might happen to it if it’s left alone.” Mike stood in front of me with his hands dug into his pockets. “I don’t know what to do. But I’ll show them to you if you want. First thing tomorrow.”

As shadows began to streak between the cottonwoods, I set up my sun-faded backpacking tent, then cooked some dinner and went to bed. As the night wore on, it became clear to me that I didn’t like backpacking alone. I distracted myself by envisioning the footholds and handholds I’d seen chopped into the gritty Kayenta sandstone during my descent into the canyon that day.

Known throughout the desert southwest as Moqui steps, they’re prehistoric pathways, old climbing routes carved by the Ancient Puebloans. I knew it was important to leave any archaeological artifact alone so that it could be preserved and appreciated by future generations. But were they artifacts? All I knew was that they called to me. I desperately wanted to put my hands and my feet into their small recesses to see how they fit, to find out where those hanging cliff trails would take me.

On my travels, I always wanted to go a little further than I knew I should, just to see what I could find. I had told my mother I’d hike out first thing in the morning so I could meet her by noon on top of the mesa, but I very much wanted to see the skull. I knew my mom would worry if I didn’t make it to the trailhead by noon.

But I couldn’t convince myself to skip the opportunity to see something that most people didn’t get to see, especially since I had hiked so far with my heavy pack. So I decided to go with Mike to see the skull, then hike out of the canyon as fast as I could to try to make up time and get to the trailhead before my mom started worrying too much.

After breakfast, I met Mike by the Hogan. “It’s just down that arroyo a piece,” he said, pointing to a dry streambed.

We walked more than a mile down the pebbled wash, feet sinking with every step. Then Mike stopped and pointed upward to an unmistakable white orb buried about five feet below the scant desert topsoil in the embankment. It was obvious that the skull would soon become completely exposed and roll to the bottom of the streambed, where it would be washed away with the next storm or crushed by the hooves of a cow looking to graze.

I wondered about the rest of the skeleton lying behind the skull and pictured it, too, eroding out bone by bone. Who was this lost person? Ancestral Puebloan? Navajo? Cowboy? Cowgirl? Hiker? I presumed the skull was ancient, but I had no evidence of that. It was buried in a big floodplain, so perhaps it had dislodged from its original resting place and been transported there only a few years before, then buried by a flash flood’s silt and sand like just another stone in the riverbed.

I couldn’t take my eyes off the skull. I’d seen my share of backcountry oddities, but the skull got to me. It was lost, possibly disembodied. It had to belong somewhere, to some family. I realized that, like Mike, I wanted that skull to rest where it lay, but it also seemed right to let it fall to the creek bed and move along as the forces of gravity and erosion took it.

I also wanted to preserve the integrity of the Moqui Steps, but I yearned to fit my hands and feet into them, to use them as they had been intended. Because what is a foothold if it’s not used? Where does a route lead if no one hikes it?

Also, of course, I wanted to locate the bones, and the flesh, of my ancestors; I wanted to follow a path that would lead me to the place where they lived, as if they had just stepped out one day to get the newspaper and had never come back, where the idea of me had been abandoned. I wanted to fill those holds with my own feet, to trace them with my shoes, to have someone else’s to fill.

Eventually we left the skull, and I thanked Mike and said goodbye, so I could jog back to camp to shoulder my pack and hustle out of the canyon to meet my mom. I was eager to tell her about my bonus adventure, and a little nervous that she’d be angry for making her wait in the desert heat, worrying about my safety.

Hours later, I arrived at the base of the final ascent from the canyon. The Moqui steps stared at me, leading my gaze up and away. They took a more direct route than the trail, which was switchbacked for hikers and horses. I knew I shouldn’t try the Moqui steps that day. The weight of my pack would throw me off balance, and I was alone. There was no one there to catch me if I fell. But I was very tempted.

Instead I scuttled up the final grade as quickly as I could. When I finally topped out, sweaty and tired, heart racing from the exertion, back aching from the weight of my pack, there was my mom, waiting for me just as we had planned.

I was about a half-hour late, but she was smiling as she stood on the windy mesa-top waving to me as I approached. Relief flooded my body when I saw her smile.

“Hi there, strong woman!” she called.

“Hi! Sorry I’m late,” I said, dropping my pack in the gravel as I reached her. I gave her a big sweaty hug. “You’re never going to believe what I got to see!”

“I’m sure you had quite an adventure,” she said, chuckling. “You always do.”

Perhaps she had expected my lateness. I wondered for the first time in my life how she had kept from worrying all the times I told her I was going into the backcountry for a week, two weeks, a month, that I would call her when I got back to civilization. Maybe she had worried, but she’d let me go anyway without a fight. Or maybe she hadn’t worried, perhaps only because she didn’t know the dangers I faced out there.

I told her about the skull and the handholds as we got in the car and drove back to the motel. “I really wanted to climb the Moqui steps, Mom! It was hard not to do it!” I said.

“I can tell!” she replied. “Frankly, I’m surprised you didn’t climb them. You’re like the bear who went over the mountain to see what she could see.”

The old children’s song ran through my head: “The bear went over the mountain to see what he could see—.” She was right. That was how I felt about the Moqui steps and about all my wilderness trips and also, of course, about finding my birth parents.

I needed to know what was out there. Even if I uncovered skeletons. But then I remembered the last part of the song about the bear: “but all that he could see was the other side of the mountain—that’s all that he could see.” Was all I would find the “other side”? Would that be enough?

Suddenly I felt compelled to ask her something I had been too scared to bring up when we had talked on the phone about my search. It was as if it were a physical need, like inhaling after holding my breath for too long. “Is it okay with you that I want to search for my birth parents?” I said.

Silence for a moment. “Yes,” she said, staring out over the steering wheel at the wide, thunderhead-filled sky. “It seems really important to you, and I want you to be happy.”

“I don’t want you to feel threatened by my need to find them,” I said. “You and Dad are my parents. You always will be.”

“I’m glad you feel that way. That’s how I feel too.”

I wondered what family really meant, especially now that I was searching for another family. The dilemma of what to do about the skull was akin to my struggle about the chopped footholds and handholds, and to my desire to know my own origins.

All of these things tangled in my mind as I sat next to my mother in the car. What did those artifacts mean to me as a hiker, as a ranger, as an observer? Was it my right to decide how they would or wouldn’t be used, whether they would or wouldn’t be handled? Who had the right to disturb the past? Did I?


Andrea Ross is a trained wilderness guide and a former National Park Service Ranger, and a current community college professor. She writes poetry and prose about adoption and wilderness. She was placed for adoption as an infant and recently searched for and reunited with her birth family. Her work has been published in The Mountain Gazette, The Café Review, The Boatman’s Quarterly Review, Manzanita, Blue Line, and other publications, including, and on her blog:

Go HERE to read the complete set of posts in the 2016 series, 30 Adoption Portraits in 30 Days!

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