On Grand Mesa, a gap in time

Caves on Grand Mesa

Tucked away on Grand Mesa, legend suggests, is a cave:  a hiding place for Spanish gold, the ancient meeting place of the Utes, or perhaps even the home of ancient civilization. It depends on the legend.

From a distance, a rectangular chunk of rock seems to be missing from the lava cap atop Grand Mesa, a gap that seems to beckon exploration of a cave that might hold secrets of how and why ancient man lived above what now is known as the Grand Valley.

That rectangular gap, looking like the empty place left behind when a chad is punched free, has the attention of the Western Investigations Team of the Museum of Western Colorado and Mesa State College.

The Western Investigations Team, whose work has lent credit to the protestations of Colorado cannibal Alferd Packer, is looking at the gap, thinking it might explain a cryptic report filed with the U.S. Forest Service and shed light on what the Utes knew of the giant mountain at the east end of the valley.

Ezra Stewart waxed rhapsodic about the mesa in his description of the mesa filed with the Forest Service in 1942.

“For many generations, this was a part of the summer hunting and fishing grounds of the Red Man, the Ute Indian,” Stewart wrote. “The home of Chief Ouray and his cherished wife, Chipeta, trusted friends of the pale faces. Here in this secluded valley, feeding on the flesh and rich bone and flesh-building forage, was game in abundance.”

More to the point, Stewart wrote, “All of these things looked good to the aborigines. They were near and dear to his heart. This was his home and the home of his forefathers for generations.

Tradition tells us of a great cavern, the Hall of Indian Fame, in Grand Mesa Mountain, in which were held the councils and pow-wows of the Red Skin chiefs and warriors. Even after diligent search, its location remains a mystery to the Pale Face.”

That was enough to pique the interest of Dave Bailey, director of the Western Investigations Team, Rick Dujay of Mesa State College, the scientific coordinator of the team, and Mike Perry, executive director of the Museum of Western Colorado. Last week, they headed to an undisclosed location atop the mesa to see whether they could match what looks to be a cave in a sheer, inaccessible wall to the stories of the great cavern.

History gone with tribe

The team is conducting “a visual survey of Grand Mesa basin areas to investigate the possibility of a cave similar to the description provided by E. D. Stewart in his history of the area,” Bailey said. “If a large cave opening is found, we will notify Forest Service personnel and provide GPS coordinates and satellite photographs so they can investigate the site.”

The Utes were driven from the Grand Valley in the 1800s, and with them was taken the history of the tribe that was well under way when the Great Pyramids were being built in Giza, said Kenny Frost, a Ute who now lives in Bayfield and assists archaeologists in complying with federal law affecting sites and artifacts associated with the earliest known Americans.

Utes and other early Americans routinely used caves for shelter, for vantage points and even for burials.

He assisted with the handling and eventual reburial of a man found in a cave in western Colorado after his death about 8,000 years ago.

Such places “are very special to the Utes,” Frost said.

“There’s a lot of caves up there,” he said. “The most important thing about a cave is that if you find one, that does not necessarily mean there’s an open invitation to go inside it.”

Walking along the edge of the mesa overlooking fields irrigated with the water cascading off the side of the mountain, it’s impossible to ascertain from above whether a cave is underneath the location scoped out by Dujay with the aid of a GPS.

“This is it, right here,” Perry called out, matching up the GPS reading with the view back to the point where the gap was first located.

Stony overhangs, loose rubble and the sharp descent frustrated any thought of getting below for a closer look.

A rock carefully placed

A lava pillar, though, stood out from the main wall, the result of eons of erosion, much of which has taken place with the “lemon-squeezer” formations that stand out from the softer sandstone walls of Colorado National Monument to the west.

The pillar was topped by loose, flat rock that prompted Bailey to observe the rock looked “stacked,” or carefully placed, rather than the random result of eons of weathering.

The Forest Service will be in charge of any effort to find out whether the gap actually is a cave, to say nothing of determining whether it might have been used by man, Bailey said, ticking off legends associated with the mesa, including the Ute tale of a thunderbird carrying a giant snake into the air and slicing him to bits. The falling remains of the snake crashed to the mountain, creating the depressions that became lakes, the legend goes. The concussion caused the earth to shake and roar, hence the name “Thunder Mountain” for the mesa.

“There’s a lot of legends up here,” he said.


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