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In Memory of Explorer Extraordinaire David Roberts, 1943-2021

David Roberts, writer, explorer and champion of the environment and of indigenous history, passed away last week at age 78. The two books I’d read of his, 1997’s In Search of the Old Ones, and its 2015 follow-up The Lost World of the Old Ones: Discoveries in the Ancient Southwest, rekindled my fascination with the American Southwest landscape. It also stirred my lifelong yearning for adventure. The idea that there were untrammeled ancient ruins hidden throughout the canyonlands made me swoon with excitement.

Take, for example, this description from The Bears Ears: A Human History of America's Most Endangered Wilderness:

I was ready to hike on, but Vaughn had swiveled his binocs far to his right. “Check it out,” he said quietly. “Somethin’ right under the capstone layer. Way back, maybe half a mile. I raised my Leica Trinovids, found the spot, and focuses. “Wow, I muttered. “Nice glassing.”

It would take us another day to hike to the site, as...we discovered that the ruin could not be seen from directly opposite it. Nor was there any hint of it as we made our way along the capstone layer that guarded the elusive prize. We kept tiptoeing out to the edge of the cliff to peek sideways underneath its brim, never an easy task in the canyon country….We later realized that the ruin could be detected only from the vantage point where Vaughn had first seized it in his binocs. That invisibility had been a cardinal advantage for long-ago architects living in daily fear.

Just as we began to think we had overshot the site, we found a slope where dirt and stone rubble interrupted the capstone shelf. We scrambled down that chute, turned the corner—and there it was.

There are very few ruins anywhere in the Southwest that you can’t really see until you’re only thirty feet away from them. In that instant, Vaughn and I stared wordless.

They had found a well-preserved four-room, two-story Native American ruin dating to the 1300s or earlier, with much of the walls, doorways and ceiling intact, hidden deep in the forbidding canyonlands. There are hundreds if not thousands of such ‘lost’ ruins throughout the Southwest, and Roberts has scrambled, climbed and bushwhacked his way to the rediscovery of many of them. (Click READ MORE below for the rest of this post!)

He has also done a lot of scholarly reading and extensive interviewing of Native Americans, but his work has always been built on the foundation of exploration. As he writes in The Pueblo Revolt: The Secret Rebellion that Drove the Spaniards Out of the Southwest

Just as I had found while researching my previous book about the Anasazi, hiking into wilderness gave me at least as much insight into my subject as hours of interviewing or burrowing through stacks and archives. A petroglyph carved on an obscure basalt boulder sometime after 1540 captured the shock of first contact better than any number of firsthand accounts. A day spent contemplating the ruins of an ancestral village, all but lost in the forest atop a high plateau, conveyed to me the integrity of Pueblo life before the Spanish came better than some dry ethnographic report….

And I hope my readers, as they accompany me on my rambles through New Mexico, can taste some of the joy I felt in lonely canyons and on lordly mesa tops, some of the curiosity that tantalized me as I talked with Puebloans who told me only what they thought it was safe for me to hear

“Only what they thought it was safe for me to hear.” Roberts is always keenly aware that ‘lost’ ruins may be lost to non-Native explorers but not necessarily to Native Americans themselves. And more precisely: In those ruins they discovered in the passage quoted above there is something they didn’t find: artifacts. People have been exploring this backcountry for centuries, have stumbled upon these hidden sites and cleared them out, often leaving behind graffiti and damage to structures.

Roberts painfully recognizes that the popularity of his 1997 book In Search of the Old Ones may have accelerated the potential damage. Back then, there might be whispers told among backcountry explorers of sites they had found, but it was largely limited to an elite set of hikers. After his book was published, the Cedar Mesa region steadily drew more tourists (and in truth, the designation of the Bears Ears National Monument has accelerated the trend even more.) Nowadays, the internet is host to websites where people post GPS coordinates and hiking directions to places that a few decades ago almost no one ever saw. For example, The Citadel, a magnificent hidden ruin he came across in 1993, not long ago had 65 people “jabbering away or spreading out their lunches on the ancients’ bedrock porch.” 

Although new technologies and the soaring popularity of adventure travel are putting ancient ruins and pristine landscapes under increasing pressure, Roberts himself has always carefully refrained from providing too many specifics about his discoveries, and adhered to the principles of ‘reverse archeology’ and the ‘outdoor museum’, which call for leaving sites undisturbed.

Roberts has explored far beyond the Southwest regions where he made his first literary splash, and his books celebrate explorers and explorations around the world and throughout history. In Limits of the Known, he ranges from the Arctic to Everest to the underwater caverns of the Yucatan peninsula. He notes that as recently as 1949, fewer than 100 people had floated the Colorado River the full length of the Grand Canyon. He lauds the spelunkers who explore the estimated 15% of the contiguous United States that have bedrock suitable for cave formation, crawling and squeezing their way through the darkness to discover a connection between the Mammoth and Flint Ridge cavern systems of Kentucky, now with 405 miles explored, or those in France, who have wormed their way to a depth of 4740 feet into the Foussoubie caverns.

He faced the ultimate journey with the same curiosity and courage. In 2015, he was diagnosed with Stage 4 throat cancer. Despite the increasing difficulties brought on by both the cancer and its palliative treatment, Roberts kept exploring up to the end. In the earlier days of the treatment, he could still manage to get into some of the backcountry of his beloved American southwest. By the end, he could only gaze upon it from overlooks, as he did only months ago with his wife of 54 years, Sharon.

And what was his coda to a life of fabulous adventures and incredible experiences? It is this, as expressed in Limits of the Known:

What I wish for, then, in that last conscious moment before the darkness closes in forever, is not the shining memory of some summit underfoot that I was the first to reach, not the gleam of yet another undiscovered land on the horizon, but the touch of Sharon’s fingers as she clasps my hand in hers, unwilling to let go.

David Roberts

David Roberts in 2017 at his at camp in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah. He returned to the canyons of southern Utah every year. Photo by his wife of 54 years, Sharon Roberts.

From The New York Times