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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: The Stone Cabin

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Cline Library, NAU.PH.97.46.47.9
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The stone layers of the Grand Canyon contain the record of millions of years of geologic time. But the human scale of time is more fluid. KNAU commentator Scott Thybony, today, brings us the story of Beamer's Cabin - an old stone cabin deep within the Canyon - and the role it has played in our perception of time. Here is Scott’s latest Canyon Commentator. 

They could hear the great river before they could see it.  The walls of the gorge, rising 3,000-feet high, amplified the low-throated rumble of moving water.  The sound grew louder as the Hopi Indians approached the confluence of the Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers.  They had descended a difficult trail into Grand Canyon to visit shrines and gather salt.  Being a sacred undertaking, the leader had reminded his companions to have good hearts and pure thoughts. 

Rounding a bend, they suddenly came upon a stone house never seen before and totally unexpected in such a remote and inaccessible place.  “We had the greatest surprise of our lives,” remembered a participant years later.  They approached it cautiously, having a long tradition of mysterious happenings on these journeys.  Finding fresh mule tracks but no one around, the Hopi men stepped inside.

The great wealth it contained amazed them.  They found cans crowding shelves, sharp knives, axes, and sacks of cornmeal stacked in the corner.  “No one must take anything from this place,” the leader warned them.  “This is the future telling us what we will see.”  It foreshadowed the changing world they would soon encounter firsthand.  When visiting prehistoric sites rangers remind us to leave even the smallest potsherd in place to not disturb the past.  At Beamers Cabin the Hopi were told to leave everything in place to not disturb the future. 

My first trip down the Salt Trail occurred in the winter of 1973 with snow on the higher cliffs and a sense of adventure drawing us deeper.  While the Hopi had ended regular trips in the early 1920s, prayer feathers had recently been left at the Sipaapuni, the Place of Emergence.  According to some clans, this was the water-filled opening where all people had climbed from the previous world into this one. 

We followed the Little Colorado to the Confluence, passing the cabin that had surprised the Hopi on their pilgrimage.  A prospector named Ben Beamer had built it below an overhanging cliff using stones from a Puebloan dwelling centuries old.  Beamer entered Grand Canyon in the winter of 1890 and worked his way upriver to the Confluence.  With the cabin as a base camp, he spent the next two years searching for copper ores without luck. 

My most recent trip down the Salt Trail brought us to the Little Colorado at flood stage.  After trying to thrash through the willow thickets, we gave up and waded through a boulder field half hidden by water running as opaque as potter’s clay.  The current slammed us against rocks, and unable to see our footing each of us took unplanned swims before reaching the cabin.  It was in better shape than any previous trip, having gone through several phases of stabilization by park service crews.  But a sense of the past had thinned out.  It had now become part of the stable present.

Some years after the Hopi made the Salt Trail journey, a white man opened a store near one of their villages.  It had walls of stone and a layout similar to Beamers Cabin.  “All of the men who had gone on the salt journey,” recalled a Hopi, “were so surprised to see the same things that they had seen on their journey.”  It had shelves filled with cans, tools, and sacks of cornmeal.  “It had been a vision,” he said, “and it was now completed.”  For the Hopi who had descended into Grand Canyon, the future had become tangible at Beamers Cabin.

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Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.