Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary: Eye Of The Needle

Apr 12, 2019

The word "hoodoo" originated in West Africa and meant spooky or jinxed. Eventually, it made its way to North American as a southern folk magic practice, and then to the Southwest where geologists picked up the term to describe towering spiral rock formations like the kind found in Bryce Canyon, Utah. KNAU commentator Scott Thybony has a favorite hoodoo, in a semi-secret location known only to a few. When he learned it had collapsed this past winter, he made a trip to see his old friend, known as the Eye of the Needle. Here is Scott's latest Canyon Commentary. 

The Eye of the Needle
Credit Scott Thybony

Sometime this past winter, perhaps when snow covered the ground from the San Francisco Peaks to the Little Colorado River and beyond, the most spectacular hoodoo in the Painted Desert collapsed.  Meltwater likely seeped into the crevices of the strangely eroded rock pillar and froze at night, exerting enough pressure to send the immense blocks of stone crashing below.  Known as the Eye of the Needle, the column of red sandstone once stood 45-feet tall with a window opening on top to frame the blue sky.  The wind-carved formation had leaned to one side, appearing to defy gravity. 

When friends discovered the toppled Needle, several of us drove out to inspect it.  One side of  it remained, still tilted sideways.  On the ground below, we climbed over angular blocks of sandstone coated with dust and fine fragments of rock.  We found ourselves wandering through remnants of the hoodoo the way survivors search the rubble in the wake of an earthquake.

Not many people ever saw the Eye of the Needle.  After finding it in 1986 we kept the location pretty quiet as is the custom.  Secrecy has become part of our ethic, a duty to protect pristine ruins, rock art, and places of great natural beauty and solitude.  But my initial reaction to news of the fallen hoodoo surprised me.  I felt regret so few people ever saw it.

The Eye of the Needle after its collapse in the winter of 2018
Credit Scott Thybony

One reason for not publicizing the location was out of concern for the local Navajo.  Only a single sheepherder lived in the 25-mile stretch of desert, but to reach it required passing a number of homesteads.  If increased traffic disrupted their lives, they might have the area closed to outsiders.  Another reason was due to the off-road difficulties of reaching the site.  Tourists with no experience of desert travel could quickly get lost or stuck in the sand.  I had taken few people to it over the years, but word had started getting out.  A European website began posting directions and GPS coordinates, leading to an increase in visitation. 

Without divulging the location, I had written an article for a popular magazine describing a four-day backpack through the hoodoo country.  It included a dramatic, full-page photo of the Needle.  As soon as it came out a number of people contacted me wanting to visit the site.  Most accepted my decision to keep it quiet.  Then I got a call from an older man with a German accent who lived in Arizona.  Finding the hoodoo had become an obsession, and he was determined to see it.

As gently as possible I discouraged him, but a month later he called again.  He was in Flagstaff and wanted to meet.  He stopped by my office with his wife, who related how he had nearly died in an attempt to find the site.  They drove their sedan only a few miles off pavement on a well-graded dirt road before getting into trouble.  Her husband had walked away from the car searching for landmarks that might provide clues to locating the Needle.  He became disoriented and wandered about lost for two-and-a-half hours without water before finding his way back. 

Sitting next to me, he now let me know how seriously he took the quest.  “I plan to see those rocks,” he said, “if it’s the last thing I do.”  Realizing it might well be, I suggested a deal.  I would pull out the maps and show him the exact location, but he had to promise to go with a Navajo guide.  He agreed, and I gave him the phone number of a man whose family had lived in the area for generations.  That was the last I heard from him, and I hope he managed to reach the Eye of the Needle.  Only a few ever did.