Keet Seel

Couple discovers history intermixed at Indian ruins

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Photo by Phyllis and Morris Brown

Looking up at Keet Seel from the valley floor, hikers are greeted by a phenomenal sight of at least 160 rooms. But to enter Keet Seel, visitors must first climb up a 70-foot ladder. Alongside the ladder are handholds etched into the rock, which the village’s first inhabitants used to enter and leave. At the top of the ladder lies a log placed across the opening. Morris Brown said it looked like it could have been placed by the last villagers as a sign that it was closed.

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Photo by Phyllis and Morris Brown

Phyllis and Morris Brown, 68 and 69, stand in front of one of Keet Seel’s many rooms. In the background, pottery has been placed.

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Photo by Phyllis and Morris Brown

Phyllis Brown gingerly tests the waters for quicksand on the Keet Seel hike in northern Arizona. The 8.5-mile hike crosses over a stream several times and quicksand is common. Luckily, the Browns didn’t encounter any when they hiked Keet Seel in mid September.

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Photo by Phyllis and Morris Brown

Looking out over the village of Keet Seel in northern Arizona, the Browns said they were impressed to see several styles of architecture. Archaeologists believe Keet Seel was occupied at three different times by three groups. Each time, more was added to the village.

When Phyllis and Morris Brown decided they needed another challenge after their 24-mile trek across the Grand Canyon in one day, they looked to northern Arizona for inspiration.

Looking for a healthy mix of distance, strenuousness and beauty, Morris, 69, remembered visiting the Betatakin ruins, in the Navajo National Monument last June.

The hike was an easy five miles for the Browns, who regularly hike 10 to 15 miles at a time.

So while Betatakin was off the list, its sister ruin, Keet Seel, located eight miles cross-country was the perfect fit.

The Keet Seel hike, while long at 17 miles, is relatively easy, dropping only 1,000 feet. The main draw for Morris was not the hike itself, but the prize sitting at the end, Keet Seel, one of the best-preserved ruins in the Southwest.

Built around 700 years ago and abandoned by the Pueblo Indians in 1300, Keet Seel has an impressive mix of architecture and pottery remnants.

Archaeologists know from rock markings, pottery remnants and the year the walls were erected, that Keet Seel was occupied four different times over several hundred years. Inhabitants would build on to the structure only to leave and return centuries later.

The first Indians to settle in Keet Seel did so around 950. Several hundred years later, between 1250 and 1300, Indians erected the walls in the cliff community.

Phyllis, 68, said it was neat to see the different styles of construction. One room was built with reeds erected straight up and another used a rope-like substance to thatch a roof together.

“As I looked at the architecture I could see that they just did their own thing,” she said.

Altogether, there are four different kivas, three common streets, a 180-foot retaining wall along the front of the village and at least 160 rooms at Keet Seel. Archaeologists estimate at least 100 people lived there at one time.

Most of the structures that face the main street, going down the middle of the village, have windows overlooking it. Phyllis said they showed a personality she had not seen at other ruins.

The Browns arrived at Keet Seel Sept. 9, after a three-hour drive from Payson. Their first order of business, before they could visit the village, was receiving an orientation at the visitor center. This surprised the Browns, who were under the impression that rangers would lead them on the 8.5-mile trail.

However, rangers informed them they were on their own until they reached Keet Seel where a ranger would meet them. The visitor center ranger showed the Browns a detailed map including pictures of the route, explained where they might be lost and warned of quicksand.

She explained the hike is rugged and crosses through a stream several times. White mileposts are spaced about every mile to mark the trail.

Phyllis said rangers were adamant about explaining which canyon to take, since hikers often pick the wrong one and end up miles away.

The rangers also recommended the Browns camp at the primitive campground near Keet Seel. The Browns decided against this because they knew from previous hikes that they could handle 17 miles in one day without a problem. Additionally, carrying extra gear would only slow them down.

“You can cover a lot of miles without weight,” Morris said.

After their orientation, the Browns went back to their hotel and rested up for the hike the following day.

On Sept. 10, they arrived at the trail around 7 a.m. with 10-pound packs. They quickly passed another hiker with a much larger bag and realized they were the only two people on the trail.

The hours on the trail passed quickly as the Browns hopped over streams, marveled at a waterfall and generally enjoyed the solitude the canyon offered.

The only hiccup occurred at the first stream crossing when Phyllis gingerly tested the waters to see if she would sink in. Luckily, the ground held steady and they continued on their way, never sinking far into the muddy waters.

When they finally reached the base of Keet Seel, archaeologist Steven Hayden greeted them and explained his grandfather, Irwin Hayden, worked to stabilize the ruins.

According “Navajo National Monument: A Place and Its People,” from 1933 to 1934, Irwin led a Civil Works Administration crew in a stabilization project.

Irwin’s crew cleared unexamined areas, removed dirt from backfilled ruins, recorded architectural details, and rebuilt collapsed walls.

Irwin also re-excavated and stabilized two kivas in Turkey Cave.

Irwin and Milton Wetherill also discovered the skeleton of child in a trash midden along with two pieces of Pueblo pottery dating back before the ruin was built.

They also discovered the skeleton of a parrot.

Throughout the village, tall poles stick up from the ground.

Archaeologists do not know exactly what they were used for, but speculate they could have been used for birds.

Ultimately, the Indians left Keet Seel never to return.

Steven explained they could have left because of changing farming and weather conditions.

After learning as much as they could about Keet Seel from Steven, the Browns returned to their car around 6 p.m.

Although Morris said the hike was quite the adventure, he is ready for the next challenge.

The couple plan to head to the Arizona/Utah border where the Wave, a multicolored sandstone area, is located in the Paria Canyon-Vermillion Cliffs Wilderness.

Asked why they continue to hike, Morris said for the challenge.

“It all starts with a crazy idea and then we see if we can build up to it,” he said.

Phyllis said this was one of their best summers together.

“When we retired, we had a number of operations, but then we started hiking and having so much fun,” she said.

“I don’t want him to hike alone.”

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