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Alumni Profile

Poet and Essayist

Midwest Native Lured by the Mystery of the Southwest

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The Southwest poses infinite questions for the inquiring mind. That was its lure for alumnus Reg Saner (M.A.'54, Ph.D.'62, English), who never saw a mountain until he was 21 years old. Saner trained at Illinois to be an English scholar, but, under the influence of the Colorado Mountains, he became a writer. The wonder inspired by the mountains has since extended to the Southwestern deserts and canyons that whisper the stories of ancient civilizations.

Saner is an Illinois native who thinks fondly both of the state (It's a vast, rich, interesting state.") and his alma mater ("It gave me the excellent scholarly foundation, and I met and married my wife.") However, Colorado and the Southwest became his muse. He is a professor emeritus of English at the University of Colorado in Boulder and has been exploring and writing about the region's mysteries for more than two decades.

Mesa Verde Photo

"The Southwest is narcotic in its allure," says Saner. "Early morning and evening in the desert and its canyons are magical times, but then there's the almost cruel light of midday that won't allow you any illusions. Juniper trees grow against all reason, packrats whose dwellings predate the earliest bipeds by over 20,000 years survive without water, and most rain dries before it touches the ground."

As for his home base in Boulder, Saner says, "Not many miles away are the mountains over 14,000 feet high, and hiking up them is like climbing to the end of the world. It causes you to think about your place in the cosmos. It takes you into yourself and out of yourself simultaneously."

Through poetry and books of essays, Saner had delved into the heart and soul of the region. His first book of essays, The Four-Cornered Falcon: Essays on the Interior West and the Natural Scene (1993), earned him the Award for Nonfiction from the Colorado Center for the Book. For these works, along with his most recent book, Reaching Keet Seel: Echo's Ruin and the Anasazi (1998), Saner was awarded the Wallace Stegner Award conferred by the Center of the American West for excellence in furthering understanding of the region. Reaching Keet Seel offers meditative and informative wanderings among Anasazi sites, mesas and canyons.

"The Anasazi are ancient Pueblo Indians who built their villages upon plains, mesas, and into canyon cliffs of the Southwest," says Saner. "The best known is Mesa Verde, near Durango, Colorado."

What first drew Saner to the cliff dwelling was the beauty of their settings. "The sites are often geographically spectacular," he relates. "Then you begin to focus on the dwellings, and one can only wonder at the fineness of the textiles and beautiful and meticulous stonework, for example at Chaco Canyon. We look at the desert and wonder how we could survive, while an Anasazi family, 1200 years ago, saw a viable site to establish a village because they knew how to make use of everything in their environment for food, clothing and shelter."

Saner feels the spirit of the Anasazi in their dwellings. "Just as the mountains humble us with geological time, Anasazi stonework and villages reveal the great depth of human time in what we now cal the American West." He recalls vividly "a flat gray cooking stone whose surface still bore the heat shadows of four flour corn cakes," at Keet Seel, in Tsegi Canyon, the site considered the best preserved of all the cliff dwellings.

Mesa Verde Photo

The beauty of the Southwest and the Colorado Mountains is available to all who choose to see it, according to Saner. Mesa Verde is easily accessible and extraordinarily beautiful. Or in the Rocky Mountain National Park, one can cruise by auto up to 12,000 feet on Trail Ridge Drive across the Continental Divide. For the more adventurous, the hike into Keet Seel is 8 strenuous miles one way, while back in Colorado, climbing Long's Peak takes you up 14,000 rugged feet. And there are many options for those of us in between.

While the mountains, deserts and canyons of the Southwest may not make writers of all who go there, it will make many wish they, like Saner, had the words to adequately express their wonder.

By Carole R. Horwitz
Originally published in summer 1998; revised in April 2002