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Rock Writing

Opening the Book of the Past

Wednesday, November 9th, 2016: Fall 2016, Rock Writing, Trips.

Some real drama here

Excitement Rekindled

The old railroad town, hours away from any city or interstate highway, lay sheltered in a high-desert canyon between stark cliffs. The peace and quiet were emphasized by the Union Pacific freight trains that rumbled through the town’s meridian every half hour or so, past the beautiful old Spanish-style depot that faced my motel from across the tracks.

As I rested up from my trip to the lost plateau, I realized I had no further plans, and no idea what to do next, other than a vague thought of revisiting the mountains and canyons of southern Utah. I’d been away from home almost a week, and I was bleeding my precious savings on gas and motel nights, but if I returned now I’d end up having driven more than four days, to achieve only two days of camping and hiking.

My usual fallback is to study the maps for the area I’m in and the direction I might be interested in going, but it was the weekend, so the local BLM office was closed; I’d have to rely on the limited, mostly out of date maps I had and whatever info I could dig up on the internet, using my motel room wifi. And that turned into a conflicted process that took up most of a sunny Saturday, in between walks along the tracks, under the golden cottonwoods, past the quaint, historic buildings.

The Nuwuvi were closer to the center of my mind now than when I’d started this trip, partly because of what they’d said about rock art at the Pahranagat Visitor Center. In response to a general query about maps, the ranger there had passed me a stack of brochures describing natural attractions within an hour or two’s drive of here, and a few of them identified rock art sites I was totally unfamiliar with, all within Nuwuvi territory. However, after all the driving, I also felt obligated to get in some more serious hiking, but the rock art sites were all close to a road. In a few hours of searching I learned that I was surrounded by some promising BLM wilderness areas. One, south of me, sounded really beautiful.

But I had no idea what the camping situation would be like. In town, I’d repeatedly run into groups of hunters in camo buying provisions, and I envisioned driving a couple of hours on a back road only to end up at a trailhead full of ATV trailers and hills ringing with the sound of gunshots, just like back home at this time of year.

Somehow, the hints that I’d picked up at Pahranagat were gradually tugging at my heart and overcoming the appeal of simply exploring wild nature. Remembering something from my deep past, a trip Katie and I had taken almost 30 years earlier, I began to sense the excitement and adventure of rock art exploration – perhaps enriched by what I’d since learned about anthropology and ecology. Since I was already thinking about Utah, I started searching online for more info on rock art sites. As I’d expected, all the really interesting ones were much farther east, and I’d already been to most of them. But there was a famous one, Nine Mile Canyon, that we’d skipped because it was north of I-70, an arbitrary line we’d set in order to stay within our schedule.

Nine Mile Canyon was much farther from home than I’d planned to go on this trip, and would force me onto the dreaded interstate for a couple of hours, but the seed had been planted – and who knew how long it would be before I had this chance again?

County of Carbon

Many mountains intervened! All of Sunday was spent driving through high country, under a dark sky heavy with storm clouds, over mountain passes I hadn’t seen for decades and couldn’t remember at all. In western Utah, a hunter’s pickup truck pulled out onto the highway in front of me, towing a trailer carrying an ATV with enclosed cab. See the mighty hunter, I thought, wafted to his prey in the comfort of his glass-enclosed bubble. Then poorly secured plastic bags began to blow out of the pickup’s bed and all over the sagebrush beside the road. The hunter remained oblivious, cruising well below the speed limit, so I pulled out to pass, and saw that the entire back of his truck was plastered with dozens of belligerent pro-gun and anti-liberal stickers.

In the afternoon, from the interstate, I began to glimpse higher mountains to the south of me holding patches of snow above treeline, in the shadow of the summits. Traffic was blissfully light, but I was still relieved when I was able to turn off onto the two-lane state highway north to Price.

It was a beautiful drive past high-desert farms and ranches and through rural hamlets, up a rising plateau walled on the west by majestic multi-colored badlands, canyons, cliffs and towering terraced mountains. I passed two coal-fired power plants and a sign marking Carbon County. The sun set extravagantly behind breaking clouds and I hit the edge of Price as dark fell.

I had accurately anticipated Price to be even smaller in population than my hometown, but before reaching downtown, I drove past mile after mile of industrial suburbs. It was full dark by the time I turned onto Main Street, where I immediately spotted the large Prehistoric Museum that the rock art websites recommended I visit for guidance to Nine Mile Canyon.

Camping is not allowed in or around the canyon, and during the two days that I used Price as my base, the larger context of this place gradually became clear to me. Carbon County refers to the fossil fuel reserves – coal, oil, and natural gas – that prehistory has accumulated under the ground here. Hence the Prehistoric Museum, or at least the dinosaur half of it. And hence the power plants and all the supporting industries that I passed on my way in, and the flashy new municipal facilities paid for by fossil fuel revenues. Coal built the old county, and natural gas is building the new one.

The people were super nice, from the college-age kids who checked me into my motel, bantering about small towns and enthused about rock art, to the patrons and management of the downtown laundromat where I refreshed my wardrobe while listening to friendly family gossip and well-wishing. Contrary to my impression of Mormon homogeneity, I passed churches of all denominations and saw a poster for a Catholic festival. But the restaurants ranged from mediocre to pathetic, indicating an insular and complacent culture. I only had one decent restaurant meal in the entire second week of my trip.

In the morning, I could see that Price sat in a semi-circular basin surrounded by the broad arc of the terraced Book Cliffs. And here, geology had indeed become an open book, especially after the arrival of the Americans with their heavy machinery, mines and wells.

Creators and Destroyers

You enter Nine Mile Canyon through a high pass lined with aspen groves, dropping into a narrow feeder canyon featuring an inactive coal mine, pungent sulfur springs, and a gas pipeline that parallels the road. A new sign welcomes you to Nine Mile Canyon itself, which is actually 40 miles long, with a newly paved road, a meandering, clear-flowing creek, and a broad, serpentine floodplain occupied by a series of ranches where herd after herd of cattle share pastures with herd after herd of deer. There are a lot of ruins from pioneer days, and a few very modest ranch houses, but all were unoccupied when I was there. I visited on week days, and almost all the traffic consisted of big trucks servicing the natural gas wells on the plateau above, which is reached via dirt roads up side canyons. The main canyon was very recently improved for rock art visitors, with the paved road, picnic areas, and signage added, all courtesy of the Bill Barrett Corporation, which works the gas fields.

For more than a decade before the improvements, the Barrett trucks caused irreparable damage to the rock art by raising lingering clouds of dust from the old dirt road that continually drifted onto the art panels. But for more than a hundred years before that, American frontiersmen – heroes of countless movies – caused even more damage by hacking, shooting at, and obscuring the native art with their own crude graffiti. Nine Mile Canyon is billed as “the world’s longest art gallery”, but after two days of exhaustive exploring, I felt like I’d actually seen more graffiti and vandalism than art.

But that’s probably the unfair result of my own frustration after two days of squinting and peering through binoculars, trying to spot faint markings on the rocks above, while driving short distances along the canyon floor, followed by searching for a place to pull over, and scrambling up a steeper and steeper talus slope to the base of a cliff hundreds of feet above the road. This, while rural and very remote, was a far cry from the wilderness hiking I also yearned to be doing. But as rock art people know, rock art is addictive.

I had no plan beyond exploring the canyon to see what was there. But finding, studying, and photographing the rock art alongside a narrow road with truck traffic proved to be grueling and stressful. With 40 miles to explore, I felt I had little time to contemplate each panel, so I mainly focused on taking pictures to examine later. I only made it a third of the way down the canyon on Monday, and assumed I would leave the area Tuesday. But when I woke up refreshed the next morning, I realized I would have to return and finish. Instead of picking up where I left off, I drove all the way to the end, had lunch and drank a beer, and that made all the difference. The second day was more relaxed and more insightful.

But as I returned to town, I was overwhelmed and perplexed. Nine Mile Canyon is considered a center of the so-called Fremont culture (named for Utah’s Fremont River), and most of the art I’d seen is attributed to them, from roughly a thousand years ago. Although many of the petroglyphs had impressed me, I was predisposed to think of the Fremont as the backwards neighbors of the Anasazi (now called Ancestral Pueblo) who left the famous cliff dwellings of the Colorado Plateau, farther south and east. The Fremont had lived in primitive-sounding “pit houses”, and on the archaeologists’ timeline they fell between the archaic Basketmakers, creators of the most impressive rock art in North America, and the advanced, city-buildling Puebloans.

After devoting two days to their rock art, I decided it was time to refresh my knowledge of the Fremont, by visiting the Prehistoric Museum in Price. Did their culture deserve a closer look? Maybe I’d even learn something that would add focus to my – so far haphazard – wanderings.


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Closing the Circles

Friday, November 11th, 2016: Fall 2016, Rock Writing, Trips.

"Artisans of the Rock", painting by Joe Venus

Rising From the Pit

Rising on a chilly morning in Price, Utah, after spending two days frenetically exploring the prehistoric rock art of Nine Mile Canyon, I was determined to learn more about the so-called Fremont people who had apparently created it a thousand years ago. When I left my motel, heading down Main Street to the Prehistoric Museum, I saw snow on the high ridge above the Book Cliffs to the west, product of the storm clouds that had moved over the area yesterday while I was out in the canyon.

Mostly alone in the silent archaeological galleries of the museum, I eagerly studied the exhibits, which focused primarily on the ancient Fremont culture that had spanned most of Utah, while providing both more ancient (Ice Age) and more recent (Native American tribal) context. Information, while new to me, was provided in fairly conventional forms, leaving me to gradually absorb and process what I’d learned, during the next few weeks, and to eventually add insight from my own eclectic research and work.

But one revelation happened immediately when I walked into the main gallery. Straight in front of me at the back of the hall, illuminated by spotlights, was a full-scale reconstruction of a Fremont pit house from Nine Mile Canyon.

When I first encountered the Fremont legacy and archaeological theories in the late 1980s, during my rock art expedition with Katie, I thought of them as less interesting, more primitive, and therefore doomed neighbors of the Anasazi who lived in cliff dwellings to their south and east. And when I heard about Fremont “pit houses”, I dismissed them as crude animalistic nests. Who would want to live in a pit?

But as I walked toward the reconstruction, it came alive for me, and I suddenly saw myself living there willingly and happily, snug in a spacious, vaulted open plan shelter that would be warm in winter and cool in summer, with everything I needed organized and within reach. This was much better than the supposedly more advanced Anasazi’s ancestral pueblo cliff dwellings with their cramped, dark, uncomfortable warrens.

I also immediately recognized other vitally important implications that made the Fremont more interesting and more inspiring than the Anasazi. And while methodically reviewing the surrounding exhibits, I learned to my surprise that one theory of the Fremont’s “demise” is that they eventually merged with the Nuwuvi and other adjacent tribes that were migrating into Fremont territory as part of the hypothetical Numic Expansion. So the Fremont may be an important part of the story of the Nuwuvi, the native people I’ve been closest to for decades.

Finally, an information panel attached to the museum’s “Pleistocene hunters” diorama described the scientific controversy over the cause of the famous Quaternary Extinction Event. One old theory, popularized in the media, holds that Native Americans hunted the Pleistocene megafauna to extinction. But native technology was clearly never powerful enough, and native populations never large enough, to achieve that. The dysfunctional compartmentalization of science ensures that many contemporary biologists cling to the disputed theory that makes them feel better about their own work, regarding natives as irresponsible savages.

Houses of Peace

During the years after Katie and I explored the Anasazi cliff dwellings of the Colorado Plateau, I was bothered by how cramped, uncomfortable, and inconvenient they seemed. I could hardly believe they had been used as full-time dwellings, but even if they had, their hidden, often inaccessible locations and fortress-like construction suggested that, far from the crowning achievement of an advanced civilization, they were more likely the refuge of timid people who lived crowded together like ants, with no privacy, in constant fear of attack.

The misleadingly named pit houses of the Fremont, on the other hand, were clearly the spacious private homes of families who were living in peace, at ground level, unafraid of attack. They had somehow managed to develop a peaceful, egalitarian, and sharing society over a wide area to the north of the Puebloans, whose conflicted and violent culture would cause the invading Spanish so much grief in later centuries.

The museum’s description of archaic social organization, informed by the social organization of recent desert tribes like the Nuwuvi, shows that the egalitarian and communal culture ascribed to the Fremont was not only sustainable, it was sustained for 7,000 years in the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, while Anglo-Europeans and other so-called advanced cultures developed their extremely hierarchical, unjust, unstable, and incessantly warlike nation-states and empires which would come to dominate the entire world. And the Fremonts’ material remains show that native ecology likewise remained stable and sustainable through those thousands of years. The only important changes during that long period represented resilient adaptations to changing climate, as communities became more or less settled or nomadic, more focused on agriculture or foraging and hunting.

In essence, the Fremont were part of a timeless tradition following natural cycles, so the Anglo-European scientific bias toward technological progress, origins and endings, ages and eras, carbon dating and linear timelines, is misleading and inaccurate. Forget the 7,000 years. Fremont are today and always.

By the Numbers: Rock Art Motifs in Nine Mile Canyon

After returning home and reviewing my rock art photos, I began to realize I could only justify the effort I spent in the canyon by trying to make sense of the rock art panels in retrospect. And I could only do that by thoroughly analyzing the content of the panels – making up for my rush through the canyon, my inability to hang out and contemplate each panel, my failure to give them the time they deserved.

So I reviewed the photos over and over again, identifying and naming the motifs that seemed important to me, and counting them to get a sense of their relative importance or value to the artists themselves. I know this is one way in which archaeologists have studied rock art, but I didn’t want to distract or bias myself by first referring to the archaeological literature. I needed to go on the basis of my lifelong experience as an artist, and the experience with symbolic communication that I’ve acquired during the 15 years of my Pictures of Knowledge project.

I analyzed 56 panels in total.

MotifNumber of Panels Including This MotifTotal Number of Individual ImagesNotes
Anthropomorphs2053Including legless torsos, which are symbolic and may represent spirits
Anthropomorphs with antlers or horns78Only one is identified as male with penis
Bighorn sheep2596
Bird22Including a turkey
Serpent45Only includes those wavy lines with a recognizable head
Rectilinear Dot Patterns47
Concentric Circles45
Tethered Balls710Balls or circles connected by lines in various ways
Band of diamonds22Rattlesnake?
Spear thrower (atlatl)13

Rock Art Questions and Insights

What did the panels consist of?

  • Humans appeared in only about a third of the panels, indicating that the artists attached more value to nonhuman phenomena, and were not strongly anthropocentric, like Anglo-Europeans
  • There was no sign of conflict or violence between humans
  • Humans were overwhelming depicted as asexual, indicating a lack of gender bias
  • One in every 7 humans depicted was given horns or antlers, indicating superhuman (male game animal) power, and suggesting that showing this power was an important motive for creating some of the art
  • Only one of these empowered humans was shown as male, with a penis, suggesting that “shamans” were not predominantly male
  • Less than 10% of the humans depicted were shown as hunters, challenging the conventional assumption that rock art represented “hunting magic”
  • In Fremont art, as in other desert rock art styles, the human torso is sometimes exaggerated and/or filled with symbols or patterns. Referring to the Fremont clay figurines, these decorations are sometimes assumed to represent clothing, fashion or decoration. But the torso can alternatively be seen as a container for symbolism, for example clan insignias, personal identification, or signs of power.
  • The famous “Great Hunt” panel was unique among the panels. This in itself suggests that big game hunting may not have been as important as it is normally assumed to be. Or even that this panel could be a later fabrication…
  • Almost half the panels included bighorn sheep, reinforcing the importance of this game animal, later driven to extinction by Americans
  • Sheep were shown as being hunted in only 20% of the panels in which they appeared, suggesting – surprisingly – that their importance went far beyond the act of hunting
  • More than a quarter of the sheep panels showed them being herded by dogs, whether for hunting or not. One would think that mountain sheep could quickly escape uphill in these rocky canyons, unless the hunts were arranged in a location where the hunters were somehow blocking their escape. The dog images surprise me, because I’ve never encountered any mention of the use of hunting dogs by prehistoric societies in the Southwest.
  • Only one possible and one likely plant image appeared, suggesting, surprisingly, that farming and foraging were not important to makers of rock art, or not at the time rock art was created
  • However, could the rectilinear dot patterns represent garden plantings or crop fields?
  • Based on my experience, both abstract and representational motifs were similar here to those used throughout the Great Basin and Mojave Desert, reinforcing the sense of cultural continuity and timelessness already cited above under “Houses of Peace”
  • Panels ranged from single motifs, to symbolic compositions, to seemingly random collections, and finally to obvious narratives
  • As in my Pictures of Knowledge work, symbols can be simple or compound (combinations of multiple simple symbols)

How were they made?

  • Were they made continuously for hundreds of years, or only at certain times or during specific periods?
  • Were petroglyphs male-created, and pictographs female-created, or were they made by both sexes?

How were they used?

  • As a tool for teaching youth and perpetuating knowledge and wisdom? This resonates most strongly with my own experience in the Pictures of Knowledge project.
  • As a record of important events or configurations for remembering, emulating, and reinforcing social bonds?
  • As a visual model of a proposed goal, for study and evaluation?
  • As a plan for a proposed project?
  • As an evocation or invocation of ancestors, animals, or spirits they were seeking to benefit from?
  • As maps or directions?
  • As clan symbols or markings of territorial claims?


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Art, Time, and the Desert

Sunday, November 13th, 2016: Fall 2016, Rock Writing, Trips.

Double rainbow at Escudilla Mountain

Rain Angels

When I checked out of my motel in Price and headed over to the Prehistoric Museum, I had been planning a quick review followed by a drive south of I-70 into more familiar, and well-loved, territory on the way back home. But in the museum, while having my eyes opened to the ancient Fremont culture, I’d run across a map to rock art sites with a thumbnail photo that intrigued me, from a site north of 70 that I’d heard of but knew nothing about.

On the way there, in late morning, I crossed the high plateau of the San Rafael Swell on a wide, well-maintained gravel road, past lonely oil wells, the occasional corral, and two surprisingly unskittish pronghorn antelopes, finally descending into the head of a canyon. Winding sharply back and forth between rising cliffs, the canyon quickly acquired monumental, spectacular dimensions. Just as driving became a challenge – because my head kept whipping from right to left in amazement – I began noticing dirt side tracks that would certainly lead to informal campsites. And then, around a sharp turn in the sheer thousand-foot cliff beside the road, the rock art appeared, and I pulled into a small dirt parking lot surrounded by wood fencing, information kiosks, and pit toilets.

It’s always a challenge when heart-stopping beauty appears as you’re driving. And it’s a tragedy that a road was built through this canyon, so that some of the most impressive art in North America is only a few yards from the automobile, one of the most destructive of our myriad destructive machines. The overhanging cliff was awash with midday sunshine, and the paintings were dimmed by glare, but my heart felt about to explode as I humbly approached, craning my neck, as the artists intended we should, to look up at the larger-than-life images hovering above in the golden light.

The specialists call this style “Barrier Canyon”, and it’s attributed to the vaguely defined “late archaic” culture that may have been ancestral to the Fremont in most of Utah. Archaeologists say these people lived in pit houses, practiced a mix of hunting, foraging, and limited farming, and relied on baskets as containers, on the brink of learning to make pottery. That’s about all that is suspected of them.

But the museum in Price implied that these people were part of the continuum from Paleolithic to first-millennium Fremont and recent Nuwuvi, which seems intuitive to me, except for the fact that their art is radically different from what came after.

As an artist, I find this work the most compelling ever created on this continent. It’s a heart reaction, not the result of analysis, but it begins in the recognition that the art is integrated with the landscape that was these people’s home, and it appears to have been perfect, and timeless, from the start. When I attempt to analyze, I see that it’s overwhelmingly anthropocentric, and intended to impress, if not intimidate, the viewer, which disturbs me on an intellectual level. In general, Barrier Canyon artists chose monumental sites that would emphasize the scale of the art and the smallness of the viewer, and we Anglo-Europeans tend to unconsciously respond to them the way we would to the interior of a cathedral.

Specialists have conjectured that these larger-than-life humanoids represent ancestor spirits and shamans – in this case, someone with rainmaking medicine. What does it mean to have a stretched, or stretching, torso, and minimized head, arms, and legs? I’m still working on that, but on the most basic level, it suggests transformation and transcendence of the body, perhaps toward and beyond death, to what we generally call the spirit world. This unique style of art may have been made across a broad geographical area during a specific period of time when people were under stress and needed the help of powerful spirits, but in other traditional cultures, those spirits have been recognized in nonhuman form: clouds, lightning, serpents and other animals – since subsistence cultures know and accept that humans are totally dependent on natural ecosystems for our sustenance.

And why was this powerful style of art made only during this early period, and not afterwards, when people surely had the same ability? The vast majority of rock art in the West is either didactic or obscurely abstract. Barrier Canyon art remains a compelling mystery, just representational enough to suggest we might be able to understand it. As Katie and I discovered, hallucinogens can provide the best introduction to rock art, and I deeply regretted not having any this time around.

Realizing that I couldn’t effectively photograph the art in full sunlight, I got back in the truck and scouted campsites both up and down canyon, settling on one about a mile and a half up-canyon from the art. I was late for lunch, and put something cold together, then headed back into a side canyon for a day hike toward the cliffs above. I didn’t go far, but got in a good climb up successive ledges and talus slopes, and the always welcome experience of being totally dwarfed by a landscape of stone.

One thing that surprised me here was the low angle of the sun at midday, noticeably lower than at home – but that was emphasized by the towering cliffs. Warm in the sun but cool in the abundant and long-lasting shade, my campsite turned out to be frigid until late the next morning.

In late afternoon of that first day I walked back down the road to the rock art site, and found a young rock climber from Moab who had soloed a nearby stone tower and stumbled upon this place unexpectedly on his drive home. I enjoyed and shared his awestruck reaction as we both tried for good photos.

As dark fell, after dinner, I took short night walks up and down the road, just for something do. The little traffic on this remote road, the occasional truck or RV, ended at 8 pm, and I went to bed not long after, sleeping well until the freezing dawn, after which it took hours for the sun to rise above the cliffs enough to warm my campsite and freshen my sleeping bag where I’d draped it over sagebrush. Then I made a last brief visit to the rock art, and headed south out of the mouth of the canyon.

The photographs below are impressive, but you really need to be there. As an artist, I seek experiences like this, but I actually find it hard to remain long in the presence of this ancient but timeless work, in this remote and intimidating, yet in many ways idyllic, place, without, literally, fainting from an excess of emotion.

Latterday Holy Land

I drove through familiar country at the eastern edge of Nuwuvi territory with less than my usual attention. It was a long drive, and I’d decided to “quit while I was ahead” – I’d seen and learned far too much to process already. And a storm was moving over the region, the forecast was for rain, and the cold, lonely morning in my canyon campsite decided me on a motel room for the night, followed by an even longer drive home the next day.

However, in the morning, before leaving Utah, I decided to make one last detour. Thirty years ago, Katie and I had been especially impressed by some petroglyphs and modest ruins here, near the epic sweep of Comb Ridge. I’d tried to relocate them several years ago, but failed. This time, guided by a brief note on a rock art website, I followed a dirt road to its end and a trail that led down the cliff face. I immediately recognized the rock art, and glimpsed ruins across the canyon under an overhang, but the place wasn’t exactly what I was looking for. Maybe my memory was rusty. This would have to do as a final contact with prehistory.

The first panel, above a ledge below the east wall of the canyon, exhibits a distinctly more ordered composition and polished execution, not to mention a more representational style, than the Fremont work in Nine Mile Canyon. These petroglyphs, and the “cliff dwelling” ruins, are associated with the Anasazi – now termed Ancestral Pueblo – culture, but the elongated human figure may reflect some influence of the archaic Barrier Canyon style. The imagery includes a prominent, elegant crane – which would’ve been found along the San Juan River a few miles south – botanical or horticultural imagery, and the first fish petroglyph I’d seen on this trip – a native chub, now endangered by the arrogant habitat engineering of us Americans.

The two ruins tucked away, almost invisibly, under the canyon’s west wall, also differ dramatically from each other. The larger is mostly adobe and has “melted” almost beyond recognition, while the smaller, of drystone construction, remains evocative of domestic utility, but on a very “tiny home” scale. Specialists say that Ancestral Puebloans were short – men averaged 5′ 5″, women 5′ – but I’m not much over 5′ 5″ and I would’ve been uncomfortable sleeping in any of these rooms. So while I find cliff ruins evocative and their architecture ingenious, I can’t identify with their culture.

The rock art above the ruins follows a narrow, vertiginous ledge dozens of feet above the ground, and reaching it in the first place would’ve required a ladder, making this the least accessible canvas I’d seen on this trip. And the style of these petroglyphs more closely resembled Fremont, suggesting a different time frame and origin from the panel across the canyon. A number of big robust birds without topknots – maybe ducks or geese – some curious little humanoids with doglike ears, and at least one turtle.

The mixture of styles here, in conjunction with the ruins, presents a cultural mystery, perhaps indicating completely different societies using this site during different time periods.

As I was heading back across the canyon, a rustic-looking retired couple emerged from the canyon bottom and began examining the ruins. I waved, then watched as the man clambered up the sloping cliff beside the stone house holding a camera and the woman went inside the house and climbed up into the “bedroom” so he could take her picture through a window in the side. Climbing on these ruins is strictly forbidden, because it accelerates their deterioration, so I was shocked, but was reluctant to say anything since these strangers obviously intended no damage.

But after returning to my truck, I realized it was time for lunch, so I made a sandwich and waited for the couple to show up.

The clouds overhead were darkening and wind was picking up. When they arrived at their SUV, I walked over, assured that I meant no disrespect or criticism, but politely warned them that a ranger or archaeologist wouldn’t tolerate climbing on ruins, and explained why.

They listened with blank expressions. Then the man smiled and asked, “Have you read the Book of Mormon?”


“Well, you should, because it talks about the Lamanites, the people who built these ruins. You know we white folks are the Nephites, and the Native Americans the Lamanites whose land this was before we showed up.

“Science says ‘this is the way it might have been’, but the Book of Mormon tells the truth of how it was. And after visiting places like this, I’ve prayed on it, and more of the truth has been revealed to me.

“That’s what you should do, read the Book and pray on it.”

He was still smiling, but more intently.

“Well, my brother’s read the Book of Mormon, maybe I’ll ask him for some pointers.”

He mentioned a rancher friend whose land contained unexcavated ruins, and said he was looking forward to studying them at his leisure – presumably without the prohibitions that applied to public land. We wished each other safe travels – the wind was beginning to splatter rain all around – and I got in the truck to drive south toward home.

I’m respectful of all religions because I see their primary function as unifying a community under a single code of behavior so they can support each other, mediate conflict, and mitigate abuse. I see some good things in Mormon principles, but I reject any form of proselytizing or missionary work, and I note that Mormon society shows an unfortunate embrace of capitalism, consumerism, and technological progress – mirroring the dominant secular society.

I’m also unorthodox in my attitude toward archaeological ruins. Whereas vandalism to rock art sickens me, I view ruins as future resources to both responsible humans and the ecosystem at large. Vandalism by urban consumers is pointless and wasteful, but the reuse of both historical and prehistoric materials found in ruins by people in subsistence communities is fair and just.

Thanks to these folks, I didn’t have to pray for a revelation. While driving away, I realized that to a Mormon, exploring the prehistory of the Utah homeland is like a mainline Christian visiting the Mideastern Holy Land. The Book of Mormon provides the basis, and visiting the prehistoric sites of the Lamanites can add insights – revelations – beyond what’s in the gospels, taking you deeper into your religion, perhaps closer to God, and possibly more committed to principles of good behavior.

Closing the Circles

I drove through rain, often heavy, on and off, all day, giving my arm and windshield wiper controls a real workout. I’d initially expected to stop for the night, wanting to avoid driving the last hundred miles, with the risk of deer crossings, in the dark. But it was time to be home, so I just kept driving.

I always love coming out of the pass into the Nutrioso Valley of Arizona with a full view of Escudilla Mountain looming like a whaleback. Snow was sprinkled on its north slope, and then as I reached midway down the valley I noticed a rainbow to my left, and pulled over. The speeding Arizonans in their big new trucks and SUVs raced on, oblivious, as I tried to capture a panorama of what turned out to be double arches, perhaps the most glorious I’d ever seen.

Later, coming down out of the mountains in the dark, still an hour from home, I began to see broad, almost continuous explosions of lightning over toward Silver City, as if a major war were underway. It faded, then resumed, then finally moved off, as I got closer. A half hour from home, I saw a bright falling star drop quickly to the horizon directly ahead.

This trip had started as a challenge to my precious hiking ability, with the epic climb to the Lost Plateau, but along the way the Nuwuvi reached out and grabbed me, reminding me that their heritage lived on in the timeless desert culture and its vibrant rock art. I was led to connect the “Ice Age” prehistory of the Great Basin and western Rocky Mountains seamlessly with the natives of my Mojave Desert, learning much more about their sustainable, comfortable, admirable way of life, while highlighting the remaining mysteries of regional adaptations like pottery versus basketry and the singular Barrier Canyon style of art.

The desert and its culture teach me the heresy that time is not a line or a progression from primitive to advanced, punctuated by technological innovations or revolutions that make humans more and more the masters of themselves and their world. For contemporary scientists to proclaim an Anthropocene Era in the history of the earth is like the Nazi’s proclamation of the Thousand-Year Reich: hubris mistaking temporary power for long-term sustainability. The Fremont, who practiced or abandoned small-scale farming as conditions allowed, teach me that agriculture is not an innovation that irreversibly enabled the rise of civilization and the destruction of nature. In an accurate, sustainable, cyclical view of time, agriculture is part of the timeless toolkit of resilient, adaptive cultures, a tool which can be abused at a culture’s peril.

Likewise, native rock rock art is tied to a subsistence ecology, and reflects the adaptation of culture to environment, whereas the Anglo-European art tradition is driven by technological progress in the quest to dominate and control nature and increase human power and convenience at the expense of the ecosystem, resulting in “advances” and “revolutions” in which previous art styles become obsolete. The Anglo-European art tradition – which has progressed through Classicism, Romanticism, Impressionism, Cubism, Abstract Expressionism, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Postmodernism, etc. – can’t be timeless like rock art. It’s always time-bound, transformed by the Age of Empire with its rifles, cannons, and shipping fleets exploiting distant, exotic cultures, transformed by the invention of photography, movies, plastics, video, the computer, the internet. We speak of the “international art scene”, but even in places like China, art’s forms and movements remain the forms of the dominant technological powers.

Native rock art long ago weaned me from the value system of the dominant society, in which art is technology-driven – a commodity in a competitive money economy, a status symbol, or an entry in the public discourse of high civilization – the misguided discourse of a dysfunctional, failing society, dominated by alienated experts and authorities. While I carry a lot of baggage from the Anglo-European tradition, including deep sympathy for my struggling brothers and sisters in the fine art underground, I truly value the abstract petroglyphs of the Nuwuvi, as well as the ancient Barrier Canyon paintings of the Basketmakers, far more – as art – than the work sanctioned in our highbrow art schools, media, galleries and museums. I really do. My own art will never be more than a feeble attempt to emulate those natives who had a critical, respected role in a timeless society.

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The Original Organic Abstraction

Saturday, May 13th, 2017: Rock Writing, Spring Trip 2017, Trips.

In my earliest childhood, I was surrounded by the organic abstraction of midcentury textile patterns:

When I started experimenting with Sumi ink on paper in 2011, organic abstraction flowed spontaneously from my brush:

Then, a few days ago, I visited perhaps the most interesting rock art in the Mojave desert, in a lush canyon oasis on the sacred mountain of the Colorado River tribes, where their creator god began his journey down the river. During my visit, I encountered the kitsch of white peoples’ religion, I picked up their abandoned plastic trash, and I convinced an Anglo family to stop desecrating the site with their loud pop music.

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Fall 2018 Part 2: Deep Time Traveling

Friday, November 2nd, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Rock Writing, Southeast Utah, Trips.


After my adventure in the blizzard, I was kind of shaken up, and more than a little frustrated. My fall camping trip had started out with a big dose of stressful driving, and no camping. But there were supposed to be a few more prehistoric rock art sites that I hadn’t seen yet, in pretty wild country, far to the north. I hoped there’d be plenty of camping up there. I could even return to a site I’d used a couple of years ago, in the same general area.

First, and it would be a long drive, I’d check out one famous site at the eastern edge of the territory of the people they call the Fremont, the ancient culture I’ve recently become obsessed with. It was supposed to feature the famous “Barrier Canyon” style of painting, the most beautiful and mysterious style of prehistoric art in North America. It was just a few miles off the interstate, so not a place to camp, but it’d be an easy in-and-out from which I could proceed on back to the truly wild country.

As it turned out, the art was amazing, but the easy access meant there had been severe, tragic vandalism by Americans, both historic and modern. No different than the bullies I’d grown up with back east, kids who’d never been taught to respect beauty, kids so insecure they could only respond to mystery with violence.

Heading west on the interstate, I saw stacks of bundled firewood outside a gas station and, learning my lesson about fall camping in the high country, picked up a couple bundles. It was poor quality and way overpriced, but it was something.

I kept checking my maps, and determined that all the rock art sites near the interstate were on “high clearance only” roads. It was already mid-afternoon and I was still a couple hours away from the next accessible sites, and I didn’t want to be looking for a campsite after sunset. So I left the interstate and drove north up a long gravel road through sagebrush-and-mesa country toward where I’d camped two years ago.

I crossed the old bridge over the San Rafael River, there at the massive sandstone wall, and entered the big canyon with an hour or more of daylight to spare. My old campsite turned out to be taken by another solo man in a compact truck with funky camper shell, but I found an even better one, hidden in a grove of pinyon and juniper out of sight of the road. I suited up for a freezing night, got a fire going, and cracked a IPA. I set up camp at a leisurely pace, and cooked a fairly ambitious plate of food. Only one other vehicle passed, and then it was full dark down there in the big canyon.

Camping is a lot less fun with chronic pain. I’m still trying to sort that out. I can be athletic as ever, to a point, but then something happens and I’m a cripple for a while. My night in the canyon started out pretty uncomfortable, but I eventually found a position my body didn’t hate too much. Thin clouds kept drifting over, then clearing off. Cygnus was in view early, her wings spanning the dusty trail of the galaxy, then later Casseiopeia, Pegasus, and finally Orion and the Moon herself. Somewhere in there I managed to get a decent night’s sleep.

Campsites in this canyon all seem to be sunset camps, benefiting from late afternoon light but sunk in the shade of those thousand-foot walls for most of the morning. Bedding doesn’t air out, and your ground cloth is caked with red clay mud until late morning when you can finally lay it out in the sun. I had no plan for the day, but it’d been over a week since I’d been able to hike. So after everything was dry, I packed the truck, loaded my pack with warm clothes, water, and snacks, and crossed the dry creekbed to hike up into a shallow side canyon. I knew it’d likely be a short, steep hike unless I could find a way up the rimrock to the plateau on top. But at least I’d get a workout.

Of course, with my slow-healing injured foot, I’m not even really supposed to be hiking off-trail. But the only “trail” in this canyon is the 4wd road up the major side canyon, probably a 6-mile branch, and that was a ranch road, through an area that might be heavily grazed. I wanted more of a wilderness experience. When I made it up into my side canyon, I spotted a possible route to the top, and started climbing.

It was such a beautiful day, and such a beautiful place, I threw caution to the wind. I ignored my injured foot and scrambled up slopes of clay and loose sandstone that would’ve been dangerous even when I was in my best shape. I did some technical rock-climbing moves that, if unsuccessful, could’ve killed me. And of course, the most dangerous climb on these slopes is the down climb. But I made it halfway up the thousand-foot cliff, got to see an eagle and some crazy lichen, and returned safely to the valley floor by early afternoon.

Back at the truck, I debated staying another night in this idyllic place. But the weather made my mind up for me. Storm precursor clouds were blowing over, and a strong wind was moving down the canyon. I realized it’d been totally still since I’d arrived, but no more.

I drove on up the canyon and spotted a sign for another rock art site that I’d missed previously. When I opened the door to get out, the wind almost tore it off. It was gusting well over 50 mph. But the prehistoric art made it well worth the stop, and I encountered a big flock of some of the coolest birds I’ve ever seen.

There I was, in the middle of a vast wild area, with storm clouds filling the sky, a howling wind, and little more than two hours till sunset. I was near the head of the canyon, about to emerge onto the rolling plateau where there was little cover. I decided to drive to town, more than an hour away, and spend some time researching my next move.

But along the way, I got distracted by some intriguing signs. And I discovered one of the most amazing, and little-known, canyons in North America – the “Little Grand Canyon” of the San Rafael River.

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Fall 2018 Part 3: The Rocks Begin to Speak

Friday, November 16th, 2018: Fall Trip 2018, Rock Writing, Trips.

High Prehistoric Tech

Five days and nights of my trip were already gone, most of them spent driving, zigzagging north across the emptiest parts of three big Western states. Four nights in widely-separated cheap motels, a hair-raising escape from an alpine blizzard, a detour to check out spectacular prehistoric rock paintings, and finally a cold night camping in a breathtaking canyon. The weather was getting still colder and windier and I was running out of clean clothes. I drove to the nearest town, farther north, where on an earlier trip I’d discovered a cheap but fairly luxurious motel with a laundry room. There I edited my photos and prepared the first couple of Dispatches. I’ve never found a decent restaurant in that town, so I’d eat in my room, from the simple stash of groceries I’d picked up at the first town I’d driven to, and leftovers from my night camping and cooking out.

It was the northernmost point I wanted to reach: the northern edge of the territory of the prehistoric Fremont people I’m trying to better understand on these trips. From here, I’d gradually make my way south and west, stopping whenever I saw something interesting, making side trips to check out rock art, hoping to find good campsites in late afternoon. I still had a week before I was due to meet my friends on our land in the Mojave.

Two days later I hit the road south. But I’d barely driven a half hour when I noticed a sign for a museum in this tiny village. It turned out to have quite a bit of thematic overlap with the much larger museum in the town to the north, but its more homespun curation raised intriguing questions that would haunt the rest of my trip. It was chock full of prehistoric artifacts donated by the ranching families who’d found them on their land.

What’s our responsibility – not the responsibility of citizens of a nation or a “civilized” culture, but the responsibility of invading ranching families who find the artifacts of the native people their society has dispossessed, stashed all over their newly-acquired ranchland?

What happened to the people archaeologists call Fremont – did they evolve into the Southern Paiutes, or were they replaced by them? On past trips I’d observed that the core Fremont lifestyle had to be eminently peaceful, and I knew from historical and anthropological accounts that the more recent Southern Paiutes were a peaceful, pedestrian people who were victimized by the warlike, equestrian Utes.

Who made the rock art in the Fremont area? The government archaeologist for the Mojave National Preserve had assured me, with photographic examples, that the only rock markings Paiutes were capable of were random scratches used to efface the work of other tribes. He’d repeatedly confirmed the archaeological consensus that Paiutes were warlike newcomers who’d spread out of eastern California across the Great Basin within the past millennium, killing off other tribes and appropriating their land.

And finally, how much more advanced are we modern people than those “primitive, superstitious savages?” With all our power, speed, and convenience, do we really live better lives?

Needle in the Haystack

Gratefully leaving the little museum, I drove a half hour farther south to a turnoff where I expected to find a rock art site. What got me interested in prehistoric rock art in the first place? Thirty-seven years ago, when I was at a turning point in my growth as a visual artist, a friend sent me a postcard of a site called “Newspaper Rock.” It was the first time I remember seeing prehistoric rock art. Dense with symbols, some representational, some abstract, it resonated with the new work I was creating. My graphical work – drawings, paintings, prints and collages – had always encompassed both “pictures” and “messages,” but I hadn’t been fully aware of that distinction. In recent years I’d expanded my pictorial work from simple rendering to narrative composition, and that had led me to the use of images as symbols.

At the same time, I was beginning to explore the Southwestern deserts, and as I kept developing and focusing my work, it evolved into compositions made of stylized natural imagery inspired by what I’d seen on camping trips. And eventually, in 1987, my girlfriend and I were shown real prehistoric rock art, outdoors, tucked away in remote corners of the Mojave Desert. We were hooked! As artists, we had heard of so-called “Land Art” by people like Robert Smithson and Michael Heizer, who used bulldozers and other heavy equipment to mimic the creations of ancient civilizations. But rock art was humble, uncivilized, intimate in scale, much better integrated into its natural environment. It seemed like it would’ve been part of the daily and seasonal life ways of the people who created and used it – people who lived lightly on the land, hunting and gathering, not building cities and temples like the inspirations of the “Land Artists” of the 70s.

During the postwar economic/science/tech boom of the 1950s, when the authorities wanted us to get out and burn gas on those fancy new highways – just like they want us to burn electricity now – AAA maps flagged prehistoric sites, including rock art. But those sites, all found in lonely places, were totally unprotected, and they were rapidly being destroyed by the vandals that are continually produced by our violent, narcissistic society. So by the time my girlfriend and I started studying rock art in the mid-80s, none of the sites were identified on commercially available maps, and on the ground, virtually none of them were marked by signs or had any sort of informative infrastructure. They were like the proverbial needle in the haystack.

Long before the internet, cell phones, or apps, we were shown rock art by friends, we picked up books at remote gift shops, we did research in libraries, we contacted experts by mail. We made our own lists and annotated paper maps. On road trip after road trip, camping and backpacking into remote canyons, we discovered work that blew our minds.

The Road Less Traveled

Stopping at museums, sidetracking for rock art, the short day was being chipped away at. I was approaching an interstate highway; if I took it west, there’d be many hours of driving through country I’d already seen, with little or no opportunity to camp, and I’d probably end up in a motel again. Alternatively, I could keep going on this rural highway, into a part of Utah I’d never seen. I spotted a grove of golden cottonwoods beside the road and pulled over to make a sandwich on the tailgate of my truck.

Mormon McMansions

I loved all the mountainous country I drove through that afternoon, but I never found a sheltered or private place to camp along the road. Every time I turned off to explore a promising dirt road, it ended almost immediately at a large, bleak parking area for RVs, in full view of the highway.

And I further confirmed some earlier observations about Mormon culture and society. I try not to be too critical of religions, because the secular alternative – capitalism – is what’s destroying our planet. But the Mormons strike me as more than a bit too materialistic and fond of ostentation. There seem to be plenty of poor Mormons, but that doesn’t stop the rich ones from throwing up a mansion next door. And their rural architecture is plain weird. From my perspective, raised on colonial, southern, and midcentury house styles, Mormon rural homes seem to have no clear historical reference point. They’re not post-modern, they’re just awkward and tacky. Mormon wealth doesn’t seem to be invested in quality, and even the oldest and simplest rural homes seem to be designed by aliens trying and failing to imitate earthlings.

As full dark fell and the temperature dropped toward freezing, I found myself in a very small town at close to 7,000′ elevation. There was a string of cheap motels, none of them appealing, so I picked one, checked in, and headed for a lit-up restaurant on the single historic block of the Main Street business district.

It was Saturday night, and Main street was empty. But the diner was packed. A distracted hostess greeted me, holding a baby by the belly, face-outward like a doll. I grinned and the kid beamed back. I was seated at the front facing the door, and while waiting to be served I realized the extremely loud music coming from behind me had to be live. I turned in my seat, glancing past tables of families and couples, to see a tiny cave-like stage at the back, reminiscent of the cage in the Blues Brothers movie, and a cute, stylish singer with short hair who’d been staring at me, waiting to catch my eye. I guessed I was the only single guy who’d shown up so far.

She flashed me a big smile. While I ordered, got served, and dug into my platter of pulled pork, she rendered a predictable series of country, folk, and pop standards, from Leonard’s “Hallelujah” to Dolly’s “Coat of Many Colors”, yelping and screeching with histrionic soul through the brittle sound system, accompanied by a full synth track. Between numbers she asked diners where they were from. All the families were local, but the couples, post-season tourists to nearby Bryce Canyon, were from Washingon state, Maine, and France. Exhausted after a long day, my ears battered by the singer’s piercing notes, I rushed through my just-okay meal. I left a generous tip, gave the singer a final optimistic thumbs up, and returned to my cheap, shabby motel room.

Native Explanations

29 degrees outside when I woke up Sunday morning. I’d taken many fall trips in the Southwest, running as late as early December, and the weather had generally been mild. My itinerary west would now carry me inexorably onto the dreaded interstate, with just one more side trip for rock art before leaving the Mormon state. I was beginning to realize it was almost impossible to both look for rock art and camp out on the same day. Looking for rock art just required too much driving, and too many hours stuck in a location where you generally weren’t allowed to camp.

But that one last site had more surprises. Not only had the local authorities provided signs to the site, they’d provided a large parking lot with a permanent restroom and shaded picnic area, paved paths to the rock art, institutional fencing around the rocks, and very detailed information panels below the art.

And they’d asked two tribes to contribute explanations: the Southern Paiutes and the Hopi. The Paiutes’ explanation was displayed as given, with no Anglo academic patronizing. Very refreshing, and something my archaeologist friends would probably never tolerate. After all, science was invented by Europeans, so we claim the ultimate authority on everything.

Prehistoric Literacy

With all the development around this site, I resigned myself to being accompanied by an evolving crowd of tourists, who mostly snapped a few pictures and hopped back in their new SUVs. But the petroglyphs were spectacular, and the message from the Southern Paiutes eye-opening. The information panels below the rock writings said that the Paiutes remember the so-called Fremont people – they know them as Nungwu. I hadn’t read this in any museum or book or on any web page – I had to come to this remote place to get the message. What more did the Paiutes know that the Anglo authorities didn’t?

The Indians made it quite clear that this is NOT ART – a paradigm shift I should’ve been prepared for. A Native American friend had given me LaVan Martineau’s book The Rocks Begin to Speak thirty years ago. Martineau, who learned from Paiutes, claimed that rock markings represented a universal sign language, a medium of communication, not an art form. But I’d either forgotten about that, or allowed my thinking to get lazy in the intervening years. Poor LaVan doesn’t even have a Wikipedia page, which makes me feel better about not having one.

That distinction between what we educated Anglos call ART, and what we both precisely and generally define as COMMUNICATION, is a very important theme for me. After developing my visual art, at an early age, from figurative representation to the composition of enigmatic “messages” made up of naturalistic symbols, I reinvented myself in mid-life as a “creative professional” in the internet industry, and found myself using symbolic compositions – flowcharts and storyboards – as my primary communications tool, to develop screen designs and facilitate collaboration in multi-disciplinary teams. And eventually, when I resumed making art, I was explicitly composing symbols inspired by nature. Both art and communication, but perhaps more on the art side, since the communication was suggestive rather than didactic.

In any event, I thought the Paiutes’ interpretation of this famous site was brilliant. It didn’t make much sense to me, but that’s to be expected. I realized more clearly than ever that to understand “rock writing,” you had to be living in and using this landscape the way the Indians did. We Anglos with our technological, alienated lifestyle couldn’t experience the habitat the way they did.

According to archaeologists and anthropologists, Indians used to claim that they hadn’t made rock art – it had been made by “spirits” in the distant past. Native “informants” claimed that they didn’t know what it meant – they even sometimes claimed it was evil. Now here they were saying that not only did they understand it, but that it represented a universal language. So much for the culturally-specific rock art “styles” identified by archaeologists, like Barrier Canyon and Great Basin Abstract Curvilinear.

I actually hope the Paiutes are bullshitting us, providing an intentionally meaningless explanation to put the honkies on the wrong track yet again. I would rather not believe they’re calling “rock art” a written language to make them seem less culturally inferior to us literate, scientific Europeans, but that’s a possibility too.

I snapped my own pictures, realizing that the only way to begin to understand this work would be to camp out here, and go about my daily chores, with the “rock messages” as my backdrop. Only then would I begin to see it more like the people who made and used it.

But the day was still young, and the next sites were hours away, and I needed to keep moving west if I wanted to meet my friends in the desert. So I got back in the little truck and drove to the nearest city, where I had lunch in a big-city-style bistro, knowing from experience that local-style food would be dismal.

I did the hours of driving, into the sunset, and eventually left the highway again to enter a vast area, the eastern corner of the Mojave desert, which I’d entered only once before as a passenger with a biologist friend. There I discovered the worst road I’ve ever driven, and drove it, stressfully and painfully, to where, after sunset, I finally found a bleak but spectacular campsite – a huge area cleared for RVs at the foot of rock formations, surrounded at a distance by other huge RVs. Because in this day and age  – as I discovered on this trip – most campsites are developed for giant RVs rather than us traditional folk who sleep on the ground.

After that city lunch, I just had a beer and snacks before hitting the sack. No sooner had I settled in than I discovered that I was directly under a low-altitude approach path for McCarran International Airport, with jets coming in every 90 seconds or so. Our society can industrialize even the remotest natural areas without even touching the ground.

Since there was no place to lay my ground cloth in this extremely remote place without potentially being run over by newcomers during the night, I emptied the truck bed and slept inside it, as I sometimes have to do when there are high winds. The eighth night of my trip, and only my second night of camping. But the night sky was my ceiling, the wheeling galaxy and constellations my constant companions through the night, and yes, as always, there were falling stars, although not as many as there were passenger jets. Little did I know what I was in for the next day…

Infinite Wonderland

In preparation for this trip, I’d copied a map off the internet that showed the next “rock writing” site to be just a few miles from my campsite. And there it was – again, with a large parking lot, informational signage, and fencing.

I followed a broad trail toward what appeared to be modest rock outcrops. I rounded a bend, and saw a house-sized boulder standing alone. I raised my field glasses, glimpsed familiar markings, and felt my heart swelling in my chest, the way it does whenever I stumble upon traces of the Old Ones. How do our bodies do this? How did the heart come to be the locus of love?

Refuge in the North

I’d never seen a place like this – a seemingly infinite wonderland of rock writing. I climbed up, and down, and around. I scanned with field glasses. I found more the farther I went. I spent hours there. No way did I see it all. I have no idea how much farther it went. There were numerous tinajas or natural water pockets, which go a long way toward explaining what native people were doing there to begin with. The brief notes I saw on the internet didn’t prepare me for this, and thank God! Fuck technology, fuck remote sensing, fuck satellites, fuck drones. The map is not the territory – the territory is far, far more interesting and enlightening. You had to be there, to hear it, to smell it, to feel it with your skin, your hands and feet.

But now I had another big decision to make. Damn it, that’s the problem with an unplanned trip! You start out thinking it’s going to be free and easy, just following your nose across the landscape, going wherever you want, but no! You have to find a place to sleep every night, and as the day goes on, the pressure mounts! And I still had to factor in a shopping stop in Las Vegas before I met my friends in the desert! Vegas, where the traffic would be a nightmare, coming from the north and slogging through the entire length of the city’s knotted freeway system. No way to avoid the stress of going directly from peaceful nature to mechanical mayhem, thousands of other stressed-out humans fighting each other like rats for space in the maze.

I didn’t have the heart for that yet, and I still had a few days left. So I decided to drive far out of my way, to the north again, to a little town in a canyon where I’d stayed several times before. It was a beautiful refuge where I could do laundry again, and edit my growing galleries of photos. And yes, there were more rock writings up there, sites I hadn’t visited yet.

The “mid-term” election occurred on my second day in the little town. A media event held elsewhere and broadcast in from the outside world – an event in which we function as mere statistics, pretending that we’re somehow “participating” in a “democracy.” I’d voted before leaving home, and the results were available when I woke up to do my laundry before hitting the road again. Everyone I voted for had won, but this “historic” event that others had worked so passionately for was of no real interest to me, since I dream of the collapse of the state that has caused so much harm from its beginning.

I packed up and drove back down the road, where I found another prehistoric site that added to the already profound revelations of this trip. It would be the last until next time around…

Honest Vegas

Going beyond even what I’d found at previous sites, this county publishes both online and paper brochures guiding visitors to and through its prominent rock art sites. I had one of these with me, but like my Grandpa, I reflexively avoid the instructions, and I regretted it halfway into my visit. In this case, the county’s wonderful brochure took the place of an all-day campout at the site – it enabled me to see, at a glance, the deep context around the rock writings: the ash deposits from old campfires, the scatter of stone tool-making flakes, evidence of both prehistoric residential and work areas. I would’ve found all that myself during a longer stay, but not during a short picture-taking visit.

Unlike the previous site, this was right off the highway. But like the previous site, it seemed endless – a maze of boulders down in a canyon, with panels near the head, but an unknown number hidden below, waiting for more time to be discovered. Frankly, during my early rock art explorations I never imagined sites so vast, rock writing so ubiquitous across the Native landscape, even as backdrops for everyday living. And this is just what’s accessible by vehicle. When you think about all the mountains and canyons that can only be reached on foot, it boggles the mind. These people created a pervasive mediascape that rivals ours – our smart phone screens, computer screens, TVs, movies, newpapers and magazines, billboards, bus ads, and graffiti – but unlike ours, theirs was made to be a permanent part of their habitat, to communicate between generations, and thus was strictly curated by tradition and by the community. And as a result of that and the way they lived, it’s more organic than ours could ever be.

When I first arrived, I took a wrong turn – again, the map is not the territory, and the brochure misled me – and spent an hour or so clambering down a tributary gulch that had a smattering of rock writings but wasn’t the main site. A Jeepful of Canadians followed me, and continued down the “wrong way” as I returned to find the official trailhead. Later, I heard and spotted them down there wandering through the maze, and we waved at each other.

It was now the moment of truth – or falsehood? Maya, the Veil of Illusion. I needed to get to Vegas to do my shopping for the desert meetup. And yes, the drive and traffic were as bad as expected, as bad as always, even though I beat “rush hour” by at least an hour. Our society, and what it has done to this planet, is obscene. Literally and completely obscene. And I’m not talking about separating immigrant families at the border, or appointing a sexual predator to the Supreme Court. Those are bad, but the nation’s current leadership is not the fundamental problem – that’s yet another reason why the recent election didn’t interest me. Our way of life, our way of using nature and each other, are catastrophic, apocalyptic – and Las Vegas is the epitome of all of that. In that sense, at least it’s honest.

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