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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in going, but it was the weekend, so the local BLM office was closed; I’d have to rely on the limited, mostly out of date maps I had and whatever info I could dig up on the internet, using my motel room wifi.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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