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Fall 2018 Part 3: The Rocks Begin to Speak

Friday, November 16th, 2018: 2018 Trips, Indigenous Cultures, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips, Society.

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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