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Searching For Rock Art

I didn't discover rock art; rock art discovered me. Ever since reading Desert Solitaire in high school, Utah's canyonlands were my dream, but my chance to visit didn't come until ten years later. I left for Aches National Park straight from school (I teach sixth grade), not to find rock art but to find solitary wilderness. After landing in Salt Lake City, I slept in the airport, caught a small plane to Moab, discovered there are no cabs, hitchhiked from the airport to Moab, bought supplies, and hitchhiked to Arches. Finally, twenty four hours after leaving Long Island, I hiked up Courthouse Wash.

At a safe distance from civilization I collapsed into a campsite. In the morning I saw an orange face painted on the canyon wall, watching over me after hundreds of years of sun, wind, rain and even gunshots. It was a good omen and the start of a wonderful trip.

Two years later my wife and I were traveling through the Navajo Nation. We hadn't planned on it, but fate and my over ambitious backpacking plans in the Rockies brought us to Monument Valley and Canyon de Chelly. Rock art grabbed me again. The child-like quality, the mystery, and the people in the country who created it, captured my imagination. The images spoke to me even if I couldn't understand.

The next step was to find rock art on my own. Since then, I have taken trips to Canyonlands, Grand Gulch, Escalante, Sedona, and the Tonto National Forest. I justify these trips by making jewelry based on the images and writing about rock art. All that is an excuse; I go because all those bighorns, Kokopellis, bears, strange looking people, spirits, turtles, buffalo, snakes, lizards, deer, plants, hand prints, footprints, swirls, curves and zig-zags carved and painted on the rocks and cliffs are great to look at, and fun to search for. It is simple as that.

In the process I have learned a lot. There is a significant difference between seeing rock art after hiking two days into a canyon, or doing as others do, pulling into a parking lot and walking a hundred yards. Rock art looks better when you are a little hot, hungry, dirty, and tired.

However, I'm glad there are places to see rock art close to the road. It keeps the riff raff away from the wilderness sites. I am a wilderness snob. My reluctance to encourage any of you to search for rock art is overcome by my desire to educate and agitate. We should protect more wilderness, so there is room for all us wilderness snobs to avoid each other.

Backpacking means seeing the canyon the way the ancient native Americans saw the canyons; towering sandstone walls, with the juniper trees scattered across the rock. Deep in the canyon one can listen to the canyon wrens that inspired Kokopellis flute, drink from the same stream, and walk the same paths as they did. How else can one appreciate their lives and what they left behind. These people grew crops, built multi-story buildings, made baskets, pottery, and created a culture in a place with little rain and wild temperature extremes, even snow. To begin understanding one must sit alone in the ruins surrounded by pottery shards, corncobs, turkey feathers, bits of twine, flints and rock art.

Finding rock art means trying to think like the Anasazi, the Fremont, the Sinagua, the Hohokom and all the others. The search keeps me focused on the canyon. My theory is that they picked places with the best views (lookouts for seeing the enemy). It is not foolproof. Just when I think I have it figured out, I climb up to a place, sure that there will be rock art, but there's none. The anticipation is great, the disappointment is real. Then again, if I found some every time there would be no mystery, no appreciation, no reason to explore, or think. The trick is to try as many potential sites as possible. One has to be willing to suffer through the tamarisk, the hackberry, and the willow that protect the images. The scratches are good souvenirs. Be careful of the cryptogenic soil, we need that black crust to protect the canyons.

I have learned to resist the urge to take that one shard of pottery that no one will miss. It is always disappointing that no matter how remote the site, someone has come before and stolen artifacts. More is missing than just a pot or an arrowhead. The piece belongs to the place. It does more for the canyon than it would do for me or you. Instead I draw, write, photograph, sit and stare. I soak the place into my skin. Someday I'll find an undisturbed, unseen rock art site.

Searching for rock art reminds me there are more questions than answers. What do they mean? How did they get them so high up? Who made them? Why did they make them? How many more were there? Were they made at the same time? How did they decide where to put them? Who were they drawn for? Was it a language, a religion, messages, or just doodling?

In the canyons, the age of the earth becomes clearer. Viewing a corn cob takes me back hundreds of years. Their voices are still there. Looking at streaks carved in the cliffs takes me back through millions of years of wind and water. I realize when my time — human time — ends, the canyon will not. The Anasazi did not imagine us, we cannot imagine what will come after us. We are not at the end of time, we are in the middle — perhaps even the beginning. We are witness to a split second in the canyons life, frozen in rock, for now but not forever.

I sit at a panel of bighorn sheep and look out over a canyon. In the canyon's life span I just missed meeting my ancient friend. We share the view of a canyon. It is up to us to ensure that the view remains. The creators of the rock art left behind a legacy. Our legacy should be a canyon protected as a wilderness.