Classic Fremont petroglyphs: trapezoidal figures with necklaces, ear bobs and headdresses. These also have shields and a spear.
From our vantage point in a high alcove across the canyon, the large trapezoidal figure seemed to watch us. We watched back — first through binoculars, and then a scramble down and up to approach it. Only then were his three companions discovered, all appearing to hold shields. This is the absolute beauty of rock art: the continual unfolding of images. Meanings, though, usually lay hidden across centuries.
Staring at petroglyphs is warmly satisfying. As one’s eyes adjust and scan toward the periphery, more bits come into view. Questions arise like bubbling springs: Was that large spear for hunting, or for defense? Hmm: you don’t carry shields for hunting. Who was threatening them? Why did some artist add ear-bobs to the lowest guy, much later? Is the little man in the right center holding a sparkling timer? What were their necklaces made of? What about those headdresses? Why is only one weapon on display?
Current-century questions also arise. What kind of person would use priceless rock art for target practice? As much as the bullet holes detract from the aesthetic, they can’t mar the inherent beauty of these powerful figures.
Conjoined twins pecked into rock?
Meanwhile, in another part of the county, girlfriend Tara found this petroglyph that looks for all the world like men who are Siamese twins. Never in all my thousands of glyphs have I seen anything like this one, and it piques my curiosity. Many cultures would put the babies out to die if they were born connected, or in some way different from normal. My midwife mind wonders whether a woman eight centuries ago could even successfully birth conjoined twins, when they are always born by Cesarean nowadays. Perhaps this image was something a shaman ‘saw’ in a trance, instead.
“Come and see what we walked right by.” Chris, eagle-eyed co-explorer, beckoned me to the edge of the high alcove. I had just lain down on a flat boulder to gaze at the sandstone ceiling and the rock art, but it was clear that his discovery was worth interrupting my reverie.
In a canyon near Moab.
There, right on the approach, was a deeply incised petroglyph. A single claw stood alone, stark in its simplicity, its beauty evincing an ancient artist’s skill.
We had been too distracted by the more obvious — the massive recess in the Navajo sandstone, the multi-colored artwork spanning several millennia, the grinding grooves in the boulders, curious carved holes, a water seep. Occasional flakes of chert sparkled in the sunlight, remnants of the tool-making process. The site was clearly occupied for a long, long time, by more than a few people. I could almost hear children’s laughter, women grinding seeds or corn, men sharpening their axes.
And then… the claw. Some man long ago selected that boulder and sat down with his tools, abrading the pad to a good quarter-inch depth, adding the toes, finishing with those imposing super-claws. Was he saying that he was part of a clan associated with this animal? Was it evidence of a hunt that fed his people well? Was it a No Trespassing sign? I’ll never know.
The lesson at hand: don’t be so distracted by the flashy that you miss the subtle.
Throughout time, artists who flaunt traditional approaches have been both reviled and praised. I wonder if that has always been the case? Would a millennium have changed human behavior?
On a recent hike in search of petroglyphs in the Moab area, my findings led me to ask such questions. The first panel shows a classic rendering of an abundant animal in Utah rock art, the bighorn sheep. Notice their short thick necks, graceful parenthesis-shaped horns, solid pecked bodies and characteristic single-file arrangement. I especially like the cloven-hoof detail, which can be seen better if you click to enlarge.
Utah petroglyphs showing bighorns
Only a few feet away, on another part of the boulder, stood this artwork. Based on its deeply curved horns, it’s obviously a bighorn ram, but how many differences can you pick out from the previous glyphs? Whose neck is that? What is the shape inside its torso? Is it supposed to have feet? Was this artist having fun, expressing his uniqueness, or faithfully recording his observations?
Please leave your comments. Have fun with this. It’s okay to speculate…
Does this artist march to the beat of a different drummer?
There are glorious views 360 degrees around you on the Peekaboo Springs trail.
“This is so beautiful it almost makes me cry.” These words escaped my lips as Tara and I crested one canyon wall and perched on the brim looking to yet another vast horizon of red rock, of green wash, of bluest sky. I needed time to simply stop and absorb the wonder of it all — to feel it on a deep level rather than see only with my eyes.
In the Needles district on a cumulus-clouded day, the dancing light illuminates one pinnacle while shadowing the next; I could sit watchfully in one spot for an entire morning and not grow bored. It is one of my favorite places to explore in all of North America. Peekaboo Springs is clearly one of those hikes that can move me to tears.
Almost as an afterthought at the trailhead I had grabbed my binoculars, and was now scanning the canyon below for evidence of ancestral Puebloan culture. We had already found at least five granaries when something on a far wall came into focus. Wordlessly I handed the glasses to Tara, and her incredulous subdued “Oh, wow” matched my impression.
A round white shield with a flared cross-shaped center, unlike anything either of us have ever seen, stood alone on a sandstone wall. Farther along was a plumb-bob shape and concentric circles out of the same brilliant white paint that looked anything but a thousand years old. We instantly knew we had to make a return trip equipped with good maps and a way to get down there to investigate and photograph this rock art. Here’s the happiest part: there weren’t any trails or even footprints passing by them.
And when the day comes that we get back there to personally explore, our feet also will leave no trace.
For twelve additional photos of this hike, click on this Facebook album.
Sheep Camp at Horseshoe Canyon trailhead -- my home for nine days
The adorable 15×7 foot trailer (nicknamed ‘Sheep Camp’) beckoned me: “Come, stay awhile.” In 1994 the Park Service parked it behind some sand dunes and attached a solar panel, and rangers and volunteers have been living in it ever since when they patrol the canyon for a stretch of time. Somehow I had envisioned a dusty old hantavirus-laden box which I’d share with small critters, but this was a camper’s delight.
I unlocked the door and found sweet quarters for my solar- and LP-powered wilderness habitation. A tiny kitchen, bench seats, and lofted bed welcomed me. Ruffled blue curtains covered the three windows. A couple of propane lanterns (mantles intact) graced the walls, and a battery-powered radio pulled in a few Salt Lake City stations. Water containers and an ice chest were brought from the station an hour away by a ranger. The outhouse at the trailhead was nearly a half mile off; I’m not shy about peeing behind a blackbrush.
Kathryn surveying her kingdom from Sheep Camp
After reading a bit about the rich local history, I fell asleep my first night wondering how many Basque sheepherders slept on this knoll. Up to the mid-20th century, thousands of head of sheep were grazed in this canyon. This spot made a good camp for the shepherds since it was near the livestock trail that leads down 750 feet to Barrier Creek, the only water supply. Today this rough trail provides the access for most hikers wanting to see the rock art; I would become quite familiar with all 6.5 miles of it over the next nine days.
Comments: Have you any clear memories of a particularly delightful cabin or campsite you’ve occupied?