Zbyszek and I are above Horseshoe Canyon, southeastern Utah, just north of the Robber’s Roost area where Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up for a while, on the lip of one of the many gashes in the earth between the Henry Mountains to the west and south, the LaSal Mountains to the east, and the San Rafael Swell to the north. All around, the earth looks level, but it’s not. If this is a plateau tilted upwards to the north and east, it is one that has been scribbled upon over and over, the pen pushed down deep, water rather than ink, but still running and running. For all the talk about this being desert, it is water who is the writer. Draw and coulee, arroyo and side-canyon, serif and italic. Shrink yourself down until you can walk between the letters of the page and you will see what I mean. You can work yourself through–with some difficulty and no little time, but you will twist and turn.
In fact, you twist and turn so much that you can almost see your own back, but not much of anything else. Did I tell you that these letters rise up around you, hard to read in their jumble, though solid as stone?
When I was a kid in school, I used to make rivers on the pages of my textbooks. Black ink tributaries starting at the top and running down to the sea of the bottom margin, joining into greater thicknesses as they combined, their confluences occurring in the slight space between words, between “Pittsburgh” and “Landing,” “Civil” and “War,” “Dirty” and “Devil,” Or the stream would join in the word’s own landlocked interiors, the expansive intervale between the slopes of an o and the swayback ridge of an s—even in the cramped narrows between a double t or l. Big loops and meanderings, streams not of consciousness, but of the pure desire to see enough rivers for a continent run down this one page. Sometimes I’d even use different colored inks, and just as the Green River and the Colorado at their confluence flow side by side in different stripes, so did my rivers on the page stay separate and suspended for almost half of a paragraph. I knew I shouldn’t have marked up book after book like that, but I did.
But it is these side-by-side stripes I have come to see, the demarcation where tourism meets with nature, where the road stops and you have to walk, the edge of the cliff just a few inches beyond which you either die or be content to further your travel with your eyes, and when your eyes meet up with the Stegosaurus plates of the Waterpocket Fold or the steep tilting pool in Hall’s Creek narrows too deep to swim through with a forty pound pack held above your head, then you know you have still have your imagination. Just strap it on and go.
But the trailhead down into Horseshoe Canyon is hardly wilderness. For one thing, at the trail head there’s a parking lot complete with pit toilet and an entire row of SUVs, including one Jeep Liberty and a white Grand Cherokee, along with a couple of multi-ton pickup trucks with V8s over to the left, all of them adept at guzzling gas so we can all get out here and walk. It looks like yet another car commercial, one I’ve witnessed too many times out here, including just the day before yesterday in Moab when I spied a bright yellow Humvee, pulling a flatbed trailer that bristled with Jeep Wranglers across the Colorado River bridge at the north edge of town, a desert scorpion with babies on her back.
Inside the shack latrine it stinks pretty bad, and inside the pit itself is a topography all its own, spires and flatlands and gullies, but no sign of water. Beside the sign that reads “PLEASE DO NOT PUT TRASH IN TOILET BECAUSE IT’S DIFFICULT TO REMOVE. THANK YOU,” there’s even a wealth of hiking information you can ponder while sitting:
The Horseshoe Canyon hike. 6.5 miles roundtrip to the Great Gallery and back. 3-8 hours round trip. Semi-strenuous hike, 700 ft steep climb back out of the canyon to the parking lot. Follow rock cairns (piles of rock) to the four rock art panels. Do not touch the rock art. Do not cross the fences. No pets allowed beyond the parking lot. No bicycles allowed on trail or in the canyon. No camping allowed in the canyon. You may camp in the parking lot or west of the canyon on BLM land. Bring water–at least one gallon per person–food, rain gear, and any medications you might need. Example, insulin. Be prepared for sudden weather changes and flash floods. Groups of 20 or more people must split up into smaller groups to go in with a ranger.
This is probably the most extensive bathroom reading I have ever encountered. By the end I feel like I’m in a Jack London story—that is if London wrote of the desert and not the Yukon–hikers stranded without food and water, suffering from insulin shock as a flash flood boils through their midst, everyone hanging onto white knuckled treeroots and praying for their lives. It takes me a while to even notice that over on the other wall–right next to the instant hand-sanitizer dispenser–someone has drawn yet another version of Kokopelli, the little Anasazi stick figure with Sideshow Bob hair, blowing and fingering a flute. Life is not so bad, after all.
When I emerge into the sunshine, Zbyszek, always the visual chronicler, has his lens pointed at some Indian paintbrush. I make my way back to the car to start slathering on some sunscreen, when I realize a hiker from one of the other cars is now heading straight for me, or rather to the john I’ve just vacated. I’ve always felt suddenly shy at times like this; do I say hi or ignore him? Are we fellow travellers or just tourists jostling our way through? Growing up on a farm in southern Illinois, whenever you’d spy a neighbor you would wave, or if you met a car, even lifting your index finger off the steering wheel was a way of salute. “Here we are! In the middle of our workdays, in the middle of our lives! Onward and upwards!” All that seemed to be contained in the slight motion of our hands. But, as an adult, even living in a small town I’ve always felt awkward. I always want to say hi or wave, but I also know that doing this would soon drive everyone mad.
Or, I wince at the prospect of waving and being totally ignored. “I waved at them, why didn’t they wave back.” So, over time, I’ve learned to be selectively oblivious, to just duck my head and go. But, out here in the desert, I feel even more pressure to speak. We’re hardly explorers, but we’re not just waiting in line at Disneyland, either. True, Edward Abbey sure as hell wouldn’t even nod. But I’m not a local, so that is hardly a principle I can embrace, either.
My mind is still trying to reach a decision when the other guy speaks to me:
“How do you like your Jeep Liberty?”
Then, like water racing through a narrow slot in the rock, I start to gush. “I don’t really know. I just bought it. Actually, I’ve had a Grand Cherokee out here before, but its transmission blew out last fall on the way to see Thomas the Tank Engine in Cincinnati and even though it’s got a new transmission I still don’t trust it. But would you believe it? Even though the Liberty’s a lot smaller its miles per gallon isn’t much better. I got 19 in the big Jeep and this lists only 21.”
The man nodded. He had a sheepish smile. “I know. I hate the gas mileage. But I love the car.”
There was no other way to get here than by four wheel drive or at least a vehicle with high clearance. The road had long ago narrowed to a two-track, the wind never ceasing to bank up the blowing redrock into these bumper-sized dunes we would bust up and over before our tires started skating off to the next thick finger. You could tell that without a road grader to scrape the way through, the route would close over in no time. Scarlet globe mallow cheered on our efforts, but it was still an awkward business. Every so often there would be a raw outcrop of rock, ridged and rooted, that we would have to shift down and wobble over in low gear, our teeth jarring as tire and axle slowly tried to make out the stone braille.
But now it was high time to read the rock through the soles of our own feet. Zbyszek and I shouldered our gear and headed off. We walked towards the sky to our left. You can’t really see a canyon until you’re right up on it, and usually the first thing that confirms its presence is absence. You are summoned towards the nothing, and you walk closer, starting to look for the trail, the one way down that does not promise to kill you.
But again, this is hardly wilderness. We’ve even got Michael Kelsey’s hiking guide to the Henry Mountains, a book that elicits a snarl whenever we mention it to a local. We have our own bone to pick with Kelsey in regards to his description of reaching the summit of Mt. Pennell, the second highest peak of the Henrys. In fact, Zbyszek is convinced he never made it to the top, but just eyed the way from the trail’s end at a radio transmitter, a Federal Aviation Administration device somehow crucial in maintaining air traffic between the coasts: “From the transmitter, walk northeast along the summit ridge to the top….Easy walking all the way.” What we had encountered the week before beyond the transmitter, however, was snow on stop of scree, one slippery thing above another, which–with the soil charred and made brittle from the forest fire that had raged up the slopes of Pennell that summer before–made for very slow and treacherous walking. Sometimes, when you grabbed onto the limb of a scrub pine, the whole three or four foot tree would come off in your hands, roots and all. In fact, after a few nasty slides, and the disappearance of the mountain goat Zbyszek, who always seemed to travel twice as fast as I could muster, I had even decided to turn back, once again justifying my decision with the fact that a truncated story was better than none at all, since of course to tell the tale you need to survive it first.
And, sure enough, by the time I had made it back to the relatively flat ground by the transmitter, with only seven kilometers and a 1000 meter descent to the car, I was rewarded for my caution. When I tried to sit down, a leg cramp suddenly slugged into the front of my right thigh, and I was instantly on the ground, flailing, trying to straighten out my knee and make the pain vanish. High altitude, dehydration, a looming heart attack? The blood in my leg had stopped its circulation, and now I was thrashing around like a beheaded chicken. Who knows what would have happened if I had been up there on the steep, crumbly ridge, forced to play this nasty tug of war with the muscles in my own body.
Zbyszek, meanwhile, scooting and skating, had made his own way to the top, wading the final meters through a waist-high snow and a high wind that blew his camera backpack straight out to the side. A veteran hiker of the Tatra Mountains in southern Poland, the uppermost arm of the Carpathians, he had encountered much worse. So he came back all smiles. He had snapped amazing photos of Tarantula Mesa and the Waterpocket Fold to the West, the ripple after ripple of the canyons to the East. But he still sniffed at Kelsey’s directions. “That sort of thing can get people into trouble,” he snorted back at our camp at Starr Springs, looking at me as I sat on a log by the firepit, poking my fingers into the crackly muscles of my outstretched thigh.
But my local friends’ problems with Kelsey were more profound. Basically, it involved the fact that the guy seemed to have hiked anywhere and everywhere on the planet, and then wrote a guidebook about it. You can imagine the dangers, especially here in the Henrys and nearby. Not just the possibility of leading too many people into the thick of misinformation and bad advice, but too many people at all. With guidebooks came hikers, and with hikers came a loss of solitude and respect for the land. Julian Hatch, my fire-breathing friend in Boulder, Utah, just on the other side of the Waterpocket Fold, was especially adamant about the existence of guidebooks and the people who wrote them. Just barely tolerant of me, he had little patience for the excursions (and excuses) of anyone coming into this land uninvited, uninitiated. The land was getting too marked up, too many cairns on the slick rock, too many survival schools trying to use the wilderness to teach problem kids from Salt Lake City a bit of character and discipline. At times, Julian would even go so far as to destroy trail cairns we’d come across in some side canyon. Sometimes, he’d come across water jugs left as part of a survival school exam. Julian would knit his brow mightily. He’d fume at the school, at its attempt to control both kid and nature, but he’d refrain from messing with the water. “I don’t want any deaths on my head,” he’d say, just barely convincing himself. As time went on, I came to understand and appreciate this aesthetic, a kind of gate-keeping mentality that would, grudgingly, let in some but not others. If you asked, if you wanted to subject yourself to the scrutiny of a local, to be willing to listen to the complexities of the land and not just gaze at its all too evident beauty as just another series of fascinating visual stimuli, reality TV from the comfort of your own L.L. Bean boots—their own padded upholstery, Gortex uppers and Vibram soles—well then, maybe you’re okay.
But the naming and taming goes on. For example, in the Henrys there are already roads and maps, mine adits and rangeland. There’s a yearly bison hunt to cull the herd on Tarantula Mesa and the western slopes of Mt. Ellen and Pennell, the only free-roaming herd left in America outside a national or state park. During the cull, all the deserted campgrounds fill up not just with hunters (picked by a state-wide lottery), but with entire hunting entourages, a support team of a dozen or more family members and friends. (In their defense, field-dressing a buffalo carcass requires many hands. In the 19th century, a white hunter with no help from anyone but his rifle could drop one bison after another, but for purposes other than death, it would require entire villages, the Plains Indians of course, to process these animals for food.)
Nonetheless, comparatively, these mountains have escaped the development and commercialization that has visited so many other nearby sites–Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks, the Lake Powell area, even the Henry Mountains’ almost equally hardscrabble neighbor, Capitol Reef National Park, which, thanks to the eons-long labor of the Fremont, includes the only widened gap through the Waterpocket Fold. Along the highway that now follows the river, there are lots of boardwalks for viewing pictographs and several trailheads. For a fee you can even pick fruit in season at the old orchards planted decades ago by Mormons. But beyond the highway, beyond the visitor’s center, there’s a lot of rock and not much water. Most people coming into the park just drive through and keep going. I get the feeling that the park even prefers it that way. The landscape here is severe, and the development as cursory as the park’s name. I still don’t know why they called it “Capitol Reef.” True, it’s the name of a rock formation that looks vaguely like Jefferson’s great cupola in Washington, D.C. But so what? It’s a needless metaphor. This place is more about the Waterpocket Fold, about canyon and desert and rock wren. I’ll contemplate federal architecture another time.
But with or without tourists, let the land abide. Many environmental activists in the region have mobilized both in and out of court to preserve or reclaim areas now threatened by this overabundance of access, this desire to build roads to bring people in or take raw materials out. Even the very definition of what a road is has become the center of controversy. This war of naming has to do with the legacy of R.S. 2477 , a law dating from 1866 which basically allowed for local governments to build roads on any federal lands not otherwise restricted by Congress. This law was then repealed in 1976, with any roads created through R.S. 2477 allowed to stay in local hands.
But where were these roads? Alas, there was never an inventory made of them, at least not in Utah. And, even if there might be something that looks like a road now, is it an R.S. 2477 road or just the result of someone deciding to drive off through the sagebrush or up a canyon in a four-wheeler? In the interpretation of the environmentalists, only those roads, travelable by truck or auto and in existence in 1976 before the repeal of R.S. 2477, are now qualified for road maintenance and upkeep. Moreover, since the original law identified a road as something that leads from one place of “public significance” to another, any vehicular path created for access to a grazing or mining camp cannot be a road as such, since one of the termini is only of private importance. Thus, with this interpretation of state law behind them, activists in the region have sought to block road graders trying to smooth out so-called “cherry stems,” local parlance for side roads leading off to private holdings. Sometimes this blocking occurs in state or federal court, but sometimes it is done by the activists’ own bodies. You know the classic scene: a guy in the cab of the bulldozer or frontloader, and a guy standing before the scraper blade or scoop, each staring the other down.
But the really big politics involving R.S. 2477 has to do with the way in which the definition of a road intersects with the wilderness designation of land owned by the federal government. As the Deseret News explains it, “On the one side, environmentalists contend that counties have…claimed everything from cow paths to stream beds as old R.S. 2477 roads to try to block proposed wilderness areas, which are supposed to be roadless.” If you look at it from the environmentalist’s side, it’s certainly a nasty catch-22. If a “road” can be found in a wilderness area, or a couple of trees chopped down, even illegally, the area is no longer a wilderness and not eligible for protection. Instead, a wide range of business interests, grazing, mining, gas and oil extraction, tourism, and so on, can get their foot in the proverbial door. The official Utah stance for its part insists that it will not make claim on any routes located inside already designated wilderness zones, including national parks, BLM-designated wilderness study areas, wildlife refuges, and so on. The state also agreed not to take an existing dirt road and make it bigger or pave it.
So, the fewer roads the better. And the fewer maps and guidebooks as well. For one thing, the guidebook circumvents the organic way of entrance into the land. Either pass the scrutiny of someone who might show you a viable trail–one that you could take and afterwards make it back. Or, like the local patron saint of lost canyons, Everett Ruess, just head off in the wild and see what happens. If you live, great! If you don’t, well… In the early 1930s, after exploring with his burro the canyons to the west and the south of the Henrys, Everett Ruess disappeared too, in a canyon near the Escalante River. Barely turned 20 years of age, his final demise remains the subject of ardent speculation to this day, his journals pored over and his back country routes re-traced by modern day disciples. At the time of his disappearance, however, searchers only found his burro, a clue to many that he must have been murdered. Even if deeply suicidal, Everett Ruess would never leave his burro to die.
But now you can just buy a book–in a National Park visitor’s center or over the internet–and head off. Some of the newer guidebooks even feature GPS positions for every twist and turn in the path. At no point would you ever not know where you are, and with some guidebooks you would even be able to see what you would encounter before you got there. Except for the exercise, you might as well stay home–or go to your local gym. Meanwhile, not only are the desolate places made less so, but think of all the ancient Pueblo sites, the animals, or the land itself. One of the most consternating realizations I have ever had involves cryptobiotic soil. Again, I’m no scientist, although an environmentalist friend of mine in Moab, John Weisheit, has just co-authored a book with a scientist who specializes in the stuff. Suffice it to say, this crusty looking soil, almost like a dirty meringue pie, is the true skin of the desert. In its wrinkles and tiny sponge-like crevices occurs the possibility of purchase for microorganism and plant seed and dewdrop. Sand, in fact, is not so natural, at least not here in the high deserts of America, its presence instead suggesting either the constant scour of wind or the attempted grazing of cattle, whose hooves chop up the crust like so many knives, leaving the soil even more susceptible to the ever-opportunistic wind.
When you see cryptobiotic soil, you know you’ve gone to the end not just of human footsteps, but the reach of human agriculture. No people, no cows, no horses. You’re at the edge of the back of beyond. But, even though I’m thrilled every time I am in a place where I encounter this black, uneaten cake, I realize that I’m in danger of mucking it all up, of stepping on the pristine soil, of being forced in order to get from this point to that to just take a deep breath and foot-slap my way through, destroying the very thing I wish to honor and preserve. Desert etiquette requires that to avoid disturbing the cryptobiotic layer you should instead walk on nearby slickrock or in a watercourse where seasonal floods already tear up the ground. Or, if there’s a path there already, then stay on it, where the soil is already dead, broken up and eroding. Or, if need be, rock-hop, do a desert hopscotch. There are no do-overs. Sometimes you slip, or there are just no stepping stones. Damn Mother Nature’s lack of regard! Down goes the foot and the hiker’s adage of “leave only footprints” seems now downright inadequate, hopelessly naive, just one more problem we haven’t figured out how to solve since often the hardest thing to do is to do nothing.
In Chaco Canyon in Northwestern New Mexico, perhaps the greatest center of pre-Columbian civilization in North America, there is the sad tale of Fajata Butte, a site seemingly crucial to the solar calendar of the Ancient Pueblo who lived and/or seasonally congregated there, involving the demarcation of the solstice through the sculpting and positioning of stone to mark the reach of the solar shadow. Unfortunately, after the site came under the protection of the U.S. Park Service, a hiking path constructed to the top of the butte, with its constant march and march of tourist boots and sneakers, finally wore down crucial points in the rock so that the angles now are off. The solar clock is broken, and can no longer perform its centuries-old duties. The U.S. government offered to fix it with some strategically applied epoxy and other restorative materials, but the Hopi and Zuni caretakers, self-proclaimed descendents of the vanished people who had created the Chaco Canyon miracle of stone and positioning, said thanks but no thanks. More intervention would just make the matter worse. What’s done is done. But they did close the trail.
And all of this comes from guidebooks, from the establishment of parks, from the spreading of knowledge. How to appreciate, to preserve these fragile lands, but also to stay home and tend one’s garden, as Voltaire’s Candide averred back in the 18th century?
Once, while we were resting in the shade of a cliff-face in Horse Canyon, peregrine falcons wheeling and screeching in the thermal updrafts above us, Julian and I had tossed back and forth some ideas about the virtual future of tourism. If only these lands could survive until the computer programs would be sophisticated enough, real enough, so that you wouldn’t ever have to travel here at all. Just slip on your cyber-gloves and goggles and hiking boots and take off. Soon you could be in Patagonia or on Michael Fay’s mega-transect through the still uninhabited regions of the Republic of the Congo and Gabon. Or you can use the bathroom in the comfort of your own home before strapping on your virtual reality gear to head down into Horseshoe Canyon for a quick look-see at “the best example of Barrier Creek pictographs on the Colorado Plateau” before you have to go pick up your child in the cyber-gym at school.
But what about the real thing, I said? Don’t you think we’ll still need people to come out here in order for society to keep wanting to preserve it? Julian waved his hand. “I don’t know. It’s going to die anyway,” he said. “Look, we’ve even got professors and writers coming out here now. What next?”
It reminded me of an earlier conversation back in Boulder at Julian and his partner Lynn’s compound. We were sitting around a campfire, the juniper wood blazing and smoking, as we waited for some tortillas to cook in a Dutch Oven set down in the coals. We were right next to a heaped up mound of rock and earth, Julian’s own personal kiva, complete with sipapu ladder, a place that he had dug a few years ago but now rarely visited because of spiders and the danger of cave in. Lynn had just found a tiny scorpion in a Styrofoam ice chest and was showing it to Margaret. Meanwhile, Julian was in a foul mood, probably stemming from the fact Margaret and I had somehow managed to lock the keys in our Jeep the night before and we had lost valuable hiking time that day as a result. We had first met him the year before, but we had still not been out on the land with him for more than a few miles, and our several days sojourn alone into the Henry Mountains was still in front of us, an expedition which because we merely survived it would raise us up a notch or two in his cautious estimation. But at that moment, and maybe even to this day, he still hadn’t figured us out. Sometimes he was inclined to give us the benefit of the doubt, and sometimes he wasn’t.
But he always spoke his mind. This time it was about Utah and its sometimes-uneasy relationship not just with the federal government, but with the rest of the 49 States in general. And what loomed largest of all was the huge amount of federal land controlled by the BLM, the Bureau of Land Management, either in the Henrys or in the Grand Staircase Escalante, the only National Monument in the U.S. administered by the BLM, a Clinton-era designation that had become the source of equally sour grapes for both ranchers and miners on the one side and environmentalists on the other, though for very different reasons.
“This state’s rights stuff. It’s all a big feud. Everyone wants control. They want the land to be turned over to the State of Utah, then we’ll make it an eco-region or do what we want with it. It’s our state. It’s not America’s. It’s Utah. We live here, and we know what to do with it.
“But locals don’t want this eco-tourism. They don’t like tourists period. They want your money, maybe, and that’s about it. And they don’t even want that anymore, cause bottom line of it, they build hotels or they do this or that, but there’s no money in the jobs. You wanna go make beds over here for the rest of your life, go ahead. You don’t get insurance, you don’t get any benefits. Whereas you, you’re probably some goddamn college professor at some college. You’re probably tenured and shit, you got money the rest of your life, you got a nice car. You can come here, write books about us, or you can come hike here and you can always go home.”
The way into Horseshoe Canyon is not difficult. Not far on the trail we come to a level spot where there’s a large circular galvanized steel tank. At first I think it’s a watering trough, but then I realize it’s too high for the cattle to get their necks over. It’s right then I see the troughs themselves, a long wooden frame that runs along the ground, its bottom a semi-cylindrical metal pan, the wood the same exhausted gray that is standard everywhere out here, not so much a color as an absence.
And then I see the black pipe that leads up into the holding tank. It’s a gravity system, with a pump—probably long since removed—that would suck up water from a well or a spring somewhere in one of the nearby ravines. Sure enough, as Zbyszek and I keep on the trail, our eyes can trace a line of black tubing snaking its way down into the canyon, following a path of its own much steeper and twisting than ours. Is the apparatus here in expectation of a return, grazing, rights still intact, or is it just part of the stage props now for hiking Horseshoe Canyon, another NPS roadside attraction?
We come next to a stock gate, with a latch as well as a type of spiral-turn opening that even the four-legged critters that gave Muley Twist Canyon its name couldn’t fit through. We have to slow down, rotating our shoulders and hips so as not to bump our backpacks. It’s a good place for the park service to hang a message: Protect your archeological resources. Please don’t touch the rock art.
But it’s the wind art that suddenly hits our ears. I’m not one to hastily invoke Kokopelli. The first time you see him dancing and blowing his flute you’re entranced. Yet seeing him used in advertisements in Utah and even back in Ohio for everything from liquor stores to quick lube joints, he soon becomes about as special as the cartoon version of Colonel Sanders and Kentucky Fried Chicken. It robs him of his allure.
But there’s no denying I hear something. As I stand by the gate to wait for Zbyszek to take yet another photograph, I hear what sounds like a tune from a flute, or at least the neck of an old jug, except a bit more high-pitched. Actually, it’s part of the latch mechanism at the top of the green metal gate. Wooh, la-wooh. Wooh, wa-wooh. la-wooh. Wooh. Very slow and deliberate, the music of someone not in a hurry to do anything. Meanwhile, the rest of the wind continues its dry-blustery way, while this little side current of air travels down a little magic canyon of its own.
I wished I could share it. Whip out the cell phone and call Margaret up to see if she could hear it, too. I even tried that once before back in Colorado at the Great Sand Dunes National Monument. It was still early in the year, and the snow melt from the mountains had created a magnificent rush of water between our camp and the sand dunes, the temperature of what was basically a glacial stream right on the edge of freezing. Off with the hiking boots. The water instantly made the bones in my feet ache, but I also felt so alive. I fumbled the cell phone from my pocket and tried to call home, but of course no signal.
Cellular postcards, hoodoo haiku. For example, look at the primrose cactus flowers right now by the trail, petals like panting tongues. The temptation is so great—these short little moments that bring such delight, especially when captured by words, though this too might be a distortion of experience, of naming, the very thing to exasperate the locals for whom longer habitation in these regions provides a wider sense of vocabulary, of proportion, of not being constantly surprised like a curious little child.
But the job of a newcomer is to be surprised, and the job of this greenhorn in particular is to record as many of these new wonders as possible, to stuff them in his pockets and his mouth if he has to. In Polish, the word for “foraging” is chomikowanie; literally, hamstering, and I’ve always enjoyed to ponder that image—my cheeks puffed up with all sorts of tidbits. Later, I can always determine if they’re truly worth keeping. Or just drop them by the trail like a stone too heavy or just not interesting enough to bother to take home.
The trail picks its way down the west wall, and we can the see the other trail down the east side make its own zigzag. Kelsey’s book mentions that the trail on the east is an old jeep trail, built by Phillips Petroleum between the canyon bottom and a well up on the east rim. Kelsey even says 4WD vehicles are allowed into Horseshoe, though of course they need to stop in at the Maze Ranger Station to obtain a permit. I have a feeling this information is a bit outdated, however. Cattle and jeeps don’t quite have the open range they used to, though of course all these roads wouldn’t even be here if not for the cattle and the mining interests. They might not have been the first ones out here, but they made the biggest mark, and their petroglyphs of roads and ruins of operations dot the land, too numerous to catalog, partly preserved and destroyed. If you can’t erase history, you can always write over it.
Once down in the canyon, it’s fairly easy going. Lots of sand and cottonwoods. The full blare of sun and the beneficent shade of the canyon walls themselves. Sand. Cottonwoods. Rocks. Shade. Sun. Wind. Just repeat these descriptions over and over, add a little sweat, and you’ve almost got it. Once while travelling with a friend through the northern plains of Illinois, we got into a silly naming of the crops present on both sides of the road. “You got your corn and your beans,” Jeff would say, calling out the crops on both sides of the road. “You got your corn and corn. You got your beans and corn. You got your corn and corn.” A minimalist travel narrative, but hardly inaccurate, we kept this song going all the way from Macomb to the outskirts of Chicago–where Jeff planned to attend the first night game ever played at Wrigley Field, then write a story about it, a brilliant plan foiled because the game was rained out.
But here it is sand and sand, though suddenly I notice on the right of the trail a huge tract of cryptobiotic soil mixed in with patches of sand stomped on or windblown, the land in the process of simultaneous revival and degradation. Just as in Hall’s Creek Canyon, this patchwork of intact and disturbed soil is not just because of human traffic, but also from the hooves of cows and mule deer. Even a single rogue cow is quite the negligent hiker, always straying from the path.
Then we come to an oasis, a silvery bed of old sprawling cottonwoods and high canyon walls. The air is suddenly cool, and I notice this four-petaled white flower with a yellow center, a succulent reddish stem with single straight leaves coming out with white lines down the middle, the details so plain, but I have no idea what to make of them. The succulent stem reminds me of a liverwort, a hepatica, but what do I know? I’ll have to look it up, or find someone who knows.
Meanwhile Zbyszek spies some pictographs and launches into action, stowing his camera and removing the VCR. I come over and spot what I’m constantly looking for, an information table. Dear Lord, give me words so I can see:
You have entered a canyon of great archeological importance. Prehistoric
people painted and pecked figures on sandstone walls throughout Horseshoe
Canyon. While the exact age of these pictographs and petroglyphs will
never be known, most images predate the Anasazi and Fremont cultures….
Panel high above you is typical of Barrier Canyon cell rock art characterized
by tapering, usually armless ornate figures.
I look up, and there’s this crowd of two dozen or more figures staring back at me. No arms, but at least one figure seems to have wings. Another figure has a white space in its belly with an intricate design almost circulating inside the whiteness, a river churning and turning its way through solid stone.
It scuttles off, while I turn my attention to the next blurb. I find out Horseshoe Shelter was also called the Living Site. It had several stone rooms visible at one time, but except for the rock art very little still remains, the artifacts now in museums or just carried off and scattered.
But the rock art’s enough, and I love free association. My favorite is what looks like a splay-toed cat. It’s too far away to count the toes, but it reminds me of the fat six-toed felines of Ernest Hemingway’s Key West. A nearby trail leads up to the canyon wall, and here the figures are less than four feet away. On the right is a man whose body belongs on a racetrack. Two short legs, parallel s-curves, bent at the knees and the ankles. His head possesses just a short line for the neck, though his bow and arrow sports an exceedingly large tip, stabbing a quite elongated beast standing nearby with a small head and with legs and hooves that look like golf clubs as drawn by a child. There are also a couple of bristly-antlered deer-like creatures with thin heads, though their bodies look like fat bugs. Their horns, thin little double v’s sprouting from the head, look almost like insect antennae. One little fellow is even feeling frisky, kicking up his hind feet.
I just wish I could draw. My descriptions are silly, but they’re all that I have. One thing I’m sure of, however, is that whoever drew these animals wanted to accentuate their penis, a long curving line jutting forward from the bottom of their bellies, more thickly drawn than many of the necks.
It’s about 12:30. There’s lot of shade, but the heat keeps climbing, the wind more and more worked up. In fact, there’s a little sandstorm here. It’s a rather ambivalent sensation. All this gritty stuff coming up into your lungs, and you can’t see for more than a few seconds without blinking. Meanwhile, there are pictographs everywhere, tempting you to open up your eyes.
But there’s no getting around the fact that the wind handles a brush too. Everywhere you can see the traces of its scouring. Needless to say, there’s more than one kind of rock art. All around us we can see desert black, vertical black patches on the rock- face that look like nasty spills of oil, or the darkening smear of something that got tipped over and out of a large vat and poured down the stone. But this is just description. The desert black is a natural phenomenon. It just is. But still, inside us, there occurs this ancient impulse to ponder, to make out shapes and figures the same way children read the clouds. Did the Ancient Pueblos do this at first as well? And, if so, at what point did they finally start to make streaks of their own?
Back in Moab the day before, John Weisheit had commented that most petroglyphic art is found at the beginning of canyons. To me, this suggests that it might have been a form of gang graffiti. That most of the signs and signatures come from the very human desire not just to mark territory, but to mark it in a certain style. You own not just the spot, but also lay claim to the manner of description, the one true appropriate language. It’s not just a matter of where, but of how.
Nothing, of course, is permanent. In another gallery set inside the alcove of a gigantic cliff overhang, we noticed the scribbles of modern visitors. Albert Weber, August 8, 1926. Bub Vance. 1904 and a Clyde S—–, the etched canyons of his last name already filling up with sand, fading from the palimpsest of the Colorado Plateau.
While the ancient figures persist. In this one spot you can see how the painters could have gone right up to the wall on foot and started. But how did they reach such high up spots in other places? Did they pile up other rocks as scaffolding and then dismantle everything afterwards? Did they think about how accessibility can cause destruction, about the human urge to revise, to touch and finger? For whatever reason the figures here look especially smeared, disintegrated, and it might be because subsequent humans have been able to get up close, rub their fingers across them, their body oils screwing up the paint.
Meanwhile, while you’re looking at them, they continue to look at you. They’re a gathered crowd, and they’re curious. It’s almost like they’re waiting for you to say something that might be of benefit to them. Wouldn’t that be nice for a change?
At the Grand Gallery, the finale of the canyon, we have to wait for a couple of other viewers to clear out from what is basically the front row, the end of the trail about a hundred feet from an old thick cottonwood log where Zbyszek and I sit down and take out some of the infinite supply of beef jerky we prepared back in Ohio. We’ve made it. Even from this far away I can tell the figures are truly magnificent, larger and more delineated than the ones we’ve seen before. They’re also more eerie. It’s almost like the bodies are representations of bead-work shields, ornamental shrouds, intricate cocoons. In one place it looks like a little boy holding onto the arm of a mysterious shrouded form, his mother perhaps, but what sort of parent would look like that? Meanwhile, there’s an entire group of smaller bodies to the left. A pack of children? But it’s strange. It’s not like the figures suggest children as much as their point of view. It’s not like I’m looking at them, but seeing everything else as they themselves must view it.
But I’m getting carried away, and I concentrate on separating out a few strips of jerky and starting to chew. I also drink some water, and right then the two guys we’re waiting on finally get up to leave. They’ve got these ski pole hiking aides that stab down into the sand as they near us, and I overhear them proclaiming that Big Sur is the most beautiful place on earth. Then the sand kicks up, and I start to cough.
I would be paralyzed with such a question, let alone arrive at some answer. It’s hard enough to determine what I’m seeing right now. There’s a little horse standing between two large cocoon-people. Are they next to each other, or is the horse just off in the distance? Their outlines are not much more than stick figures, but the ornamentation is as intricate as the canyons of the West. Towards the left one figure, significantly taller than its neighbors, suggests a Crown Royal Scotch bottle as drawn by Salvador Dali. The head portion indeed looks like a crown. The broad shoulders taper down. But there’s a lot of white space in the interior, and I don’t know if it’s from smudging or if it was like that from the beginning. But it seems certain to be a figure of authority, the other members of the composition poised in orbit around its power.
Zbyszek of course is already hard at work snapping pictures. He points here and there over the rock face, capturing the images that I so awkwardly try to cast in words. But then I start to look elsewhere, to read a different record. At our feet are a couple of
metal National Park Service geo-cache canisters, chained to a log, whether to keep from being thieved or swept away from flood I’m not sure. A pair of binoculars are in turn fastened to one of the canisters, but the chain is so thin it’s ridiculous. The binoculars aren’t so useful anyway, their lenses probably pitted by particles of sand. But inside one canister is a little construction paper notebook with brad fasteners:
Horseshoe Canyon Information.
For Visitor Use.
Please Leave Here For Other Visitors To Use.
And then they mention that this information can be viewed on the internet at www.nps.gov/canyon. Just go to the Publication link. It’s all so simple, and I just wish I had my laptop with me. And while we’re at it, how about a GPS unit as well? You can never have too much information.
But then I catch sight of something else, a typical school composition notebook with fake-marbled covers. My irony disappears, and suddenly I’m immersed in the study of another type of gallery, my eyes flitting from place to place as if I were instead deciphering a painting:
May 9, 2004: “What an honor to be spoken to from across time.”
“My first pictograph! I could live here, too!”
April 15, 2004: “It is very cool. I love the dog on the right.” Jacob
April 14, , 2004: A terse haiku by Z. S: “Alone with rock art. Spooky figures. . . Will ponder and leave.”
“Rock on Indians!” Julia from Huntsville, Alabama
April 7 2004: “Should they be mummies? If they are people, why haven’t they got arms and legs? But they certainly had a better shape then in the past than today. These days we’d look. . .”
Right then the writer, Jenny Peat, seeming to think a picture was worth a dozen or so more words, drew a lumpy ghost-like figure at the bottom and the top of the page.
Elisa Strdevant: “So creepy they are really spooky. I wish I knew what they meant. Call me when you know. 909-246-1403.”
October 3, 2003: “A man made of words, M. Scott Momaday, says we may not know what these figures mean, but we do know that they mean, and that’s saying then we come involved in the meaning.”
May 20, 2004 (the day before our visit): “Ha ha. We know what they represent but we’re not telling. For more info. . . www.spiritworld.com!”
April 12, 2004: “I am really moved by all these paintings of bottles. It looks like my bathroom cabinet. My guess is that this canyon used to be the art gallery of the 1200 BC era and people would walk down art-row with bags of piñon pine nuts, bags made of deer leather, and the Momma Indians would say, ‘Don’t touch!’ and the kids would run up and down playing games like Kill The Antelope and Dodge Your Mom When She Tries To Grab You. All of the paintings and sculptures except those remaining were lost in a terrible war between the Central Pueblo and Fremont tribes. When war broke out, looters from the tribes broke out pieces of the panels to sell to competing museum canyons for some extra arrows and grain.” Lori
October 3, 2004: “Interesting rock art. Difficult hike for someone as out of shape as me. No mountain lions. Lots of ants.”
“Great weather. Amelia, age 3, had lots of fun hiking and seeing desert lizards. Nice wildflowers. Great time of year to come.” Scott, Julia, and Amelia.
Mark Callister from Farmington, Utah: “Amazing. One last thing to do before I die.”
April 27, 2004: “Four golden eagles,” (Oldies from Boulder, Colorado, very happy to be here.)
But then this diatribe, dated March 15, 2005: “Beautiful. I would now like to vent my frustrations at the government. These are our public lands. The slogan, ‘Land of many uses,’ should be changed to, ‘Land of no uses.’ We pay a $30 fee to go into Canyonlands. For what? There is no water, garbage, restroom facilities, road upkeep. I don’t expect these services, but to pay $30 to camp on our land is robbery. Then to have so many restrictions on where you can drive, walk, hike, eat. Quit with the fees, closures, and restrictions, and let responsible people enjoy the outdoors the way they were supposed to be enjoyed.” —Family of concerned citizens in West Valley City, Utah.
And then the response: “Wow. Some people sure can get upset. I say leave your frustrations at home. There’s a time and a place for everything and this is a place of dwelling, of relaxation and reflecting.”
Finally, Zbyszek takes a quick break from his filming and writes in his excellent English:
“I was here and was astounded at the work painted a thousand years ago. Greetings for other wanderers from Poland who arrive at this place.”
I scribble in my own sanctimonious offering:
“What sort of marks and symbols do we leave behind, and will people in the future find as much worthy to care about? Let a sign of our civilization be the intent to preserve previous civilizations like this.”
Then it’s time to walk out. We’re holding up the line. As we leave, we pass the next pair of hikers, eating their lunch on the log in the shade of the cottonwoods, the Grand Gallery’s anteroom.
As we go back, the rock art behind us, I notice other things, especially the evidence of flood, the wrapped debris on so many of the cottonwoods. About the height of my shoulder, it looks like broken mats of plaited straw, and occurs on the higher ground closer to the canyon walls as well as in the washes running down the center. There are also lizards with ticks on their cheeks, right behind their eyes, scuttling through the dead leaves. A single horsetail reed grows in the middle of some sand. A giant thistle. Blue penstemon. Mustard weed—an invasive—and small patches of cryptobiotic soil.
Everything finding purchase in the countless variations of soil and shade, the different moods of water. Plants and opinions. Ancient rock art and muscle.
And how much does it cost? Thirty dollars, you say? Or just a few fists of memory, of sand.