Dispatches Tagline
Saturday, November 17th, 2018

Fall 2018 Part 1: Impassable When Wet

Friday, November 2nd, 2018: 2018 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Regions, Road Trips.

For this year’s fall camping trip, I had a vague plan to revisit Southern Paiute territory in a counter-sunwise direction, from northeast to southwest, from southeastern Utah (the Colorado Plateau), through southern Nevada, to southeastern California (the Mojave Desert). In Utah and Nevada, I hoped to seek out places and prehistoric rock art sites more remote and obscure than the ones I’d previously found.

I took a few dozen maps that I’d collected on previous trips, showing varying degrees of detail, but I had no preconceived schedule or itinerary. I wanted to make each day’s plan on the spot, based on the weather and the way things looked at that time and place. I was starting by heading north, from late October into early November, so I was prepared for cold. But my trip would later take me south to the Mojave, so I had to bring shorts and a lightweight sleeping bag. A wide variety of gear! And for the first part of the trip I’d be in very sparsely populated country with virtually no place to buy groceries, so what I took with me from home had to last a week or more.

It took me two days of driving just to get to the start of the trip. I was still recovering from my latest episode of severe lower back pain, but I had a good lumbar pad that made it possible to endure the long drives in my little old hard-sprung truck. Something I hadn’t got used to yet, or found a remedy for, was the crippling pain in my upper right arm that I’d had since last winter. That made it really difficult to shift gears. But I was excited to be on the road again, headed to some of my favorite wild country. The sky was clear for the first two days, but on the third morning, a storm front started moving over from the west.

I started out with a visit to the local museum, which had been closed when my girlfriend and I first passed through here, on our rock art trip over 30 years ago. The museum focused on what the archaeologists call the Ancestral Pueblo people, more familiarly known to us as the Anasazi. Although I’d eventually lost interest in that culture, I found it interesting how the museum highlighted collections of artifacts recently discovered by Anglo hikers and subsequently excavated and removed for display in the museum.

Like most of my friends who explore the wild places of the West, I’ve collected artifacts – potsherds and stone toolmaking flakes – but I’ve come to realize that the best place for these relics is where I found them, so others can have my experience of discovery in the future. I don’t share archaeologists’ or preservationists’ concern with preserving the past in some sort of frozen stasis, and I don’t believe majority-white archaeologists with their Eurocentric worldview are the best custodians and interpreters of the native past. So I really wish the Anglo hikers had kept their finds a secret.

For my first real day of exploring, I’d gotten it into my head to try to reach a vast, high, forested ridge of red sandstone that I had passed below and admired from a distance for decades. My previous focus had always been the canyons in the mesa below the ridge, rich with cliff ruins and rock art. But recently, the entire area had been designated a national monument, and it had been named after a pair of distinctive peaks near the south end of the ridge.

As I drove toward the ridge from thirty miles away in the east, I could see those peaks under the low mass of clouds that was spreading from the west. Rain was forecast with this storm, and temperatures were in the forties. I knew that throughout this area, unpaved roads were posted with prominent signs warning “Impassable When Wet,” and the road I planned to take up the ridge was one of those roads. But my maps showed that it was also a “backcountry byway” which was presumably maintained for tourism by car. Oh well, I thought, if I get caught in the rain, I’ll just have to pull over and make camp. Sure, I never bring a tent – I’ve camped in the rain many times by wrapping a waterproof poncho or tarp around my sleeping bag, like a cocoon. But if that didn’t work, I could always spend the night sitting up in my truck seat. No worries.

When I found the road and left the pavement behind, it started out pretty good. They’d laid down a thick layer of gravel and it was a wide road. But when it began to climb the side of the ridge in steep, twisting switchbacks, it turned to red clay – the fine powder eroded from sandstone over eons – and got narrow, with a sheer dropoff on one side and a deep, narrow ditch on the other.

I drove up about a thousand feet, with spectacular views all the way, then topped on a rolling ledge forested with pinyon and juniper, with pulloffs to undeveloped campsites on each side. There was standing water in the roadside ditches – it must’ve rained last week – but the clay road itself was dry and hard as rock. I could see the twin peaks up ahead, and after a few miles, the road began climbing again, to a notch between them. Passing through it, I looked down across the ridge proper, a high, rolling plateau of alternating sagebrush meadows and mixed pine and fir forest that stretched dozens of miles to the horizon. The peaks were roughly 9,000′ elevation and the ridgetop plateau was roughly 8,500′.

Up here, there were patches of snow beside the road, and more snow on the northeast side of the peaks. And as I drove down onto the plateau, I passed large pools of muddy water in low places, and shady patches of road that were still flooded and muddy. It must’ve really rained last week.

But the cloud cover overhead kept breaking up and revealing blue sky, and by and large the road was still hard as rock. I figured the temperature was in the 30s up here, and the road must be frozen from hard freezing overnight. I wasn’t worried. Even if it rained, surely the road would stay hard.

I passed turnoffs for side roads to trailheads. Off to my left, in the north, I knew there was a huge wilderness area encompassing a canyon system that I’d tried to reach from its mouth, far to the northwest, years ago. It really intrigued me. The maps showed a trailhead located on this very road, about 20 miles northeast, and I hoped to camp there and hike a few miles down into the wilderness.

I passed grazing cattle, corrals, and stock ponds. I passed a couple of big utility trucks, but I didn’t see any other campers. I came to an overlook where I got a glimpse of impressive canyons and distant tall mountains, far in the east.

Then the road branched off and turned north, and snow began falling. Of course! At this elevation it wouldn’t rain, it would snow. As long as it didn’t accumulate more than a few inches, I was sure I’d be fine. It was cold enough that it’d be dry snow, no problem for my rear-wheel-drive truck with poor weight distribution. I could always let some air out of my tires for better traction. And the road was already frozen solid so no problem with getting bogged down in mud. I might have to camp out in the snow, but I’d done that just a few years ago and had a great time.

Mile after mile, I twisted and turned, up and down through tall trees, past the occasional small, overgrazed meadow. Snow fell heavier, but it wasn’t sticking. I reached a major trailhead with a big parking area and lots of informational kiosks, but it was a 4wd trail. The forest got heavier, and I continued for another 10 miles or so. I was inside the cloud now and couldn’t see more than a few dozen feet from side to side. Finally I drove down a steep grade, and at the low point there was a small sign: “The Notch”. I couldn’t see anything, but apparently it was a narrow pass with steep dropoffs on each side. And there was the trailhead I’d been looking for.

I parked and suited up in my winter gear. Snow was falling heavily but still wasn’t sticking on the road. I watched for a while to see if the flakes were melting as they touched the clay. Yes, they were. My theory of a frozen road turned out to be wrong. My heart started racing, just a little bit.

I love snow, so I was excited, regardless of what was to come. I started hiking down the trail into the head of the famous canyon. I made it a few hundred yards before I realized that the snow was rapidly turning into a blizzard and accumulating on the trees and the ground. I climbed back to the road, which had developed a half-inch layer of white. I knew I was in trouble, here, 30 miles off the paved highway and 70 miles from the nearest town, with no cell coverage if I needed help. Part of me had known from the beginning this was a bad idea.

Although I’d never driven these powder-clay roads when they were wet, I’d read accounts of what happened to them, and seen the aftermath. They instantly turned to a sticky bog with the consistency of mashed potatoes that accumulated on your tires, turning them into giant mud donuts, until even high-clearance 4wd vehicles bogged down all the way to their engine blocks. When the clay dried you’d be fossilized in the road itself like a woolly mammoth in the Tar Pits. 4wd trucks that were foolish enough to drive these roads before the clay completely dried, created ruts a foot or more deep that were nearly impossible for others to navigate afterwards.

But now, the snow was only a half inch deep, and the clay surface was still hard. I drove carefully up the grade into the forest, my heart in my throat. As long as I kept rolling and stayed in first gear, I seemed to be okay. But the snow was falling heavier and I had 30 miles of this to go. I really didn’t think I could make it.

I soon found the limits of my traction. Even at low speed, in first gear, there were places where I just lost control and started sliding toward the deep, flooded ditch at the side of the road. One tire in that ditch and I’d be immobilized. But the tires always caught just before the ditch, and I continued my agonizingly slow progress across the high plateau.

What I feared was the climb up the grade to the notch between the namesake peaks. I was sure I’d lose traction there, but even if I made it over, there was the steep grade down the other side, without guard rails and a sheer drop of 500′ or more, instead of just a ditch, when I started to slide.

Mile after mile through the blizzard, losing traction again and again, sliding toward the flooded ditch, only to regain my grip and progress a few more miles. Finally I felt I was on the final short down slope to the big meadow just before the climb to the notch. I very carefully slowed to a stop on that down slope, figuring I would scout on foot for a place to pull over and camp in the snow if I lost traction and couldn’t climb the grade ahead. But as soon as I stepped out of the truck, my feet slipped out from under me. The road, under the 2 inches of snow that had now accumulated, was a completely frictionless surface. By sticking to rougher ground at the edge, I was just barely able to walk a dozen yards down to the meadow. I had no idea how I’d been able to drive this far on this road in these conditions! I could barely even walk it!

Through the cloud off the side of the road, I suddenly saw a bull elk with a huge rack, making his way through the high sagebrush. He turned and saw me, and then I saw the others, a herd of cow elk following him. They began walking uphill toward the notch. Behind them, there was a side trail, of sorts, leaving the main road for a short distance just above the meadow. It was rough and there was no place to camp. I walked off the road, under the big trees, and felt the dead branches near the ground where the snow hadn’t yet reached. They were all drenched. There’d be no dry firewood anywhere on this ridge. It was clear that if I pulled off there, I’d be stuck in the cab of my truck, without fire, maybe for days, until somebody showed up to rescue me. So I carefully made my way back to the truck, determined to try driving up the grade. Just keep trying.

Somehow, I made it to the notch between the peaks. And down the grade on the other side, which wasn’t as bad as I remembered, to the long ledge with all the primitive campsites. Hey, it wasn’t snowing so bad down here, and it hadn’t started accumulating on the road yet. I started looking at those campsites and thinking I might just stop.

Then, at a low point in the clay road, with deep flooded ditches on both sides, I suddenly lost traction again. I let my foot off the gas, kept the clutch engaged, and let the engine idle just apply some gentle rotation to the rear tires. They spun freely in the wet clay, and me and the truck drifted, oh so slowly, toward the nearest ditch, which was at least two feet deep.

I gently maneuvered the steering wheel, trying to use the front tires as rudders, but with virtually no effect. My truck was like a hockey puck. Just drifting to the edge of that ditch, agonizingly slow, then hovering, then drifting a little ways back toward the crown of the road.

This went on forever! Literally, for between 5 and 10 minutes, the truck rotating, drifting to one side or the other, the wheels slowly spinning, the hideous gaping maw of that deep muddy ditch getting inches nearer or inches farther away, with me seemingly helpless to influence my fate.

Then finally, I felt something change. The wheels were again in line with the road, and I had a measure of control over steering and speed. I gave up on those campsites. I realized I had the thousand feet of really steep grade, with its nightmarish dropoffs, still ahead of me.

Before I got there, the road actually became dry. And I pulled off into the trees just before the down grade, and found what would normally, in benign conditions, be an amazing campsite, with unbelievable views out across the endless mesa. But there was no dry firewood here either, and I had no idea how long the storm would continue. I could still easily get stuck up here if it kept snowing overnight. So I left the ridge behind, amazed that I’d been able to get out. To return again in warmer, drier weather.

This is a vast area, and the storm had only been forecast to cover the southern part of it. My next logical destination lay to the northwest. It was still just mid-afternoon, and I thought if I kept driving I might get to a dry area where it’d be possible to camp.

And I did eventually emerge out from under the storm, but there was still standing water everywhere from last week’s big downpour. I’d never seen anything like it. Mile after mile, I pulled over again and again, but couldn’t find a usable road or a dry campsite. It was bitterly cold and my arm was really aching. The sun went down, and after dark, I arrived in the only tiny hamlet in the middle of this huge landscape, where I spent the night indoors, in a fairly dismal but not nearly cheap enough motel room.


Fall 2018 Part 2: Deep Time Traveling

Friday, November 2nd, 2018: 2018 Trips, Colorado Plateau, Indigenous Cultures, Regions, Road Trips, Society.


After my adventure in the blizzard, I was kind of shaken up, and more than a little frustrated. My fall camping trip had started out with a big dose of stressful driving, and no camping. But there were supposed to be a few more prehistoric rock art sites that I hadn’t seen yet, in pretty wild country, far to the north. I hoped there’d be plenty of camping up there. I could even return to a site I’d used a couple of years ago, in the same general area.

First, and it would be a long drive, I’d check out one famous site at the eastern edge of the territory of the people they call the Fremont, the ancient culture I’ve recently become obsessed with. It was supposed to feature the famous “Barrier Canyon” style of painting, the most beautiful and mysterious style of prehistoric art in North America. It was just a few miles off the interstate, so not a place to camp, but it’d be an easy in-and-out from which I could proceed on back to the truly wild country.

As it turned out, the art was amazing, but the easy access meant there had been severe, tragic vandalism by Americans, both historic and modern. No different than the bullies I’d grown up with back east, kids who’d never been taught to respect beauty, kids so insecure they could only respond to mystery with violence.

Heading west on the interstate, I saw stacks of bundled firewood outside a gas station and, learning my lesson about fall camping in the high country, picked up a couple bundles. It was poor quality and way overpriced, but it was something.

I kept checking my maps, and determined that all the rock art sites near the interstate were on “high clearance only” roads. It was already mid-afternoon and I was still a couple hours away from the next accessible sites, and I didn’t want to be looking for a campsite after sunset. So I left the interstate and drove north up a long gravel road through sagebrush-and-mesa country toward where I’d camped two years ago.

I crossed the old bridge over the San Rafael River, there at the massive sandstone wall, and entered the big canyon with an hour or more of daylight to spare. My old campsite turned out to be taken by another solo man in a compact truck with funky camper shell, but I found an even better one, hidden in a grove of pinyon and juniper out of sight of the road. I suited up for a freezing night, got a fire going, and cracked a IPA. I set up camp at a leisurely pace, and cooked a fairly ambitious plate of food. Only one other vehicle passed, and then it was full dark down there in the big canyon.

Camping is a lot less fun with chronic pain. I’m still trying to sort that out. I can be athletic as ever, to a point, but then something happens and I’m a cripple for a while. My night in the canyon started out pretty uncomfortable, but I eventually found a position my body didn’t hate too much. Thin clouds kept drifting over, then clearing off. Cygnus was in view early, her wings spanning the dusty trail of the galaxy, then later Casseiopeia, Pegasus, and finally Orion and the Moon herself. Somewhere in there I managed to get a decent night’s sleep.

Campsites in this canyon all seem to be sunset camps, benefiting from late afternoon light but sunk in the shade of those thousand-foot walls for most of the morning. Bedding doesn’t air out, and your ground cloth is caked with red clay mud until late morning when you can finally lay it out in the sun. I had no plan for the day, but it’d been over a week since I’d been able to hike. So after everything was dry, I packed the truck, loaded my pack with warm clothes, water, and snacks, and crossed the dry creekbed to hike up into a shallow side canyon. I knew it’d likely be a short, steep hike unless I could find a way up the rimrock to the plateau on top. But at least I’d get a workout.

Of course, with my slow-healing injured foot, I’m not even really supposed to be hiking off-trail. But the only “trail” in this canyon is the 4wd road up the major side canyon, probably a 6-mile branch, and that was a ranch road, through an area that might be heavily grazed. I wanted more of a wilderness experience. When I made it up into my side canyon, I spotted a possible route to the top, and started climbing.

It was such a beautiful day, and such a beautiful place, I threw caution to the wind. I ignored my injured foot and scrambled up slopes of clay and loose sandstone that would’ve been dangerous even when I was in my best shape. I did some technical rock-climbing moves that, if unsuccessful, could’ve killed me. And of course, the most dangerous climb on these slopes is the down climb. But I made it halfway up the thousand-foot cliff, got to see an eagle and some crazy lichen, and returned safely to the valley floor by early afternoon.

Back at the truck, I debated staying another night in this idyllic place. But the weather made my mind up for me. Storm precursor clouds were blowing over, and a strong wind was moving down the canyon. I realized it’d been totally still since I’d arrived, but no more.

I drove on up the canyon and spotted a sign for another rock art site that I’d missed previously. When I opened the door to get out, the wind almost tore it off. It was gusting well over 50 mph. But the prehistoric art made it well worth the stop, and I encountered a big flock of some of the coolest birds I’ve ever seen.

There I was, in the middle of a vast wild area, with storm clouds filling the sky, a howling wind, and little more than two hours till sunset. I was near the head of the canyon, about to emerge onto the rolling plateau where there was little cover. I decided to drive to town, more than an hour away, and spend some time researching my next move.

But along the way, I got distracted by some intriguing signs. And I discovered one of the most amazing, and little-known, canyons in North America – the “Little Grand Canyon” of the San Rafael River.

1 Comment

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.

1 Comment

Fall 2018 Part 4: Bittersweet Journey Home

Saturday, November 17th, 2018: 2018 Trips, Mojave Desert, Regions, Road Trips.

The Discoverer’s Duty

As I dove into the smog-choked Las Vegas basin, my trip entered its final phase. As usual, I’d used up much of the day checking out the last prehistoric site. My intention had been to drive through Vegas at mid-day, stock up on supplies for desert camping, and hit the road again at mid-afternoon with plenty of time to find a camp site in a familiar part of the Mojave. Instead, the sun was setting as I pulled into the Whole Foods parking lot in the upscale shopping mall and tucked my old, mud-splattered truck between the sparkling luxury SUVs and sports cars of the suburbanites.

I’d spent more than a week far from cities and industrial civilization, immersed in nature, walking through ancient campsites, surrounded by the art, the writings, and the ghosts of the Old Ones who’d lived lightly and sustainably on this beautiful desert land. Now I was suffering the usual shock of returning to civilization: the stressed-out crowds milling through a generic and completely artificial environment, competing against each other in their conspicuous consumption of the ravaged earth’s bounty. I tried to stay calm but failed.

It was dark by the time I emerged with my purchases. It’d been a long day, my crippled arm was sore from driving, and my only practical option at this point was to head for the cheap motel I knew in nearby Boulder City. My cooler still needed block ice, which is becoming increasingly harder to find, but I found it in the Boulder City Albertson’s, and as stressed as I was, while leaning over to rearrange my ice chest in the bed of the truck, I forgot to bend at the knees, and triggered my always-lurking lower back pain.

The whole trip so far had entailed a lonely struggle to keep my various sources of chronic pain at bay, while many of the routine chores of traveling – driving, reaching, turning, bending, lifting – threatened to cripple me. This is what I’d tried and failed to explain to my doctor before leaving: we never know when this kind of pain is going to be triggered by something, and when it is, if we don’t get immediate relief, we’re going to be crippled and our plans waylaid. Fortunately, I still had a dwindling stash of the emergency meds that are getting harder and harder to refill, as our Puritanical society wages war against doctors, pain sufferers, and legitimate pain relief.

Would I be able to continue with my trip, or would the pain sabotage my plans? I was really looking forward to finally camping out with friends in the familiar, welcoming environment of the Mojave Desert. But with the pain threatening me in the background, I had one more duty to fulfill before joining them.

In Part 3 I mentioned the ranching families who’d collected artifacts from their land and put them on display in the local museum. It was actually apparent from the displays that these collections were only on loan – the families still considered these relics of the people they’d displaced as their private property. Like all of my family and friends, I was raised in a society that is confident in its superiority over indigenous peoples and its right to virtually everything those natives once used or created.

As a child, I inherited a handful of arrowheads that my Dad discovered or was given by his elders back east. Everyone took for granted that anything you discovered was your property. Decades later, Katie and I went crazy when we started to find potsherds and stone tools around our desert cave. She was already beginning to collect historical artifacts and dead bushes to assemble into art back in the city. This was even better. We never gave a second thought to collecting parts of the landscape that others had left behind.

But now, more decades later, like most of my camper friends, I had a small collection of artifacts that I’d dragged around from home to home and that mostly spent their time hidden away in boxes. I had no one to leave them to, and I figured that when I died, some rushed, stressed-out acquaintance would probably end up tossing them in the trash without even looking at them. Unlike the Mormon families, I didn’t believe finding and collecting them made them my “property” – even if I’d found them on land I owned – because I don’t really believe in land ownership in our Eurocentric, legal, capitalistic sense.

There are a couple of sanctioned dispositions available for prehistoric relics in our society: transfer to science (archaeology), or repatriation to tribes. I’d kept pretty good track of where these – mostly potsherds – had come from, but after what I’d learned on this and previous trips, I’d lost faith in archaeologists, and I was really confused about what, if any, contemporary tribes had jurisdiction over the source of my collection.

My ultimate conclusion was that every generation needs the experience of discovery that I and my friends had had, the realization that people actually lived off the land and created things here that were both beautiful and functional, in this exotic place we initially treat only as a recreational playground. The best place for artifacts is where we find them, not in a private collection or even in a museum. My hope is that by returning these pieces where they came from, I can help launch someone else on the path I’ve followed, through the veil of civilized illusion to a clearer view of humans in nature.

Nuwuvi Desert

Returning those artifacts was one of the strangest experiences I’ve ever had. When we’d found them, more than 30 years ago, we were camping a quarter mile or so off a lonely dirt road, after parking our vehicle on a dirt trail under a telephone line alongside the road. Now, the road is paved, it’s the main highway through a National Preserve, and where we parked our vehicle is a big, paved parking lot with a sign proclaiming “Scenic Overlook.” Whereas we used to wait a half hour or more between passing vehicles on that road, there’s now continual high-speed traffic, and almost always tourists parked there.

A cold wind was blowing – there was a high wind advisory across the desert for the next 24 hours – and in order to pull on my jacket and load my backpack, I had to squeeze between the open doors of other vehicles and the bodies of milling tourists, in this place that had once been so remote and lonely. I could feel them staring at me as I dropped over the edge of the parking lot and headed down into the desert alone. They soon left, and others arrived, as I revisited our cave and the spots where we’d found these creations of the old Indians, always aware of the strangers’ curious eyes aimed at me from a distance. It was a bittersweet visit, but it also felt like a circle was beginning to close. Now, my only future duty here would be to remove the furnishings of our cave, and it would be ready for someone else.

Now that I was in the National Preserve, the revelations of my journey through Southern Paiute territory were constantly on my mind. Until now, I’d taken the name “Mojave Desert” for granted – I’d even defended it against the Anglicized version “Mohave” used in Arizona. But the name had taken a more sinister dimension after I discovered that my sometime friend, the Park Service archaeologist, had ensured that signage and kiosks in the National Preserve identified only the Mojave Indians as natives of this desert, completely erasing the Indians I knew to be its historical inhabitants, the Chemehuevi branch of the Southern Paiutes. He was following the archaeological consensus that the Southern Paiutes were a violent, invasive group that forced the Mojaves out of the desert a few hundred years ago. And maybe he’d made friends in the Colorado River-based Mojave tribe, and was also playing favorites. But my journeys, as well as my recent anthropological readings, had revealed a contradictory story. Now I was primed to reject the very name of my beloved desert.

The name Mojave is a Spanish corruption of “Aha Macav,” the Mojaves’ name for themselves. Nuwuvi is what the Southern Paiute call themselves, and I now feel we should call it the Nuwuvi Desert, for the peaceful people who tell us they’ve always lived there, the people whose entire prehistory reveals a consummate adaptation to challenging arid habitats.

With that in mind, I headed home to my land in the Nuwuvi Desert. As the Chemehuevi say, “kaiyani” – my mountains.

Bittersweet Homecoming

When I discovered this mountain range, it was the remote, hidden oases I was attracted to. Scattered all over the range, a few miles apart, were isolated spots where water seeped out of the rocks and filled small basins that I, my friends, and our wild animal companions could drink from. These springs and seeps were sacred places. And now, after years of severe drought, they were drying out, one by one. The fracture zones that stored rainwater within the mountains were empty, and who knew when they’d ever be replenished? Our vaunted science is brought to its knees by the Great Mysteries, but many scientists, in their ignorance of the broader context, continue to aid industry in its unsustainable capitalist exploitation of resources we’ll never fully understand. A prominent geologist, a friend of a friend, is one of the founders of the controversial water project which aims to privatize the aquifer below our land and sell it to the city of Los Angeles.

One accidental theme of this visit consisted of revisiting places within a few miles of camp that I hadn’t seen in decades. Nooks and crannies I’d explored more than 20 years ago after first acquiring this land, but had avoided since, for whatever reason. And in every place we visited, I was, as usual, awed by the resilience of life in an environment that seems so parched and challenging to us weak, enervated domestic creatures.

At one point, returning from a hike, a couple miles from camp, I stopped to get something out of my pack. I took it off, set it on the ground and got what I needed, but when I tried to lift it to put it back on, I felt the old stabbing pain again, the one that can break out a sweat, stop me in my tracks and make virtually everything painful for the next week or so. Fortunately I caught this one early enough, but I still had to be super-mindful and careful for the rest of the day. The new normal.

Outdoor Life

The high winds came and went, and returned four days later, in the cycle I remember from winters past. Wind so strong, in this landscape of mountains surrounded by vast basins, that you had to lean into it to remain standing. And everything in your campsite has to be weighted down, or it can be blown away and impaled on the nearest bush of thorns or spines.

In the still intervals we could hear the birds stationed about their wild territory, calling to each other. The moon was coming back from new, its thin crescent slice growing barely perceptibly each night, but it set early to leave the sky to the stars, the constellations, the galaxy, and the always-present meteorites and high-altitude jets. We even saw a satellite once rushing down its orbit from pole to pole.

One thing I’ve always loved is to listen to the wind moving across the basin below camp, from shrub to shrub, from miles off in the distance to yards away in the big arroyo. But my companion noted that it even sings a complex “chorus” across the boulder-strewn slope above camp.

Driving Into Winter

As I was leaving our desert mountains, a cold wave was clamping down on the Southwest. I was reluctantly returning to a New Mexico home where the nighttime temperatures were in the teens. And the time change was working against me, so I didn’t get very far the first day of driving. And all my warm clothes were dirty from camping, so I had to do laundry again, and got a late start the second day. It took three partial days to get home, wrapped in thermal layers even in the truck so that when I stepped out for gas or to take pictures, I wouldn’t freeze.

This trip of revelations had also been a sobering lesson in how challenging camping can be when you’re struggling to cope with pain and physical conditions that need to be treated daily. I’d slacked off because it wasn’t convenient or there just wasn’t time, and I needed to get back on the program and resume spending a couple hours a day at home treating my conditions, including my daily schedule of stretching and working out, that I pursue mainly as conditioning for these wilderness trips. It’s all a very lonely pursuit, now that my friends and I are scattered all over the place, and busy lives rarely allow us to meet up. We didn’t know how lucky we were when we were young, healthy, childless, and couldn’t care less about our jobs back in the city.

Tragic Legacy

What did I learn from those two-and-a-half weeks of exploring what most people assume is old familiar territory for me? Why do I keep going back to Southern Paiute territory, when my friends are flying off to Spain, Iceland, or Australia, and probably not spending any more money to visit those presumably more exotic places, when you consider my gas and lodging costs?

Something that was percolating, annoyingly, below the surface of my consciousness, is how I’ve spent my life. Yes, as an artist, a bohemian, and an outdoorsman, I’ve had an incredibly exciting life. No complaints there. But I’ve also had two separate professional careers, two separate phases of my working life, one throughout the 1980s, the other from the late 90s through the mid-teens, that chewed up huge amounts of time, energy, and natural resources, and didn’t necessarily make our world a better place. It’s high time for me to acknowledge and deal with that, in some way.

The mid-term election in the U.S., with its corresponding social media hysteria, is probably one thing that forces me to deal with my professional legacy. The software interfaces that I led the design of, not just as a worker bee, but as an acknowledged “guru,” have turned out to be a force of destruction. I long ago stopped believing that they were a force for good, as some of my colleagues hoped in the beginning. But now it’s obvious that, like virtually all of our technology, they’re alienating us from nature and each other. They’re making it easier for capitalists to exploit us, to track our behavior and steal our private information. They’re addicting us, deluding us, depressing us. They’re even driving people to rape and kill each other, as in the case of Facebook and Myanmar. So much of my precious life, misdirected and wasted on works that betray my deepest principles.

Actually, it’s more likely that my recent discovery of my old friend James’s death is what started me on this re-evaluation. James recognized that to the extent you pursue a career in the capitalist economy, you’re part of the problem, and he had the courage to resist it his entire life. People can say that’s what isolated him and made him unhappy. But there are alternatives, people I know who, while forced to work in the capitalist economy, put their hearts into building resilient local communities. I tried to do that with my Harvest Festival, but although it succeeded for the community, it was a community I wasn’t able to join. There are no guarantees, and most attempts will fail, because the destructive power of our society is almost irresistible.

In addition to the revelations about rock writing, the Nungwu, Southern Paiute culture, and the Nuwuvi Desert, one significant discovery was the hidden, gradual, pernicious conversion of our country’s wild lands for mechanized recreation. It hasn’t been publicized, even in conservation-oriented regional media like High Country News, which are usually more focused on urban-centric politics anyway. In remote rural places, trail networks have been widened and developed for the new quad ATVs or UTVs, and tent campsites have been razed and graded into parking lots for monster RVs. And of course, in southern Nevada and eastern California, vast areas of high-quality, productive natural habitat in the desert have been destroyed and replaced with huge industrial solar plants and wind farms. Gas-powered RVs now have fuel economy in the single digits. Imagine how much natural habitat would need to be permanently destroyed to power a big electric RV in the future! That’s the world we – and our engineers and tech billionaires – are destroying for our children. I wonder how many of those engineers and entrepreneurs will eventually wake up too late to their tragic legacy, like I did.

I’ll have to think much more about the paradigm shift from rock art to rock writing, and the ubiquity of rock writing in native habitat. I still don’t understand the relationship between artistic expression and symbolic communication in my own work. Maybe I don’t need or want to understand it, just to continue to experiment with it in my future work – and I do have specific work planned and waiting to be made, when I can find the space and time to make it.

Regarding the development of roadside prehistoric sites – along existing roads – I can often lament the fact that a road was made there in the first place, especially when sites have already been severely vandalized. But the development I saw on this trip was uniformly protective and enlightening. And the vast majority of sites are still out there, hidden away, only accessible by strenuous hiking, waiting for future generations to discover and learn from. So that much is good.

In all, another bittersweet journey. Wish you could’ve joined me – we’d have much to remember and savor together.

No Comments