Relics

| August 7, 2012

Metate and ManoI celebrated another birthday last week. As has been my habit in recent years, I asked for no presents or special celebrations, and, instead, headed into the wilderness for a couple of days of quiet contemplation. Unlike many of my other outings, the purpose of such trips is not so much to make art, but to make myself a better artist through very personal interactions with the places and things that inspire me. This year I chose to immerse myself in an area where deep canyons make their way down a large mesa, through thick layers of sandstone dating back nearly three hundred million years. At that time these sandstone deposits were coastal dunes, very much like ones I used to explore as a child, in what seems like another world and another life. People had lived here for hundreds of years before abandoning their dwellings en masse, leaving their homes to be reclaimed by the desert, and a trail of relics in their wake.

My goal was not to hike the larger canyons which, despite their remoteness, are fairly frequently visited. I wanted to see things likely not seen by others in many years. I decided to visit the side canyons, and their side canyons — places that have no names and no trails. The strategy was simple: find a way to the rim, as close to the head of the canyon as possible, then walk along it in search of a way to scramble in, walk to the next confluence, then find a way up the opposite rim for the walk back. In truth, it didn’t really matter where I was, as long as I had time to wander in quiet solitude, in a beautiful place. I didn’t need a destination or a plan. I needed time and space and silence.

At a broad glance the place looks as wild and untrammeled as it likely was before humans ever visited the Americas, but a close look revealed the presence of ancient artisans: delicately decorated pottery, stone tools — many broken, some whole, — granaries tucked within small alcoves, and living chambers in larger ones. Little imagination is needed to sense the cumulative presence of hundreds of thousands of people who passed this way. Hundreds of years of stories and secrets, of loves and rivalries and childhoods and comings-of-age, wars and beauty and hardships and hope and despair and legends. They were years of mystery, when the world was endless and little was known about what awaits beyond the mesas and mountains and rivers; when stars and natural cycles were the subjects of lore and ancient stories, and beyond the reach of knowledge. We have gained much since. We have lost at least as much, too.

VignettesA flat slab of varnished sandstone above the canyon prompted me to make a steep scramble in the hope of finding petroglyphs. Sure enough, they were there — the ubiquitous kokopelli, bighorn sheep, a scorpion, a bear paw, and other markings whose meaning may never again be known. I’m fascinated by the idea that perhaps some day my own images may serve to tell such visual stories. In so many ways my life is vastly different from that of the person who stood in this very place and left his or her mark in the rock. I will never know what it was like to live in a world where anything may lie beyond the horizon, where I would not have had knowledge or use of electricity, where the sound of an engine is never heard. While the place likely looks very much the same today as it did then, I wonder about the scents of cooking, the chatter, the language, the rituals and the daily routines of the people who occupied the same space I do now a mere couple of hundred years ago. And yet, I can look at an abstract arrangement of lines, and my brain, identical to theirs, can clearly understands such missives as “bighorn sheep” across the expanses of time.

At one prominent confluence I hiked to the edge of the rim, hundreds of feet above the canyon floor. From my vantage point I could look straight across the chasm at the top of a large rincon. At the tip of it were the remains of a human-made structure, perched prominently above the main canyon and providing an eagle’s eye view far into it. I could not begin to guess how anyone got there. Any access route would have included what today might be considered technical climbing. I can think of only two reasons for anyone to build and maintain a prominent lookout in such a difficult to reach place. One explanation may involve a ritualistic or religious purpose. Yet, this was a very rudimentary structure and not as well put together as some other ruins in the area. The other explanation is that the people who lived here had good reason to be very afraid of whoever might come up or down the canyon. For all the immense beauty and peaceful settings, these people lived in fear of their fellow humans. How little we advanced since.

Lookout Post

After several hours of exploring I drank all three quarts of water I brought with me. According to the map, I was within less than a mile of a spring where I planned to refill my bottles. When I arrived there, sweaty and parched, I found the spring dry, likely a result of the very light snowfall the previous winter. As climate patterns change, this may well be the shape of things to come. Fortunately the canyon flooded just a few days before and deep potholes offered a bounty of good water. If it were not for this recent rain, my five-mile walk back would have been a very different undertaking.

Back at camp I cooked a fine birthday meal, if I do say so myself, and finished with a dessert of home made apricot jam. I then watched as the colorful sky faded into darkness, spotting stars and planets as they appeared until there were too many to count. I then lit a small camp fire, poured myself a shot of 15-year-old Scotch, and just sat there listening the the crackle of burning pine and wondering yet again how I got so lucky.

The next day brought me to more relics, rock art and ruins. By the end of the hike I felt exhausted. On my way out of the canyon ominous clouds began to gather and as I made my final scramble thunder was already booming in the distance. Back at the car I had a little snack and prepared for the drive home. Shortly after I hit pavement the rain came — big chunky monsoon drops exploding on my windshield. I rolled down both windows to let in the rich scents of sagebrush and pine and wet earth. In a couple of hours I’ll be home with my wonderful wife, celebrating another trip around the sun in my favorite place in the world. What more could I ask for? Happy birthday to me.

Monsoon

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Category: All Posts, Featured, Journal

About the Author ()

Guy Tal is a published author and photographic artist. He resides in a remote part of Utah, in a high desert region known as the Colorado Plateau – a place that inspired him deeply for much of his life and that continues to feature in his images and writing. In his photographic work, Guy seeks to articulate a reverence for the wild. He writes about, and teaches, the values of living a creative life and finding fulfillment through one’s art.

Comments (14)

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  1. Jim Dricker says:

    Happy birthday, Guy. Thank you for sharing your celebration with your readers.

  2. Pat Gower says:

    I enjoy your prose as much or more than you pictures. Although calling your art, pictures is an injustice. You are a very talented artist. I respect that you have worked hard to make this life for yourself.

  3. Greg Russell says:

    Happy Birthday, Guy. I would say you picked about one of the finest places to spend your birthday that any human could ask to. Fortunately, most people don’t.

  4. “cumulative presence of hundreds of thousands of people who passed this way. Hundreds of years of stories and secrets, of loves and rivalries and childhoods and comings-of-age, wars and beauty and hardships and hope and despair and legends. They were years of mystery, when the world was endless and little was known about what awaits beyond the mesas and mountains and rivers; when stars and natural cycles were the subjects of lore and ancient stories, and beyond the reach of knowledge. We have gained much since. We have lost at least as much, too.”

    There is no better way to put it! And ofcourse what a way to celebrate! Have a good year ahead Guy. Oh BTW, Metate and Mano is a true piece of art!

    Cheers

  5. Edie Howe says:

    Hippo Birdie, two ewes Guy.

    Two lines curving close
    Stretch across unmeasured time
    lizards basking warm.

    (An off-the-cuff birthday haiku for the image in the lower left of the vignettes.)

    Edie

  6. Jim Bullard says:

    Happy birthday Guy and may you experience many more like it.

  7. Your reflections and meditations are always a joy and gift to read, Guy. Thanks for sharing your birthday with us.

  8. Brad Mangas says:

    I have kept up on your blog Guy and all your wonderful journeys for quite some time. I have to say after reading this I could almost feel the impact of being there and actually felt as if I had just had a good experience.

    I guess sometimes when one is in the right frame of mind and reads the right words they take on extra meaning.

    Thanks again and many more wonderful years and journeys to you.

  9. Beautiful story, full of fine imagery. I usually go without the campfire, but I share your delight in viewing stars and planets in the brilliant night sky. No petrogyphs here in Florida, but I enjoy the beautiful serenade of the frogs and crickets instead. I’ve spent too few nights in the desert, and grow envious of your trip descriptions of that breathtaking land you explore. thanks for sharing both your images and escapades.

  10. Happy birthday indeed. What a captivating place in the world you’ve chosen to call home that allows such journeys back in time; and that you come back and share that magic is a gift for all of us.

  11. Rafael Rojas says:

    Happy birthday Guy.
    Lets see many many many many more…;-)

  12. Adrienn Kovacs says:

    Wonderful birthday in beautiful surrondings! Many similar to you!

  13. Great narrative and lovely abstract image.

  14. Happy Birthday, Guy. What a refreshing way to spend it. Thanks for the engaging narrative. I like the details about the crackling fire and the canyons.