I 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.
A 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.
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.