On October 15, 2008, we roused our self early enough in the morning to see the full moon, as it descended behind the Moab Rim. In anticipation of the first day of our three-day intensive writing seminar, we drove to the Moab Arts and Recreation Center. Unlike the many public activities at Confluence A Celebration of Reading and Writing in Moab, the intensive writing seminar was limited to only twenty-four individuals.
Moments after finding our group of seven fellow writers, we loaded ourselves into a passenger van provided by the Canyonlands Field Institute. None of us knew our destination for a day of hiking and writing. Having renowned author and expert on the Desert Southwest, Craig Childs as our personal guide for the day made those prospects even more exciting.
Heading north on Highway 191, we crossed the Colorado River, then drove through the notch of the Moab Fault, a deep gorge that features the main entrance to Arches National Park. Five more miles up the road, we turned west on State Highway 313, which leads to Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point.
Only a mile past that junction, our driver slowed the van and turned on to an unmarked road-stub. We piled out of the van, and then surveyed the surrounding area. Knowing that Craig Childs had spent many months of his life hiking in and around the Moab area, we were curious about why he would choose such an undistinguished spot to start our day.
Not knowing what to expect, we crossed the highway and walked west toward the canyon wall. There, the sunshine had begun to warm the morning air. Once we reached a suitable place for our group to sit, Craig Childs, the master of the canyons, spoke.
While talking about the surrounding area, Craig did not mention the sporadic traffic along the highway, only fifty yards away. Instead, he began a lesson in perception, inviting us to see these canyons as he sees them. Juxtaposing Craig's intimate description of that landscape with the impersonality of what we saw as an unremarkable roadside made us feel uneasy. We felt as if he could see things that we could not.
After cautiously placing our self into Craig's perceptual landscape, it became easier to see the uniqueness of that specific place along the road. Having driven Highway 313 many times before, we knew that the landscape along that road was itself a paradox. On one hand, the highway meets our human needs to get somewhere. After passing by photo spots of drama and beauty, the road ends at the equally dramatic Dead Horse Point. Few visitors would dispute the beauty of the visual attractions at the far end of the road. Yet, if one stops and looks closely where we stopped that day, he or she will also find an abundance of unique and beautiful micro-environments.
After completing our first writing exercise, Craig stood and invited us to follow him around and behind a large boulder. There, only a few yards away, were many examples of Native American rock art incised into the desert varnish of the canyon walls. Unlike so many of the pictographs and petroglyphs that are visible from local roads, this great art had remained untouched since its creation. According to the style of that rock art, members of the Fremont Culture created it sometime between 600 and 1250 CE. If we thought we might need a better example of Craig Child's contention that there is unimaginable beauty available throughout the Canyonlands area, this art gallery, created by grand and ancient masters humbled us into recognition and belief.
later, we hiked up the broad, flat wash of Seven Mile Canyon, where we gathered beneath a cottonwood tree. Although Seven Mile Canyon is open to both hikers and motorized vehicles, that morning we saw no one other travelers during the first two hours of our hike. With non-native bulrushes partially overgrowing the entrance to the canyon, a jeep might scrape its paint in order to run that gauntlet and enter the canyon itself.
While walking up-canyon, we felt the warmth and dryness of the desert environment. Frequent breaks for water helped facilitate our passage along the soft sands of the canyon floor. Stopping in the shade of a cottonwood grove, Craig asked us to take off our shoes and feel the canyon sands beneath our feet. Once barefoot, each of us hiked off in our own direction. Our assignment was to find a quiet place to sit and write about our feelings of being in touch with the canyon on that bright October morning.
After a trailside lunch, Craig directed us towards partially hidden canyon wall. After scrambling over some boulders, we arrived at an intimate alcove, hidden from the sun by a massive overhang of Navajo Sandstone. In such places, one intuitively accesses a faith in geologic time. If, in eons of time, this stone overhang had not crashed down in a pile of rubble, why should do so as we walked into this stone sanctuary?
When seasonal rains visit, the spot where we stood becomes a waterfall, with a receiving pool large enough to drive anyone back to a safer distance. On this day, no water pitched over the precipice and the receiving pool was dry. As with our previous stop, we found one wall of this canyon alcove covered with both Fremont Culture and Archaic Era rock art. Once again, we found no sign that anyone had visited this sacred spot since the last of the pre-Puebloan Indians chipped and painted their artwork into these walls.
If we were to take the stone-age tools available to the ancients and attempt to make our mark upon these walls, we would quit before we created anything of note. Scientists estimate that each incised figure might take several weeks to complete.For that reason, the defacement of more accessible rock art is often in the form of bullet holes or surface scratches across the panels. How and why did these ancient cultures take the time and put forth the incredible effort necessary to decorate their canyon homes?
Our theory is that during the pre-European contact era, there were times of lush abundance in the Canyonlands. Because of their efficiency as hunters and gatherers, the ancients filled their granaries with enough food to take them through the harshest of winters. In the best of years, their granaries might be full by summer's end, leaving leisure time sufficient for the ancients to pursue an activity that motivates almost every human culture. That is a desire to tell their story to other humans and other cultures who might later visit these canyons.
On a beautiful fall day, not unlike the one we spent among their galleries, the ancients may have carved and painted the story of their lives, their hunts and their spirit guides into these sacred canyon walls. To me, it felt like they had just been there, suspending their chipping and carving as we approached. Hearing our voices, had they retreated to be with their ancestors, waiting patiently for us to leave before returning to their timeless work?
Thank you to authors Craig Childs, Amy Irving and Jack Loeffler, as well as the Confluence Organization for transporting our group to a special place, where our contemporary world and the Canyonlands of our pre-Puebloan ancestors converge. As with so many lessons in human life, we found that the similarities between them and us are far greater than the differences we so easily perceive.