“Stop!” I barked out, startling Bill… who at that point had no idea what was on my mind. “Park over there, by that car on the other side of the road.” With an eye roll (I’m sure of it), Bill passed by the cliff, did a u-turn, and then pulled over in the spot I’d indicated.
Being sick and unable to ride my trusty steed on the incredible Moab mountain biking trails, I’d been acting as shuttle for Bill to do some fun rides in the area. As I sat in the car, attempting to read a book, I was very distracted. Looking around the desert with its cliffs and mesas, my mind, curiously, was preoccupied with finding petroglyphs.
Petroglyphs and pictographs, ancient forms of rock art, of communication, of pictorial mapping… hold such fascination for me. They can be thousands of years old. Perhaps it’s my love of any rock, or my fascination with the development of creative expression throughout human history, but those ancient pictures, painted (pictographs) or chiselled (petroglyphs) on cliff faces, are inspiring. Intriguing. They fill my mind with questions. And with stories imagined of lives lived, and the experiences that might have shaped individual personalities and the development of our shared culture.
Driving out from the trailhead parking lot, Bill took the wheel, sweat drenched, dusty and happy from the thrill of his ride, beside me. Quiet and preoccupied, I concentrated on the cliffs as we hurtled by. My mind still on those petroglyphs. Where were they? Could I find some? If I looked carefully enough, could I spot them?
And then, that magical “Stop!” moment… I’d spotted some at last!
The car had hardly come to rest when I burst out the door, onto the gravel shoulder. “Look! There! At the base of that cliff!” Without waiting for poor Bill, I made my way up to the chiselled carvings, past huge boulders at the base of the cliff. Bill followed in my wake, which was an easy thing to do, given the way I was stopping frequently, hacking away with the strain of breathing while going up the slightest of inclines.
The first petroglyphs we saw were the kind that are hammered out of the varnish of the rock. An ancient form of graffiti? I don’t think so. A permanent testament to an ancient people, they most likely they tell stories, indicate maps, and delineate special places, giving advice and direction (along with a healthy dose of awe and reverence) to those who happen upon them.
And that’s when we happened on the man. His was the car that we’d parked alongside on the road. He’d been out searching for ancient rock art, too. Having just emerged from the canyon across the road, he approached us and said, “Did you see Intestine Man, over there? It’s a really famous one.”
Intestine Man was a painted pictograph. Its detail was incredible, despite the crude way the people were drawn on either side of the clearly dissected man. Eerie, its morbidity brought so many questions to mind.
We’d had to scramble up and then shimmy along a ledge of rock to get close enough to see, and marvel at the detail, in the painting. Does intestine man, and the macabre scene, have an audience?
“Did you see the ones across the highway?” he shouted up to us, as he was preparing to leave. “I just came out of Seven Mile Canyon, and there were lots along the base of the cliffs in there.” He gestured over to the cliff across the road, and to a primitive gate leading into the canyon. If that isn’t an invitation to adventure, I don’t know what is!
We thanked him with a thumbs up and a wave. As he got into his vehicle and pulled away, we spent a little while longer marvelling at the detail in the gruesome pictograph, then scrambled down to ground level. As we approached the roadside, I said “Let’s go see if we can find what he saw!” Bill, wanting me to have some fun in what was left of our vacation, humoured me, locked up the car, and headed out slowly across the highway with me. (I’m sure I heard him muttering something about missing his coffee under his breath.)
Two cliffs marked the entrance to the canyon. Streaked with black, they held promise of treasure, to be sure!
It’s fascinating to try to find the rock art of the area, so I will keep the secret of where, exactly, we spotted them to myself and let you marvel at what we found. What stories they tell of both historic and prehistoric times! We’ll never know for sure what they mean, but they’re fascinating puzzles nevertheless.
Rock art sites on federal lands are nationally protected areas. The art is extremely fragile, once damaged the site can never be repaired to its original condition. Please avoid even touching the rock surface. Surprising as it may seem, the oils in a single handprint can chemically affect the rock surface. Take care so that others may marvel at these fragile and beautiful remains of the past. You will see evidence of vandalism such as bullet impacts, names and dates incised on the rock surface, remains of latex molds and chalk marks. Do not attempt to remove any form of vandalism, including signatures, dates and names. Site repair requires technical expertise and can be made more difficult by the good intentions of those without highly developed skills.