Friday, October 4, 2013

Horseshoe Canyon

Last night I pulled off of interstate 70 onto the temple mountain road. To get to the road, you drive about a mile down a frontage road on the eastbound side of 70. I’d seen headlights coming my way on the side of the highway just before I exited so I assume that I’m not the only one looking for a camping spot for the night.

I follow the dirt road up onto the San Rafael Swell and see no sign of the truck I saw making its way up the frontage road. After driving about 10 miles I haven’t seen any pullouts to sleep in but the road has started to branch frequently. I take one of the branches toward Sinbad Head. This road then branches a couple of times and I find a flat spot to park in the middle of the Y of one of the branches. It’s 1 am by the time I’m ready for bed and looking out my window I catch my first glimpse of Orion this year with only his boot, Saiph, still hidden below the horizon. 
In the morning, the road is still empty and I make my way down towards highway 24. I see a couple standing outside their Subaru waving at me as I pass. They appear to be waving out of happiness rather than distress so I wave back and keep driving. A group of dirt bikes pulls out onto the road ahead of me and as I follow their path with my eyes I see a campground full of vans, bikes and ATVs on the side of the road ahead. The road gets easier from here and I pass by Goblin Valley on the way to highway 24.

I pull out on to highway 24 and drive about a quarter mile before turning off again to the opposite side of the road towards The Maze. The Maze is the most remote national park unit in Utah; down miles of rough slick rock trail only passable with high clearance four wheel drive trucks; not what I’m driving. This is not where I’m headed though and I fly down the washboard dirt road past the turnoff for the maze with its big white federal government closure poster plastered over the entrance sign. I’m headed towards Horseshoe Canyon; technically a unit of Canyonlands National Park, like The Maze. But unlike The Maze it is down a well maintained dirt road easily passable even to sedans. 
What I’m here to visit is a site that I’ve longed to see for years. It was the subject of the first painting that I finished; the pictographs of The Great Gallery. I pull up to the trailhead at the rim of Horseshoe Canyon and see the familiar federal government shutdown signage. Shutdown no longer, I say, as I march past the signs and into the canyon.
The canyon itself is beautiful and would be worth the hike even if people hadn’t decorated it with some of the most beautiful and mysterious art in the southwest 3000 years ago. NPS volunteers came through years ago and uprooted the invasive tamarisk which has allowed beautiful cottonwood to grow tall along the banks of the riverbed. Hidden behind these cottonwood stands are little tableaus of human and animal figures painted in black on the reddish sandstone.
One can see why the canyon was a popular shelter for ancient peoples. The meanders of the river lead into large alcoves concealing ledges that would be safe from both animal and human in the night. These alcoves house many of the pictographs found in the canyon.

Over a steep bank I climb into view of the final and most impressive of these scenes; the Great Gallery. It’s a 50 foot long mural containing 10s of ghostly, humanoid figures painted life size in black. Looking closer you see that each figure has haunting, blank, circular eyes opening from its small black head. The shoulders are broad and the bodies are sometimes decorated with patterns and objects. There are no feet; the figures trail off, fading into the sandstone. 
There’s someone else here, sitting on a rock in front of the paintings. I wait on the opposite bank of the dry riverbed and allow him to contemplate them in privacy as I had hoped to. After about 30 minutes he gets up and climbs down the bank on his side. As he passes by he says “you can have it all to yourself now…well you’ll be sharing it with them…” and he walks over the hill back up the canyon.

Sitting in front of these ancient paintings I see details that I never noticed in the photographs I’d seen of them before. Smaller figures with spikey hair coming out of their heads, a flock of bighorn galloping in a circle chased by hunters and a dog standing next to the figure on the far end that looks like it was painted by a later tenant of the canyon. My favorite is a single figure out of the many that has been painted in white instead of black. It has faded almost completely into the stone but is just barely visible; a shadow of the shadows. 
A lot of meanings have been attributed to these paintings; the main figures on the left have been named “Holy Ghost and Attendants”. The people who painted these were here over 3000 years ago and were long gone even when the Anasazi showed up; there’s no way to know what really inspired these figures. If I had to take a guess though; I’d imagine these people in camp on this ledge. They have a fire burning and one of them is telling stories of gods or spirits that inhabit the world around them; maybe even that very canyon. The others are watching the storyteller, his shadow cast against the wall by the flames; a long black shadow with no legs. When they sleep their heads are filled with nightmares of shadowy spirits walking within the canyon walls with no legs and tall broad shoulders. The blazing orange of the canyon wall burns through their eyes.
In the morning, the image still fresh in the mind of one of the dreamers, he begins to paint on the wall. Where before there had just been records of hunts and sheep herds, now he is painting his gods. The gods that they painted were merely shadows of the humans that conjured them, as all gods are, but that is what makes them so potent; they can be terrible in all the ways humans can and will serve to remind us of our own failings. The gods of these people have lived in these canyon walls since before the founding of Rome and will continue on likely long after the current civilization that inhabits this area is gone. It would be a challenge now to create something as enduring and as haunting as these figures.

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