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Hiking Happenings August 2004

Walkabout with Rory Tyler:

Here Kitty, Kitty

Any interpreter of ancient Indian rock art is probably a fool, a charlatan, or an emotional masochist actively courting opportunities to grovel in abject embarrassment while pleading for crumbs of grudging forgiveness from other ruthless practitioners of the affliction. This month’s article concerns some of my interpretive theories regarding Moab area rock art.

This glyph on Potash Road is a typical track found on many Moab area rock art panels.

Basketmaker Indians moved into the Moab around 0 A.D. and stayed for eight hundred years, more or less. They produced many of the local petroglyphs, or rock art pictures, that are pecked, scratched, and pounded into the desert’s walls and boulders. Basketmaker Indians grew some crops, but they also did a lot of hunting and gathering. Anthropologists talk about several rites that seem fairly consistent among hunting cultures and it seems reasonable to speculate that Moab’s Basketmaker Indians had similar metaphysical protocols. One common ceremony taps into the power of the most successful hunters in the natural world. Another demonstrates an attitude of respect toward the prey. I believe that these two magical sentiments are common in Moab’s Basketmaker rock art.

In the first case, the Basketmaker Indians made pictures of mountain lions and lion tracks to access hunting power. Mountain lion petroglyphs frequently sport short ears and long tails. They are unusual but not uncommon. Lion-track glyphs are prolific in the Moab area. According to one so-called authority (me), Moab’s Basketmaker Indians had a fairly local and highly stylized icon they used to show a cat track. This glyph typically consists of a solid heel, fork-like toes, and distinct claw marks. In other parts of the Southwest similar glyphs are often interpreted as bear or badger tracks. This may well be, but I think that the preponderance of the Moab icons are meant to represent cats. Rock art panels that show bighorn sheep in a stance that signifies flight, surprise, or panic often include a cat track. These are postures a sheep would assume if it were in imminent danger of being munched.

The short ears and a long tail of this glyph next to the golf course suggest a mountain lion.

The second metaphysical metaphor, a respect toward the prey, is indicated in the Moab area (according to the previously cited ‘authority’) by a Spirit Sheep. The Spirit Sheep sometimes has three or four horns and a noble stance, often facing away from most of the other sheep on a panel. Hunters around the world implored the guardian spirit of their prey to be generous to them, to show pity on their families, and give them the gift of one of the flock. Frequently, the sacrificed animal would be young or incapacitated. On panels that include a Spirit Sheep I often see a small sheep in a serious panic, sometimes with a spear or arrow in its body. Why sheep? Because, here in the desert Southwest the hardest thing to get into your diet is oil and sheep are greasy. Before desert bighorns were decimated by European diseases in the 19th century, there may have been as many as two million on the Colorado Plateau. There are about forty thousand today.

A well-known interpreter of rock art (not me) argues that panels showing a hunter sticking a projectile into a sheep represent shamans who have traveled to the spirit world, impaling a critter that is actually a rain deity. Thus, the panels are not about food, but water. This interpretation might be true sometimes, but in most cases I think it contradicts the well-accepted scientific principal of parsimony expressed by the axiom of Occam’s Razor and is, by that standard, largely a bunch of hogwash. (I told you that rock art interpreters are contentious and abusive.) I have many other foibles and follies I wish I had the space to discuss, but I don’t. As for my theories, here are three places you can go for a look-see.

P.S. Keep an eye on kids and teenagers near rock art panels. At that age there’s a powerful “monkey see, monkey do” attraction for the innocently ignorant (as opposed to the willfully ignorant) to make a mark of their own in this big-old world.

Eddie McStiff’s
I always try to include one easy trip in my column. This month I suggest the bar at Eddie McStiff’s. A few years ago Eddie saw some drawings I made to illustrate the principals discussed in this article and asked if I’d like to do some paintings in his restaurant. You bet. The three paintings, while not entirely accurate, are true to the spirit of the originals. As you enter the bar, the first illustration represents the “Indian Writings” panel on Potash Road, the second a panel is in Hidden Valley, and the third panel is at an undisclosed location. Besides cats, cat tracks, and Spirit Sheep these pictures include two other symbols I consider diagnostic for hunting magic. Whenever I see hatch-marks or fence-like figures I consider the possibility of nets and traps. Basketmaker Indians got most of their protein by trapping and netting, not impalement. (When I’m at Eddie’s I get most of my sustenance from the Chestnut Brown and Cobb Salad.) The other symbol is a long-legged, long-necked, long-beaked bird that I think is a heron. Like the lion, the heron is a ferocious hunter. While heron glyphs are nowhere near as common as lion-sign, they aren’t uncommon either. There are many heron around Moab living along the river, streams, and wetlands.

Hidden Valley
Hidden Valley is one of the most intense rock art sites in the region. Drive south on Hwy 191, 3½ miles from Center and Main to Angel Rock Road and follow the BLM signs to the trailhead. The trail to the glyphs is about 2 ½ miles long with a 600 foot rise. When you get to the pass, go up to the wall on your right. The south-facing walls of this horseshoe-shaped formation are packed with petroglyphs, many of them about hunting and fighting. I believe that this area was particularly important to Basketmaker men and that, two thousand years ago, the beautiful valleys you just walked through may have been a prime locale for ritual tribal warfare with duck-headed infidels from Blanding and Bluff. But that’s another story.

Johnson’s Up-On-Top
This is a tougher hike, and while not very long, takes a little bit of panache and some route-finding skills. Take Spanish Valley Drive 3 miles south from where it meets Golf Course Road. You’ll see a dirt road with a pump house at the intersection. Go up that road and straight across the top of the mesa known as Johnson’s Up-On-Top. High clearance is preferable, but not necessary. There is a hanging valley above Mill Creek Canyon and a free-standing formation of Navajo Sandstone on the rim, a few hundred yards down and to the right. A sketchy trail into the bottom of the canyon starts at the south end of the formation. This canyon is loaded with rock art, including some fascinating examples of what I have been discussing.

Rory Tyler leads custom rock art tours and backcountry hikes for people of all skill levels for Canyon Voyages Adventure Company.

Cryptos (krip’ tose): The surface of Moab’s desert is held together by a thin skin of living organisms known as cryptobiotic soil or cryptos. It has a lumpy black appearance, is very fragile, and takes decades to heal when it has been damaged. This soil is a critical part of the survival of the desert. The cryptobiotic organisms help to stabilize the soil, hold moisture, and provide protection for germination of the seeds of other plants.

Without it the dry areas of the west would be much different. Although some disturbance is normal and helps the soil to capture moisture, excessive disturbance by hooves, bicycle tires and hiking boots has been shown to destroy the cryptobiotic organisms and their contribution to the soil. When you walk around Moab avoid crushing the cryptos. Stay on trails, walk in washes, hop from stone to stone.

Whatever it takes, don’t crunch the cryptos unless you absolutely have to!

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