Ancient art. What will we leave behind?


Saturday dawned with cobalt skies to the west and clouds bannering off Burger and Signal Peaks to the north of St. George. Last night we’d driven through snow all the way from Salt Lake in hopes of finding suitable climbing weather in southern Utah. The contrast of snow, conifers and sandstone was spectacular, but the temperature was freezing. Past the Shivwits Reservation, home to the Paiute’s, we turned up a dirt road and parked the car in inches of snow. Following cairns made of flat stones we picked our way down a wash, stooping under snowy pinion branches and stepping over drooped flowers. Soon a beautiful limestone cave appeared. It looked sunny and warm, but after climbing two easy routes our fingers were wooden and our bodies were chilled to the bone. I blamed the wind. The sun was comforting, but the constant breeze stole its warmth.

There was a culture that inhabited the four corners region of the United States dating back 3,000 years. Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona were home to the Ancient Puebloan People, Anasazi. They were a communal people that llived in earthen structures and hunted, gathered and farmed for food. Where exactly this culture disappeared to is up for debate, but indications of their existence can still be observed through what they left behind.

Being a climber in the southwest has allowed me to cross paths with relics of this culture. When you’ve seen their pueblos, pottery, petroglyphs and pictographs it’s hard not to wonder what it was like when these artifacts were created. Can you see yourself living on a cliff, grinding corn on the stone or hunting big horn sheep? What about the rock art? Do petroglyphs and pictographs have real significance or are they a form of graffiti? Did men, women, children or some tribal elder create them? What does a seven-toed bear paw represent? All this leads to thinking of the future and about the next 1000 years.

With the desire to climb cold rock gone and plenty of light left in the day we arrived to the parking area of Anasazi Ridge. An over-sized teepee was near and from it came the sounds of Native American music. On the trail a group that had been in the tent engulfed us. There for a program they met in the teepee, listened to the music of Kokopelli and now were walking to the petroglyphs that were scattered along the rim. I didn’t know tribes of the southwest used teepees.

Under a sky filling with clouds we hiked from a field of grass south of the Red Cliffs Reserve to a crest above the Santa Clara River. There we wandered among the boulders pausing at each piece of art. Images had been scratched and pecked into the sandstone. Paul had been here before and recalled a dense group of images somewhere in the toppled blocks. We searched and found them next to the group from the teepee. Their guide was a middle-aged, Caucasian woman with long, braided hair.

“And on the summer solstice if you sit right here, on this rock, the sun will go right through you… It will go right through you and shine right onto these petroglyphs.” She continued, explaining what each meant. Images of people, hands, sheep, bear tracks, spirals, geometric and organic shapes. She knew. They were visions of a medicine man. Paul and I exchanged a look.

“I wasn’t aware anyone knew what they really meant.” We agreed once the group had dispersed.

Sunday was grey and cold. There was 80 percent chance of rain or snow. Our options for climbing were few. The idea of limestone was out, most of those areas were shaded and higher in elevation. Climbing the local basalt had little appeal so we settled on a crag of sandstone named Chuckawalla, a large lizard of the Southwest. The red cliff caked with splotches of white chalk would be our best bet before the storm. A mere stones throw from the road we quickly set about climbing as a bank of darker clouds drifted closer. I wouldn’t considerate it a destination.

“What do you think people will say in a thousand years when they see this cliff?”

With an official voice Paul replied, “While climbing here,.. on the summer solstice,.. the sun would shine right through you,.. then you grease off no matter how much chalk was used.”

When at first we had the place to ourselves I thought maybe we should’ve attempted one of the limestone cliffs, but by noon the wall was crowded with other out-of-towners.

“We have limestone stone everywhere in Europe,” a woman from Austria replied after I complained about being stuck at such a generic spot. On her way to Red Rocks from Indian Creek she was tickled to be sport climbing on the rusted stone. While I felt limited the others from Germany, Great Britain and the Pacific North West were glad to be there. I’m sure it wasn’t the most noteworthy climbing they had done recently, but everyone was happy to tie into a rope, hang the draws and pull on stone. Climbers fell, yelled, sent and laughed all while adding more chalk to the winter crag. I was tired and content when it began raining at four.

In the future will someone concoct a mystical story as to what their ancestors did here with the white chalk and steel bolts? Would they recognize climbers as a culture? How will they interpret the evidence they find?

“These walls were used in a ritual of the skies… They would have great visions while they ascended… They were used in fertility ceremonies.”

Or some curmudgeons might say, “Vandalism! Nothing but vandalism!”

Driving north, back to Salt Lake through falling snow, I imagined how the sandstone cliff would be explained in a millennium. Would they know that it was a fix for winter-bound climbers? Probably not, but they might get it half right.

I pictured a lean, weatherworn guide, in dirty clothes with disheveled hair, walking along the base of the eroded bluff. A throng of wide-eyed tourists would be trailing close behind. He would tell the rapt audience how, on the winter solstice, a nomadic people would come from afar and climb on the wall.

“And on the winter solstice when the sun shone down it would go through their bodies… It would shine through them and their souls would be lifted!”

Maybe that’s what he’d tell them. And, of course, in the back of the crowd, there’d be some jerk to say,

“Yeah, right!”