It’s difficult to get away from the responsibilities and dailiness of the ranch. But earlier this month, Pete and I knew that it was time to make time after a full and productive summer season. Our decision about where to go was made easier after viewing Ken Burn’s recent documentary series on the National Parks. Pete and I decided a trip to the nearby southwestern region of Colorado and Utah to visit some of these national treasures would be a satisfying time away. Of particular interest was Capitol Reef in south central Utah.
Established in 1937 as a National Monument by President Roosevelt and then later a National Park in 1971 by President Nixon, Capitol Reef’s rugged canyons and expansive desert lands invite one to explore not only the visible but one’s personal interaction with its grand landscape and the history it holds in its canyons and red-rock formations.
I felt quite drawn to the history of the earliest humans who occupied parts of Capitol Reef. The earliest human inhabitants belonged to the Fremont Culture, which existed around the 9th century. The Fremont people lived in pit houses and natural rock shelters. They hunted and gathered and supplemented their diet by farming the Fremont River bottom where they grew corn, squash, beans, nuts, rice grass, berries, and tubers. As a part of their art and culture, petroglyphs, carvings etched in rock surfaces, and pictographs, art colored onto rock surfaces, still survive and can be seen on the many canyon, boulder, and rock wall surfaces in Capitol Reef National Park.
Bruce Hucko, author of Art on the Rocks: Stone Wonders, writes that petroglyphs and pictographs, the symbolic art of the Native American people, are thought to communicate and record a variety of significant events, thoughts, and religious experiences. Frequently seen and repeated images include the bighorn sheep, the shaman, the coming of the horse, the spiral, the flute player, a universal spiral, shield-like designs, handprints, and stylized or masked faces. Each Native American Indian culture interprets the historic imagery according to their specific tribal beliefs.
In Hucko’s book, he says the Navajo believe that when the Holy People decided it was time to leave the material world, “they cast their images upon the rocks thereby leaving the Navajo people with their prayers, songs, and guidance for living imprinted on the land.” The Navajo ritually return to these symbols in order to remain connected to their people and receive guidance for their own lives. As we continued down the road to Arches National Park, Mesa Verde, and Monument of the Ancients, I wondered if there were similiar symbols within my own landscape providing me and others with the memory of and guidance from those who have gone before us.
Interestingly, in the Elk River Valley there is the story of a Ute Indian woman whose face can be seen in the contours and seasonal colors of Elk Mountain. I can see her most clearly when the colors reach their fall peak. As you search her face, you realize there’s a tear coming down from her left eye and across her cheek. The story goes that she is mourning the loss of Ute Indian lands to the white settlers in the late 19th century. This woman continues to remind me of change and loss in our valley. The rural way of life fades with each generation as families leave the ranching life. Our nearby forests are being descimated by Beetle Kill at a staggering rate and will take a generation and a half to be renewed. As the Ute Indian woman watches over the valley, I imagine she will continue to offer anyone who is watching a reminder to value the inter-connectivity of the landscape, its natural resources, and the communities within.
After remembering her story, I turned toward my own landscape for the “petroglyphs” left by my ancestors and the place I call home. I first found a few personal reminders: the photo on my bookshelf keeps me close to my maternal grandmother who taught me about devotion, humility, and family; the Christmas card from a man I knew as a child reminds me how important it is to listen for joy; and a red football helmet reminds me of a brother who taught me to believe in the power of possibility. Then I recalled, as a part of a larger inspiring landscape of the Elk River Valley, the hillside outside my window also faithfully beckons me to commune with the oak brush, aspens, and a larger view of my life no matter what the season.
Our journey to the Southwest was renewing. I returned home not only rested but enriched by the Native American belief in the power of images. Carved or painted, printed on a card or photo, or those experienced in the natural world, they do act as comforting reminders of the long held connections to those who touched my life and are now gone and to the importance of protecting what’s of value in my daily living, both in the personal and the natural landscapes of my life.