Four Corners, Part 3

The Valley of the Gods, a vast landscape of sandstone mesas, buttes, and monuments, spreads at the base of a 700-foot-high rampart that runs from northeast to southwest.  I parked Red at the entrance to a dirt road that loops through the valley.  Cars and trucks trickled onto the road.  Preferring solitude, I decided to avoid it.  I reloaded my backpack, including the ridiculously bulky Sears sleeping bag and wide foam rubber pad, hoisted it onto my back, and, after negotiating a barbed wire fence, struck off in the opposite direction, a roadless swale devoid of prominent formations, yet no less lovely. 

In addition to shrubs and juniper, the land was dotted with tufts of tall grass on which some two dozen Hereford and Angus cattle grazed.  Their piles of manure―dark, rippling, and glistening when obviously fresh, gray and crusty when aged―were not infrequent.  But neither the smothering manure nor the destructive footprints of these huge, lumbering beasts bothered me.  So charmed by the myth of the American cowboy was I that I accepted these things as tolerable elements of this landscape of jarring beauty.  Depending upon the landscape, however, this sentiment would soon change.       

I hiked for a couple miles. After making a campsite beside a tall, broad juniper, I spent much of that afternoon sheltering from rain squalls, my plastic ground cover doubling as an awning.  The purchase of a small tent prior to my departure didn’t occur to me.  After all, my two previous visits to Utah’s canyon country involving camping took place in July, when the weather was sunny and 104 degrees[1], and September, when the weather was considerably cooler but equally dry.  Thus, I had concluded that it rarely rained in southeast Utah.  Whatever, I considered myself tough enough to handle any weather condition.  So, in the shelter of the awning, I looked around and around, marveling not only at the distant formations on the valley floor, but also at the fabulous sandstone bulwark at my back.  

This was the fulfillment of a dream: the Pawnee Buttes multiplied beyond imagining.  The landscape fascinated me for a number of reasons, beginning with its geometry, a result of its sedimentary nature.  Except for the Pawnee Buttes, the natural world I’d known up to now―the Berkshire hills and mountains of Massachusetts; the Catskill mountains of New York; the hills, mountains, and valleys of central Colorado―appeared more or less fashioned with a waving, cupping hand.  Curves―often crude, of course―characterized these landscapes.  Utah’s canyon country, however, with its millions of predominantly rectangular and triangular formations, appeared to be the work of T-squares, meat cleavers, guillotines, and circular saws.  It didn’t flow.  It chomped. 

Meanwhile, as with the Pawnee Buttes, this angular landscape had a charming familiarity.  I loved it for its natural qualities, yet also for the artificial constructs these natural formations recaledl: tables, temples, battleships, edifices, pyramids, butcher blocks, all in various stages of silent, mysterious, melancholy ruin.  And what curves there were in the land had a striking ability to evoke parts of the human anatomy such as breasts, nipples, and crowns of phalli. 

It was, as well, a naked land.  Before witnessing the Four Corners country, I’d become accustomed to a landscape cloaked not only with grasses, trees, and shrubs, but with soils.  The Colorado Plateau, however, was often paved with nothing but bare, lifeless rock―the very bones of the Earth. 

Space in the canyon country looked and felt different.  All of these right angles, these vertical rock faces, seemed to arrest the flow of gargantuan quantities of space, trap them, concentrate them.  I could almost hear and feel space colliding with the massive rock wall that stood behind me. 

Within all of this, a uterine security, the trance of entrance.

By late afternoon, the skies had cleared.  Anticipating a long, cold, lonely night, I decided to create a warm, colorful, lively companion until sleep overcame me.  Wandering near and far, I gathered juniper limbs and branches that I found scattered, gray and fundamentally arid, upon the red earth, and piled them at my campsite.  After scouring the ground, I reluctantly took to breaking branches and limbs from nearby junipers dead but still standing.  Although still reaching for the sky, that leafless wood was equally gray and parched.  Yet when I ripped a limb from a trunk, producing a sharp report that echoed faintly off the stone rampart, a reddish inner pulp, like the marrow of a bone and faintly aromatic, was revealed. 

That night, after a meal of beans and apricots, I sat on a boulder and fed juniper into a fire for three hours, studying the distant lights of Bluff, watching a particular star progress across the sky at the pace of an hour hand, and thoroughly smoking myself with the spice of burning juniper, that unfailing fragrance through the years.  

The following morning, I awoke―as I often would for years to come―to the croak of a solitary raven winging through the vast stillness in the direction of nearby Monument Valley.[2]  

Before leaving, I investigated, simply out of geological interest, a nearby cluster of boulders, some as big as storage sheds, at the base of the cliff.  After rounding the corner of one, I was stunned.  The side of the boulder was not belly-round, but rather planed perfectly flat, as if sliced with a giant diamond wheel.  Pecked into its surface, which was darkened as if with years of accumulated soot (later I would identify this “soot” as a geological/chemical phenomenon known as desert varnish), was a collection of obviously human-made figures.  Several figures clearly depicted humans, or, rather, abstracted humans.   One was armless with stubby legs and an elongated trunk with a large rectangle in its center.  Another possessed all its limbs, although it, too, had an elongated trunk.  A third had an elongated neck and stubby legs and was accompanied by a circle―signifying what? I wondered―immediately to the right of its head.  There was a figure that recalled a snake, or perhaps a river, or perhaps a mountain range.  There was another that clearly resembled a scorpion. 

I knew immediately the figures were not the work of modern man or woman.  Any newcomer to Albuquerque with the slightest bit of curiosity quickly learns of the petroglyphs―human-made etchings―in the volcanic rock of the vast lava field on the western edge of the city.  Indeed, Linda and I had already visited the field that would, within two years, become Petroglyph National Monument.  There we saw etchings, some perhaps 700 years old―well before Coronado’s arrival in today’s North America―that prepared me for the ones I now beheld in southeast Utah.  The idea that these lonely etchings near Bluff, Utah, had survived possibly seven centuries of wind, rain, heat, cold, and dust, murmuring their presence to virtually no one throughout nearly all of those years, stirred my guts.  I entertained the possibility―absurd but stirring nonetheless―that I was the first to witness them after such time, but then the knowledge of the paved road two miles to the east more or less affirmed otherwise. 

The petroglyphs stayed with me all that day as I returned to Albuquerque.

[1] Unless otherwise indicated, Fahrenheit is the temperature scale used throughout this text

[2] Years later, while consulting a map, I would learn that this camping experience occurred just below a place called Muley Point.  And I would read, in an October, 1982 entry of Edward Abbey’s published journal, his description of the point: “It’s as marvelous as ever up here.  The tremendous stillness.  The tremendous infinity of sky.  One raven croaking.  The inevitable raven, guardian spirit of this place.  Sunlight on the beaches down in the Goosenecks of the San Juan River.”

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