By evening, 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, gray and arid, that I found scattered 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 canyon wall, a reddish inner pulp, like the marrow of a bone and still faintly aromatic, was revealed.
That night, after a meal of beans and apricots (and yes, a windy night inside my Sears bag would follow), 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 incomparable spice of burning juniper.
The following morning, I awoke to the croak of a solitary raven winging through the vast stillness in the direction of nearby Monument Valley. 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. And pecked into its surface, which was darkened as if with years of accumulated soot (later I would identify it as a geological/chemical phenomenon known as “desert varnish”), was a collection of obviously manmade figures.
Several figures clearly depicted human beings, or, rather, abstracted human beings. Today, they might be said to resemble a modern person’s impressions of space aliens. 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?) 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―manmade 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 seven hundred 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 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. Then I entertained the absurd possibility that I was the first to witness them after such time, but 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.
(Years later, while consulting a map, I would learn that the camping experience just described occurred just below a place called Muley Point. Also years later, I would read, in an October 25, 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.”)