Naming: Grand Canyon, Arizona and Monumental Valley, Utah
At sunrise I stand at the end of Bright Angel Point, watching a line of buttes catch the first pure light angling across the North Rim. Soon a family shows up, and the father begins naming the most prominent landmarks for his young daughter. "That one's Deva," he tells her, "then Brahma, and Zoroaster." But when he explains how they've been named after gods, his wife cuts in. "Fictional gods," she adds, likely unaware of how Grand Canyon place names have stirred up controversy from the start.
The tradition of naming natural features after gods and goddesses began in 1882 with geologist Clarence Dutton, an agnostic dropout from theology school. His approach rankled many, and some authorities at the time violently disagreed with him. At Yale, Dutton had taken an interest in eastern religions and saw in these dramatic rocks the architectural lines of temples and tabernacles. He named one of the finest "Vishnu Temple," noting its "surprising resemblance to an Oriental pagoda."
A moment later I notice the light striking Angels Gate, an immense pyramid of red topped by twin summits. It's symmetry and bold simplicity set it apart. But these days Angels Gate has transformed into Snoopy's Doghouse. A mule wrangler, I've been told, happened to glance at Angels Gate from a certain angle and there it was – Snoopy lying on his doghouse with his feet pointing skyward. From then on it was all over. Whenever I look at it now, I see a cartoon dog flat on his back.
Grand Canyon stirs the imagination. People see in the complex topography everything from alligators to anvils, from funeral pyres to palisades, and many of these have landed on the maps. Others see it differently, and I make a point to avoid reading into these great rockforms what's not there.
Carol Tallis was raised in Monument Valley by her aunt, a traditional Navajo woman. Each day Carol had to herd sheep, lonely work for a young girl.
"When the ground gets too hot in the middle of the day," she told me, "the sheep find the shade. I would go under the cottonwood trees and lie on my back with my feet crossed and look at the clouds float by. I'd see the heads of dogs and donkeys and cats. Sometimes I'd look at the rocks and see different faces. I'd go home and tell my aunt what I saw, and she would scold me. 'Don't do that to the clouds and the standing rocks. Just see in them what they are.'"
For a traditional Navajo each cloud and rock spire has an inner form, an animating force considered holy. Carol's aunt taught her it was disrespectful to look at a cloud and see something other than a cloud or to look at a rock and see something other than a rock. On aesthetic grounds alone, I agree with the old Navajo's way of thinking. When someone tells me to check out another Snoopy on His Doghouse – there's at least three of them out there – I refuse. I'm content to simply look at a rock and see it for its own beauty. For some of us, that's enough.
As the sun angles higher, I turn onto a dirt road and park the truck below a line of imposing cliffs. My friends Tony Williams and Mary Allen pull in next to me. We've come to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument to investigate a dinosaur tracksite somewhere in the rocks above. Below the site lies what may be the only known prehistoric pictograph of a dinosaur track.
Reaching the first cliff, we head up a narrow ledge as a raven shoots overhead and disappears into the blue. Talus covers a series of stairstep ledges leading to a vertical face. We take turns climbing the cliff and soon reach the top of an escarpment a thousand feet above the flats. The three of us cross the rimrock and begin finding tracks sunk in the stone with the claw marks clearly visible. These ancient prints are enormous; the most distinct impression measures more than seventeen-inches long. At least two dozen of them cover the surface of red sandstone, and one trackway leads straight to the cliff edge and keeps going. The imagination follows.
Prehistoric Indians would have studied these footprints with intense interest. Since their lives depended on their ability to read tracks, they would have observed how this animal walked on two legs and estimated its size and weight. They probably concluded the tracks belonged to an unknown creature, something birdlike and truly mythic in scale.
Paleontologists now suspect the tracks came from the Dilophosaurus, a powerful bipedal carnivore standing about eight-feet tall and reaching eighteen feet in length. Capable of sudden bursts of speed, the dinosaur hunted in packs along the banks of meandering rivers. The first fossil prints discovered in America likely came from Dilophosaurus. In 1802 a boy named Pliny Moody plowed up a sandstone slab on his father’s farm in Massachusetts. On it he found the tracks of a strange, three-toed creature and hauled the rock home for a doorstop, where most conversation pieces ended up in those days. Curious neighbors debated whether the birdlike prints had been left by a hefty turkey or Noah’s raven.
Reverend Edward Hitchcock, a professor at Amherst College, heard about the Noah’s Raven slab and collected it for the Pratt museum. Hitchcock was the greatest fossil tracker of his time, and throughout his life continued to insist these prints came from extinct species of giant birds, not dinosaurs. Inspired by American Indian tales of the Thunderbird, he named the prints Eubrontes giganteus, meaning “great thunderer.” Over the years, attempts to trace the origins of birds and dinosaurs have been tangled in controversy and outright hoaxes. But many scientists hold the theory that modern birds evolved from certain theropod dinosaurs. Hitchcock’s classifications no longer appear as farfetched as they once did.
With these discoveries, Hitchcock found himself living in a world of deep geological time where entire species had become extinct. And the remnants of this ancient world could not be explained by Noah’s flood alone. He summed up his discovery of fossil tracks in a report to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 1848.
“I have gone back into those immensely remote ages, and watched those shores along which these enormous and heteroclitic beings walked. Now I have seen, in scientific vision, an apterous bird, some twelve or fifteen feet high, – large flocks of them, – walking over the muddy surface, followed by many others of analogous character, but of smaller size. . . . Beyond, half seen amid the darkness, there move along animals so strange that they can hardly be brought within the types of existing organization. Strange, indeed, is this menagerie of remote sandstone days.”
A short distance below the rim, we make our way to an overhang covered with more than seventy-five pictographs. The central figure of this rock art panel is a three-toed track painted red, about a foot long, and instantly recognizable. It clearly depicts one of the fossil tracks we had seen above. Possibly unique, this ancient pictograph may be the oldest known recording of dinosaur footprints in North America.
The painted track resembles a bird with outstretched wings, and additional pictographs of stylized birds reinforce the motif. One has a triangle for each wing, while other bird figures are standing or shown in flight. The inspiration for the painted images came from the rock itself, from the hard evidence lying right in front of the painter. The rock art represents an attempt by people long ago to come to terms with the fact of an earlier and much stranger world.
Looking closer, we can see pictographs of people converging on the track from each side. Some of them has their hands raised as if venerating it. Or they may be dancing before it, another way of praying. “It looks,” Mary says, “like they are paying homage to the track.”
On our way back, we stop at a lower panel of petroglyphs. A bird-footed figure can be seen with clawed hands sprouting extra talons, producing a wild, branching effect much like the antlers of an elk. In some images the boundary between bird and human has blurred, making it hard to say if the figures are birdmen or birds with human attributes. At a certain level of abstraction it may not matter.
In 1882 Smithsonian ethnographer Frank Cushing recorded a Hopi emergence story at Oraibi. “Although all the waters had flowed away,” a clan leader told Cushing, “all the earth was damp and soft, hence it is that we may see to this day, between this place toward the westward and the place whence we came out, the tracks of men and many strange creatures; for the earth has since changed to stone and all the tracks are preserved as when they were first made.”
Why should I have returned?
My knowledge would not fit into theirs.
I found untouched the desert of the unknown,
Big enough for my feet. It is my home.
It is always beyond them. The future
Splits the present with the echo of my voice.
Hoarse with fulfillment, I never made promises.
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On Rock Art: Four Corners
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Cowboys who first saw the Green Mask pictograph in Grand Gulch thought it was Egyptian and named the tributary Sheik’s Canyon. The early archeologists recognized it as a ceremonial mask. Then Sally Cole made the connection between the picto and an identically-painted facial scalp found by Kidder in Cave One more than 100 miles south. So the Green Mask became a trophy head. And now another possibility unreported in the literature. A Hopi clan curates the facial scalps of two venerated warriors, both women. A friend from Third Mesa has prayed to them a number of times when he visits during a particular ceremony. So is the Green Mask a wandering Egyptian, a sacred mask, a clan deity, a war trophy, or an actual individual? Take your pick. The literal and metaphoric don’t have to be mutually exclusive.
As Gregory Batson used to say “What is real – a pound of mutton of the Lamb of God?”
Meaning may not lie in the intrinsic value of a symbol but in the act of painting itself or in its interactive nature. Certain rock art is designed to interact with shadow, light, and sound. Other rock art may only be completed through prayer and ritual – and its meaning may reside in the experience it induces. I know of a Basketmaker rock art site used as a Navajo shrine – probably a reanimation rather than a cultural survival. And by the way, why did they bury the Pope with a bag of coins – to pay the boatman Charon or bribe St. Peter?
The creation of rock art happens at a moment in time rather than a steady trickle. A tangent: The Oregon Trail inscriptions happened during a restricted time period. We still make pilgrimages to the site to reconnect with the past, but it’s taboo to add to them.
Some experts see all rock art as an artifact of the sacred. But sometimes we read too much into these things. A traditional Hopi leader mentioned an incident where a Hopi spotted a white woman dancing in front of the Dawn Woman shrine at dawn. The Hopi called the tribal police, who went to check it out. The Pahana woman saw the patrol car approaching and panicked. She took off in her SUV, took a turn too fast, and rolled her vehicle. My comment to the Hopi telling me the story was, “Maybe she shouldn’t have been dancing in front of that shrine.” The Hopi looked at me liked I’d missed the point. “Maybe,” he said, “she shouldn’t have been trying to outrun the police.”
From a letter to Mark Elson
River: Colorado: Grand Canyon, Arizona
By the end of March, 1981, Jim Evans and Mark Scanlon had a pair of Death Stars ready to launch. The make-shift rafts were designed to hold the boatmen, enough beer to last the duration, and an Irish setter named Boomer. Their plan was simple: Push off without a permit, float through the Grand Canyon on some of the biggest whitewater anywhere, and exit undetected two weeks later.
Evans, who worked as a logger, thought a sneak trip was an absolutely great idea. “No waiting list," he said, "no rules. Bring the dog, sure! Don’t bother to bring your i.d.! No one’s going to be checking i.d.s at 3:00 am.”
Late at night they slipped down to the Colorado River below Lees Ferry with the headlights off. Closing the doors quietly, they set the rafts in the water and quickly loaded the rocket boxes and coolers. At the core of each craft were two inner tubes, about six feet in diameter, salvaged from a skidder. They supported a welded metal frame and a pair of heavy oars. Nothing was tied down; they would take care of the details later. Someone forget the bow lines; no problem, they’d also handle that downriver. But Evans did remember to bring a scanner. If the rangers began to close in once they were in the canyon, his plan was to sink the boats and escape on foot.
"My heart’s racing," he said, "as we made the fastest put-in in the history of the Colorado. Mark was gone into the inky blackness. I put the dog in place on the beer cooler and shoved off." Evans immediately got turned around, thinking the river flowed the other way. "It was dark, I couldn’t see anything, but I could see by the lights of the truck leaving that I was going to the right. So I thought, ‘Goody, I’m in an eddy!’ You want to chill before you blast off down the river.” The boatman used the moment to finish rigging, and a moment was all he had.
“First thing I tried was my oars,” he said. Carved from wood the night before, the handles didn’t work. “The oars were useless. No big deal, I’d solve that problem later but not in the middle of the night. So I’m drifting along, checking things out. The next thing you know I’ve come to the Paria riffle, and I’m not very far from the shore. I start hitting rocks and spray’s flying. The boat’s spinning around! Jesus Christ, something’s wrong! There was nothing to do but try not to get crushed by the rocket boxes.” As Evans bounced through the rocky shallows, he realized his mistake. “That’s where I learned which way the river really flows."
Rapid, Boomer, rapid!
Next day Scanlon let the current draw him toward House Rock Rapid. “He’s cool,” said Evans, who was watching from shore. “Most people would be flailing at the oars. He’s super cool. It was awesome to see – Mark and the Death Star. Wow, it was glorious!” In an instant he was heading straight for a tremendous hole. “I saw him going in, then lost him.” The raft flipped and Scanlon bobbed downriver. As he disappeared, Evans gave him a thumbs up and shouted, “Hasta la vista!”
Then it was his turn. Boomer, wearing a child’s life jacket, sat on the cooler as Evans pushed off. “It looked like I was going to eat it. I turned sideways and did everything I could to miss the hole, and I hit half of it. The dog bounced off, and the life jacket wrapped around its back legs. So he spent the rest of the rapid swimming with his head under the water. I finally pulled him back toward the boat and got him back on." The life jacket was never used again, but the incident took its toll. Whenever someone shouted, “Rapid, Boomer, rapid!” the dog would start to shake and quiver.
Evans rejoined Scanlon in an eddy below, and they inventoried the damage: two metal oars at the bottom of the river and the contents of the cooler gone. No steak, no hot dogs, and – no beer. Fighting panic at the thought of a river trip without beer, they bolted the boats together and rigged the remaining oars to steer a single, reconfigured Death Star. “From then on,” Evans said, “we were joined at the hip.”
As sometimes happens, what the river takes the river gives back. Not far below House Rock they spotted some shiny objects floating in an eddy. “Brewskis!” Evans shouted. “A whole case. We would find four or five in every eddy and think, ‘Might as well drink them as save them. Drink them before you lose them!' And we found an incredible amount. It amazed me, but you just can’t have too many.”
When they finished the beer, out came a bottle of rum. They passed it back and forth until it slipped through their hands and into the river. Half their remaining supply of booze had just disappeared. But before they could properly mourn the loss, the effects of the alcohol they had already consumed kicked in. What happened next no one remembered clearly, but by the time they hit the Roaring Twenties, boatmen and boat dog were stretched across the tubes. “I only woke up for rapids,” Evan recalled, “and wouldn’t have woken up then except it was so noisy.”
Their plan was to pass Phantom Ranch at night to avoid getting busted. But having lost track of where they were, the boatmen found themselves drifting stark naked past the tourists. “Do you know where Horn Creek is?” Evans shouted to surprised hikers on the footbridge and sunbathers at the foot of Bright Angel Trail. No one had a clue, but soon Horn Creek Rapid found them. At this stage of the journey, they made no attempt to scout it.
“We stopped checking out rapids,” he said, “because it didn’t make any difference one way or another.” All he remembered was going through “a big waterfall down and up,” where the frame bent and punctured a tube. “It was all an adventure to me,” Evans added. “It was the first time I’d been down the river.”
After making repairs, they pushed on. One day flowed into another as the boatmen were forced to run from dawn until dark to make their scheduled rendezvous at Diamond Creek. Finally, with the end almost in sight, Boomer mutinied. Evans and Scanlon pulled into a beach a few miles above the takeout, and when it was time to go the dog ran the other direction. Evans figured Boomer planned to desert the expedition, the way three of John Wesley Powell’s men had done. “That was it,” Evans said; “the dog had it. We had to grab him and drag him in the boat. I told him, ‘No whining, climb aboard!’”
The outlaw trip reached the takeout on the fourteen day, ending the voyage. And at midnight two friends rattled down the Diamond Creek road to shuttle them away before park rangers or Hualapai Indians could begin asking embarrassing questions. They loaded four people, two dogs, and an entire river trip in a Subaru station wagon and headed up the rough dirt road to Peach Springs.
Rumors of the episode made the rounds of the river crowd, growing with each retelling. And even years later whenever anyone said the word “rapid,” old Boomer would start to shiver and shake, reliving his wild ride on the Death Star.
Visions: Canyon Diablo, Arizona
Elvis Finds God
A scrawled note sat in my files for years: "Elvis has vision while crossing Arizona desert," it stated. No date, no source. But after reading it again I couldn't shake the idea of Elvis Presley wandering through the desert in a pair of blue suede shoes, searching for God. It didn’t exactly fit my image of the rock star who had become an idol to millions. On the other hand, I knew how often the improbable happens around here and decided to look into it.
For an entire year Elvis had been searching for the ultimate truth, I learned. He had read a hundred books on religion, guided by Larry Geller, his hairdresser and spiritual advisor. In the winter of 1965 Elvis left Graceland in a motor home to star in a movie called Harum Scarum, and on his way to Hollywood he found what he was seeking.
They were behind schedule and driving straight through. For hundreds of miles, Elvis brooded, rarely talking to the others in his crew. His spiritual quest had reached a crisis point, and doubts were crowding in. He was all shook up in ways few imagined. Reaching Amarillo, Elvis took the wheel. For hours they headed west on Route 66, crossing New Mexico into the vast, open spaces of Arizona. "Man," he told Geller, "I needed this to really shake the past and be alone like this with nature, away from everyone else." Elvis drove in silence across the stark expanse of the Painted Desert, and then somewhere near Canyon Diablo it happened.
"In the distance mountains loomed in the fading light," Geller recalled in his biography, If I Can, Elvis' Own Story. "An iridescent blue sky seemed to drape itself over the sacred mountains of the Hopi Indians and color everything in view with a peaceful, heavenly shade." Suddenly Elvis shouted, "Whoa!'"
He was staring at a mass of clouds building over the San Francisco Peaks. "Do you see what I see?" he asked. Geller looked up and there it was – the face of Joseph Stalin in the clouds. No doubt about it. The image dissipated as the two of them stared, but the singer continued to gaze at it transfixed.
Abruptly Elvis pulled the bus off the highway and hit the brakes, telling the hairdresser to follow him. They took off running into the desert. "It's God! It's God!" he cried with tears streaming down his face. "It's love. God is love!" He hugged Geller, laughing and crying. The singer explained how he feared the face of Stalin was a projection of his inner self, and if this were true he only wanted to die. At that moment the cloud transformed into the smiling face of Jesus, and Elvis knew God had finally revealed himself. "Can you imagine," he asked Geller, "what the fans would think if they saw me like this?"
By the time they reached California, Elvis had decided to radically change his life and told Geller he wanted to become a monk. "I don't want this bullshit any more," he said. And then the realization hit the hairdresser. They stood to lose the entire Elvis brand if the singer followed through with his decision. So he had a long talk with his friend, and convinced him his talent was a gift from God, one he couldn't renounce. After listening to the arguments, Elvis agreed to continue his career and soon slipped back into the Hollywood scene.
The singer had come a long way from Tupelo, and I suppose his fate had been locked in long before. But I wonder how different his life might have been if he had let his vision change his life. Instead of spending his final years as a lounge act in Vegas, a gaunt Elvis might have ended up in a monk's robes raking pebbles in a Zen garden.
note: In 1993 an Elvis Presley guitar sold at auction for $151,000. The day before, a certified sliver of the True Cross went for $18,000.