Petroglyphs

We walked to the petroglyphs yesterday, a secret spot out in the open, on boulders that long ago were placed here by the lake waters that broke their dam and flooded the river plain. Some 12,000 years ago, people living in this post-flood landscape looked to the sun and the river and the wildlife, and they looked inside themselves, and they carved into the flat, south-facing boulder sides images that held great meaning for them. We never learned what these images meant, one of life’s mysteries we may never decipher. What did their world look like back then, before motorized vehicles rutted out the trails? Before grazing livestock spread cheatgrass and other weeds that modern humans brought from far-away lands? Before hunting rifles and gas-powered boats filled the air with sounds of shots and hums of motors? Before the nearby concrete dam controlled the flow of a river that snakes through a deep and dramatic canyon from the Rocky Mountains down to the Pacific Ocean?

The people who inhabited this place long before European settlement may have climbed down to this spot from the plateau above, or perhaps they lived here in winter, where the canyon briefly widens and holds the warm light. Whatever moved them to carve images in the rocks, they were likely inspired by the same things that filled us with silent joy during our trek to this spot: the cackle of ducks paddling downstream. The graceful, silent winging of a lone heron above the marsh. A herd of deer munching the dry grass, wary of their human neighbors. The contrast of the cloudless pale blue sky, the warm sun radiating off the steep, silent cliffs, and the unmoving land with the ever-meandering, never-stopping river – a reminder that time marches slowly on, even when it feels so still.

As darkness set upon us and the pale sliver of moon began to glow, we stalked our way back to our starting place, dreaming of instead setting up camp in the same spot where our ancient friends once slept. Despite our modern conveniences, like the rubber-soled boots on our feet and the nylon backpacks carrying chocolate, oranges, and salted nuts, we could have been them. We turned our backs to the cold wind, watched the stars emerge one by one, and wondered at the hiding spot of the hooting owl that greeted the night.

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