I find petroglyphs mysterious and magical. My attraction to the so-called primitive art started when I served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in West Africa way back in the 60s. I use the words ‘so-called’ because the art carries an inherent power and a simple beauty— both of which were recognized by artists such as Matisse and Picasso in the early 1900s— that defies the word primitive.
Petroglyphs and pictographs have the ability to transport us into another world and time— and, in so doing, enrich our lives.
While I have two more posts on petroglyphs from other sites we visited on our Southwest tour last fall, I am wrapping up my posts on the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site today. It is a special place that contains over 21,000 petroglyphs representing prehistoric Jornada Mogollon rock art created between 900 and 1400 CE. Peggy and I visited the area once before and will likely visit it again. Judging from our photos, we still have another 20,000 or so petroglyphs to find! (Grin) Aside from that, the beauty of the area alone would draw us back.
MONDAY’S POST: Think you have to go traipsing off to remote corners of the Southwest to find petroglyphs? Think again. The Petroglyph National Monument sits on the edge of Albuquerque, New Mexico. You can be there within 15 minutes from downtown.
My blogging friend Cindy Knoke, who also likes petroglyphs, commented on my Sego Canyon post that it is “fun to try and interpret” rock art. And she’s right. Rock art can range from being a few hundred to several thousands of years old. The best we can do is make educated guesses about what the petroglyphs mean— and this, in turn, gives us a lot of room to use our imagination. Today I am going to take even more liberties in my interpretation and go looking for humor among the rocks. Hopefully the shamans won’t zap me.
WEDNESDAY’S POST: I have been working on my backpacking book, “It’s Five AM and a Bear Is Standing on Me.” I’m to the point now where I am writing the section on the 750 mile backpack trip I did two summers ago down the PCT to celebrate my 75th birthday. I’ve been going through my photos of the journey for inspiration and as a reminder. I decided it would be fun to rerun some of the photos in categories: trees, flowers, rocks, streams and lakes, etc. The should keep us busy for a few Wednesdays.
FRIDAY’S POST: I’ll do a wrap on Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Area.
I’m convinced that a deep fear of snakes is programmed into our brains. It’s an instinctual reaction that suggests we vacate the premises— a trait that we share with other members of the animal kingdom. I was playing with my cat Rasputin in Africa once when I rolled a spring from our screen door at him. I thought he would view the spring as a toy and pounce on it. Instead he jumped four feet into the air and ended up six feet away. Liberians view all snakes as poisonous and Rasputin was 100% Liberian when it came to snakes. He had quickly determined that the spring was a snake and leapt into action— literally.
I’ve pulled a Rasputin myself a few times— especially when I am out in the woods and hear the distinctive buzz of a rattlesnake that I can’t see. It’s guaranteed to increase your heart rate. Once I stepped on a log and it started buzzing. I ended up 30 feet down the trail in one prodigious leap. (Slight exaggeration.) Rasputin would have been proud of me. Had a track coach seen me, I would have been entered in the Olympics.
Our Christian heritage in the West added to our instinctual dislike of our slithery brethren. Everyone knows the Biblical tale of how Eve was seduced into sneaking a snack from a snake and ended up being banned from Eden forever along with her significant other, Adam. The snake has had a bad rap ever since. Eve and Adam didn’t come out all that well either, especially Eve. I’ve always thought that God overacted when they broke his commandment that ignorance is bliss. A little knowledge and out came the fig leaf, okay, but was the flaming sword really necessary.
Ancient cultures have had a different perspective on snakes. The fact that they shed their skin annually suggested immortality. Your old body isn’t working quite the way it should? Fine. Get a new one. (This is particularly attractive to newly-turned 77-year olds.) As a result, snakes were considered sacred. If you’ve visited ancient sites in Mexico and Central America, the odds are you are familiar with Quetzalcóatl, the plumed serpent, the Toltec/Aztec/Mayan god of the wind and lots of other things.
Given his importance to these cultures, it isn’t surprising that Quetzalcoatl made his way north and became part of the mythology of early people living in the Southwest. We found a number of petroglyph serpents crawling over the rocks of Three Rivers. I should point out here that the snakes weren’t just any old snakes. They were rattlesnakes! I’d also like to report that Peggy was quite pleased that we didn’t find any live representatives of the clan among the rocks.
NEXT POSTS: Not exactly sure what I will focus on, but it will be petroglyphs for another week.
I am still off celebrating my birthday week. Since I am in my seventh decade, I get seven days. I started the practice way back when I was a youngster of 50. I took five days off each year during that decade and made darn sure they were work days. Being retired, I have more flexibility. (Grin) What this means now is that I am reposting another blog from my past. This one is from 2017 so several of you may have already seen it. Not to worry. These petroglyphs are alien enough they are worth visiting again. Looking at them again, I thought of the post I just did on shamans of Three Rivers. Check out the photo below. Does it get stranger than this? Enjoy.
Zipping along Interstate 70 in Utah, you might very well decide to take a detour and visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It is a decision you will never regret. The odds are, however, that you will miss the small road that extends north of the Arches turnoff heading toward the town of Thompson Springs. In so doing so, you will miss the opportunity to visit one of the most magical and mysterious rock art sites in the Western United States: Sego Canyon.
Three different historical periods are represented in the rock art here dating back over a period of 6,000 years. The most fascinating to me are the pictographs left behind during the Archaic period by nomads who roamed the area from 8,000 to 2,000 years ago. The large, anthropomorphic forms that are painted on the rock normally lack eyes, arms and legs but may come with antennae, snakes and earrings. Known as the Barrier Canyon Style, it’s hard not to think of these pictographs as alien, or at least imagine a shaman encountering these creatures on a drug induced journey into an alien world.
The Fremont Culture took over from the Archaic period and lasted from 600 CE to 1200 CE. Unlike the nomadic Archaic peoples, the natives of the Fremont period grew corn, lived in permanent stone buildings, and had a complex social structure. Most of the rock art they left behind is in petroglyph form, pecked into rather than painted on the rock.
And finally, we have the more modern Ute Culture that populated the area from 1300 to 1880 CE, when the Utes were forced out of their homes and onto Indian Reservations so pioneers could grab their land. One way to distinguish petroglyphs from this period is the presence of horses, which the Spaniards brought to North America in the Sixteenth Century. In fact, horses are a major tool used in dating rock art.
NEXT POST: It’s all about snakes. I hope you like creepy crawlies. I do.
It’s my 77th birthday today, and, since this is petroglyph week, I decided to repost a couple of older blogs although I may be a tad sensitive about the ‘older’ designation. (Grin) Actually Peggy bought me a new light weight sleeping bag. She wants us to do Oregon next year following the PCT from the Oregon border to the Washington border. We are still thinking ‘younger’ around here. Anyway, enjoy the petroglyphs of Dinosaur National Monument today and Sego Canyon tomorrow. On Friday, I’ll be back on schedule, maybe, with the Snakes of Three Rivers petroglyph site! Also, I will hold on responding to comments and checking in on your blogs, but I will get there on Friday and the weekend. Now it is time to go play! We are on the Oregon Coast again, this time in Florence.
Peggy and I crossed over the Green River in Dinosaur National Monument and followed the road toward the cabin of Josie Basset Morris, a tough old pioneer woman who had worked her way through five husbands and finally discovered she preferred living alone.
The river, mountains and distant vistas entertained us along the way. Two prominent landmarks, Elephant Toes and Turtle Rock, lived up to the names the early settlers had bestowed on them. I found the big toes particularly amusing.
The true surprise on our way to Josie’s, however, was the Indian rock-art. Huge six-foot lizards had been pecked into the cliff faces high above the Cub Creek Valley. One can only wonder if the Native Americans of the Fremont Culture had somehow made the correlation between dinosaur bones found throughout Dinosaur National Monument and really big lizards. Or did small lizards so prominent in desert environment serve as the models?
Numerous other petroglyphs also demanded our attention. We even found a partial image of Kokopelli, the hunch backed flute player found in ancient rock-art from Mexico to Canada and whose image has been applied on everything from jewelry, to blankets, to pottery in today’s gift shops throughout the West. Kokopelli was both a musician and trickster god, but mainly he was a fertility deity known for his bad behavior. Watch out fair maidens one and all.
Drums were beating in the pitch-black night and people were screaming. It was my first day as a Peace Corps Volunteer in the upcountry town of Gbarnga, Liberia in 1965 and I didn’t have a clue what was going on. All I knew was that the house had no electricity, my flashlight batteries were weak, and there was no kerosene to light a lantern. It was time to circle the wagons. I put the three folding metal chairs that served as my furniture up against the house’s three screen windows so they would come crashing down if anyone tried to break in. And then I laid down on the house’s only other furniture, a moldy mattress, hoping that whatever was outside would stay there.
The next morning, I learned that someone had died the day before. I was right to be frightened. The newly dead among the Kpelle people are dangerous unless they are given a proper going away party. They hang around and do really bad things. A great amount of cane-juice, rum, had been consumed during the night to assure that wouldn’t happen. I had entered a world where offerings were left under giant cottonwoods for the spirit that lived in the tree, the lightning man could make lightning strike people, justice was determined with a red-hot machete, chickens were sacrificed to carry messages to the dead, and Sam, the young man who worked for us, had scars marching up his chest from the teeth of the Bush Devil who had eaten him as a child and spit him up as an adult.
The reason I am relating this story here is because the experience was so different from anything I had ever known (you can read about it in my book, The Bush Devil Ate Sam) that it was very difficult to comprehend. When you begin to explore the petroglyphs, or rock art carvings, that are found throughout the southwestern United States, the experience is similar. You enter a realm that existed from several hundred to several thousands of years ago among the early peoples of North America when there was no written language to explain what they were thinking or doing. At best, we can guess or get hints from modern day Native Americans about the meaning of the rock art.
No one exemplifies the difficulty of comprehending the world of early Americans better than the shaman, a powerful figure who utilized trances and mind enhancing drugs to enter other realms and do battle with monsters that brought sickness, death, hunger and bad weather into our world. It’s a scary, dangerous place. Like Sam’s Bush Devil, the shaman was part doctor, priest, policeman, leader and judge. You didn’t want one as an enemy.
In the Southwest, the shaman’s drug of choice for his or her journeys into other realms was the plant Datura, which you have already met on recent posts of mine. Georgia O’Keeffe liked to paint the flower and I included one on my Valentine’s Day blog. Beside the plant’s beauty, it is a member of the nightshade family and a powerful, dangerous hallucinogen that may cause death (don’t try it at home). One of the characteristics of the drug is that it enlarges your pupils. European women once used one of its cousins to enlarge their pupils and increase their power over men (whoops, I meant appeal). Peggy has naturally large brown eyes. I get it. They named the plant belladonna, which translates beautiful woman.
The enlarged pupils the shamans would have had experienced from consuming datura gave me an insight about the numerous large eyes we found staring at us out of the rocks at the Three Rivers National Recreation Petroglyph site in south-central New Mexico. We visited there in October as part of our Southwest tour. Could it have been that the shamans were watching us, warning us to be on our best behavior? We treaded carefully among the petroglyphs, making sure that we didn’t do any damage to the ancient rock art.
Today’s photographs by Peggy and me will reflect the large eyes and other petroglyphs we found at Three Rivers that might relate to the shamans. Future posts over the next two to three weeks will feature different rock art themes (like snakes, for example) that we found at Three Rivers and other Southwestern sites we visited in October.
NEXT POST: Wednesday’s photo essay (if I get to it since it’s my birthday week) will journey north to Sego Canyon in Utah and some very unworldly (UFO- alien-type) shamans. On Friday it is petroglyph snakes. Lots of them!
“It’s perfectly mad looking country— hills and cliffs and washes too crazy to imagine and thrown up into the air by God and let tumble where they would. It was certainly as spectacular as anything I have ever seen.” Georgia O’Keeffe on Ghost Ranch in 1937
The connection between Ghost Ranch and Georgia O’Keeffe is a strong one. I suspect that most people who are aware of the area associate it with the artist. But Ghost Ranch has its own history before, during and after Georgia made it her summer escape from the eastern US, New York and her husband. Once upon a very long time ago during the Triassic era (think 200 million years), it was located near the equator and home to a small dinosaur, Coelophysis. Over 1000 have been found on the property. You probably wouldn’t want to encounter one. It stood approximately nine feet tall, was carnivorous, and ran very fast— probably in packs. “If the left one don’t a-get you, the right one will.” (My apologies to Tennessee Ernie Ford and 16 Tons.)
In more modern times, circa 1880, the Archuleta brothers took up residence at the ranch. They were outlaws, cattle rustlers to be more specific. They liked the ranch because it was remote, had water, and was known as “El Rancho de los Brujos,” The Ranch of the Witches. The latter was important because it kept the local folks who were superstitious, i.e. almost everyone, away from their operation. Unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you regard such things, one of the brothers killed the other in a dispute over gold. A posse showed up and hung the remaining brother and any of the other outlaws who hadn’t skedaddled, adding to the ranch’s dark reputation.
Jumping forward to 1928, Roy Pfaffle won the ranch in a poker game and his wife, Carol Stanley, a woman who obviously thought ahead, registered the ranch in her name. She also decided to call it Ghost Ranch, given its history. Two years later, waving goodbye to her now ex, she moved to the ranch with high hopes of making a living by establishing a high-end dude ranch for wealthy people. They came, but there wasn’t quite enough income to make ends meet. She sold the property to Arthur Stack in 1935, one of the wealthy guests and an early conservationist. He maintained it as a dude ranch up until 1955 when he donated it to the Presbyterian Church as a retreat center, which it continues to serve as today.
This just about brings us to O’Keeffe, but not quite. In the early to mid-40s some mysterious strangers showed up on weekends using alias names who either wouldn’t or couldn’t talk about what they did or their past. Turns out that among these guests were the likes of Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi and Niels Bohr, who just happened to be building the world’s first atomic bomb south of the ranch at Los Alamos.
Also of note, Hollywood had discovered Ghost Ranch. Peggy and I found a list of movies that had portions filmed there in the Visitors’ Center. Among them were City Slickers, Young Guns, Wyatt Earp, All the Pretty Horses, Cowboys and Aliens, the 2013 version of the Lone Ranger and the 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven. Do you see a certain trend here? Ride’em cowboy.
Georgia O’Keeffe made her first visit to Ghost Ranch in 1934 and immediately fell in love with its wild beauty. Not so much the fact that it was a dude ranch. She liked to work alone; her art demanded solitude. It wasn’t that she was opposed to having the occasional dude around, but lots of dudes riding horses were counterproductive. None-the-less, she rented a cabin from Stack and when a long-term rental became available due to an illness, she stayed there all summer, beginning a tradition that would last up until she moved into her house in Abiquiu in 1949.
It wasn’t long before she persuaded Arthur Stack to rent her his house, Ranchos de los Burros. It came with more isolation and scenic views. And a great piano. I found a story where O’Keeffe and several friends showed up off-season and found the house locked up tight. They proceeded to break in and spend the evening lying around listening to Ansel Adams knock out tunes on the piano. If I could do time travel, it’s an event that I would travel back to!
Once, when she showed up for her usual summer stay, she found the house occupied and went ballistic. When Stack pointed out that the house didn’t actually belong to her, she insisted on buying it. She was also irritated when Stack gave Ghost Ranch to the Presbyterians rather than selling it to her. The Presbyterians respected her privacy, however, and she eventually developed a good relationship with them.
I’ll start my main photo section today with a painting by Georgia O’Keeffe of her “private mountain,” the Cerro Pedernal. As she said, “It belongs to me. God told me if I painted it enough, I could have it.” So, she painted it over 20 times and requested that her ashes be scattered on the mountain when she died. When I first read about her passion for the mountain, I thought of the post-impressionist French painter Paul Cézanne and his ‘holy mountain,’ Mount Sainte-Victoire, which he could see from his home in Aix and painted some 60 times.
NEXT POST: A journey into the world of shamans and petroglyphs. The start of a new series.
A while back Peggy and I were driving north from somewhere, maybe San Diego, when we drove past Hearst Castle and came to Piedras Blancas. It was full of sunbathers, somewhat weight challenged— and nude. Naturally we had to stop and break out our cameras.
NEXT POSTS: On Friday, we will visit Ghost Ranch in New Mexico to wrap up the Georgia O’Keeffe series. On Monday we will start a new one as we look into the strange eyes of shamans and check out other petroglyphs.
Last summer when I was traveling down Highway 395 through Nevada and California, I discovered an excellent exhibit on Georgia O’Keeffe at the Nevada Museum of Art in Reno. It encouraged me to visit the places she had lived in New Mexico as one of the focuses of our Southwest trip last fall. Peggy, who likes O’Keeffe’s art as much as I do, readily agreed. In November, before Peggy and I climbed on Amtrak and made our way east to Virginia, I did two posts on Georgia and her time in Taos. In the first (go here), I featured relevant photos I had taken at the exhibit in Reno and then photos that Peggy and I had taken of the Church of St. Francisco of Asis church in Taos, a church that O’Keeffe had painted and her friend Ansel Adams had photographed. In the second (go here), I featured Mable Dodge Luhan, the famous art patron who persuaded Georgia to visit Taos, and the 1000-year-old Taos Pueblo, which O’Keeffe also painted and Adams photographed.
Today, we are going to visit O’Keeffe’s home in Abiquiu, New Mexico. When she first visited her the place in the mid 30’s, it was an old Spanish-Colonial compound that was basically in ruins. But she fell in love with it, and according to Georgia, a particular door. She had to have it. Acquiring it took ten years, which she did in 1945. It was up to her friend, Maria Chabot, working as the general contractor for four years, to turn it into a home. ”It took six months just to get the pigs out of the house,” Chabot would claim. O’Keeffe lived in the house up until 1984 when ill health forced her to move to Santa Fe where she died in 1986 at the age of 98.
Peggy and I signed up for a tour of the home and studio with Georgia O’Keeffe Museum in Santa Fe. It started at the O’Keeffe Welcome Center in Abiquiu and then progressed up to the house. We were allowed to take photos outside but not inside. (I suspect that’s to encourage people to buy the tour instead of just going on-line.) One of the more interesting items inside was a piano that Georgia bought so Ansel Adams could play when he came to visit her. We learned that he had trained as a classical pianist instead of a photographer. The house and surroundings inspired a number of her paintings including the door that had originally attracted her, which she painted some 20 times. Another focus, the cottonwoods growing in the Chama River Valley that her house overlooked, she painted 24 times
NEXT POSTS: On Wednesday it’s time for another photographic essay. This time I will post photos of some quite humorous elephant seals Peggy and I found on the beach near Hearst Castle in Southern California. On Friday, I will conclude my Georgia O’Keeffe series with a trip to Ghost Ranch, about 15 miles north of Abiquiu where Georgia also lived and painted.
The Bush Devil Ate Sam is an important record and a serious story, yet told easily, and with delightful humor. This is one of the most satisfying books I have ever read, because it entertained me thoroughly AND made me feel better informed. —Hilary Custance Green: British Author... Click on the image to learn more about my book, the Bush Devil Ate Sam, and find out where it can be ordered.
Special Thanks to Word Press for featuring my blog and to my readers and followers. You are all appreciated.