Beauty and Mystery… The Three Rivers’ Petroglyph Site

This cottonwood decked out in fall colors was one of many views we had from the ridge where Peggy and I wandered among the rocks searching for rock art at the Three Rivers’ petroglyph site in New Mexico.

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.

An African medicine mask I brought back from West Africa.

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.

Peggy and I have often found petroglyphs located in beautiful areas and couldn’t help but wonder if that wasn’t a factor in deciding where to locate rock art. If I were going to peck out a masterpiece, I’d want this view. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
The stream flowing through the area shown by these colorful cottonwoods was a village site for the Jornada.
While some petroglyphs are easily recognizable, like a roadrunner going after a rattle snake, others, such as this human-like figure grafted on to what appears to be an octopus, are mind boggling. I call him Octoman.
At first, Peggy and I couldn’t identify this bird. Checking out the Sibley Guide to Birds afterwards, we determined it was a roadrunner with its crest down. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Petroglyphs can be quite simple like this stick figure. Maybe it was the shaman’s day to take his child to work and he handed her a rock to peck with.
More sophisticated but what’s the meaning? It had me starry eyed.
Bighorn sheep petroglyphs are found throughout the Southwest. Some of the most sophisticated are found at Three Rivers. Note the use of the bump in the rock for the eye.
And this head on view. Note how the horns are curved back in a realistic way, even with a degree of perspective..
I may be wrong, but I looked at this and saw a fox. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
No question about this fish. Patterns are often tied into petroglyphs of animals, and in this case, fish. They may have meaning or they may just be decorations.
An insect also had patterns.
Just for fun, I think this is a dragonfly.
I found both the shading and the the eye impressive here.
Another view of the surrounding area. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)
Part of the mystery for me is trying to figure out what I am looking at. The triangle in the box is obvious as is the circle on the right. But is that a skull above the triangle with chin, mouth and eyes? Is there an arm over to the left? Or is my imagination working overtime again?
I’ll close my Three Rivers’ posts with photos of my favorite rock art from the site: this mountain lion with its tail proudly folded over his back.
A look at the rock including other rock art.
Looking up at the rock from below. My final photo today.

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.

A Bit of Humor Among the Rocks… The Petroglyphs of Three Rivers

Who would have ever thought that we would find a cow on a pedestal giving us ‘the look’ at the Three Rivers petroglyph site in New Mexico! Wait, there weren’t any cattle in North America when this petroglyph was made and the ‘cow’ isn’t standing on a pedestal, it is standing on its tail. And a big tail it is!

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.

I know that some of you are punctuation geeks. Obviously, I’m not. But I depend on Peggy to catch some of my more glaring errors. For example, I am constantly adding an apostrophe to “its” when none is needed. I know the difference, but apparently my fingers don’t. I ask all of you, however, do you think an apostrophe is required here?
I had to look twice, and maybe even three times. These shamans have created an imaginary bus for their journey into the other world— and imaginary seats.
This woman (or girl) is having a bad hair day. “I recognize that, ” Peggy says.
Speaking of having a bad day, I’d say that this Bighorn sheep qualifies. And that’s definitely a ‘why me’ expression on its face.
The problem for the guy with arrows is minimal comparison to this fellow who had turned around to see why his front legs are missing and discovered a badger draped across his body eating his back legs as well. The expression here is more like ‘What the…!”
The only solution is to get out while the getting is good, as fast as you can.
If you think your life is complicated… The rabbit is keeping its distance while the stick figures throw up their hands in dismay. Meanwhile a lizard uses its laser eyes to avoid the confusion. Don’t you just hate it when your day starts like this one.
A sure sign that big foot was here.
Bigfoot’s big feet.
Lest there be any doubt, a really big Bigfoot. The turkey can only look on with awe. But just how big ?
Cat Woman has an idea. And check out her expression.
I kid you not. And I certainly wouldn’t pull your tail. Ouch!
Okay, it appears that this frog has learned how to juggle. But sitting on a pointy thing while juggling? It brings the art form to a whole new level! Forget your flagpole sitters. This is the real thing.
It seems like Kilroy was here. With that thought, I’ll conclude today’s post.

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.

When the Snake in the Grass Is a God… The Plumed Serpents of Three Rivers

Peggy demonstrates our normal reaction to snakes hiding in the grass— or just wandering among the rocks, minding their own business.
Panamint Rattlesnake in Death Valley.
What to look out for! (Peggy and I found this fellow in Death Valley.) Note the distinctive viper head. You will see it on several of the snake petroglyphs that follow.

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.

Here’s an early representation of Quetzalcoatl blowing up a storm.
And another.

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.

This rattlesnake didn’t let a crack in the rock slow him down. He just slithered right through it. Apparently the guy to the left of the snake’s head is quite excited. As he should be, given the relative size.
We probably don’t want to know what this snake had for lunch. Snakes eat their meals whole. Once, when I was leading a backpack trip, a highway patrolman who was along shot a large timber rattler. While I was irritated that he killed the snake, we slit it open and found a whole ground squirrel inside. We then cut the snake up, cooked it in butter, and ate it. Waste not want not. Right?
This was a particularly large rattler. It reminded me of the one that Peggy and I had found in Death Valley.
And check out this guy! Had I met up with this fellow in real life, I wouldn’t have hung around to photograph it! (Yes, you would have, Peggy says.)
I liked the way this plumed serpent had been outlined.
This snake climbed right up the rock. A dog or coyote seems to be checking it out on the right while a bird, probably a turkey, follows along on the left. But maybe it is a roadrunner looking for a free lunch.
And here, a very long plumed serpent makes its way down a rock and is also checked out.
If one snake crawling down a rock is good, are two better?
In this petroglyph a snake with bright eyes crawls up a rock under a crook, which is another sacred symbol, toward what is probably a shaman. This rock was around 15 feet tall to give you a perspective. I’ll conclude here for the day before I give you snake nightmares…

NEXT POSTS: Not exactly sure what I will focus on, but it will be petroglyphs for another week.

There’s Something Fishy about the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site


What’s an octopus doing at the Three Rivers Petroglyph site in south central New Mexico.


This, and my next post, will take us back to the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico. I am backpacking in the Sierra Nevada Mountains this week and will respond to comments next week. Thanks, as always, for following my blog and reading my posts. 


It’s really dry at the Three Rivers Petroglyph site in New Mexico, like desert dry, like 10 inches of rain a year dry! So what’s with the petroglyph of an octopus? It’s at least 800 miles to the nearest body of large water, the Gulf of Mexico, and a similar distance to the Pacific Ocean. I’d think it was one of strange aliens that rock artists like to portray if it weren’t for the three-masted ship with the guy in the stern also found at the Three Rivers site.

Check out this three-masted sailing ship and what appears to be a guy peering over the railing. Even the experts scratch there heads over this petroglyph.

Obviously, someone from the Jornada Tribe had traveled to distant lands and returned to share his or her experiences as rock art. Maybe several members of the tribe had travelled on such journeys. Peggy and I also found fish, a possible seal, and maybe even a whale among the petroglyphs. The frog is a bonus.

A seal perhaps.

There’s no doubt about this fish. But note the geometric patterns. I’ll return to this theme in my next blog.

This is the whale. At least that’s what I am going with. You can make out its mouth on the left and then eye, fin and fluke. This is another example  of fitting the rock art to the rock.

Slightly off subject but still associated with water, I had to put this frog somewhere! Is this one saying, “I need a hug!” ?


NEXT POST: Geometric forms among the petroglyphs of the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site in New Mexico.











This Post Is for the Birds… The Three Rivers Petroglyph Site of New Mexico: Part 4

A rather strange turkey you might note, with claws out, coming at you. It isn’t so strange if you’ve experienced it, as I did. I was taking close-ups of a hen’s chicks when she decided to discourage me by flying at me with claws aimed. She succeeded.


Peggy and I are on our way home from North Carolina today. We flew back to surprise our son, Tony, who was promoted to Lieutenant Commander for the Coast Guard in Charleston, South Carolina. While he teaches at the Coast Guard Academy in Connecticut overseeing cadets who want to fly for the Coastguard, he was visiting his In-laws in South Carolina and the Coast Guard arranged for the appointment ceremony to take place in Charleston.  

Today’s blog is for the birds, so to speak. I am featuring petroglyphs of birds we found at the Three Rivers Petroglyph Site in New Mexico. They ranged from eagles to turkeys.

It’s no wonder that the Jornada were impressed with eagles. I am. I took this photo of a Bald Eagle in Oregon.

Here’s his look-alike petroglyph at the Three Rivers’ Site.

The mighty eagle may have ruled the skies of southern New Mexico, but it was the Thunderbird that ruled the heavens. A flap of its wings would gather clouds and send thunder bouncing off the far mountains. Lightning would shoot out of its eyes. The Thunderbird existed in numerous Native American and First Nation cultures. Peggy and I have found images from New Mexico to Alaska.

This petroglyph of a Thunderbird is one of the most powerful petroglyphs I have seen.

Peggy and I found this totem pole Thunderbird on Vancouver Island, British Colombia. (Photo by Peggy Mekemson.)

Another example from Three Rivers.

It wasn’t surprising that we found a roadrunner petroglyph, the superfast, long-legged bird of the Southwest that is common in the desert and eats rattlesnakes for breakfast. Did you ever watch the Roadrunner-Coyote cartoons? I was addicted to it at UC Berkeley in the mid-60s. Cartoon time was mandatory break time! My fellow dorm residents and I would gather around the lone TV in our dormitory and cheer as Road Runner once again foiled Wile E. Coyote.

A roadrunner with its snake breakfast. I am also intrigued with the upside down animal above the roadrunner. I think it might be a peccary.

This sophisticated petroglyph looks a lot like a goose or duck to me. Note how the artist has used the contour of the rock to give body to the goose.

We also found petroglyphs of wild turkeys, the bird that Benjamin Franklin preferred over the eagle as a national symbol for America. These characters provide us with endless entertainment as they roar around in our backyard, chase each other, show off, and search for food. I suspect that the Jornada regarded them as a source of food.

Possibly a turkey head.

And a stick figure turkey!

I’ll finish today with this tom turkey strutting his stuff in our back yard. We’re always amused that the hens totally ignore the guys when they put on their shows, almost appearing bored. We’ve decided that the shows are to impress the competition.

NEXT POST: The slithery serpents of Three Rivers. Last week I blogged about my encounter with a Diamondback Rattler. This time I will focus on how the Jornada perceived snakes and lizards. There is even a rattlesnake!


The Ancient World of Indian Rock Art… On the Road

My wife Peggy and I have travelled throughout the western United States visiting and photographing Native American rock-art. We found this petroglyph of a cougar in the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site of southern new Mexico.

I grew up in the town of Diamond Springs, California located in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

Once upon a time Diamond had been known as Mo-lok’epakan, or, Morning Star’s Spring. It was a very holy place to the Maidu Indians. They came from miles around bearing their dead on litters for cremation.

Apparently the Maidu had been living in the area for a thousand years. It is a sad commentary on both our education system and how we treated the Indians that I grew up never hearing the name Morning Star’s Spring much less Mo-lok’epakan.

Our only connection with the Maidu’s lost heritage was finding an occasional arrowhead or Indian bead.

The thrill of finding arrowheads, however, led to a lifelong fascination with the culture of Native Americans. Over the past ten years that fascination has led me to an interest in Indian rock-art or petroglyphs and pictographs. Petroglyphs are pecked or scraped from dark, rock varnish exposing a lighter color underneath. Pictographs are painted on rocks.

Indian rock-art is found at thousands of locations throughout the Western United States often near water or unique landmarks. Searching for rock-art is often like a treasure hunt. Here you can spot a group of petroglyphs on the left about a third of the way up the rock.

Peggy and I have explored and photographed major rock-art sites throughout the western US. Today I will introduce Sego Canyon located in eastern Utah off of I-70 near the small town of Thompson. Later I will blog about other sites such as the Three Rivers Petroglyph National Recreation Site of New Mexico.

What captured me about Sego Canyon is the unique, almost ethereal rock-art of the archaic peoples, and the fact that the rock-art represents three distinctive Native American cultures ranging over 8000 years.

The pictographs featured below were made by archaic hunter-gatherer nomads who wandered across western North America between 6000 and 100 BC. Rock art is classified according to various styles and this particular style is known as Barrier Canyon. Its attributes include life-size, man-like creatures with hollow eyes, missing arms, antennae, and lots of snakes. The theory is that the figures may have represented shamanistic journeys to the underworld. I am voting for encounters with aliens… just kidding.

This rock-art, which is found in Sego Canyon, Utah, was created sometime between 6000 and 100 AD. It is classified as the Barrier Canon style. Note the hollow eye sockets, antennae, horns and snakes.

This is a close up showing images from the above photo. There is some thought that these figures reflect shamanistic visits to the underworld but one can understand why UFO fans might think they represent encounters with aliens.

These figures from the Barrier Canyon style seem wraith-like… red ghosts arising from the rock.

The Fremont Culture existed between 600 and 1200 AD and represented a more settled lifestyle. The rock-art of the Fremont Indians featured rectangular bodies with small heads. Both deer and mountain sheep are also found in the rock art below. Note the Indian shooting the mountain sheep with a large bow and arrow.

This rock-art found in Sego Canyon is done in the so-called Fremont style where rectangular figures with elaborate jewelry were common.

Mountain sheep are the most common animals found in Native America rock-art.

The final culture represented in Sego Canyon is that of the Ute Indians who lived in the area from 1300 AD up to 1880 when they were forced off the land to live on reservations. One indicator of more ‘modern’ rock-art is the presence of horses that didn’t exist in North America until the Spanish introduced them in the 1500s. Note the red leggings on the central figure. I also like the little red guy riding the horse. Yahoo! The round figure on the right is thought to represent a shield.

Identifying the age of petroglyphs is a difficult process. The appearance of horses shows that the petroglyphs were created after the 16th Century when the Spanish introduced horses to North America.

In my next post I will travel to Dinosaur National Monument, which also has some very unique Indian rock-art such as this one featuring what I assume is a woman with big hands and some very fat dogs.