Hiking With Peaceful Spirits - Mill Creek Canyon, Moab, Utah
Continuing our spring 2009 hike through the middle reaches of Mill Creek Canyon in Moab, Utah, we approached the farthest point on our route. Soon, it would be time to turn back and retrace our steps towards the point where we came in.
Wildflowers in the desert offer us a rare look at how ephemeral life can be. Even a solitary example of a desert flower in the spring can make our heart leap. What species of plant is it? Is it a healthy specimen? What color and shape are its flowers? Does it show any signs of trailside abuse? If the plant is healthy, we always stop and take a photo for our files.
Other than the few flowering plants that make their home in rare natural nurseries, most desert wildflowers lead a near-solitary existence. If one finds three or more examples of one species congregated together, the place takes on the feeling of a stand or perhaps a grove.
In contemporary society, we toss words together, like “desert garden”, as if there is a simple meaning to that phrase. If you ask most readers what that phrase means, they will tell you that a “desert garden” is a residential or botanical garden that features examples of desert-dwelling species. This prevalence of thought stems from the rarity of natural desert gardens.
Perhaps it is fitting that we reached the turning point of our hike in a desert garden, surrounded by steep canyon walls and several waterfalls along the creek. Interspersed throughout this oasis were about ten people, including the four of us. The place felt used, but not over-utilized. Each visitor was responsible for his or her own conduct and enjoyment of the place. Throughout our hike, we saw not one example of litter or defacement.
As I photographed a flowering desert paintbrush, a woman stepped forward and introduced herself to us as a local Moab resident. In the way typical of Moab locals, she asked if we would like her to take a group picture of us four friends. Of course, we accepted. The standing portrait you see on these pages is proof that nature inspires humans. While out on a hike like this, one tends to smile almost all the time. Although we did not string our hands together in a daisy chain, like the Ancients, we felt the camaraderie of being with friends, both old and new.
Many Moab rock art sites are undocumented. If you go to the Moab Information Center, they will provide you with a free self-guided tour map to Indian rock art sites, both in and around Moab. Since the panels on the self-guided tour are the easiest to spot, they are also the easiest to deface. Entire panels have been lost to vandalism and up to ninety percent of the remaining artifacts have been looted over the past century. For most visitors today, personal ethics preclude the defacing of rockart or removing artifacts as small as an arrowhead. As such, we are happy to report that rock art panel defacement in and around Moab are rare.
The Moab Visitors Center is also a great resource for hikers. If you visit Moab, be sure to ask there about public hiking trails, including those with active streams. After taking the normal precautions, like having plenty of water and telling a responsible party where you are going, then get going, out of Moab and into a redrock canyon.
Unlike Mill Creek Canyon, which we accessed midstream, most canyon hikes start at the mouth of a given streambed and then proceed up-canyon. As you walk slowly up the floodplain of your canyon, note if there are any cottonwood trees alongside. Cottonwood trees are analogous to canaries in coalmines. If the canary dies, the air in the mine is unfit for humans. If a stand of cottonwoods dies, it is an indication that the water table in the area has sunk below the level of a cottonwood taproot.
After assessing the health and beauty of your immediate environment, keep walking, but now look for side-canyons, rocky overhangs and dry watercourses. Pick any one and follow it to its source. Often the source of a canyon watercourse is the remains of a waterfall pool. Since many side streams run only after heavy rains, you will probably discover a dry story about a formerly wet existence. It is in such relatively well-watered spots that the Ancients camped. To such places, they brought their Stone Age incising tools. In the spirit of their pictographs, they practiced the art of storytelling.
Because of their relative remoteness from paved roads, few seek out or visit these sacred sites. Although easily overlooked, Indian rock art sites are rich in their abundance. Whether it is near a watercourse as large as the Colorado River or as small as Mill Creek, you will find undocumented and undamaged Indian rock art, some of it created at least 4000 years ago.
The Clovis Culture, (named for distinctive stone spear points first found near Clovis, New Mexico) may have visited the Canyonlands around 11,000 BCE. Since they were hunter-gatherers, without permanent homes the evidence is spotty. Over the past century, systematic looting of almost all Ancient artifacts leaves an empty legacy for the area's earliest visitors. If they did visit here, the only remaining evidence would likely be some form of rock carving. After all, they were the undisputed kings of stone spear-point manufacturing and usage. Did they use their hard points to carve the relatively soft sandstone walls of Mill Creek Canyon? If we look, is the evidence still there?
If one looks at any well-watered desert canyon with an eye for evidence of Ancient activity, tracings and gouging in the rocks may hint at prior human visitation. Even Tiger tended to discount human activity as the origins of the two panels depicted immediately above. During brief warm-ups during the Pleistocene, did humans carve these images? The presence of desert varnish across the top layer of some “carvings” might indicate that it was so. On the other hand, did the erosive powers of wind and water create these fantastical images?
Some examples look like crosshatch patterns on the rocks. Others look like galleries of figures that we might see in a museum of contemporary art. As we looked above the Ancient fresco, we spied a lone cedar, standing atop a rocky monolith. Later, when we inspected the image, we noticed figures carved on the upper flanks of the monolith, several hundred feet above the canyon floor. Were the carvings of human origin, or did nature create them on the eroding fin of that escarpment?
At our farthest point downstream, we turned to hear the sound of running water. On the sunny side of the canyon, we saw a waterfall, pouring from one sandstone ledge to another. As we stepped back to take a picture of the happy little waterfall, we noticed that the shadow of the Other had acquired a new friend. Both spirits stood and watched the waterfall together.
Our return trip was along the same path that we had so recently descended. From the canyon bottom, we had a view up the creek towards its source, high in the La Sal Range. As the first European visitors, the Dominguez-Escalante Expedition passed by here in the summer of 1776. On their way from Santa Fe, New Mexico towards their unachievable destination of Monterrey, California, they forded the Colorado River near here. Although they did not reach their California dream, they did pioneer a trail that later became known as the Old Spanish Trail.
Overwhelmed by the September heat in the Spanish Valley below, Fathers Dominguez and Escalante gazed up in wonder at snow capped mountains. Unable to reconcile the snowy mountains and desert heat, they assumed that these were mountains capped with salt. In honor of the “Mountain of the Salt”, they gave the range the Spanish name, Sierra La Sal.
A range of mountains isolated from its brethren tends to collect any weather that streams by. Some say that updrafts along their western slopes create the frequent storms that shroud these peaks. Between the 1776 European discovery of the La Sal Mountains and the 1848 European dischttp://www.planetware.com/picture/mount-kilimanjaro-national-park-tza-tza426.htm">Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania, Africa, seventy-two years would pass. With no industrial pollution or dust from broken soil to mar the whiteness of the snow, we can imagine that Escalante and Dominguez saw on the Manti la Sals an American equivalent to the fabled snows of Kilimanjaro.
As we looked at the La Sal Mountains that day, a shiver went up our spine. Escalante’s “Mountains of Salt” lay under a wrapping of reddish dirt, laid down by a recent dust storm of unprecedented size and power. Was it the Spirit of Father Escalante or was it the wisdom and experience of our friend Leo telling us that something was wrong here? Where was the purity of white snowfields that we had witnessed only one year before? Was this heavy coating of pink dust an anomaly, or were even larger dust storms coming? Were the snows of the La Sal Mountains soon to disappear, as have the snows of Kilimanjaro?
Our final effort that day entailed scaling a low point along the wall of Mill Creek Canyon, then over the ridge to our truck, where our keys lay locked inside the cab. Upon returning to our parking spot, friends Tiger and Terry gently conspired to get a locksmith to our location, half a mile off the nearest paved road. Since we had no way of controlling the situation, we let the wizards of Moab work their ways. In less than thirty minutes, our truck was unlocked and we were safely on our way back to town for dinner.