Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Finding Rock Art - Tracking Hopi Petroglyphs

Adventure is where you find it. On a mountain biking expedition to the southern United States and Mexico, I found a small US Park where there are Hopi Indian petroglyphs. Petroglyphs are pictorial carvings in rock. The meaning of the pictures are open to speculation, but have generally been lost in time.

I have been fascinated by native rock art for most of my adult life and have spent a great deal of time researching the pictographs of my local tribe in the southern Kootenay region of British Columbia.  So faced with the opportunity to see the rock art of the people who are responsible for the most recognized petroglyph in North America – kokopelli – the humpbacked, flute player, I couldn’t resist.

After visiting the Park’s “rock art” sites, I marveled at how the US Park Service was able to protect the petroglyphs while still making access as easy as possible. Paved roads and groomed trails allow for basically anyone, at almost any age or physical condition to view the sites. However…that was not the experience that I was looking for. 

Chatting up the Park Ranger, I asked her if there were perhaps more remote petroglyph sites that a motivated person might view. The Ranger carefully considered my request and was clearly having an internal debate whether or not to tell me. Thankfully, she decided to let me in on a couple of well guarded secrets. After getting me to promise that if asked, “the information that she was about divulge did not come from her”, she told me about some petroglyph sites outside of the park boundaries… on the Hopi reservation. She warned me however, that the Hopi people do not take kindly to trespassers.

The Park Ranger explained that a couple of weeks earlier, a small group of researchers from a nearby University had been studying the petroglyphs. Apparently, the permission to undertake the study was difficult to obtain from the Hopi people and the expedition was done under stringent supervision and rules of conduct.

Following the crude map provided by my co-conspirator, I navigated across the parched badlands until coming to an erosion that my four wheel drive couldn’t cross. With a small pack and my tracking stick, I continued on foot. For a person accustomed to hiking in the lush mountains of southern British Columbia, the desert was awe inspiring.

Contemplating what I was trying to do, it dawned on me that I didn’t know anything about the Hopi people or where to look for their petroglyphs. It also flashed through my mind that I didn’t have the first clue about safe travelling in the desert... A shortfall that I was about to get my first lesson in.

As I walked along, I occasionally crossed the tracks of the researchers from two weeks before. I marveled at how well the desert preserved the sign. I couldn’t help but wonder if this was a seasonal anomaly, or if there were times of the year when weather conditions aged the tracks quicker. While observing the signs left by the researchers, I also noticed some ungulate tracks that looked like small deer prints. This was a bit of a shock….how could deer possibly survive in an area devoid of anything green to eat?  Checking my field tracking card, I found that the tracks were actually caused by pig like beast called a “Peccary” or “Javalina”. As the many tracks indicated, these nasty critters roam in small herds. They can also pose a considerable threat to humans, and in fact have killed people. Wonderful…and no tree in a hundred miles to climb.     

Continuing on, I was faced with the reality that if I was going to find Hopi Petroglyphs, it was going to be more by luck then by design. I just didn’t know where to start looking. Then it occurred to me….the University researchers would have known where to look.

While cutting for sign, it didn’t take long before I found the researcher’s tracks. Even though the sign was at least two weeks old, it was not difficult to follow. My hypotheses proved correct. The results were that I was able to visit more petroglyph sites in a day then I could have found in a month left to my own devices.  As an added bonus, I observed ancient pottery shards that the researchers had uncovered.

The feeling of observing ancient artifacts and rock art – especially in the context of the natural surroundings - cannot be described. The outcome was a life altering experience. Although I have no idea if the petroglyphs have a religious connotation to the Hopi, I acted on some sage advice that when in doubt "act as if you are in a church."
After a delightful day of discovery and adventure, I dragged my worn out carcass back to the truck, literally driving off into the desert sunset.

Contemplating the events, sights and experiences of the day, attempting to understand what I had observed, I realized, as I so often do, just how ill equipped I am to understand the wonders of the experiences I encounter….what a life.

Adventure is where you find it.