OPINION: Wandering With Tom Gagnon

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The following was written and submitted by Tom Gagnon.

Wandering, sweating, breathing hard and clambering over boulders and loose rocks, through tall weeds and brush, and stepping high over a rattlesnake, on a steep mountainside under cantilevered and broken cliffs of beige, red, and dun conglomerates, and yellow sandstones, I searched for I didn’t know exactly what.

Indian pictographs and the ruins of structures were possibilities.  I know a good place to look for these things about a two-hour drive from my home in Rock Springs.  It’s either north, south, east, or west -I don’t remember.  From where I park it’s another five to twenty miles of hard hiking.

Pictographs were made of paints created by mixing berry juices, clay, animal fat, and sometime even blood.  Directly under the sky, like paint even today, they fade and eventually wash away, unless they happen to be protected by something overhanging them, like a cantilevered cliff.

Further from my home there is a large pictograph panel called “The Harvest Scene”.  It’s down in the Maze in Utah.  It is a composition of a dozen or so people and some corn stalks, like a group portrait in a garden.  They wear elaborately designed gowns and look happy.  The people are depicted in a strikingly original, all-North American artistic style, called Barrier Canyon.  This is distinct from other styles because they usually lack the appendages of arms and feet.  In this scene they seem to be standing around pretty contentedly, but other times they seem to be shooting off into space.  It’s an arresting way of conveying motion with speed, and spooky too.

It’s hard to get to.  It involves down climbing several rounded indentations into vertical sandstone, best done with a rope.  There are miles of slick-rock desert and canyon mazes.  People regularly get hurt or lost, or die of thirst just trying to find it.  There is also a crazy man living down there.  His name is Hayduke.  A grouchy old author named Edward Abbey says a few things about Hayduke, and other disreputable types.  I don’t recommend looking into any of this.  Just forget I’ve said it.

Sometimes structures too are well preserved under cliff overhangs.  The impressive dwellings of Mesa Verde are only the best-known examples.  They were being picked apart, without anyone actually breaking laws, until finally protected in a national monument by the federal government in 1906 under the Antiquities Act.

Mostly what a tramper like me can expect to find, in southwest Wyoming are modest structures like granaries.  These were used to store food, such as corn.  I’ve several times found bare cobs within them.  They could be hundreds of years old, and they absolutely must be left in place.  

Initially I believed that all granaries were built with stones mortared together with mud, usually in a circular pattern, or boxy and against a wall.  This is because these were the kinds that I often found in the vicinity of Moab, Utah.  One day, however, in my secret area two hours from Rock Springs, I was looking around and was stunned to see, under a cantilevered cliff, a shape that wasn’t quite like a natural object.  I had to re-focus my eyes and adjust my thinking to accommodate the structure.

It was a smoothly rounded, two-and-a-half-foot tall granary, with a stone lid.  I gently lifted the lid and looked inside.  It was something like a basket of sticks and split wood woven together, the pieces tied together with root.  Mud was smeared over the wood and possibly a white lime was spread over it, though this is now mostly gone.  At the bottom there is an exposed area of wood, where rain, maybe when occasionally driven sideways by wind, eroded the mud away from the wooden frame.  It appears to have been built at the site, because it conforms so well to the small area of flat ground against a vertical wall.

Although other people since the Indians could have found this granary, just as I did around 2007, they didn’t leave any sign of their passing, and I have not either -except for one thing.  Because dead and dried grass was accumulating near the granary, I pulled that away from the granary and threw it down the slope, because I fear that if this combustible material were to catch fire, the exposed wood at the base of the granary could catch, too, and burn the woven woody material from within, thus causing the whole to collapse.  I now make a yearly pilgrimage to do this.