Reckling: A spiritual journey through time

What they say is true: To travel and spend time learning about other people and their cultures truly broadens our horizons. My recent trip may not have been very distant, but the time spent studying and absorbing ancient cultures filled my mind with wonderment. To wander the same paths that early people on this continent walked and to sit quietly in their shelters and view their art is to gift yourself with something priceless and spiritual.

I plotted a four-day, rock-art viewing trip that ended up totaling just over 1,000 miles of driving. Fortunately for me, my dear friend Tony is as excellent behind the wheel as he is patient with my side ventures and attempts at photography. He was game for a road trip and ready to head west after a successful ski season and a break in our schedules. I became chief navigator through the remote regions of northwest Colorado and northeast Utah, and we only felt lost half a dozen times, or so. Somehow, we maintained our good humor through it all — the true sign of a successful road trip.

You may be asking yourself, “What the heck is rock art?” Rock art, or “glyphs,” is any mark made on stone by prehistoric people. There are two types of rock art: pictographs (paintings or drawings in one or more colors utilizing plant dyes or mineral pigments) and petroglyphs (images that have been pecked, incised or abraded into the rock surface). Although many images may have been executed originally by merging both techniques, most now appear only as petroglyphs because the paint material has been worn away by the passage of time; in the case of rock art, that time can be hundreds or thousands of years.

The earliest examples of petroglyphs we found were from the Archaic period in the Barrier Canyon style, which date from 5500 B.C to A.D. 1, but the majority of work we viewed is attributed to the Fremont people (A.D. 450 to A.D. 1250) and Ute people (A.D. 1200) who lived freely throughout western Colorado and eastern Utah until about 1880. That’s when the ever-intrusive U.S. government (after attempts at annihilation) forced Utes onto reservations, destroying their hunting culture and their graceful ways of living with the land.

The opportunity to see where these ancient peoples spent time is a journey in itself, and you will venture into some of the most magnificent and remote country in America.

If you go in April, as we just did, you will see red-walled canyons with snow-covered peaks in the background, vivid desert wildflowers all abloom and wildlife busy with springtime activity. We also enjoyed the serenade of songbirds, buzzing bees and screaming hawks. The multicolored hues of the vast landscapes and miraculous rock formations take your breath away.

We also were lucky to spot some of the wild mustangs that still roam the West Douglas open range and stopped to ponder the haunting beauty of several ghost towns.

Our route took us past old homesteads and working ranches, their undulating emerald pastures were host to handsome herds of Angus, Hereford and Charolais cattle, all grazed contentedly on the plentiful spring grass. Individual ranches could be identified by their proud display of the American flag that fluttered in the April breeze and each spread had mountains of golden hay, baled and neatly stacked.

Much to our delight, we saw no one for the first two days as we explored more than a dozen rock-art sites. Loving such privacy and the soulful experience of being outdoors, we appreciated the chance to discover these hidden places on our own and enjoyed wonderful picnics, as we shared thoughts on all we saw. Personal speculation is part of the fun of “glyphing” because observers are free to form their own interpretations.

As you come around a bend or enter a shelter and discover your first rock art, the feeling is indescribable. If the site has been preserved and not subjected to vandalism, you feel like you are the first person to ever see it. Appreciation for the experience quickly permeates your own modern being and the desire to learn more about the people who created it is overwhelming.

Rock-art sites, ruins and archaeological remains are sacred to present-day Native Americans and should be treated with the utmost respect. There is nothing more devastating than an ancient site that has been defaced with graffiti, used for target practice or otherwise damaged. Unfortunately, ignorant, disgraceful individuals abound.

This art en plein air is not the kind you’ll find at our town’s multimillion dollar, architecturally worshipped creation at South Spring Street and Hyman Avenue, but I can guarantee you this: In their simplicity and natural beauty, these ancient creations will remain deep in your heart for a very long time.

Margaret Reckling lives in Woody Creek and welcomes your comments at