Tony Vagneur: The touch of history
It was there when we turned in, deep into the prairie grass, a buffalo skull picked clean over time by birds and insects, majestic in its aura and still intact. We camped nearby, as it seemed natural to keep it close.
The cold breeze of early morning touched my face and as I turned to greet the gray dawn, a buffalo of shaggy description, about five yards away with head down in grazing position, was staring directly at me. He could have stomped me to death in about two seconds but gave me the grace of another day.
We connected, the three of us, the buffalo, the old skull and I in a way that seemed deeply meaningful, as though I was allowed into a world not of my own, a natural domain unencumbered of our modern distractions, if only for a few brief seconds. And then it was over, but still I wonder about the brutal annihilation of the buffalo herds back in the 1800s. And to underscore the tragedy of the buffalo’s plight, someone deliberately picked that skull up and took it with them while we were distracted, hiking the rolling hills of the grassland.
Since then, our effort has been to travel to the least-inhabited places we can find, at least those with unusual or historical significance. Someplace where the recent trod of human foot is minimal or non-existent.
Thus, we traveled hundreds of miles on dirt and archaic asphalt roads to reach a barely marked intersection and then roamed over 30 miles of pallid desert that still looked like winter, not early spring. Cattle, bunched up the day before to ease the sting of blizzarding snow, led their newborn calves across the landscape to waterholes and salt licks.
An old, unobtrusive trail in the only place possible, forged in the early days by sheepherders desperate for water, spiraled steeply down into a massive canyon, seemingly devoid of life. Gnarled and magnificent cottonwoods, twisted and depraved by harsh times and only a week or two before their marvelous spring bloom, dotted the way where flash floods and scarce spring run-off trickled down the canyon floor. Here and there, abutting the sheer rock walls, were flat stretches of open grassland, sometimes as much as 50 yards wide, promising a resplendent seasonal change once the time was right.
Trudging up the sandy canal, walls on either side towered over us, a hundred feet or more in height. Rumor had it that there were spectacular pictographs along the sheer canyon walls, and we kept our eyes glued to both sides, not wanting to miss anything. Ah, yes, look there on the right, my partner Margaret said, and far ahead, we saw, unmistakably, what we were looking for. And the closer we got, the wider (longer) the panel of paintings got, energizing us to continue our trek up the unique cut in the earth to find even more.
It is generally believed that pictographs were in artistic favor with the Archaic Indians anywhere from 7,500 B.C. to 300 A.D. Research indicates that the drawings we were looking at were about 4,000 years old. Without exaggeration, it is somewhat breathtaking to be face-to-face with a distinctly clear fragment of the actual routine of people who lived so long ago.
“What can these figures represent,” people have asked for eons? Some are fairly obvious — the natural world is depicted as Bighorn sheep, snakes, lizards, elk or deer. Perhaps these nomadic people followed animals through this canyon, dependent on the annual migration of big game. Or maybe not.
By witnessing some of the figures painted on these sandstone walls, it is clear that the spiritual world played a large part in the lives of these people, but like everything else, we cannot be exactly sure of what that may have been. It is reasonably clear that the impetus for many of these figures might have come from dreams, oral stories or spiritual beliefs held dear to the people’s hearts.
Trying to put oneself into the lives of these ancient Natives is mostly impossible, but the options are fascinating and endless. When in such a canyon, it is almost imaginable that one could reach out his hand through time and touch a living part of this remarkable past.
And in looking at the many buffalo realistically replicated on these stone walls so many centuries ago, it is amazing to realize that although the Archaic Indians no longer wander the deep canyons of the western desert, the buffalo still roam.
As we wandered back toward the steep trail exiting the canyon, a peregrine falcon screamed at us from her nest high above, asking us to leave, and the thought crossed my mind that tragically, whoever took that buffalo skull does not understand antiquity nor our link to it.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.