Vagneur: Beyond the modern world
The early morning sun gave us a well-imagined tailwind as we headed west, striking out into an unknown and hard to imagine landscape that lay far ahead. “It weren’t much of a ride,” as the old song sings, until we turned north up Douglas Pass, where the roughness of the asphalt and the growl of the diesel engine signaled our every intention to leave the familiar behind.
It was the kind of landscape change that makes a horse nervous, if he’s a good one, and makes one wonder, again, if everything is securely stowed away. The wind howled, adding a level of excitement, and it was hard to tell if the irregular lay of the land had been disturbed by landslide, mining activity or both. It wouldn’t have been an easy pass to cross in the wagon days, and if a man did make it over the top, he might have wondered if the journey had represented any kind of progress, one way or the other.
There was the absurdity of mining and drilling activity against the backdrop of wild horse bands. And cattle herds. Well, maybe they’re cattle herds because the ranches are large, but in a land that requires nearly 250 acres to feed one cow, it’s hard to imagine the three or four you see along miles of highway as belonging to anything you might call a herd. And it makes one wonder: Do the animals tolerate the drillers and their roads, or is it the other way around? There’s a lot of competition for the grass, and putting a seeming excess of graveled roads through such barren country likely makes the day that much longer for those who desperately need the nourishment. And having to walk 5 or 10 miles for a drink of chalky water doesn’t help much, either. No doubt, the elk and deer wonder about civilization as they graze.
The Utes understood the need for large swaths of land for survival, and so did the Fremont people who preceded them. Both left the land as they perennially found it, even after the introduction of the horse, with one exception. Margaret, my good friend, traveling partner and navigator, and I were hunting the remains of ancient tribes, and we found them, those petroglyphs and pictographs, beautiful and marvelous works of art, irretrievably left on canyon walls for the future to guess their meanings.
Fremont people and Utes had no written language, no parchment to write it on even if they did, and their precious etchings, hammered laboriously into sheer stone cliff faces of remarkably dense composition give us stark views into what their life may have been like. Certain that these petroglyphs date back to at least 1300 B.C., some of them much earlier, to view them is to know that the natives carving them with stone tools were doing so about the same time the Bible or the Koran were being inscribed on stone tablets. But, instead of copies and translations, as in the various books of the Bible, our view was of the original communications, little changed by time and weather. Sadly, the biggest alterations to these prehistoric flourishes of creativity have been the result of vandalism, carried out by the most ignorant and uncaring of our modern age.
After two days of almost total solitude, Margaret and I sat on the patio of a Vernal, Utah, eatery, taking in the local sights. Main Street traffic was so crowded, in both directions, it took a stoplight to gain entry, but the side streets were basically empty, except for sparse local travel. That’s how an oil and gas town operates, I reckon. As we off-handedly estimated, sitting there in the warm sun, four out of five vehicles were pickup trucks, coming and going from the energy-producing fields. Large, green ranches surround Vernal, but those folks — who also drive pickup trucks — mostly stay home, where there’s work to be done. No Prius’ there, not one, and nobody pedals a bike to the gym. That country is about oil and gas production and the incessant work it takes to make it happen.
And as we sat there, watching the traffic, the incongruity of ranching and drilling staring us down, we were aware that not far away, just a short drive out of town and looking down from the majestic mesas, are myriad canyon walls blessed by striking petroglyphs and pictographs.
In the midst of our modern world, can one reach out and grasp the passion and understand the souls of those ancient people who lived so frugally, but so richly elegant, all those many years ago? Of course not, you say, but I’m not so sure.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at email@example.com.