Traces of Antiquity and the Not-So-Ancient in Utah!

March 2019 – Over the years we’ve been asked how we plan our travels, and we’ve usually said that we move on or stay put on a whim. But it might be more accurate to say that we generally follow the weather, staying put when it’s nice and moving on when ugly conditions are expected.

This has made for some hasty departures with rain, sleet or snow looming, but until this past week we have never been stuck right where we were because of deep mud!

Utah RV trip

Hitting the road is easier when you don’t have to drive through a foot of mud

The Utah desert is filled with sandstone, sand and silty stuff, and when it is dry it hardens to something like concrete with a soft layer of dust around the edges. But when it rains for 48 hours, as it did while we were camping, the water soaks into the silty sand and makes a very squishy mud.

Factory Butte Utah-min

An immense tower rises out of Utah’s red rocks courtesy of rain, wind and sometimes drippy muddy conditions

As we drove to and from our campsite every other day or so, our truck swam through portions of the road, even in 4×4 low gear at 5 mph. There was no way we could tow our 14k lb. trailer out of there.

So, we stayed put and we waited for the mud to dry!

Utah landscape near-far wide angle image-min

While we were waiting for the mud to dry we practice the near-far composition techniques we’d learned in our photography workshop the week before.

We kept busy practicing the wide angle photo techniques we had just learned. The key to putting some real zing into this kind of photography is having a fabulous sky and a fabulous foreground right at your feet. Finding those things is no small trick, though, even in this wonderfully scenic part of Utah.

Puppy Uah landscape near-far wide angle image-min

The near-far wide angle view is a new way of seeing for us, but we’re starting to get the hang of it!

We spent hours scouring the area looking for engaging backdrops in the distance and fascinating foregrounds at our feet while hoping we’d get a jaw-dropping sunrise or sunset to top it off.

The sky didn’t cooperate, but we did find some lovely places and really enjoyed the search.

Utah red rock landscape-min

Low toadstool hoodoos and softly rounded mountains

Of course, what’s funny about doing this kind of photography with our pooch Buddy along is that he has a habit of photo-bombing our shots. We’d get everything set up just so, and then Buddy would suddenly wander right through the middle of the photo, sniffing around and curious about what we were up to.

Utah red rock landscape with puppy-min

Buddy stops by right in the middle of things to say hello!

While I was crawling around on my hands and knees to try and capture these ground level images, Mark hiked up onto the colorfully striped mounds in the distance and took some stunning pics of the softly rounded shapes from eye level.

Striped hills in Utah-min

Up close, the softly rounded mounds were very beautiful

Colorful hills and mounds in Utah-min

The hills were a wide variety of earth tone colors

Utah striped mounds-min

Natural patterns

Slowly, the mud slowly began to dry everywhere, and it made pretty patterns of cracks as it shrank. Mark noticed the pattern of a tree in one set of cracks.

A tree in the cracked mud in Utah-min

The image of a tree appeared in the cracking mud

With the mud quickly drying, we realized our escape from our campsite had to be timed so that the mud on the road was sufficiently dry but the predicted strong winds hadn’t yet begun whipping dust around. Everyday we surveyed the mud and it seemed like our leave-taking was still a few days away.

But Mother Nature has her own sense of timing and her own schedule.

One day, just as we were returning from a walk down the road and agreeing that we should give it another day or two, the predicted winds suddenly arrived and kicked up some huge clouds of dust.

Yikes!

Dust and high winds in Utah-min

Buddy squints his eyes as he makes his way through a swirling dust cloud.
Wild dust storms are the desert West’s answer to the hot and muggy stickiness of mid-summer in the East!

When the desert becomes enveloped in dust storms you can get white-out conditions, and that thin layer of silt finds its way onto everything in the camper, even with the doors and windows closed. Just one swirl as you open the door and dash inside can be enough to coat the counters and table with grit.

It was time to leave!

Within an hour we were swimming down the muddy section of the road, but we had just enough traction to make it out.

Once the tires hit the pavement we heaved a huge sigh of relief!

We headed south on US-95 which is also known as the Bicentennial Highway because it was completed in 1976. It is one of Utah’s most spectacular scenic drives with occasional pull-outs where you can stop to take a photo or rest a bit. After driving for a while we pulled over to stretch our legs.

Hog Canyon Utah-min

The beautiful scenery on the Bicentennial Highway was a welcome sight after our great escape!

A gorgeous yellow Corvette had stopped too. We’ve often said that if we ever stop traveling by RV we might start traveling by sports car and motel. Wouldn’t that be fun! What better way to see America’s incomparable scenic drives that in a zippy and maneuverable Porsche?! We had the chance to do just that in Colorado a few years ago, and what a blast that was! (Blog post here).

RV and Porsche and side by side-min

There are many ways to travel and they’re all fun!

We wandered through the brush by the side of the road and crossed a narrow stream and found ourselves in a shallow cave. Such wonders. Our spirits soared as we roamed around.

View from cave in Utah-min

Mark takes a pic from the floor of the cave

One of the things I love most with Utah’s red rocks is the “desert varnish” on the surface of many cliff faces. It appears as though the gods have taken cans of paint and spilled them over the edges. Jackson Pollack may have made human drip painting famous, but for me, these paintings made by Mother Nature have him beat.

Desert varnish on red rocks in Utah-min

Nature’s drip paintings on towering red rock cliffs.

Artistic expression fill human history back to prehistoric times, and the ancients who lived in Utah thousands of years ago were no different. Using some kind of method to impregnate the smooth cliff walls with various colors, they created pictographs that remain to this day.

Buddy came across an especially beautiful one.

Puppy finds Moqui Queen pictograph in Utah-min

“Look what I found!”

It was about five feet tall and seemed to depict a person wearing a crown of some kind, along with decorations across the neck and shoulders as well as earrings. The figure appeared to have bird wings with long flight feathers, or perhaps it wore a cape that concealed its arms.

I have no idea what the thing next to this being was. But surely the person who meticulously created this image eons ago knew exactly what it was. If only it were possible to know the origins of the artwork in the context of the culture that created it.

Gazing at this image of a very specific something — human? god? — I remembered my astonishment when we watched a school field trip of young kids visiting the evocative ancient pyramid ruins at Monte Alban near Oxaca in southern Mexico.

As the kids sat attentively listening to a guide teach them about some huge stone carvings the Zapotecs had made, he pointed to various images in the stone sculptures and asked the kids if they recognized who they were.

With each question, a few kids’ hands shot up and they answered eagerly. They had studied the ancient mythology that had its roots right where they were sitting.

Moqui Queen pictograph in Utah-min

This intricately detailed pictograph is about five feet tall and appears to be a person wearing a crown and ornaments around the neck and shoulders, and it seems to have either an elaborate cape or wings.

Not too far from this incredible pictograph we found some more recent petroglyphs. The difference between pictographs and petroglyphs is that the pictographs are made by impregnating pigments into the rock face while petroglyphs are made by pecking out an etching.

It’s not so easy to make images by pecking, and in many places we’ve seen poor modern attempts to scrape the rock alongside the expertly made petroglyphs that are hundreds or thousands of years old. However, in this spot some enterprising people whose petroglyph efforts are now fading into recent history did a pretty good job of making a lasting impression.

These petroglyphs dated back as far as 1941 which was long before the Bicentennial Highway was built in 1976 and also before Glen Canyon was dammed to form Lake Powell in 1963.

In the 1940s there was just a rough 4×4 road that, legend has it, a local miner had built between Hanksville and Hite using a borrowed bulldozer!

Modern petroglyph in Utah-min

“Roy Despain + Madeline II – September 1, 1941”

Roy and Madeline covered some rugged terrain to put their mark on these rocks. I wonder if they are still around and if they ever return to see their names on the cliff wall.

Nearby Brig Larsen left his or her name and listed the town of Moab, Utah (his/her hometown?) and the full date of May 21, 1947.

Modern petroglyph in Utah-min

“Brig Larsen – Moab Utah – 1947”

In 1946, a year prior to Brig pecking out his petroglyph, a geological survey described the concept of a future road going between the mining town of Hite (now submerged under Lake Powell) and the Mormon farming town of Hanksville. A quote from that geological survey says:

“Plans are being considered for a road across the Colorado River at Hite and eastward… At the present time (1946) the road follows the bottom of North Wash and a cable-barge ferry is maintained for crossing the river. In time, no doubt, an improved road will be built that avoids the canyon bottom and crosses the river by bridge, probably near the mouth of the Dirty Devil river. Such a road would be one of the most scenic highway in America.”

How right they were as they looked 30 years into the future!

Nearby a Mr. (or Ms.) S. Allan also made a petroglyph with the date “41.” Was he (or she) traveling with Roy and Madeline in 1941? Maybe they all reached this spot together and decided to put their names on the rock much as the Mormon pioneers had done at the Mormon register which is now inside Capitol Reef National Park.

Ironically, someone named Lockyer visited to the same spot in 1978 after the Bicentennial Highway was fully built and paved with asphalt. I wonder if he intended to write over S. Allan’s date or if he realized only after he got going with his rock pecking that he hadn’t allowed enough room for his name.

Modern petroglyph in Utah-min

“S. Allan 41” and “Lockyer 78”

Either way, I’m just assuming that the numbers “41” and “78” refer to years these people were here in the 1900s. But who knows, they could be their birth years or they could be numbers from their high school varsity sports jerseys!

So it goes with the masterful guesswork of archaeology, whether studying the artistic footprints left 80 years ago or 800 years ago or more.

One thing we’ve noticed in the shifting sands of time here in southeastern Utah is that it is not so easy to leave an indelible footprint. We’ve been here only two weeks, yet the footprints and tire tracks we first put down two weeks ago have almost disappeared. The rain and wind have all but erased them from ever being.

Even the muddy tracks on the dirt road had already begun to flatten out.

Photography in Utah landscapes-min

Happy times in Utah.

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Map of the Bicentennial highway

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Newspaper Rock Utah – Petroglyphs and Rock Art from the Ancients

March 2016 – The one thing about desert camping is that it can get very dusty when the wind blows. And out in the desert, once the wind picks up, there is little to stop if from howling. A rule of thumb we’ve heard is that if it is windy one day, it will be windy for three days.

During our stay in the Valley of the Gods and Goosenecks State Park region of southeastern Utah the clouds gathered steadily each day, and then the wind pick up. Oh my, how the dust was flying. It was in our eyes and our noses and in everything in our rig. We packed it up and hightailed it out of there to the north as fast as we could.

Of course, every region has their own manifestation of bad weather, and the dusty wind storms in Valley of the Gods morphed into threatening dark storm clouds outside of Monticello.

Storm Clouds in Utah

Dust storms give way to menacing storm clouds as we climb in elevation.

Temps plummeted from 80’s in the desert to the 40’s near Monticello and were rapidly dropping as we climbed in elevation to the pine forests. Storm clouds were gathering overhead and the world suddenly looked very ominous.

We looked around, and suddenly, in unison, we both blurted out: “It looks like it’s gonna snow!”

We laughed at this absurd nortion, but I checked the weather forecast on my laptop anyway. My eyes flew open when I pulled up the forecast for Monticello, Utah.

“It IS gonna snow…in the next hour!!!”

Snow on RV in Canyonlands National Park Utah

OMG – It’s snowing!

And snow it did. As the skies turned black and the wind picked up and the temperature fell further, we found a place to hide for the night.

What a shock it was to see the snow flying thickly around us. It began to pile up on everything, from the trees and leaves to our bike seats on the bike rack on the trailer to our front door steps.

Snow on RV steps in Utah

One small step for an RVer…

The next morning we were in an icy winter wonderland!

Fifth wheel RV in snow in Utah

Who ordered this? I don’t know, but if you can stop shivering it’s very pretty!

It didn’t last, though. In no time at all the snow melted and we were on our merry way. We had come into the high country of eastern Utah to visit Newspaper Rock, a fabulous rock art panel that appears to be just what its name implies.

Newspaper Rock is an enormous slab of rock covered in natural “desert varnish,” which gives it a dark, smooth surface, perfect for pecking out images. It stands under a natural rock overhang, just like a huge sheltered bulletin board, out in the middle of nowhere surrounded by woods and other rock cliffs.

Newspaper Rock Indian Rock Art Petroglyph Panel Utah

Newspaper Rock is the Facebook of the Ancients!

The slab is absolutely covered with ancient Indian petroglyphs and rock art.

Newspaper Rock Ancient Indian Petroglyph Rock Art Panel in Utah

What a cacophany of conversations!

Apparently, the older art on Newspaper Rock is attributed to ancient Puebloan Indians who lived in the area for 1,600 years, from 100 B.C. to 1540 A.D. The more recent rock art on the panel is thought to have been created by the ancestors of the Ute people who still live in the area.

Newspaper Rock Art petroglyph panel Utah

If you look closely, there are all kinds of crazy and fun images here.

We were mesmerized by all the different images. They are packed in tightly, with animals and odd looking creatures and images of hands and feet and geometric shapes all crammed together. There’s barely an open inch anywhere on the panel.

Another woman and I excitedly pointed out various images and even possible stories to each other. There was the weird snake charmer guy who wore a fancy horned headdress and fringe leggings and had a very curvy snake crossing right over his neck. All around him were frolicking horned animals, bison, a four toed foot and another guy with a horned headdress.

Ancient Indian Petroglyphs Newspaper Rock Utah Mixture

With horns on his head and fringe on his legs, this guy has a snake winding across him!

In another area there was a very clear image of a hunter shooting an elk or a deer. He had a bow and arrow and the animal had a huge rack of antlers on its head.

Right above this image there were two odd looking space alien creatures. Each had horns, of two different types, and one had four fingers on each hand while the other had only three. Their bodies (or clothes) were very boxy and they had impossibly short legs with no feet.

Hmmm…

Around them were images of feet with only four toes as well as a spoked circle that looked like a wagon wheel.

Petroglyphs Newspaper Rock Utah Elk hunt and people with horns

A hunter on horseback aims at an elk, but who are those chunky guys with horns on their heads?

I find this three, four and five finger and toe thing fascinating. Some rock art depicts the modern day number of human fingers and toes and some just doesn’t. I doubt these people had trouble counting. Scientists working with African Grey parrots have proven they can count to seven very easily. I think there must have been another reason they omitted the toes and fingers — but what was it?

The amazing thing about petroglyphs like these is that they are pecked out of the rock. It isn’t easy to peck this rock. All over the American Southwest there is rock art that has been vandalized with graffiti in the last 200 years, and none of the graffiti comes close to the quality of the original rock art.

In another part of the panel four horned animals are marching in a row. Three are alike, but the one behind them is bigger and looks like it might have been created at a different time. They look a little like Santa’s reindeers!

Next to them is a flying squirrel caught mid-flight. I discovered Northern Flying Squirrels can be found in the conifer forests in Utah, so there he is on the rock art panel!

Petroglyphs Rock Art Newspaper Rock Utah Herd of deer

A deer track and then a line of deer like Rudolph, Dasher, Prancer and Vixen.
Graffiti in the upper left area barely penetrates the “desert varnish” of the rock.

Two other images of flying squirrels are prominant on this panel. One has a Superman S on him and the other has three fingers on each hand!

I imagine the flying squirrel had significance to the ancient people who pecked these images on the rocks. I couldn’t find any Ute or western Indian references to flying squirrels, but several eastern Indian tribes have flying squirrels in their folklore.

Beneath them is the ever-present foot — with 5 toes.

Newspaper Rock Petroglyph rock art Flying Squirrels Utah

Flying squirrels, one with a Superman S on his chest and the other with 3 fingers on his little hands.

Hands and feet are everywhere on this panel of rock art petroglyphs, and in one section it is a veritable track of two people wallking up the rock, a larger person on the left and a smaller person on the right. Some have four toes, some have five and a Very Large Person to their left sometimes has six!

A graphic artist or characature style hand outline also appears above some feet.

Feet and hand petroglyphs Newspaper Rock Utah

Tracking the human race with a bigger person and a smaller person together and a Very Big Person to the left.
What about that cool hand?!

Nearby there are two very cute and small deer, each with a very elaborate pair of antlers on his head.

Below them is a bison that has the same outline styling as the hand in the previous image.

Rock Art Newspaper Rock Utah with deer, foot and bison

A slick bison outline and two deer with very intricate and mature antlers

Bison are very popular on the Newspaper Rock art panel. One image near the bottom of the panel shows a hunter on horseback with a bison. This image is in the lighter color that the Bureau of Land Management says is more recent rock art dating to some time after 1500 AD.

Buffalo roamed all over the North American continent for thousands of years, and many Indian tribes were totally dependent on them.

In 1840 there were 60 million free roaming bison thundering across America. By 1886, 46 years later, there were fewer than 100. They all died at the hands of hunters who were encouraged by the US Army, as they knew the extermination of the buffalo would be the end of the Indians. Buffalo hide also became more popular than cowhide in the eastern states and in Europe, and an average hide hunter could kill 60 bison in a day.

Newspaper Rock Art petroglyph Utah horseback hunter and bison

Buffalo hunting was essential to the Indians.

One bison is depicted with cloven hooves, and it’s little details like these that make these images resemble children’s drawings where one feature or another is drawn with careful detail at the expense of other details that sometimes go missing all together.

Along with bison, those animals with the curved horns are really popular images at Newspaper Rock. They are commonly referred to as Big Horn Sheep, but as I noted in another post about rock art in Arizona’s Saguaro National Park, the horns don’t resemble big horn sheep horns at all. Oh well. They are a mystery bovine!!

There is also a creature with a wide tail, perhaps a beaver, and animal which was once abundant throughout Utah.

Petroglyph rock art at Newspaper Rock Gazelle, bison and beaver tadpole

This buffalo has cloven hooves, and is that a beaver near him, or something else?

There is also a very cool bird with a long beak standing near a horned animal and a very small person.

Bird petroglyphs Newspaper Rock Utah

A very birdlike bird, a horned bovine and a small person here.

Some of the imagery is geometric and some is, well, who knows what it is. There’s also a difference in pecking skill when it comes to creating these images on the rock panel.

Rock art Newspaper Rock Utah Deer, feet geometric designs

Some images are obvious while others a little obscure.

Down near the grass there’s an intriguing double sun that appears to have something inside it.

Newspaper Rock Art Utah Twin Sun Design

A double sun. There is something wonderfully mystical about this.

I loved studying all these crazy images. What do they mean and why were they on this particular rock? There are millions of square feet of smooth flat rock walls covered in desert varnish throughout Utah where there are no petroglyphs. And then there’s a place like this that is packed to the gills with images from different people of different eras.

A newspaper indeed!

One of my favorite images was one I spotted just before leaving. It is a ladder with three fingered hands at the top. What the heck?! Nearby is a guy with his three fingered hands in the air. He sports a tail and horns.

There are also some deer tracks marching right throught the image from bottom to top, and a doodle that looks like a flying saucer or satellite.

Petroglyphs Newspaper Rock Utah Ladder with hands

A ladder with hands, some bizarre shapes, a few feet, and deer tracks running through it all.

In the bottom right is a very elaborate paw print, complete with claws. There are an aweful lot of toes on that paw. Maybe it’s a flower!

Newspaper Rock is a fantastic roadside stop for RVers and other travelers heading into the southern Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It is right on the way in to the National Park, and it is without doubt the best rock art we’ve seen anywhere.

When we were there after a snowstorm in late March there was hardly anyone there because it was absolutely freezing. But I imagine in warmer seasons the place can get insane because the parking lot is not very big and there are signs up and down the sides of the road before and after the site saying, “No Parking.”

Note: Newspaper Rock is within the boundaries of the 3,000 square mile parcel of land that the Navajo Indians and 25 other tribes have asked the public land agencies to convert into Bears Ears National Monument. It is currently a State Historical Monument managed by the BLM. More info at this link.

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Saguaro National Park Petroglyphs – Tucson Mountains, AZ

February 2016 – We have spent a lot of time in the Sonoran Desert in Central Arizona, but have not spent much time in Tucson down in the southern part of the state, other than racing the wildly insane El Tour de Tucson 100+ mile bicycle race long before we dreamed of becoming full-time travelers.

So, a trip to Saguaro National Park was long overdue for us.

Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona field of cactus

A view in Saguaro National Park (western district in the Tucson Mountains)

Saguaro National Park is split into two sections, the Western section (the Tucson Mountains) and the Eastern section (the Rincon Mountains). Amazingly, these two vast national park systems hug the east and west flanks of the bustling city of Tucson, which is home to about a million people.

Field of cactus Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

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The first thing we noticed as we drove through the park is that because the land is under strict preservation management by the National Park Service (as opposed to the looser standards that exist in the National Forests like Tonto National Forest up by Phoenix), is that there are lots of old saguaro cactus skeletons standing and lying around.

Saguaro skeleton Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

We were surprised to see cactus skeletons all over the place.

These unique relics are prized as garden and household decorations, and in the open Sonoran Desert that lies all around central and southern Arizona, they get hauled away by energetic folks to be re-purposed for interior decorating and outdoor garden ornamentation.

It was neat to see so many cactus skeletons in their natural desert home.

Cactus skeleton Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountains Arizona

The skeletal trunk of a saguaro cactus

Saguaros like to be warm, and they often get bent out of shape when there is a heavy frost. They drop their arms and never put them back up again!

swoopy cactus

After a heavy frost or snow, the saguaros surrender with their arms down.

Saguaro National Park was first established in 1933. as a National Monument, and President Roosevelt’s CCC built some wonderful stone picnic ramadas that still stand today. The undersides of the roofs are lined with saguaro cactus ribs.

Picnic ramada built by CCC Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

The CCC created wonderful stone picnic shelters lined with saguaro cactus ribs

Reading about the early history of this National Park, it was interesting again to see the differences between the National Park Service, which is a bureau of the Department of the Interior charged with preserving America’s natural treasures, and the US Forest Service, which is an agency of the Department of Agriculture charged with sustaining the health and productivity of the nation’s forests.

CCC picnic shelter Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

Cool view from the picnic ramada

Back in the 1930’s, the US Forest Service had been managing the land where the proposed Saguaro National Monument was going to be, and they didn’t want to give up cattle grazing on it, something the National Park Service would require. Fortunately, they eventually agreed to the concept of a National Monument in this forest of bizarre human-like trees. In 1994 it became a National Park.

The main loop drive through the cactus forest is a graded dirt road called the Bajada Scenic Drive, and there are several short hiking trails that go from there.

The Signal Hill hike follows a short path up to a pile of big boulders. Eons ago, the ancient Hohokam people pecked out a bunch of symbols and artwork on these boulders.

Petroglyphs at Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Tucson Mountains Arizona

At Signal Hill there are lots of intriguing petroglyphs

Some of the petroglyphs are like wheels with spokes while another popular image is an animal with long swept back horns.

The horned animal is a common motif seen in rock art all over southern Utah and Arizona, and usually it is referred to as a big horn sheep. But if you look at the horns on a big horn sheep, they are tightly wound and are nothing like the gently curved horns of these rock images.

big horn sheep petroglyph Saguaro National Park Signal Hill AZ

A “big horn sheep” petroglyph

I found an interesting photo-essay by a fellow who thinks these are not big horn sheep at all but are actually an extinct animal that roamed before the last ice age, an idea that would date the rock art to a far earlier period than is currently thought.

Talk about rocking the boat of the academics!!

Big Horn Sheep

The horns on a big horn sheep are a lot more curved than ancient rock art images typically depict…

I don’t know if his theory holds water or not, but I love it when new ideas make us look at history and pre-history with fresh eyes.

A very large and tightly wound spiral image dominates the rock art on these boulders.

Signal Hill Spiral petroglyph Saguaro National Park Tucson Arizona

A large spiral image is the biggest petroglyph by far

Looking at this carefully pecked imagery, it is interesting to ponder what motivated those early people to make their art, and why they did it on these particular rocks, and whether it was just graffiti, or a warning, or a bit of news for the next folks coming down the path. Or perhaps it had some deeper spiritual meaning.

Spiral Petroglyph Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Arizona 2

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Petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Tucson AZ

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wheel sun sheep petroglyphs Signal Hill Saguaro National Park Arizona

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Back on the path that leads from the parking lot to the mound of boulders, there is a bunch more rock art that is easy to miss on the way up. Just turn around as you begin to descend and keep an eye on the rocks. There is quite a bit there, fairly high up.

Signal Hill petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Arizona

If you don’t catch them on the hike up the hill, turn around on the way down and look up.

If you are really into rock art, taking along a pair of binoculars or a long camera lens is a great idea! I was glad to have my 28-300 zoom..

Spiral and people petroglyphs Saguaro National Park Signal Hill Arizona

Cryptic message, or spiritual symbols, or plain old graffiti?

Saguaro National Park is very large, and there are other hiking trails that can really get you out into the cactus forest. For this trip, we were just doing an overview and getting feeling for what is there. We’ll dive in more deeply next time.

Hikers at Saguaro National Pak Tucson Arizona

We enjoyed this little foray into Saguaro National Park

Saguaro National Park is a really beautiful place to see Arizona’s Sonoran Desert scenery, whether you are an Arizona resident or are in the Tucson area as a snowbird RV visitor in the winter months. There are oodles of hikes and lots of ranger led events too, and there are links for more info below.

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Sometimes on this blog I put up a post with some beautiful photos only to discover later than I missed a few special ones that I’d really like to share. That happened with our earlier stay during the rains at Roosevelt Lake. The other day Mark and I were reminiscing about the bitterly cold week of rain and snow we experienced out there last month, and we came across these stunning photos of his. So here they are. Better late than never!!

Desert rain Roosevelt Lake Arizona

After the rain at Roosevelt Lake

While were camped at Roosevelt Lake, Mark snuck out of bed in the wee hours of the night and got this jaw dropping image of the stars:

Roosevelt Lake starry sky at night Arizona

Starry, starry night…

What a fabulous image!!

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Dinosaur National Monument, UT – More than fossilized dinosaur bones!

Dinosaur National Monument has great road cycling

Dinosaur National Monument is great for cycling.

Early September, 2012 – Dinosaur National Monument is a big park that sprawls between NE Utah and NW Colorado. Many visitors buzz through this park, seeing only the bone display at the quarry.

However, the scenery, homesteads and petroglyphs elsewhere in the park kept us hanging around for quite a few days.

Dinosaur National Monument Road Cycling

We had fun on the bikes.

Dinosuar National Monument Lizard Petroglyphs

Lizard images crawl up the wall

We rode our bikes on the ~12 mile road that heads into the western heart of the park. This is a fantastic road for cycling.

Dinosaur National Monument skulls in a tree

Skulls hung in a tree.

Only a handful of cars passed us in four hours of pedaling and stopping for photos, and the sweeping turns, rolling hills and stunning vistas were a total thrill.

Dinosaur National Monument Petroglyph

What’s that on his head??

There are lots of petroglyphs along this road.  Most are a bit faint, and you have to do the billy goat thing to get up close to a few of them, but they are intriguing, with odd designs of people wearing strange things on their heads.

Dinosaur National Monument Josie's Cabin

Josie’s Cabin

 

Someone had hung a slew of animal skulls in a tree that we passed.  It was a little weird and gave the area an air of mystery.

The clearest petroglyphs we found on this road were on a sheer wall filled with lizards (photo above).  They march upwards from the bottom of the wall towards the top.  One six foot long lizard heads off to the right.  A perfect photo op would have been if a real lizard had snuck across the petroglyphs for us, but we didn’t get that lucky!!

Dinosaur National Monument Josie's Cabin

It’s a tiny, wee cabin

At the far end of this road, after it turned to dirt, we came across the Josie Morris Cabin.  This tiny four room cabin was home to a very plucky single woman for fifty years.  Married five times and divorced four, a rarity in her time, she bought this small ranch when she was a single mom nearing 40 in the early 1900’s.  She lived here first with her son and then alone until her death at 90 in 1964.

Dinosaur National Monument McKee Springs Road

McKee Springs Road – Where the artists rocked!

The building is wee, and walking around the property to her chicken coop and pasture, it was hard to imagine what life had been like out here, miles from nowhere.  But she was a tough old biddy.  She brewed apricot brandy during Prohibition and got arrested twice for cattle rustling when she was in her 60’s.

Dinosaur National Monument McKee Springs Petroglyphs

McKee Springs Petroglyphs

 

 

 

 

Dinosaur National Monument McKee Springs Petroglyphs

One morning we came into the park from another angle, taking the road to McKee Springs.  Here, in a wide valley, we found the finest petroglyphs we have ever seen anywhere.

Dinosaur National Monument McKee Springs Petroglyphs

This must tell a story.

Dinosaur National Monument McKee Springs Petroglyphs

Dinosaur National Monument McKee Springs Petroglyphs

A ghostly double? Two sets of arms? Huh??

Like all petroglyphs in this part of the country, they date back about 1,000 years to the Fremont culture, but lord knows what they say. All the figures wore headdresses or spiky things in their hair (antlers? feathers? antennae?). Some had elaborate decorative things around their necks, wore earrings, or dressed up their hair on the sides of their heads.

These petroglyphs are all lined up along the sheer faces of a cliff at eye level, and a path leads from one set to the next.  It is like walking through a museum, but there are no curator’s notes explaining what you are looking at.  That is left up to the imagination!!

Dinosaur National Monument Rainbow Park

Dinosaur National Monument’s Rainbow Park

At the far end of this road there is a tiny campground on the Green River at Rainbow Park.  Not a soul was around.  We thought about bringing the rig down here, but we wanted to get to the other side of the park, and for that we had to go into Colorado and come in from the southern end along Harpers Corner Road.

Dinosaur National Monument Echo Canyon Scenic Drive

The drive to Echo Canyon was beautiful

The highlight of this road was the 13 mile drive down the steep dirt switchbacks into Echo Canyon (4×4 required).  At the top the views stretched on forever, and as we dropped lower and lower into the canyon, the cliffs soared upwards on either side of us.

Dinosaur National Monument Whispering Cave

The cliffs towered on each side of the road.

Dinosaur National Monument Chew Homestead

The Jack Chew Homestead

 

Partway into the canyon we stopped at another early 20th century homestead, this one built by the Chew family.

Dinosaur National Monument Whispering Cave

You gotta stoop to get into Whispering Cave.

 

 

Dinosaur National Monument Whispering Cave

This cave features vaulted ceilings!

Unlike Josie’s solitary life, the Chews brought 6 of their 12 children to live here, starting with a dugout in 1910 and moving into a cozy one room cabin in 1911.  How a family of that size could squeeze into one small room during the long dark winters baffled us.

Steamboat Rock Dinosaur National Monument at Echo Canyon on Yampa River Green River

Steamboat Rock

But this gorgeous, harsh land has sheltered people in tiny places for eons.  The Whispering Caves a little further on had a low entrance but high ceilings inside, and a steady cool breeze blew from between the towering cliff walls.

Steamboat Rock is the centerpiece of Echo Canyon, and we hiked around the valley get a look at it from many angles.  The Yampa and Green Rivers swish around its base, and folks were swimming and kayaking around it.

Dinosaur National Monument Harpers Corner Trail

Views of thousand foot cliffs from Harpers Corner Trail

Instead of swimming, we got our exercise hiking Harper’s Corner Trail, a fantastic out-and-back trail that goes along a ridge overlooking canyons on either side.  From this high vantage point it was easy to see how the rivers had carved out their route between the craggy, horizontally striped cliffs.

Dinosaur National Monument Green River Views

The Green River weaves its way towards us.

 

 

 

 

On the other side of the trail the Green River made its curvy way towards us.  We watched a group of river rafters floating down stream, a thousand feet below us.

The night skies in this park are among the darkest in the country, and when we ventured out of the trailer one night, the Milky Way was a thick white band, like a wide belt, that crossed the entire sky.

Star Trails at Dinosaur National Monument

Star Trails

Mark had been reading up on various photography techniques, and this was a great place to try a star trails photo.  Pointing the camera at the North Star on his tripod, he left the camera shutter open for an hour to catch the movement of the stars in the sky.

Well, he meant to do it for an hour.  He came into the trailer to warm up, laid down on the sofa, and promptly fell asleep.  When he woke up, an hour and a half had passed!  Oh well — it just made the star trails a little longer!!

We were both very well rested by the time we pulled ourselves away from Dinosaur National Monument, and we were ready for a little in-town activity in nearby Fruita, Colorado.

Our story Dinosaurs and Much Much More was featured in RV Life Magazine in the September 2013 issue.

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Yaxchilan and Bonampak – Haunting Ruins & Ancient Art in the Jungle

Sail blog post - the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilan and Bonampak in Chiapas, Mexico were highlight of inland trip from Marina Chiapas.

Kim Tours starts our day with a big breakfast.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Cowboys on horseback hustle cattle down the road.

Cattle are hustled down the road.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take tourists to the ruins upriver. Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We all pile into our boat for an hour's journey to Yaxchilán.

We all piled into our boat for an hour's journey

to Yaxchilán.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Boats waiting to take us to Yaxchilan Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Our guide.

Our guide.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We spot the edge of the Yaxchilán ruins through the trees.

We spot Yaxchilán through

the trees.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Hiking up to the

"Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The

The "Little Acropolis."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Entering

Entering "The Labyinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - We emerge...

Light at last…!

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - ...in front of

We emerge in front of "The Labyrinth."

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Green moss clings to everything.

Green moss clings to everything.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Note the boxy hieroglyphs above the doorway.

Note the boxy hieroglyphs carved

in the lintel above the doorway.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (752-772), this made quite a sight from the river.

Structure 33.  When built by Bird Jaguar (who reigned

752-772 AD), this made quite a sight from the river.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Structure 20.

Structure 20.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism about his rise to power.

King Bird Jaguar IV plays ball amid symbolism and hieroglyphs about his rise to power.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - King Bird Jaguar IV's mother, Lady Eveningstar.

King Bird Jaguar IV's mother,

Lady Eveningstar.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

We're faster than that croc, aren't we?

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Van ride for our leg into the Lacadón Forest.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Bonampak'a main plaza has shaded stelae and an enormous stairway with small buildings.

Bonampak's main plaza.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - The three doorways leading into the matchless rooms of Mayan murals.

Three doorways lead into three rooms of

matchless Mayan murals.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 1: Pomp and circumstance for the presentation of Chaan Muan II's infant heir.

Room 1: Pomp and circumstance surround the presentation

of King Chan Muan II's infant heir.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Mayans bound their foreheads to flatten them.

The detail -- nearly 1200 years later

-- was astonishing.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour -

Celebrating with trumpets.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Room 2:  Prisoners are tortured by pulling out their fingernails.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Room 3:  Nobelwomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Room 3:  Noblewomen pierce their tongues in ritual blood-letting.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Lintel above Room 1's doorway:  Chan

Muan holds a captive by the hair.

Yaxchilan & Bonampak Tour - Modern day Lacandón girl.

She got a kick out of taking a

photo of Mark.

Yaxchilán & Bonampak, Mexico

March, 2012 - There are many beautiful things to see in the Palenque area and, for most tourists, rather than struggling to

drive on the little winding roads, the easiest way to see them all is by van tour.  Van tours are a big business in this region, and

almost all the vehicles on the small roads outside Palenque are vans filled with tourists.  Our van from Kim Tours picked us up at

7:00 a.m. for a 12-hour tour to the remote Mayan ruins of Yaxchilán and Bonampak.  After several hours on the road, everyone

in our group was grateful when the van stopped mid-morning for a sumptuous breakfast at a casual open-air restaurant.

Besides van tours, farming and agriculture play an important role

here too, and we watched with amusement as two cowboys on

horseback hustled a herd of cattle down the road while we were

getting back in the van after breakfast.  Those cows could trot

pretty fast!

After another hour or so of negotiating skinny, speedbump filled

roads, we finally arrived at the river that defines the border

between Mexico and Guatemala, the Río Usumacinta.  Here we

boarded a small outboard-driven boat with a canopy top for an

hour-long boat ride up the river.  Talk about remote -- these ruins

are really out there!

We were five

couples all together.

Two couples hailed

from Mexico City

and Argentina, and

they gabbed away in

Spanish with each other

and the guide.  The other

two couples were from

French Canada and

France, and they

chatted easily in

French.  We mostly

listened and enjoyed

the views.

The narrow river

meandered between

thick jungle greenery along its banks.  At long

last we spotted a tall pile of rocks between the

trees heralding our arrival at the ruined Mayan

city of Yaxchilán.

We climbed a steep, moist hillside trail and

suddenly found ourselves staring at the

familiar pyramid shape of a huge Mayan building, the "Little

Acropolis."  This building was extensive and had rooms and

windows and unroofed hallways that begged to be explored.

However, we were given only an hour to see the whole sight

and the "Great Acropolis" complex of buildings awaited us

further on.  If only you could go to a place like this easily on

your own and hang out for a few days...

Hiking back down and then up again,

we came to "The Labyrinth," a crazy

maze of winding tunnels that is pitch

dark inside.  We relied on flashes

from our cameras to light the way.

Finally shafts of light penetrated and

we emerged on the other side,

standing in front of a series of doors

into the Labyrinth and looking out

into the Grand Plaza.

The jungle here has been

conquered, seeded with grass lawns, and swept back to reveal these

impressive ruins.  But mossy overgrowth clings to everything.  As we

wandered past sturdy walls and rows of doorways, two thoughts kept

swirling through my mind:  what did this place look like when it was

newly constructed and filled with inhabitants?  And what did the

European discoverers think when they first found this large complex of

buildings in the tight grip of the

jungle in the mid-1800's?

It is mind-boggling to think that this

little bend in a nondescript, brown

silty river was once a very important

spot, a destination, a port for trade.

Today it would be indistinguishable

from the rest of the jungle

riverbanks if it weren't for the

sprinkling of tourists

arriving every few

hours in colorful

canopied boats.

Who built this stuff

and when?

Fortunately, Yaxchilán is loaded with doorway and window

lintels that are covered with square-shaped Mayan

hieroglyphic text, and they tell the story.  Unraveling the

meaning behind Mayan hieroglyphs began in the late

19th century, when the numeric system was first

deciphered.  Major breakthroughs came in the 1980's

(while studying lists of rulers in Palenque), and now

90% of Mayan writings can be read.  The history of

conquests, defeats and transfers of power in Yaxchilán

are surprisingly well known, right down to specific days

and years due to the detailed Mayan calendar.

The area was likely settled by 250 AD, but

the first historic text points to 359 AD when

Yaxchilán's first ruler ascended the thrown.

Rulers with evocative names like "Bird

Jaguar" and "Moon Skull" reigned for

centuries, each date of ascension to the

throne carefully recorded in stone.  One

ruler's wife, Lady Pakal, lived to the ripe old

age of 98.  That may not have been a typical

ancient Mayan lifespan, but the ruling class

obviously lived well.

The city reached its peak in the early 8th

century, and most of the ruins date from that

time period when the reigning king (who lived

into his nineties) went on a building spree.

The amazing thing at this site, besides the expansive

grounds filled with 120 or so ruined buildings, is the

detailed carvings on the lintels.  Passing under a

doorway you look up and see the most beautiful and

intricately carved stone just overhead.  The images are

clear, and archaeologists have sorted out what almost

all of them depict -- with the help of the descriptive boxy

hieroglyphs that accompany each one.

One relief shows King Bird Jaguar IV playing ball in the

ball court, a game that had deep mystical overtones in

Mayan culture.  The text around the images makes reference to

both blood letting and the decapitation of three deities leading to

three "dawnings."  Two dwarfs are marked with the signs of Venus.

It is thought that they figuratively sweep the path for this rising king

as Venus sweeps the path for the rising sun.

Now it helps to know a little background about this guy Bird Jaguar IV.  He was not born

in direct line to the throne, being the son of the 2nd wife rather than the 1st wife of the

king.  It seems his mother, Lady Eveningstar, was quite ambitious for her son, however,

and there might have been a power struggle after her husband's death.  She may have

even ruled Yaxchilán temporarily while she waited for her boy to grow up and take

over.  After nearly ten years her son was finally crowned King Bird Jaguar IV.

Another relief shows this woman, the ambitious Lady Eveningstar, dressed to the nines.

Yaxchilán and its neighbors alternated between being friends and enemies, making

alliances through marriage, and taking each other's kings captive by turns.  Victory

seems to have rotated between the city-states for a while, but Yaxchilán seems to have

come out on top in the early 9th century AD before

the entire ancient Mayan world slipped away into the

grasp of the jungle (possibly due to deforestation and

overpopulation).

One of the nearby rivals was Bonampak, and

fortunately for us, its unique ruins were our next stop.

First, however, we had to take another river boat ride

back to the van.  Waiting to see us off at the river's

edge was a very large, grinning crocodile.  Our

boatman took us pretty close to this fellow so we

could get a good look, but he assured us our

outboard engine was

faster than the croc!

The ruined Mayan city of Bonampak is situated in the

Lacandón Jungle where a very special group of

indigenous people, the Lacandones, make their home,

deep in the rainforest.  When the Spanish arrived in the

16th century, the Lacandón people retreated further

into the rainforest and were never discovered.

Although they had frequent contact with other Mayan-descended groups through the centuries, the rugged lands around them

helped them keep the world at bay, retain their identity and avoid the fate of most other indigenous groups for a long time.

Numbering just 650 or so native speaking Lacandón people today, it is only in the last fifty years that relentless logging,

ranching and tourism development have invaded their space and forced them to go through the conversions and changes that

the rest of Mexico underwent four hundred years ago.  Besides learning Spanish, many converted to Christianity (mostly

Protestantism).  Conversion was a change the men largely frowned upon because of its intolerance of polygamy.  But the

women favored the idea because there was very little ritualistic cooking involved (unlike their own traditions).  Ironically, the

recent introduction of TV and popular culture has largely brought an end to spiritual rituals of any kind among the younger

generation.

Today the Lacandones hang onto their traditions as best they can while

participating in the modern economy by working within the tourist trade.

They offer a peak into their world selling hand-crafted items, shuttling

tourists to ancient Mayan sites, taking them on tours of the rainforest, and

hosting them overnight.

At the edge of their land we were transferred into a van driven by a

Lacandón man in traditional dress (a white sack-like garment with wide

short sleeves).  He spoke perfect Mexican Spanish and wore an official

badge.  As I watched him behind the wheel I wondered what his

grandfather would have thought of his grandson chauffeuring international

tourists into his homeland in a van.  Would his own future grandkids want

to stay in the forest, hosting tourists and preserving the memory of a

vanishing culture, instead of joining mainstream Mexican society?

The main plaza of the

Bonampak ruins are

very compact.  A few

large, carved stelae

under shade canopies

are sprinkled across a

wide lawn.  An

enormous stairway

with small buildings

fills a hillside at the far

end.

We climbed the stairs and poked our heads into the first doorway of the little white

building half-way up.  Holy mackerel!  We were absolutely blown away.

Inside was a single room with a steeply vaulted ceiling, and every single square inch of

the interior was painted with extraordinary, brightly colored frescoes.  In the images

encircling the room people were engaged in all kinds of activities, wearing loincloths and

elaborate headdresses.

The side-view stance of each figure looked like those of the ancient Egyptians with the

feet placed one before the other and head in profile.  But unlike the Egyptians the

shoulders were shown in side-view rather than twisted with one shoulder forward and

one back.

We moved on to

the next doorway

and found another similar room with a

totally different story to tell, and likewise

inside the third doorway.  Wow!

Bonampak's construction began in the 6th

century, but the paintings were completed

in 790 AD.  This was the same time that

Charlemagne was rising to power in

Europe and the Vikings were beginning

their raids in England.

These murals were "discovered" in 1946

when a Yale researcher was brought to

them by a Lacandón guide.  The

Lacandones had revered the murals and

worshipped at the site and never shown

them to outsiders before.  Sadly, in an

effort to document and preserve them

(hadn't they been preserved already for

1,150 years?), the scientists covered the

murals with

kerosene which

brought out the

colors temporarily

but weakened the

plaster so it started

to flake off.  They

photographed like

mad, but today the

photos they took

are considered

incomplete and Yale

has renewed their

efforts to document the

paintings.

Standing there, jaw agape, however, I didn't

care how much the paintings had faded in

the last 60 years.  They are magnificent.

The expansive story-telling nature of the

paintings and their incredible detail had all of

us visitors oohing and ahhing to each other

in the doorways.

We later learned that the first room depicts

the presentation of the son and heir of King

Chan Muan II and Lady Rabbit (a

noblewoman from nearby Yaxchilán), in 790 AD, with great processions, trumpet playing and fanfare.

Unfortunately the city was abandoned before the infant came into power.  The second room depicts the

violent conquering of an unknown enemy.  Among several gruesome scenes, the unfortunate captives are

being tortured by having their fingernails pulled out.  The third depicts a royal celebration, including ritual

blood-letting that the noblewomen performed by piercing their tongues.

Like Yaxchilán, the lintels over the doorways are highly decorated,

and the image carved over the first door shows King Chan Muan

holding a captive by the hair.  Not only is the carving beautifully

executed, but the original blue painted background and some of the

red trim can be seen even today.  Astonished by their good

condition, I had to ask the attendant if the lintels were original -- and they

were.

While I was standing in awe of all this, trying to twist my body so I could

get the best possible shots of the murals despite the restrictive tourist

barriers, Mark had wandered off down the hill.  When I caught up to him

he excitedly showed me a photo of a little Lacandón girl he had taken.

These ruins were her playground, and she climbed among the trees and

played with sticks in the dust as she watched the tourists coming and

going.  Mark tried to talk to her, but Spanish and English got him nowhere.

Then he handed her the camera and showed her how to take a picture of

him and she grinned.  They traded taking pics of each other and giggled

at the images on the back of the camera, all language barriers gone.

We got back to Palenque exhausted but happy.  It had been quite a day.

But after a rest day in town we were ready to go again to see the famous

Agua Azul and Misol-Ha waterfalls.

Click here to see more from our adventure travels in Mexico.

Find Yaxchilán and Palenque on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oaxaca’s “Mitla Tour” – Ancient Zapotec Ruins & More!

Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Santa María del Tule

Town center Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

Home of the "Tule Tree"

Church in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico The Tule Tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

The "Tule Tree," 190' around!

Baby Tule tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

The baby Tule Tree, just 1,000 years old.

Gnarled trunk of the Tule tree in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

What fantastic creatures lurk here?.

Tuk-tuk taxis in Santa María del Tule, Oaxaca, Mexico

"Tuk-tuk" taxis zipped everywhere.

Zapotec weavers in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Zapotec weavings in Teotitlan

del Valle.

Natural wools are dyed with flower or bug based dyes in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

All these colors were obtained from flowers or bugs.

Sea turtle rug made by Zapotec weaver in Teotitlan del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico

Our sea turtle rug.

Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico is a unique, mystical place.

Hierve el Agua is a unique,

mystical place.

Manmade pool in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

A manmade pool to control the water flow a bit.

Swimming pools in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Kids play in the water.

Up close shot of mineral deposits, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

A thin film of water leaves a

microscopic layer of minerals behind.

Waterfall frozen in time, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Waterfall frozen in time.

Petrified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Petrified waterfall at Hierve el Agua.

Petrified waterfall, Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico Pools in Hierve el Agua, Oaxaca, Mexico

Reminded us of Yellowstone but the water was cool..

Travel companions on our Mitla tour in Oaxaca, Mexico

Our charming tour companions.

Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mitla is square and ornate, very different than Monte Alban.

Intricate stonework, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Intricate patterns like this adorn every wall inside and out.

Perfect stone joinery, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Precise mortarless stonework from 2,000 years ago.

Huge lintel over short doorway, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Massive lintel over a short doorway.

Interior room, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the interior rooms.

Stone dovetail corner wall joinery in Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

Impressive dovetail corner joinery made

of precisely cut decorative stone.

Fine stonework, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

No two patterns on the buildings are alike.

Underground tomb, Mitla ruins, Oaxaca, Mexico

One of the underground tombs.

Mezcal makers!

Mezcal makers!!  The king of Matatlan.

There are hundreds of varieties of Mezcal in Oaxaca, Mexico.

There are hundreds of varieties of mezcal.

Young blue agave plants at mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Young blue agave plants.

Blue agave plants ready for processing, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Pineapple-like core used to make mezcal.

Agave is burnt over a fire, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

First they are cooked over a fire.

Grinding up burnt agave plants to make mezcal in a distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Then they are crushed under a rotating wheel.

Mezcal fermentation barrels, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

The duration of the fermentation makes all the

difference in the taste.

Sampling mezcal, mezcal distillery,  Oaxaca, Mexico.

Here, try this one!!

Mitla Tour, Oaxaca, Mexico

Mid-February, 2012 - We enjoyed the Monte Alban ruins and history so

much we decided to take another trek out to the other side of Oaxaca to

see the ruins at Mitla.  The easiest way to do this was with a van-based

tour, and our day-trip included several colorful stops in addition to the

tour of the Mitla ruins.

The first stop was in the cute town of Santa María del Tule, home

of the famous "Tule Tree."  The funny thing about an organized

tour like this is that you follow the pace of the leader.  Our

designated stop here was just a half hour or so.  But it was such an

appealing little town that I'm sure if we had been on our own we

would have probably stuck around for a day or two!

The Tule plant is a grassy reed related to cat tails that was used by the

indigenous peoples to make mats, shelters and boats.  It grows in

abundance in and around Santa María del Tule.  The "Tule Tree" is

actually a Sabino (Montezuma Cypress) tree, totally unrelated to the

Tule plant, but it is affectionately known as the "Tule Tree" because it

was once surrounded by tule reeds.

According to the sign in front of the tree, this monster is

over 2,000 years old, 190' in girth around the trunk, 138'

tall, 28,846 cubic feet in volume and 636,107 tons in

weight.  It is considered to be the widest tree (the one with

the largest girth) in the world.  Our tour guide suggested

that if we couldn't fit the whole tree in our cameras we

could always buy a souvenir postcard instead!

Just around the corner stands the offspring of this famous tree.  It is a

mere 1,000 years old and not quite as large -- and it was all by itself

without a crowd around it elbowing each other to get a photo!  Of course

neither of these trees is quite as humongous overall as the giant

sequoia named General Sherman that stands 275' tall and has a

volume of 52,000 cubic feet.  Nor is either quite as old as the bristlecone

pine called Methuselah which has had its rings painstakingly counted to

total 4,841 years of age.

The trunk is

very gnarled

and people

see all kinds

of shapes

and creatures

in its depths.

Scooting around the streets of town we saw these funny looking three-

wheeled vehicles.  These tiny taxis, called "tuk-tuks," buzzed all over the

place, not just in Santa María del Tule but in other towns we passed along

the way.

Our next stop was at Teotitlan del

Valle, home of about forty families of Zapotec weavers.  We had met the son of one of

these families in the harbor town of Santa Cruz in las Bahías de Huatulco where he had set

up a loom and quietly turned out one brilliant woolen rug after another.  Here we were

given a demonstration of the traditional methods used by the Zapotecs to spin and dye

their wool.

The demonstration started with the

original Zapotec method of spinning

wool which involved a balancing a

spool precariously on one knee.

What luck the Spaniards showed up

way back when and brought the

familiar spinning wheel with them.

Even so, two daring members of our

group tried to spin a little wool using

this more conventional old fashioned

spinning wheel, and neither met with

much success as the wool kept

separating in their fingers.

It was amazing to learn what the Zapotecs used for dyes to create the vibrant colors of

their wool.  Starting with either white, grey or brown wool right off the sheep, they get

bright blue from the indigo plant, using ash to fix the color.  Green comes from moss,

using salt to fix the dye.  Yellow is from marigolds.  Most intriguing, however, was that

they squash an insect that makes a cocoon on prickly pear cactus leaves, and the

squished bug produces a vibrant blood red dye.  How much trial and error did it take

over the years to perfect these methods?

Again, we could have lingered for a long time in this shop and in the town in general.  I

love wools and yarns and weaving, and the intricate designs, both modern and

traditional, were fantastic.  We did end up holding up the tour van for a few minutes

while we negotiated to buy a lovely small rug featuring sea turtles.  It had been woven

from undyed sheep wool by Rafaela, whom I met (but didn't think to photograph--darn!).

In all the thousands of miles we have sailed our boat in Mexico, the most common

wildlife sighting we have had everywhere has been sea turtles.  In places

there are literally hundreds of them.  So this seemed a perfect souvenir.

Jumping into the tour van for more adventures, we drove a long way out to

Hierve el Agua ("boiling water"), a phenomenal oasis of pools and petrified

waterfalls out in the mountainous hinterlands.

Apparently

"undiscovered"

until the mid-1980's, this grouping of shallow pools and

calcified deposits is reminiscent of parts of Yellowstone

National Park, except the water is cool.

In the distance three large waterfalls stand frozen in time,

suspended forever mid-fall.  A thin trickle of water drips over the

edge, leaving behind a microscopic layer of mineral deposits to form

the next cascade.  There is a mystical, ethereal quality to this place.

Kids played in the pools and

everyone crawled all over the site, testing the

water with their hands and taking endless

pictures.

Just as the sun

started to come out,

giving the whole place

a wonderful glow, it

was time to jump back

into the van with our

tour buddies to make

the trek to the

Zapotec ruins of Mitla.

One of the highlights of this tour was meeting the other folks that

were along for the ride with us.  Three charming young women

from England filled the back seat and an older Danish couple was

up front, giving our van a decidedly European flair.  The English

gals were in their first week of a three month trans-Central America

tour, and we all bubbled with excitement as we talked about the

places we'd been and where we wanted to go.

Mitla's construction was begun by the Zapotecs in more or less

the same era as Monte Alban, a few hundred years BC,

although Mitla's first inhabitants settled there much earlier.  And

like Monte Alban, Mitla was built by the Zapotecs but ended up

under Mixtec control.  However,  in the years between 750 AD

and the arrival of the Spanish in the 1500's, Mitla was thriving

whereas Monte Alban was already in decline.

Monte Alban is built

on a hilltop while

Mitla is built in a

valley, and Monte

Alban was a city

made up of pyramids

whereas Mitla has

long and narrow

rectangular rooms

and appears possibly

to have been palatial

housing for the most

noble families as well

as a religious center.  Mitla was still functioning when the Spanish arrived (the Zapotec

population in all the outlying areas was some 500,000 people by then), and after

determining that the high priest at Mitla was similar to the pope back home, the

conquistadors promptly took up residence, dismantled and sacked as many of the buildings

as they could, and used the stones to build a church on top of one end of the ruins.

Just as stunning as the massive

pyramids at Monte Alban is the

incredibly fine stonework of the

frescoes at Mitla.  Each wall is

trimmed in intricately detailed

stonework patterns, all of which

were made by cutting perfectly

sized stones that fit onto one

another like jigsaw puzzle pieces,

held together without mortar.

Huge lintels lie across very low doorways,

and the corners of each room are made

with a dovetail style stone joinery, again

without mortar.

This construction is so finely and so tightly fitted, and

the walls are so massive, that a 1931 8.0 earthquake 50

miles away that damaged 70% of the buildings in the

city of Oaxaca didn't even make these buildings  flinch.

"Mitla" means "Place of the dead" in the Aztec's Nahuatl

language, and the Zapotec name for the area has the

same meaning.  The early Spanish conquistadors

interpreted the name as "Hell," and there are several underground tombs -- all

highly decorated with the intricately interwoven stone patterns -- where nobles and

high priests were buried and sent off to the afterlife, wether it was up to the

heavens or down.

I could have easily roamed

these ruins for quite a bit

longer, but the van was on a

mission, and this time it was

headed to a Mezcal tasting.

Actually, in hindsight, giving

up a few more moments with

the ancients for a quick

education in the art of

Mescal making

wasn't such a

bad trade-off

after all.

Like France's Champagne which is made only in Champagne,

Mexico's Tequila is made only in Tequila, about 40 miles outside of

Guadalajara, and a few other areas designated by Mexican law.  All

other identical libations made from the blue agave plant in other parts

of Mexico are called Mezcal instead.  And there are hundreds!

We stopped at a little place that still

makes Mezcal the old fashioned way.

After about 7 or 8 years the agave plant

has a pineapple looking core that is

removed, trimmed and cooked over a

fire.

It is then crushed using a heavy wheel

going round and round, driven by a

horse who has the fun job of walking in

circles.  This creates a stringy material

that looks like hay that gets boiled in a

kiln.  Eventually it is strained and placed

in casks to ferment.

The effect of the length of fermentation

was the amazing part to me.  Blanco

("white") mezcal -- the common, cheap

transparent stuff -- is aged less than two

months and burns a fiery path down your

throat and tastes terrible.  Reposado

("rested") mezcal is aged 2 months to two

years in an oak barrel and is barely

tolerable.  Añejo ("aged") mezcal is aged

for one to three years, barely tickles your

throat and has a pleasant flavor.

Extra Añejo ("extra aged") is aged for three

years or more, goes down waaaay too

easy, and tastes terrific.  It's a good thing

they were serving this stuff in thimble sized cups.

We tried some "crema" mezcals too, that is, flavored mezcals

made with cream.  The mango one was good enough that the

Danes purchased a bottle to take home with them, while we

and the English gals sampled the pineapple and some others I

forget now (we were having fun!).  The folks at the counter

would happily have kept on serving, but we needed to be able

to find our way back to the van, so we eventually said

"Enough!" and staggered off.

It was a great day on the outskirts of Oaxaca and the perfect

conclusion to our inland travels.  But Groovy was waiting for us back in Huatulco and it

was time for us to face the much feared crossing of the Gulf of Tehuantepec and head

to Puerto Chiapas and then inland to Antigua, Guatemala.

Find Oaxaca (Mitla) on Mexico Maps.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

San Rafael Swell, UT – Pictographs & Dinosaur Prints

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San Rafael Swell, Utah

September 25-30, 2007 - We rushed south to get away from the snow

and cold in Park City and found the perfect temperatures in the Green

River area.  The San Rafael Swell is a vast area of redrocks and desert

brush that we explored for several days.  The rock cliffs are enormous.

We found rock faces that sported pictographs painted by ancient

peoples 2000 years ago.  Pictographs are made using some kind of

paint on the rock, but it impregnates the rock face enough to last over

thousands of years.  It may have been made using saliva or blood.

The images were mystical.  The people were tall and thin with

garments that reached to the ground.  It was hard to tell what they

were doing, but in one image all the people had holes pecked in their

chests.  Apparently the holes were pecked deliberately, though

researchers don't know what they represented.

We also found petroglyphs chiseled in the rocks by ancient peoples

1000 years ago.  The images were a little more real-life.  Elk and big

horn sheep were easy to distinguish.

One image was a little mystifying,

however:  the figure had four

fingers, three toes, antennae and

either a tail or a shield in the other

hand.  There is graffiti around

many of these rock images, and

the poor quality of the modern rock

doodles makes it clear that the

rock artists spent some time and

had some skill in making these

images last.

Further on we found a dinosaur

track (the guidebook helped us

find it!).  Whatever type of

dinosaur it belonged to was very good sized.  Mark's hand

disappeared into the footprint.

We drove through an area called "Jackass Flats" and, sure

enough, we saw three burros nibbling the grass.  They came right

over to us to check us out.  Eventually they decided we weren't all

that interesting, and they wandered off.

Back out on I-70 we stopped at the north end of Spotted Wolf

Pass.  It took 13 years to build this portion of I-70 through the

rock cliffs.  It takes five minutes to drive through it.

From there we dropped down to Goblin Valley, Utah.