Walking through the loose canyon sand, I struggle to keep a fast pace. I pause to look up and see the streaked sandstone cliffs enveloping me. The wind begins to funnel down these walls and blows sand into my face. As I turn around to escape the pain, I see my footsteps disappear behind me into the ripples of small sand dunes sculpted by the gusts. It makes me wonder, how many other footsteps has the wind erased from this landscape’s history? We continue our hike and begin to see more permanent traces of past people who also travelled in these varnished canyons. The idea of retracing their same footsteps, seeing the same landscape, and experiencing the same scorching sun connects me to the people of this land. It is a deeper connection than just reading their stories from a textbook or news article. But being in the very setting as these people creates a profound sense of respect and actualization of the struggles, dangers, and beauty they encountered.
The first ancient footsteps we retraced were those of the Archaic people. Rounding a dry riverbed, I have my eyes fixed on the large jutting rocks, which I attempt to walk over, making sure my poles and feet have a solid placement. It is not until I hear someone says, “look up” that I peal my eyes away from the ground and gaze at the three hundred foot Navajo Sandstone cliff. At first I just see the black streaks of desert varnish staining the tan rock. But about a third of the way up the wall, I discover faint red- brown figures painted above an outcropping ledge. If it was not for their triangulated body shapes, typical of Archaic styles, the pictographs could have easily been overlooked. We begin to climb the crumbling sand hill in order to get a closer look.
Pulling myself over the final edge, I see the figures for first the time in their actual scale. These pictographs are huge, the tall ghostly figures tower three feet higher than me when I stand next to them. There are also engraved petroglyphs, many big horned sheep and maybe some ears of corn. Perhaps these were added later by people during the Fremont or Anasazi period, as corn did not arrive to the Colorado Plateau until about 100 BC, way past the time of the Archaic people.
Sitting on this cliff, I fall back in time, imagining a group of Archaic men, women, and children also enjoying the view. I see young men painting these figures with their hands, as elders instruct them on the techniques. The women are sitting around in a gossip circle crushing clay and adding water to make paint for their husbands and sons. Occasionally, they are running after the playful children who get too close to the edge. I realize that these people are not just characters from tales with lifestyles of a different world, but are tangible and experience everyday pain, love and laughter. They were probably doing the same thing, as we were that moment, joking and enjoying each other’s company.
As we begin to descend, I gaze out and feel so small in the landscape. It is unreal to think that this scenery and grandeur has practically remained the same since these native people were painting these pictures over 3,000 years ago. You cannot say the same however with most landscapes in this world today. This is why Horseshoe Canyon and other remote areas of the Colorado Plateau are so unique.
We heave on our packs and continue to follow the corridors shaped by the once powerful river. It is not long before we find ourselves retracing someone else’s footprints. As afternoon snack time approaches, a cave high off the canyon floor is spotted. I follow the group up yet another steep, sandy slope. With every footstep I take, I slide back, making the ascent more challenging. As we explore, I find more evidence of the past people who had ventured into the same cave. On the cold wall, there is a charcoal etching with a date of 1916. Like the pictographs, I am amazed again to see the preservation of such marks.
Sitting in the cave, my imagination begins to drift to this year. I see a man wearing worn trousers and a sweat stained shirt, leading his packhorse through the heat of the day. In desperate need of some shade, he spots a cave in the distance. He ties up his horse and makes the difficult climb to the entrance, where he greeted by a front of cool air and a silty smooth floor. Feeling at home, he makes camp and starts a fire. Maybe he was contemplating his journey for the next day as he transported his beaver pelts to the market. He dampens the fire and grabs a charred stick etching his name, with no expectation of it lasting a hundred years. As I run my hands through the fine silt of the alcove’s floor, I wonder what was in store for this gentleman next. With a world war approaching in the coming year, he could have to leave this beautiful landscape to serve his country. When we return to our packs at the bottom of the canyon, I speculate if he ever returned to this area or if these were the only footprints he ever made. I go to sleep that night under the same night sky that man looked at a hundred years ago.
The next morning, I wake up the warmth of the rising sun. It is a layover day and we have the opportunity to explore Blue John Canyon, whose recent fame was created by the footsteps of a survivor. A few years ago, a canyoneer named Aaron Ralston ventured solo into this canyon hoping to trace its route. However, in the blink of an eye, and at the mercy of Mother Nature, he found himself trapped. His arm was pinned by a falling rock, making any hope of leaving impossible. After 127 hours of little food and water, he attempts an extreme measure in order to live: cutting off his jammed arm with his pocketknife. As he makes a desperate journey for help, running and bleeding through this canyon to the nearby national park. We begin hiking, opposite the direction Aaron was stumbling. Soon I begin to the feel the heat of the sun and desperately reach for my Nalgene. It takes us almost an hour and half in loose sand and rugged terrain to make it the area where he made his final rappel before running deliriously through the heat. I begin to understand the true miracle and determination of this survivor story. Being in this spot now, I am astounded by what people are able to accomplish when the will to survive is the only motivation. It is this contrasting danger and beauty of these canyons, which has attracted people for thousands of years.
While these old tracks have allowed me to relate and inquire about the past, it is the future footprints in this canyon that concern me the most. With uranium, tar sands, oil, gas and coal reserves readily available, the next print left in the sand maybe those of bulldozers. It will be up to people who truly care about the culture and splendor of the Colorado Plateau to protect these stories. Therefore, as we approach the Green River I turn around and look at the untouched red cliffs and bright green cottonwoods, and hope that the only changes in the coming years will be those of footprints left by speechless hikers, curious students, or inspired preservationists.