It was full speed running. Sand flying, daypacks forgotten, every one of us dying of curiosity for what lay beyond the bend of the sandstone walls. We had reached a point in our hike where Katie and Dave, our WRFI instructors, let us find the last greatest surprise of the day. Out of uncontainable excitement and pure curiosity for what could possibly top the sights we had already seen, we sprinted. I couldn’t imagine anything better than dinosaur footprints and walking on petrified sandstone. The walls grew on both sides until we found ourselves in an alcove carved by water that appeared to seasonally run from a small slot canyon above, cascading down into the cove. It was otherworldly. It was beautiful, and yet we had seen others like it before. Confused, we turned to see Katie and Dave walking slowly and almost smiling until they stopped behind us.

They stood under a sandstone wall; it was covered in petroglyphs. We rushed back along the wall in awe of the first sign we had seen of other human life in this dry, arid place. The images were so mystical, so wild, I couldn’t believe I had missed them when I ran past. They were etched images of what we thought were human feet, lizard prints, paws, and a smoking pipe. The whole group was full of hypotheses of what each marking could be, or why the ancient natives in the area decided to put the petroglyphs there. None of us knew anything for sure. The only context we had was that one of the tribes in the area, the Zuni, would leave rock art to show future generations that they were connected to the land.

I interacted with the carving for a long time: looking at it from different angles, copying its figures into my notebook, and trying to imagine why the Natives would have taken the time to etch these specific images. Did it have to do with the plentiful-ness of the water source? Was the large figure connecting the images of a god? Was the long dotted line at the bottom a sort of calendar? There was so much to understand, with no context aside from the environment behind us and the books we had brought with us.

After staring for some time I heard a shout. More? In our haste, we had not run by petroglyphs once, but twice! The urge to run to the second wall was strong, but I decided to stay and look longer to soak up all I could and ponder why I thought those images were there. Did these ancient people find prints important? Were pipes a significant cultural item? What did it all mean? The meaning behind the messages must have been important to them considering the amount of time it would have taken to etch the thousands of circular dots into the wall so far from the ground. I eventually moved over to the second wall. It contained even more images that were far more intricate. The carvings were at least three feet in height and twelve inches in width, spanning across the slowly eroding sandstone. A rabbit, sheep, lizard, people, and some other unknown carving were on the wall for all to see. They were obvious to anyone that was walking attentively, but I had gone right by them at first.

In so many ways, I think that many people’s interactions with the Southwest are like ours were in that moment. We missed what was important at first, too distracted and impatient to notice the amazing things that actually surrounded us. Many believe–myself included before this trip–that all the Southwest contains is dry land, some canyons, and old relics from cultures past, but real observation proves different. Once you start to interact with the canyonlands, you realize that people and a lot of the ecosystem not only survived, but thrived here. Where I once saw a barren wall, I now see places where art could be. A boulder turned into a place where you could sit during the afternoon heat or a lizard could sun itself on. The few plants I thought existed turned out to be hundreds of varieties that have thousands of different uses. You become aware of the life, past and present, that surround you and take more notice of your surroundings. Now as I move throughout these lands, I move more slowly. I don’t rush, and I watch everything as attentively as I can.