Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part Two

Part One below on the “Home” page or click here.

As the archaeologist and I pushed uphill through sage and rabbit brush, he stopped to explain, quite diplomatically and in precise language, that he was in the canyon doing work pursuant to the BLM’s weighing a county government proposal to establish an ATV right-of-way through Crossfire, length to be determined.  Having lately become one of the canyon’s resident creatures, I found this information intriguing.

Long story short (according to me): As the tale goes, a seven-mile section of Crossfire on BLM lands was closed to ATV travel in September of 2007 after an activist group pressured the BLM to follow its own policies and protect archaeological sites that an ATV trail had exposed to damage.  After closing the seven-mile section, the BLM held public hearings on its actions, launched studies to assess damage to the sites involved, and began exploring options for re-routing the offending trail, including directing ATVers out of the canyon entirely and into officially designated OHV areas.  The construction of an illegal spur trail during 2005—the way by which most hikers and horseback riders now enter the canyon—raised the stakes.  The activist group documented that trail’s existence and added its presence to their list of BLM policy violations.  Federal prosecution of the trailwrights—local folk whom I think merely emulated what they perceived their pioneer forebears to have done in settling the area—is now underway.  I moved into a house just down the road from the contested section of Crossfire in time to witness it become a casus belli, with smoke from the fires of several factious camps clouding its rim. A newcomer to the area, I’m not privileged to hear the inside stories of all of the groups invested in the canyon’s accessibility.  But I supposed this recent right-of-way proposal to be an act of “take back the land” brio on the part of local ATV enthusiasts battling what they perceive to be increasing constrictions of their freewheeling access to public lands.

The archaeologist took the time to teach me something about the “tentative stipulations” his agency had set in place to determine the right-of-way’s feasibility.  First, the BLM needed to review known literature documenting the canyon’s archaeological sites and study other sources of information about the canyon’s prehistoric and historic occupations.   In Crossfire’s case, this meant looking at sites that archaeologists and volunteers had previously recorded.  The archaeologist said that he thought that there probably existed in the canyon a “good selection of sites that could be considered representative” of the canyon’s cultural layers.  I understood him to be saying that these were not sites that have been, nor necessarily would be, impacted directly by the right-of-way (should it be granted), but cultural features that provide brush strokes in the “bigger picture” of the canyon’s prehistoric and historic uses and resources.

For the second class of stipulations, actual site sampling would be done to help focus the vision of “what’s going on in the canyon.”  In some cases, the sampling might be conducted randomly, but in other cases, depending on questions arising from studies or other research, someone would make the call, choosing a “judgmental selection” of sites for sampling.  This was necessary to provide a broader view of the canyon’s character, culturally speaking, and provide further context for making a decision about the proposed right-of-way.

Third, researchers would conduct “inventory intensive” studies of sites in areas that ATV travel may directly impact, including, I would guess, sites upon which the existing trail had trespassed.  My guess is that this level of inventorying could include some test excavation.

If I understood this archaeologist correctly, he was doing Class 1 stipulation work, researching documentation others have produced about what’s in the canyon, comparing site forms and photos to the physical sites themselves, and at least photographing and GPS-ing in sites he came across in his inventorying but for which he had no documentation.  He’d already done some work up canyon and was now walking ground in the midsection of the seven-mile “no drive zone.”

As I listened to him talk, I pulled my hiking journal from my jacket pocket and began taking notes with my Pilot G-2 gel pen.  “You’re not using indelible ink,” he remarked, seeing raindrops spatter my handwriting.  “I merely note that as an archivist.”  His words sparked a bumper sticker moment: My other pens are a Mont Blanc star pen and a Parker snake pen (both, extravagant gifts from my husband).  Ink probably indelible, but bringing one or the other into the canyon would be like taking a Mercedes Benz or a Rolls Royce, respectively, onto the canyon two-track.   He was right, of course—I ought to be using an implement tanked up with something more enduring than water-soluble ink.  Note to self: See if Pilot makes a pen that runs on ink that won’t run.

When we breasted the Ancestral Puebloan ruin I’d visited a few times before on my lonesome, he pointed out a looter’s trench I’d noticed in the past that he said was “healing over.”  We stepped carefully over the pottery streams—downward flows of pottery sherds that the site sheds as water, earth and gravity shift them downhill.  At the top of the ruin sits a small rubble pile attached to a couple of canted, flat-topped boulders; a depression, probably a kiva depression; and other fading masonry features.  It’s a cool site, positioned well above the creek’s floodplain, with a clear view up canyon for maybe half a mile to the north before another bend in the topography halts the eye.  A couple of times I’ve sat up there on rocks at the site’s edge munching trail mix, savoring that view, and enjoying my usual sense of belonging and of sharing with others long gone what was probably a much-looked-upon scene.  Allowing, of course, for the inevitable drift in the terra firma from natural processes of erosion and so on–a process  I would gain a bright inkling of insight into further along on the hike.

Pleased to have found this site, the archaeologist entered data on his GPS device and asked if I’d mind appearing in pictures.  So many pictures of archaeological features look like so much sagebrush and dirt, he said, but put a person in the picture, and the masonry pops.  He had me stand near the rubble pile and point to it with my hiking stick. Click.

After documenting the ruin, we resumed our climb to the incised grooves rock art site.  He pointed out a sandstone surface on which had been engraved a long, flowing, and vertical groove with two arm-like appendages wavering off near its top end.  As I wondered over the elaborateness of such “knife-sharpening,” the archaeologist corrected me gently.  He explained that such behavior was more than mere tool sharpening: “Its an art form all on its own.”

We found more grooves, including one in the shape of a cross with two crossbars on a panel that turned out to be the one he was looking to compare to site forms he had in hand.  On another panel we found what looked like bird tracks—possibly turkey tracks, a common motif in Ancestral Puebloan incised grooves.  At a room block of a pueblo that one of my archaeologist friends excavated at a site where I volunteered, the crew found carved into one cornerstone a pair of bird tracks, maybe turkey-centric in intention.  The Anasazi raised turkeys for food and used their feathers and bones for other purposes.

The BLM archaeologist asked me to hold a piece of grey corrugated cookware we found near the panels and snapped a photo of it in my hand.  We carefully returned it to the spot from whence we’d plucked it.  I’d mentioned earlier that I’d found what I thought was the ruin of a tower in the canyon.  He asked me to point out where I thought it was located in relation to the petroglyph panels.  I paused to take my bearings.  “I think it’s on that point over there,” I said, indicating to a promontory jutting from the bench about an eighth or quarter of mile away from where we stood.  I hoped I was right.  I have myself been on many “it’s just over there” tours only to spend a couple of hours watching guides scratch their heads and mumble to themselves.  He suggested we take a look at the tower on the way to another site across canyon he intended to visit.  Off we went.

Read Part Three.

6 thoughts on “Field Notes #11: Winter Solstice 2010, Part Two”

  1. Sounds like fun. Well, so far, lol. And you get to have some background information on what’s going on in your canyon, too. I miss our way of getting local gossip- I push a stroller and the neighbors come out to comment on the baby. Then they tell me all sorts of stuff. Those days are gone, and my neighbors pretty much want to discuss their health problems anymore. Although we do get to gossip about the crime levels.
    Hm, the suburbs just don’t seem to have the ancient flare that your canyon does.
    And now the suspense: will they find the tower, or will they scratch their heads? Wondering minds, well, they will wonder.

  2. It was fun–the most I’ve had in a while. But my head was busy, too.

    Still, always nice to have an experience that keeps unfolding if you keep thinking.

  3. That is an interesting discussion–ATV’s and land preservation. one that is quite a red button topic here in Utah :/

    George Handley, whose book you recently reviewed, is a big fighter for the cause of land protection against ATV use.

  4. I’m not sure, but I think the ATV issue will work itself out over time. Right now, it’s in something of a mild cowboys and Indians stage–skirmishes, ambushes, etc.–a form of territorial dispute, physical and narrative (who gets rightful ownership of language about the land).

    BTW, Sarah–I haven’t reviewed George’s book yet. I did publish, with his permission, an excerpt from the book that he submitted. When I do review the book, the title will appear something like this:

    Review: Home Waters by George Handley.

    With any luck, I’ll be able to start reading the book this month. I take copious notes, to getting through is a bit of a long haul. But when I do, I will post a review.

  5. ah. I remember now, you posted the excerpt. There have been a few lds arts sites that have had different discussions about it. And the review in the Provo Herald generated some controversy. Sigh.

  6. It’s all right, Sarah! Don’t sigh! :-)

    The Herald review sounds interesting. Is that review online? If so, could you send me the link in an email? I’m interested in hearing about the controversy.

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