The writing on the wall

Three of the figures were leaping, left legs extended, right legs leaving the ground, arms out for balance; one was skipping; one doing yoga, and one twirling like an alien ballerina. Next to them, a much larger, square anthropomorph wore an antenna-like headdress, earrings or pigtails, and a necklace. He had distinctive fingers and toes. A segmented, rectangular being stood next to him with—perhaps—a baby below her legs, a dog-like creature in her abdomen, a circle in her chest, and a head created out of five horizontal lines bisecting a vertical one. Next to her, the artist or artists had carved a big horn sheep, a well-endowed male, a splayed finger anthropomorph, and a spiral.
Ted, Kenidee, and I were walking along the Upper Sand Island petroglyph panel. I loved the unmistakable, joyous movement of the dance, but I also loved the elegant design of a nearby creature with long, connected antennae. He was holding a big horn sheep in his right hand with the left hanging by his side. His chest had a diagonal line through it with a bulb and an animal in his torso and a circle with a dot in his abdomen. An anthropomorph next to him again had splayed fingers and toes. Those splayed digits, according to archaeologists, are unique to the area. The art was everywhere and included Kokopellis, geometric patterns, bear tracks, river animals, riders on horses, and shamans.
The one-mile trail was beautiful and easy walking even in the middle of January, and artists, all the way from the Archaic to modern had left their marks on the cliff walls, including prehistoric Paleoamericans, Ancestral Puebloans, Navajos, Utes, and Bluff teenagers from the 40’s and 50’s. Archaeologists first documented the rock art along the upper Sand Island cliffs in 1985, using a ladder and scaffolding to access those high above the ground and discovered a pair of Columbian mammoths with fingered trunks, tusks, and domed heads as well as a nearby bison. I’ll admit, when I studied the images, I had a hard time discerning the mammoths unless they were highlighted, but I didn’t doubt the giant beasts once roamed the San Juan River flood plain before becoming extinct. A more recent study of the diverse panel took place in 2012 with 30 volunteers drawing and photographing the art. The layered history humbled me, putting my tiny lifespan in perspective along the expansive timeline of human activities.
After we returned to the Jeep and ate a delicious lunch at Twin Rocks Café, we decided to explore one more site in Bluff: The Cow Canyon Ballroom. Many people had told us over the years that early settlers in Bluff and Blanding had once used the cave as a place to hold dances, so I was surprised at the steep, rocky ascent and wondered how the girls made the climb in their dresses. Albert R. Lyman wrote that when he was a child, it was used by the elementary school, for “many unforgettable picnic parties.”
When I asked Madge Shumway, who grew up in Bluff, about the cave, she said they had used it to hang out and play in as children, but she hadn’t heard of it being used as a dance hall. She added, “How would they have gotten instruments up there?” Then, with a laugh, “Maybe they used harmonicas.” Years later, after her first child was born, her husband, DaVar, carried the baby up to the cave in a bassinet. “That would have been in 1946,” she said.
When I finally wheezed my way up the cliff and into the Ballroom, an Ancient Puebloan dwelling stood at its mouth, a spring welled up toward the back, and inscriptions filled the walls, hundreds and hundreds of inscriptions. I would have never guessed human writing could be so exquisite. History was layered on the rock here, too, with 1894 as the oldest inscription we saw. J. H. Poulton signed his name in 1896, Livingston in 1898, Dr. William J. Schwab in 1910, Ellis Voorhis in 1915, and Mr. and Mrs. DaVar Shumway on Easter 1946, but we also saw some of our friends’ signatures.
Kumen Jones, one of the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers, signed his name without a date. According to the Bluff Fort Historic Site, the expedition leaders asked Kumen and three other young men to check out the Hole-in-the-Rock route before they proceeded. When the men returned after a week, they advised the captain that “it would be out of the question for the company to attempt to get through on this route.” However, once the leaders made the decision “to go to work and make a way through,” Kumen didn’t resist or complain, later writing, “When I look back upon the large company traveling and blasting and working through a country of that nature, six months in the midst of one of the severest winters, it looks to me that there was something more than human power or wisdom associated with it.”
Something more than human power or wisdom has no doubt blessed the lives of those living near the once tumultuous San Juan River. From artists carving mammoths to pioneers and neighbors inscribing their signatures, the entire epic of human experience is written on the rock walls near Bluff, Utah. Perhaps, as some have suggested, it truly is the center of the universe.

San Juan Record

49 South Main St
PO Box 879
Monticello, UT 84535

Phone: 435.587.2277
Fax: 435.587.3377
Open 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday