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Comb Ridge Twilight   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano

Relic
Akiko Hirano & Tim Wong

The old Jeep glided along the two-lane blacktop still wet from the rain. The road snaked around the rolling landscape towards Comb Ridge, a hundred-mile barrier guarding the eastern edge of Cedar Mesa. The sun just dipped below the western horizon, transforming the overcast sky into a spectacular brilliant display. Soon, the landscape would turn pitch-black in the moonless night. There were no towns or even buildings in the next 80 miles. Kuro-e squinted at the hypnotic dotted yellow center-line illuminated by the headlamps, trying to stay awake. Suddenly, two bright pinpricks appeared in the distance, getting larger and split into four, then six, and now gone - eyes of a mule deer family disappearing into darkness. She rubbed her eyes and reminded herself this would be a very bad place to hit a deer. An hour later, the pavement ended, turning into a narrow gravel road that angled steeply down the cliffside. Though she could not see the surrounding, she knew she had arrived, a natural break in the sheer cliff long used by Native People to get down from the mesa to the plain below. She pulled over into a clearing and prepared to spend the night in her car. Turning off the engine and headlights, she was immediately engulfed by total darkness and silence. That was yesterday.

 

Three to ten thousand years ago – hard to tell exactly when - a band of nomadic Archaic hunters scrambled down this natural break in the cliff, carrying carcasses of bighorn sheep and mule deer they hunted on the forested mesa. Following a series of connecting ramps, they descended a thousand feet to the barren desert below. They walked towards the direction of the setting sun, a tiny dark speck appeared in the distance. As they approached, it grew into a large cubical boulder coated with reddish-brown varnish. Before settling down for the night, the hunters built a fire and processed their games. The next day, while the rest of the group was making stone tools, the leader picked up a pointed piece of hard basalt and carved five large shamanic petroglyphs on the boulder. For millennia, the five shamanic beings stood guard at the gateway to the hunting ground. In 1957, at the height of the Cold War, the ancient pathway connecting the mesa and the plain below was turned into a steep and precarious dirt-road for trucks hauling ores from uranium mines to a processing plant in Mexican Hat. It was named the Moki Dugway.

 

At dawn, Kuro-e stands at the top of the Dugway looking out at the desert far below. When the sun peeks over the jagged spine of Comb Ridge to the east, tall pinnacles in Valley of the Gods light up like tiny candles. While the flames burn down the candles, a pinkish blush washes over the desert like a silent wave, all the way from Monument Valley 50 miles away. Kuro-e climbs back into her car and eases it down the narrow switchbacks of the Dugway. At the bottom, she follows another dirt-road that cuts across the sandy plain dotted with sage and rabbit bush, taking her close to the base of the cliffs.

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Petroglyph Rock   Photo  Tim Wong

She stops the car across from a tall promontory that juts out into the desert and scans the jumble of rocks at the base of the cliff with her binoculars. She spots a dark boulder and starts walking towards it. When she gets there, she sees that it is covered with petroglyphs. Among the humanoid and animal figures, five large Archaic style shamanic forms stand out, flanked by small figures of a later style. Oddly, the large shamanic forms are lying on their sides, while the smaller figures are upright. At some point in time, the giant boulder must have toppled over before the smaller petroglyphs were added. This is a site where untold number of generations have passed through over thousands of years. The late-comers appeared to avoid overwriting the older shamanic forms and kept their own entries small, as if paying reverence to their ancient forebearers.

Around that boulder, Kuro-e finds numerous stone shards and flints, remnants of tool-making materials. She picks up a piece, a flint so thin and delicate it is almost translucent. Turning it in her hand, she feels as if reaching back through time to touch the ancient hunter. What kind of a person was he and how did he look like? There is not a trace of him remains, only this tiny piece of relic. Kuro-e puts it down and starts walking back to her car. The sun breaks through the clouds, rock formations of Monument Valley loom on the horizon. Looking out across the empty desert, she is filled with thoughts and melancholy. Will there be anything left of us to be found in another millennium? She tries to remember some words written by Ed Abby that she read long ago...

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear - the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… 

I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real.  Rock and sun.”   - Ed Abby

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Sunburst   Pastel on paper   Akiko Hirano