There’s only been a couple of places that I’ve been adamant we visit, and one of them is Horseshoe Canyon. We were going to go on our way in from Salt Lake, because the Canyon’s in the Maze district of Canyonlands which is about two hours outside of Moab, so it would’ve broken up our trip nicely. But the rain on the first day made the threat of a flash flood to real to ignore, so we skipped it and thought—maybe on the way back. But it’s now 10 a.m. on Friday morning and we have to be back in Salt Lake by 6 to catch our flight at 8. Two hours to the canyon, three more to Salt Lake and we’re still playing with a baby in Moab mid-morning. The odds aren’t great. However, this has never stopped us before, so I remain hopeful that I will stand underneath a 9,000 year old painting, see the Great Gallery with my own eyes, feel the Holy Ghost watching me. By hook or by crook, I think we can do it.
So we tear out of Moab after visiting Darren’s friends and their new progeny and head for the Canyon, while I try and do the math of how long we’re going to have down there. I have to count and recount, because as we all know my genius lies in words and not in numbers, but eventually I figure it out—three hours. Three hours to do six miles, two thousand feet of ascending and descending, and our time window will be noon to three. I tell this to Darren and he laughs, because what else can you do? Sit in restless silence while a red dirt road stretches for endless miles across a flat, wide mesa? Well, yeah. You can do that to.
I’ve never been so motivated in my life to get out of a car and get hiking. We are machines of efficiency, even in the heat—I take a picture of the Canyonlands sign and it comes a little wavy, the edges shimmering in the heat. This is promising, I tell Darren. This is really good!
Naturally, we jog the first part. This is not rational, but it does feel effective—we’re both so jumpy in the beginning that a brisk walk would turn into a kind of skipping so eventually we just started running, yelling we’re doin’ it every few feet. It takes a little while to get to where the descent into the canyon even starts, but then we round an enormous boulder and see it—a long, switchbacking trail of sand etched into the canyon wall. We sprint down it.
At the bottom, we realize the sand is not a passing trend. It’s all dry riverbed bottom from here on out, every footstep a balancing act in motion. We weave through canyon, trying to figure out where the hardest path would be, and also where the shade, if any, is. After what feels like thirty minutes but must’ve been five, we meet another couple coming the opposite direction. They’re in head-to-toe gear, long pants, sun hats, button down shirts, hiking boots, hiking poles? Meanwhile, Darren’s in chacos and I have an aging pair of Nike Frees. They eye us, we eye them. They tell us good luck, we say thanks, hopefully won’t need it, and continue lurching along in a half walk, half jog.
Then, there ahead of us, a park guide materializes—an enormous backpack shadowing his head. Be careful, he tells us, do you have enough water? Yep, we say, we should be good. I’ve been in here for three days, he says, looking at us intensely. It’s very hot. Seems like it, Darren nods. And then the guide says, squinting at us, well, there’s only one other couple in here, so you should have the Canyon to yourself. No one else will be starting at this time of day. Good luck.
We’ve been getting a lot of good lucks lately.
The canyon is beautiful, steep sandstone walls lining our way through the canyon, the merciless sun tempered by the beauty of the riverbed we’re following. After half an hour or so, still slipping along in the sand, we get to the first cluster of rock art. A small path curves away towards the cliffside, and we can see faint flashes of red high above us on the wall. I look at Darren, he looks at me, we drink some water, and then we keep moving. We can stop on the way back, it’s decided, because it’s more important to us to get to the Great Gallery than to see some sideshow on the way there. Four or five more bends, Darren says after we get started again. I’m pretty sure we’re getting close.
All I can say about this next part is that it became a death march, an endless hike through sand and sun, every few feet reaching for the camelback. Water, the body screams, more water. In the car on the way to the airport I’ll drive through the desert with a water bottle jammed between my knees. I have to take tiny sips to ease the pounding of dehydration in my head, the horrible ache of cells crying for water. But in that moment, getting there, we are so intent on making it to the Great Gallery that nothing could stop us. Single-minded to the point of recklessness. And we weren’t getting close, it was far further than four or five more bends—so much further that I stop keeping track and the only thing I can look at is my feet, getting covered in sand. Finally, Darren says, are we crazy for doing this?
And without hesitation, I respond—absolutely.
But then, there—not fifty feet from of us, the panel unfolds! Darren lets out a triumphant whoop, and I laugh. A divine moment of grace, of salvation, a sure sign of a kind universe, the Great Gallery. Squinting into the sun, I can see the towering figures painted on the walls, quietly guarding the canyon that almost killed us.
A man is sitting on a bench in the shade of a lone tree, watching the wall—glancing back briefly at us as we approach. Hi, Darren says as we approach the bench, sweating profusely, don’t let us interrupt you. He smiles and holds out a hand, his weathered face crinkling into a grin. Don’t worry about that—he says, and introduces himself. John from Moab, recently retired senior English teacher at the high school. In bits and pieces his story comes out, as does ours—Darren asks him about friends who went through the school, and he taught them all—we compare notes on other pictograph sites in the Southwest worth visiting. He’s giving a lecture at the Rock Art Conference of Utah in Kanab on this site, as it turns out, and so we pepper him with questions about the art in front of us. Serendipity looms in the face of all this—a chance meeting with a rock expert after a hellish hike through the canyon—the solemn and fierce paintings before us, bearing witness to time and change, people and our mistakes.
The panel is long, marked by clusters of people—or people like figures—one is almost 9 ft. tall, another is known as the Great Ghost as he has an oblong and many-patterned body. The canyon is quiet, punctuated by John and Darren talking. I listen, and look, try and soak in as much as I can. It’s a little intimidating to sit here in the face of 9,000 years of human history and know that a much hardier race of ancestral people also sat in this same spot, trekked through the same canyon, and lived off this land. The desert preserves, is what I’ve found, holds tight to our history and forces us to face our insignificance at every turn. Even the sky is on it—look how big I am, it seems to say, echoing back to the expanse of red rock—look what a small piece of the puzzle you are. I’d say it was eerie, because that’s how I think it should feel, to be in these places that we’ve been. But it’s not. It’s profoundly peaceful, reflective, a quiet I trust.
John is telling us that this canyon was once a major thoroughfare—you would’ve never been more than two miles away from water at any time, and the Green Canyon stretches all the way to the Colorado River, and then some. Look, he says, and we pick up the national park binoculars that are chained to the bench. At the foot of one of the tallest figures, there’s a small barking dog, his mouth open in the direction of the way we came. Pictographs, he says, are thought to be spiritual places, tied to the makers of the art and to shamans. One theory about the dog is that he’s barking in the direction intruders—or anyone—would come, alerting the people to their presence. And look, he says, they would’ve had color then all around them, not just this faded red you’re used to seeing. This is just the last ink to survive.
So in this way we dive deeper into the art than we could’ve before, get to know it better. See more, know more. Too soon we have to go, we’ve probably spent too long anyway. It’s hard to leave, easier knowing that we’ll come back. You can backpack into this canyon, stay the night—let a fire flicker up ancient canyon walls in the way people have done here for thousands and thousands of years. Be a part of the grand tradition, in some small way. We’ll do it, I know, he and I will always come back. We’ve already lost a part of ourselves to the desert—or rather, have found something that neither of us knew existed before. Darren had it already, learned from years of living under this wide blue sky, nestled into red rock canyons. I’ve just discovered it, I just found out how it can hold you captive, make you feel bigger than life, settle your mind, take you in and spit you back out. Here, what I could only read about in Edward Abbey books before, is a world waiting to be explored. We’ll be back, I know it. With a place that we’ve built up this much in our minds, and now in our hearts, how could we not?