Under cloudy desert skies, I set out along the winding road that led out of the town of Moab. Towering rust red cliffs surrounded me on either side as I hiked along Highway 191 towards the area known as Courthouse Wash. Located right on the edge of Arches National Park, Courthouse Wash is a bluff jutting out just above the Colorado River. Sitting high above the bend where the road leads towards Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, it is the site of an ancient art gallery unbeknownst to many visitors. I had come out to search for the petroglyphs; rock art carved deep in the canyon. These symbols: images of animals, shamans, and haunting figures, are remnants of ancient Native Americans. Their stories, traditions, and markers are preserved for generations under the arid Utah landscape. My trek in searching for them was almost like a walk in time, starting with Moab’s modern city, passing through ghosts of it’s industrial past, and finally coming upon the spectacular face of Courthouse Wash.

I started from the Love Muffin Café, one of the quirkiest and best coffee and breakfast shops in town. Heading north on the highway, the buildings became more sparse, and I stopped to take a look at the Moab Rock Shop, unmistakable due to its rusted mining equipment out front, and local character Lin Ottinger, hawking found dinosaur bones, petrified uranium stones, and crystals discovered among the ancient lakes.

©Michael Restivo

After half an hour of hiking I was well out of town, flanked only by the canyon wall that borders Arches National Park. The remains of Moab’s mining past were everywhere, from the rusted railroad tracks that ran parallel to the highway, to old mining carts, now long abandoned, rusting seamlessly with the color of the desert.  A dilapidated mansion now turned restaurant once belonged to Charles Steen, the man who made a fortune in discovering uranium during the height of the Cold War only to lose it all in a series of failed investments.

As my water bottle ran less than half full, I walked by the Moab Chairlift, a failed project conceived and built over a span of 25 years that was cancelled and abandoned mere weeks before opening. Its cars now sit hauntingly empty and the wires and buildings of what was meant to be a lively terminal are in a state of disrepair.

©Michael Restivo

Moving deeper along an empty stretch of road, I bore closer to the Colorado River. The deep brown water separated civilization from miles of desert plains and towering spires. The bridge and the parking lot to Courthouse Wash were empty. The trail leading up to the petroglpyhs is steep and rocky, yet I was able to catch a family of three making their way up the winding cliff face. The pictures themselves are on a wall under an alcove, difficult to see from the road below. The initial trail leads to a signpost, describing the images themselves and urging their protection, after they were vandalized in the 80’s and nearly lost. I wasn’t happy with seeing them from a distance, so I scrambled up the uneven face and came within inches of the images. I was not disappointed.

The Courthouse Wash petroglyphs measure 19 feet high by 52 feet wide. They are among the oldest, dating back to the Archaic period, roughly 1,000 BCE, and they are designed and executed by nomadic tribesmen. They seem to be telling a story, showing a great hunt, or marking some natural feature, in this case the Colorado River. The first thing I noticed about these extraordinary images were the drawings of shaman and a large set of eyes referencing their supernatural and superstitious legends. The rocks below are populated by designs of horned sheep, buffalo, and mythical designs of half men and half horned creatures.

©Michael Restivo

A long squiggly line dividing the creatures indicated either a serpent or marking the Colorado River. Animals of every size jumped along the banks, and some of the designs had been overlapped, indicating generations returning to this spot and retelling the stories of their ancestry. What I found especially fascinating about this site was the combination of supernatural and real figures. Groups of animals could easily be described as the site of the great hunts, yet the horned figures and large figures indicate a sense of spirituality and belief. I felt like I wasn’t only looking at a historical site, but I was looking deep into the roots of this ancient culture.

The petroglyphs were unfortunately vandalized, yet were barely restored in an extensive project. The images, which are constantly open to the elements are now stabilized but faded. Sites like Courthouse Wash are found at several sites in the vicinity of Moab and in the national parks and are in need of preservation. When visiting the sites, it is urged to not scratch or rub the drawings as this promotes deterioration of the rock and defaces the images. It is acceptable to view them from up close, but visitors must be gentle in their delicate state.

Satisfied with my intimate visit to an ancient gallery that few get to see, I hiked back down the rocky canyon and began my hike back towards town. I unfortunately did not have the transportation or time to see the other petroglpyh sites, but I realized the need for protection that these rock-art galleries needed. Each tells its own unique story, lifted from legends and fables, and as I walked down the highway, once again moving forward into the modern cityscape, it became clear that I had stumbled upon something truly unique.

©Michael Restivo
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