Ute Visions

By Mohezin Tejani
(Special to Simerg)

Photographers of the 1880's would pose, crimp hair, and position the Ute subjects until the picture was perfect in their eyes. This group could be one family or a mix of several families. The subjects were paid little or nothing. Two things to note in the photo are the cradleboards with little babies, and the panoramic backdrop used extensively by photographers of the day. Photo: Colorado Historical Society.

Seven thousand years ago, the Ute Indians wandered along the trail of the Ancients in quest of rock visions. Inspired by the beauty of Nature’s sculptures—deep canyons, limestone cliffs, and mesas that stretch across miles of red rock with contorted pinnacles and natural sandstone arches—they painted rock art on the trail, leaving their mark in geological time. These petroglyphs remain the only sacred symbol of the existence of the ancestral Ute, the people of the mountains.

By the end of the eighteenth century, through wars and broken treaties, white settlers in search of fortunes of gold had banished this peaceful tribe to three small reservations sprawled across Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. A few thousand Ute still survive. In an effort to revive the proud heritage of their once mighty tribe, they weave beaded pipe bags and buckskin moccasins, or carved ceremonial rattles and pipes for sale to summer tourists, who come by to take photographs of “real” Indians before heading over to gamble on the reservation casinos.

Ute tribal rock art taken at Arches National Park, Utah. Picture shows stylized horse and rider surrounded by bighorn sheep and dog-like animals. This was carved between A.D 1650 & 1850.

Today the state of Utah, named after the Ute, is mainly inhabited by descendents of Brigham Young and his fellow Mormons, who settled there in 1847 to live out their hermitic existence. Within a century, they had built a city around a salt lake, sprung up sleepy towns like Provo and Moab, and blocked off the waters passing through the Glen Canyon by building a huge dam to create Lake Powell—their main drinking water supply. After five previous failed petitions with the Founding Fathers in Philadelphia, they were forced to give up their practice of polygamy in order to be approved for statehood.

While working on a novel at graduate school near Los Angeles, I became close to Shannon, a college mate studying the sciences and totally enamored with Utah. He has taken me there many times to escape the stress of urban life. The son of an Iowa factory worker and a late bloomer of the 60s hippie revolution, Shannon has that uncanny ability to patiently explain the discoveries of modern archeology in plain English with examples that my artistic temperament could follow.

In the summer of 2000, I cajoled my thirteen-year-old son Zubin into joining us for a two-week hiking trip, so that he, too, could learn from Shannon on how the magical land of Utah was created and understand its spiritual healing powers.

***

Zion National Park, Utah, is featured in this image photographed by an Expedition 17 crewmember on the International Space Station. Though the Grand Canyon may receive all the attention due to its tremendous size, the smaller canyons of the Southwest are arguably more sublime. The canyon walls, made of red and white sandstone, rise 2,000-3,000 feet from the canyon floor and are peppered with hanging vegetation. Photo: NASA.

On Highway 15 heading north, the beat-up camper truck, aptly nicknamed the Green Beast by Shannon, zooms along with Steppenwolf piping in through the speakers: “Head out on the highway. Looking for adventure. And whatever comes our way…We were born, born to be wild.”

Up front, the three of us, crunched together, bob our heads to the music. In the back, camping gear—sleeping bags, backpacks, a Coleman stove, cooking utensils, dome tent poles—are tossing from left to right as the Green Beast swerves, curve after curve along the smooth asphalt. Hours later, we pass the entertainment towers of Las Vegas and signs for the Grand Canyon in Arizona before entering the road leading into Zion National Park. Deep into the Park, the asphalt turns into a serpentine dirt road with foot-long potholes and hardly any cars as we approach the majestic slot canyons.

Mo Tejani resting against a slot canyon wall at Zion National Park. Slot canyons in Utah have huge walls that often are only a few feet (sometimes even inches) apart, so tightly enclosed that sunlight rarely reaches the bottom. Photo: Mo Tejani. Copyright.

Slot canyons in Utah have huge walls that often are only a few feet (sometimes even inches) apart, so tightly enclosed that sunlight rarely reaches the bottom. We are at the foot of the granddaddy of all slot canyons—the Narrows Trail of Zion. Towering walls rise nearly 2,000 feet up towards the sky. They humble the egos of us humans below. Through the arching walls flows the Virgin River for some fifteen miles, steering its way down to the lake below. Less than two-feet deep in most places with a gentle but swift current, the river on this splendid sunny morning will be our day hike. Flash floods warnings at the park ranger station are at 3 percent probability. With bellies full of a muesli-and-fruits breakfast and liters of drinking water in our knapsacks, we take off from the trailhead wearing water-proof mountain boots and using robust walking sticks to balance our weight in the river. As we hike in, the cooling sensation of the river, with its water swirling around our legs, is wonderfully juxtaposed against the sun beating on our bare backs. Nature’s own cooling and heating system all in one. Two for the price of none.

"The Narrows" in Zion National Park is a section of canyon on the North Fork of the Virgin River. The term The Narrows refers to both the through-hike of The Narrows, and to The Narrows themselves, especially the 3.6 mile (6 km) long section of canyon between the end of the Riverside Walk Trail and Big Springs. Photo: Wikipedia.

The North Fork Canyon is full of surprises. Cliffs of limestone sculpted into red gargoyles that would make Michelangelo green with envy. Repeatedly, up ahead, the canyon appears to end at the base of these impenetrable cliffs only to turn at the very last minute into yet another gulley with spectacular new views. We come upon a large tree washed into the river from a previous flash flood. Zubin climbs over and, with hands reaching out to the heavens, begs Shannon to take pictures of him grinning at the blue cloudless sky. A few miles later, waist deep in water, we come across a waterfall some ten feet high with a sandy shore. We unload our packs on soggy ground and wash off the dripping sweat from our chest hairs in the cool pools on the south side. A hearty lunch of bread loaves and Edam cheese follows to recharge the body…Then, it’s time to move on again.

Crawford Arch clinging to the base of Bridge Mountain a thousand feet above the Zion's canyon floor. It was named in honor of the Crawford family--among the first Mormon settlers called to the canyon. Although undoubtedly seen by Zion’s Native Peoples for centuries, the names they gave to this arch in the sky have been lost in the mists of time.Photo: US National Park Service.

“Zubin, keep an eye on the sky at all times for signs of rain clouds,” warns Shannon. “Rain can trigger flash floods within minutes.” He omits to add that five hikers drowned on this trail in the last two years from not heeding the warning signs. The boy nods his head as he looks up at the clear blue sky.

A couple of hours later, Shannon suggests a two-hour side trip at the Kolob creek confluence. Zubin shakes his head at us, weary of fatigue for the return journey still to be made in the late afternoon. We appeal to his macho sense of bravery and he concedes. Kolob Canyon boasts Navajo sandstone cliffs that scrape the sky. When Zubin asks why the cliffs have some weird contorted shapes, Shannon explains that flash floods over the centuries eroded the rock into Nature’s own sculpture palace. Minutes later, we come across a perfect arch of rock, semi-circling its way from one cliff to another. A rainbow bisects it just as we hike past. Shannon spots a petroglyph on the south west corner of the right cliff. A rock art painting of horses and dogs and some undecipherable animals circling around human stick figures. The glyph—half in shadow and half in the brilliant hot sun—has an eerie mystical impact on me, as if it were a celestial sign from the Ute ancestors. We pay homage to the ancient artist before carrying on.

Located deep in the backcountry of Zion National Park’s Kolob Canyons District, and hidden in a small side canyon, sits Kolob Arch, perched high on the canyon wall with a majestic curve like a giant condor’s wing. Kolob Arch is one of the largest freestanding arches in the world. Photo: US National Parks Service.

Back on the Ancients’ trail, we head to Big Spring and then to the famed two-mile corridor of the actual narrows, where at times the gap between the cliffs and the water is less than a foot wide. This forces Shannon and I to squiggle our bulky bodies through first and then pull our knapsacks through afterwards. Zubin, with his lean, taut frame, has sailed right through with his knapsack clinging to his back. He is laughing like a mad man, taking photos of the two adults squirming in the gap. The sun behind the cliffs now brings on an afternoon chill, prompting Zubin to worry again about the return leg of the journey. Letting him off the hook, I tell him about the park shuttle at the end of the hike that will bring us back to the trailhead. He sulks, moaning that we should have told him from the beginning. We decide to take a final swim in the crystal blue pools of Orderville Canyon before the final push along the paved trail to the congested parking lot at the once serene Temple of Sinawava where the trail ends. Nature has been forgiving. No flash floods today.

Back at the trailhead, after a well-earned ice cold lemonade from the cooler, we climb back into the Green Beast and head off to Bryce Canyon a couple of hours further for an overnight camp at the rim. Shannon and I cook up on the Coleman stove a spaghetti dinner with baked beans on the back door of the truck, while sipping on margaritas. Exhausted and hungry, we wolf down the food within minutes before heading for the sleeping bags laid out on the soft ground. When night falls and the Milky Way explodes across the radius of the sky, Zubin jolts up in his sleeping bag swearing to me that he saw a falling star shoot across the northern skyline. “What did you wish for?” I ask him. No reply. He is fast asleep within seconds.

We skip breakfast the next morning to have more time for the day hike into Bryce Canyon. The trail starts off with the morning sun reflecting on the twisted stone spire temples made of pinnacles and capped domes as far as the eye can see. One set of spires is named the “Chinese Wall” and another “Seal Castle.” In the far distance, plateaus, eroded from thick layers of sedimentary rock, line the horizon. The view is breathtaking as we gulp down bottled water to stave off the dry heat from the scorching sun.

Aquarious Plateau, Bryce Canyon National Parl. Photo: US National Park Service.

“Looks like something out of a sci-fi fantasy. How is it even possible?” Zubin asks. Ever the geology teacher, Shannon explains that “eons ago the canyon was covered by the sea, mountains, desert, and the coastal plains. Through violent storms over millions of years, all that disappeared to create the fourteen spectacular amphitheatres before us. Amazing, isn’t it?” Zubin keeps shaking his head.

Lunch is on a spire overlooking a vista of table mesas on the horizon. In the early afternoon, we make our way back up to the rim, as the clouds gather up above. They don’t look like rain clouds, yet the sky is becoming gray, so we hike faster. Within the hour, the weather turns. And, instead of a quick downpour of rain, the first snow flakes twirl down from the sky and settle on the red pyramid-like spires. “Snow in early June?” I ask. “Unbelievable!” says Shannon. “Never seen this before!”

As we make our way back to the rim, the flakes get bigger and fall faster. By the time we are at the mouth of the rim, the ground of the canyon is covered with a centimeter-high of soft white powder. Each blood-red butte, spire, and pinnacle brags its own white icing of snow, burying any trace of rock art glyphs.

The Green Beast speeds along the rim’s road to our next destination. The three of us marvel at the white angel dust blanketing the canyon and the sun’s reflections over this ancient place of worship. Ute visions are planted forever in the rock art of our minds as we make our way back to the City of Angels.

June 200

Copyright: M. Tejani 2012

Date posted: January 21, 2012

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The writer: Mohezin Tejani developed a passion for books and travels during his early life in Africa. Born in Tanzania to Ismaili parents of Indian ancestry, he grew up in Uganda where he spent his childhood and early adult life. Then in 1972, along with 80,000 other fellow Asians, he was expelled during Idi Amin’s reign of terror, and first fled to England and then to America of the late sixties and early seventies. He spent the next four decades on the road as a political refugee and a humanitarian aid worker. The above piece is part of a collection of essays, poems, and letters written over four decades of travel across five continents. Tejani’s latest book Thank You Idi Amin: A Memoir of the Asian Exodus was published by Global Vision Press and has received critical acclaim. Excerpts and links to his other writings can be found on his website: www.motejani.com.

Tejani’s other essays on this website:

A Letter to Charles Darwin from Galapagos
Childhood Games
Singida

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6 thoughts on “Ute Visions

  1. Thank you. I am living in Utah, and it is always a good thing to have someone point out how beautiful your surroundings are–sometimes I need someone else to show me my own neighborhood.

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