Author Archives: krystenc39

Mitla and Monte Alban in the Oaxaca Valley, Mexico

January 2018


I recently visited the two archeological sites in Oaxaca, Mexico. Mitla, was the religious capital of the Zapotec civilization and Monte Alban was the political capital. The ruins of these ancient cities are each breathtaking but for different reasons. At Monte Alban, sitting high on the north platform that overlooks the entire Oaxaca basin I ducked out of a whipping wind and took shelter against an 1500 year old rock wall. Feeling the warm sun on my face I sunk into the kind of reverie, kind of like the ones the “Choose your own adventure books” I remember from childhood—my favorite was the one about the Mayan pyramids.  I found myself comparing the two ancient cities which had once bustled like Oaxaca city does today—no doubt full of fruit vegetable sellers, meats, tacos, textiles, sculptures, tools and trinkets sounds and smells and colorful sights. A series of questions burned into my mind. It struck me that these two ancient cities embodied something fundamental about the character of their purposes (if a city can have a purpose).

My mind reached 3,000 miles away towards the Great Basin of California, Nevada and Utah.  How does traveling to these sites in Mexico inform my understanding of the Great Basin? My instinct tells me that there it a clear connection but my mind is clouded by overlapping objectives. Looking out onto the cascading plazas below I understood why Michael Heizer’s felt the need to build City. Although I have never seen it I imagine it to be structured like these ancient plazas–a kind of futuristic Monte Alban–a modern ruin.

What purpose does an already abandoned city serve? How does spirituality manifest in architecture differently than politics?  How does a ruin inform us? It is pregnant with human information and with mystery but is no longer useful per se.  Is an afterlife simply existence beyond life? Because the Albers’ saw shapes and lines and understood negative spaces in new ways precisely from looking at these pyramids, plazas and tombs I knew that I too would find something here and this is why I came.

Have North Americans been looking to Mexico for millennia? At Chaco there is a petroglyph of a macaw at one of the Southern posts. The Anasazi and the Zaoptecs had advanced systems for reading the stars. Surely they shared their knowledge and understanding of the heavens. Did the know how to build Chaco originate in Mesoamerica? If so than who made the long voyages from North to South?

Driving by Yagul a cave dwelling site near Mitla that dates back 80,000 years I gaze out at a giant petroglyph overlooking the highway. I long to get out of the van and trek over to the labyrinth of interconnected caves that span these hillsides but am on a tour, and not feeling all that well. I remember the guide at the botanical garden telling us that there are seeds of corn, beans, potatoes and chili found in these caves that dates back to the first known agriculture in the Americas and possibly the world.

When we arrive at Mitla we pass through town, along the skinny cobblestone streets. It is Sunday and the whole town is watching at a basketball game being played inside a pavilion. A few tattooed youngsters sit outside a tienda looking bored. They eye the tour bus as we pass through. You can see the new town that is built on the older pyramids. Mitla has ben occupied continuously since ancient times. Arriving at the ancient site, it is modest in scale, but the masonry is out of this world–literally. The cloud people who are buried there are said to enter the clouds from that portal. There are many friezes that overhang the high rectangular rock walled structures. Each one is different with geometric patterning that folds back in on itself in masterful positive and negative relief. There is no mortar between the stones. They are perfectly cut and placed, together like a perfect puzzle. I am transfixed on the friezes—and kept trying to quickly draw one after the other before we had to move on and let another group into the tight little rooms designed for people half our size.

At Monte Alban I thought about the differences between the two capitals, one political and the other spiritual. Monte Alban has vistas and grandeur.  Mitla has intimacy and a sense of infinity that came from the interlocking patterning of the cut and layered stones. At Mitla there is geometric art. At Monte Alban there are steals with carvings of the human form. There are no human renderings at Mitla. Monte Alban has giant plazas, width and height and vantage points. It has a great astronomical pyramid that was angled at a diagonal to all of the others in the great plaza but no human life. Mitla, call it the spiritual center, has continuity, organized abstraction. Each has virtue, and a particular character. If only I could stay longer…At Monte Alban I make sure to skip the tour. I sit and draw all day, missing the bus home and I end of up hitchhiking. I think perhaps this has been a pinnacle moment in my life, a momentous day where grandeur and intimacy coexist together in my mind, neither cancels out the other but slowly reveals the architectonic mysteries of this Great Basin Interview.

Frieze details at Mitla

Astronomers Pyramid, Monte Alban

Ballcourt, Monte Alban

Plaza on North Platform. Monte AlbanView from South Platform, Monte Alban

Steals at Pyramid M, Monte Alban
Pyramid M,  Monte Alban

Blythe, CA



Outside of Blythe, CA there are geoglyphs that I have read about for years but never seen. Both Ellen Meloy and Barry Lopez wrote about them in such a way that I felt like a fool not to exit whenever I passed Blythe on Interstate. I was heading to Gallup, New Mexico for a weaving workshop and had one extra day to kill. Although I had intended to go to the Grand Canyon I did not leave Los Angeles until 3 PM, which left me roughly at the edge of Blythe by nightfall. I don’t like to drive at night anymore so I decided to I check into Red Roof Inn and go looking for these famous glyphs the next morning.

At dawn I woke up, made a cup of black tea, stumbled into my truck and went looking for the site with only a vague notion about where it was. The clerk at the motel (who had never actually been to the glyphs) gave me directions that seemed simple enough the night before. By the time I had driven few miles outside of the city limits, past the green pastures that the Colorado river provided for this otherwise dry desert center, I was heading North and had not checked my odometer. Ruefully aware of my lack of survival skills, it suddenly hit me that I was not in Los Angeles anymore and ought to be paying closer attention to what I was doing.  The desert can make you delirious, see things, and lose your bearing…

Geoglyphs, or intaglios, are different than petroglyphs. Instead of being carved from a perpendicular rock face, they are carved onto the face of the Earth, from the horizontal pebble-scape. As I crept along the 95 and the sun started to rise I was only a few miles out of town. I felt a rush of fear course through me. How little do I think about where I am actually going these days? I blindly follow my GPS through city traffic in a daze. I am addicted to the little voice that tells me I am heading in the right direction, to the reassurances. But out here I am mostly alone on the road, except for a single semi that is pulled off on the slim shoulder. I felt far away from others and close to the limits of things I understood. This feeling that plays tricks on my ambitions. Opposing desires began to battle within me. I could return to my hotel room where it was dark and cool and known, and get back on the highway heading for Gallup, or I could push further along the empty, unknown road, seeking what I might find.

I have not brought any sort of map, nor thought to program the desired location into my phone (reason is the first thing to go when you lose your bearings) but I glance down at a post-card of the glyphs that I bought the night before in the motel lobby. On the card it says that the glyphs are15 miles North of Blythe. Thinking to myself that surely I had driven at least that far, I turned my truck around and headed back towards a bend in the road that looked more promising. As I pulled a U-turn in the middle of the empty highway I saw the mile marker, 14 miles to Blythe and immediately knew that I had not gone far enough. So I pulled around again, passing the truck parked on the side of the road for a third time. I waved sheepishly. A mile up the road, past where I had turned around the first time, there was a historical marker and Bureau of Land Management sign, and I caught a glimpse of the Colorado River. It was already 7:30 AM and I could feel the heat of the day rising.

My friend Leslie Ryan says that the desert is like a museum. And there is definitely a sense of preservation here, a sense of stasis.  At the same time the BLM sign welcomes me, it also warns against driving off road or disturbing the landscape in any way. And there is a wooden fence that funnels me through a somewhat lunar terrain. The sun pierces my eyes, and rests on my shoulders. I forget my hat on the seat of the truck. I don’t wear sunscreen. I blindly stumble up to a chain link fence and gaze across the intaglio scraped from the desert floor.


The light is gold and brown. The ground is corrugated and parched, covered with pebbles. The shadows of the fence posts are long and bend away from the low relief of the glyphs. The shadows are crisp and black and they fascinate me.  They make a kind of hypercube shape on the ground that counters the 95 ft. span of intaglio. Like a veil, the shadow of the chain link gently covers the round pebbles. Without form or substance, light perseveres or it is blocked I feel as if I’ve walked into another dimension, a place where time is being marked. Not so far from the road I hear a few more trucks passing. My thoughts wander around the contrasting light and dark. Is man really different now than before?

The shadows of the posts project across the pebbly ground making their Cartesian mark over this older, mysterious scape. . The vertical marks the horizontal in a silent conversation. These two inches of depth are enough to set an idea in motion, whatever needs to be set here. I sense it, but I do not understand it. The length of the glyph speaks to the length of the shadow of the fence, to the time of day, to the direction I am facing. But I am all turned around and barely know which direction my head points. I am a confused spectator at this event, of this system. A few beetles make their morning trek for food in front of my shoe.  Again, I am compelled to leave and stay simultaneously.

I name this glyph ‘Man and coyote’. I quickly decide this. And I make up a story as I travel up the BLM road to the other site. I stand in front of a glyph that looks like a woman, right between her legs and torso, looking into the mountains I feel initiated and awakened. Later I read that creation myths are told there.


Pahranagat Valley, Nevada

Nevada means snowfall in Spanish, but I would have guessed it meant vast or dry. There was no snow on the ground in mid-April in the Pahranagat Valley, Southern Nevada. But the shad was blooming, prickley pears, globemallows, groundsels. Not a drop of rain or the slightest hint of snow.

I met Leslie at the REI store in Las Vegas. She flew from Virginia and I drove from LA. It was a warm Thursday morning when we met in the sportswear isle. I was so relieved to cross that 300 miles of Mojave and put as much distance as possible between me and the sprawling, indifferent metropolis I call home….  We bought a camp stove, a couple of sleeping pads, food and then ditched my truck in a parking lot at the airport and made our way to the edge of the desert, past the glittering casinos and tireless billboards towards the end of day. We rolled up to Lake Mead just as the sun was setting.

Our campground was across from an abandoned trailer park, it had short fat palm trees and a nicely cultivated desert fauna. We laid out our tarp on the gravel under a hedge and pulled the car up to shield us from oncoming car lights in the night. After a fine dinner of warmed over sandwiches from whole foods, I lay down on the ground and let out a sigh of relief. The sky darkened and the stars came out one by one. Leslie and I chatted about our days leading up to that one and the 6months since we’d last seen eachother. I finally felt the city fall off and give way to the open desert.

But as we started to doze off we were jolted awake by a very loud “Hee Haw, Hee Haw!”  It sounded like a heard of wild donkeys on the other side of the hedge. I didn’t know if they were fighting amongst themselves or warning us, but we jumped out of our sleeping bags and onto our feet. Before we knew it we burst out laughing so loud that we scared the animals back from the hedge. Leslie walked across the camp to see who was there and I heard them move back into the night. When we settled back back into our bags we were still laughing in full guttural release.  I felt the fact of my humanness, how imposing our culture was over those poor roving animals, how we were responsible for them being out there in the first place. I felt neglectful, but it felt so good to laugh I couldn’t stop myself. Our laughter marked our presence that night. Somehow it marked our gender too.

recyclingcontainer2 pink-flowers2The next day we met a group of Utah Rock Art Association people in Alamo, Nevada at the Windmill cafe a couple days later. The Windmill was pretty much the only place to eat in Alamo, except for maybe the Sinclair station. Its a generous place with a high A fame ceiling. It is vaulted and scaled like a giant barn. Service is a little slow and there was at least two kitchen disasters the 3 times we ducked in. But the food isn’t bad, and the people are nice. We were getting to know the URARA people, who all seemed to know each other from years of petroglyph preservation and comradry.

I keep turning over and over in my mind the same old questions about the glyphs, as if they are the same. As if I could turn over Heidegger, Woolf and Kubler in one fell swoop. My mind skates along this audacity of my superficiality, looking for cracks where true insight might spring. Never free of presumption, never concise, always within the shadow of doubt but images, stories, feelings, temperatures, observations, afterthoughts and hints of conversations about the landscape I am clearly not native too. Dreams in the night and animals, any way that I might be born into a field of information that can never summed up, only be strewn around forever inchoate like the embers of fire left burning for centuries. I decide that I don’t need any answers, I am happy to keep looking, guessing, returning. And I dose off into sleep laying against a rock and reading about spider woman in a book that Leslie brought me to read. The passage I read outlines the Hopi creation myth of Maseo going to the grandmother spider woman who knows all and tells him where to go into the underworld where the snake clan lives in the kiva. And the book shows photos of the hillside where she lived, that she was that the highway department destroyed in 1984 to build I 70, and the glyphs on the hill were interpreted by

What is a petroglyph? What does it mean? What are they there for? Is it a script, a pictogram, a story? If so what is the syntax? It is certainly different from a sentence, but can it tell a story faster. Certainly there are repeated patterns again and again in the Great Basin, and the pictograms here are different from those in New Mexico. What are the prejudices we bring to them? What can I not see because I am so full of my own thoughts, expectations, desires, and cultural biases? This is the issue with Anthropology, how we can distance ourselves from our culture in order to respect another, and to understand them, to learn from them. If that is what understanding is about.








Weatherman’s Trail, Parowan Gap, Utah

My idea and understanding of landscape has changed considerably since I began this project two years ago. The word itself is problematic in that it brings to mind a certain kind of European painting of a natural setting and Turner or Friedrich or the Hudson Valley painters who all painted in near perfect perspectival space exercising the scientific measure of their age. But I do not mean landscape in this lush, green and alluring senses, I mean it more as the shape of the land or as a place the falls away from where we stand. And in the desert the word implies duration and being, monotony and patience. Landscape has an inner course as well as outer, which unfolds slowly and surely. This relationship to our notion of landscape is the key that either unlocks or conceals the land from us.

My perception of the land changes depending on the season and the weather, my previous knowledge of a place, what I see and touch and feel on site, who I am with, who I meet, my mood and how long I stay in one place. This day I planned to spend entirely in one spot in order to observe the light and shadows across the rocks. We had been invited to the gap by Nal Morris, during a talk he gave at the URARA conference Leslie and I had just attended. Nal’s talk about the “solar pivot” convinced me that the Parowan Gap would be a good place to observe the trajectory of a single day. So we drove over there from out roost above Kanab by way of the Zion national park and the lovely Kolob plateau which was covered in golden Aspens, in time to watch the sun set over the Great Basin.

There are many differences in styles and forms of petroglyphs. I have tried to limit my project to the Great Basin, but in traveling to New Mexico and Utah, and seeing the contrasting “pueblo” style of glyphs I learn more through comparison than simply staring at the rocks in the basin talus or along the canyon wall. My direct experience is always bombarded with my cultural awareness and often lack there of. And approaching the petroglyphs, I am faced with the searing question of why this project? I keep asking myself how are these glyphs relevant? What can they show us? And I am arriving at a different sort of answer than I imagined. Now, I turn the question against itself. Why be so consumed with the ideas of cultural production and consumption? Those are urban concerns. Out here on the plains every act is a form of being and futility is graceful. The glyphs say nothing of the city, but they indicate our own insignificance against in time. But they surely tell about the land, the time of day and season and how one might move across the land, and what one does or did on that land. The layers of nonsense that I sift through: my own romanticism, the speculations of others, dry archeological descriptions all swirl around in my mind, an eddy of misunderstandings.

We just came from Kanab, Utah where we attended a Utah Rock Art Association conference. I met my friend Leslie Ryan there. She came out from Virginia and we were going to end up in the wilderness in Escalante.  But our plans were still fairly loose at that point in the day.  The first people I met in the parking lot were a couple who had met Leslie the day before. And Leslie started talking to the woman and the guy starts talking to me about Navajo witchcraft and living on the reservation by Page. I’d only heard about living on “the rez” and there wasn’t much good in what I had heard but he seemed to go off a deep end pretty quickly. He started talking about murder and spirits who knocked on people’s doors. How these spirits then knocked him on his head when he was resting one day and it spooked him so bad he had to leave his home. His story spooked me too and I wished that he would stop, but he kept going. Finally I raised my voice and told him that I cant stand superstition, black magic, and cruelty in general, because those topics don’t go anywhere good, and he quieted down, but not until he told me how to scare off a dirty smelly witch doctor, and pointed out the finger his wife has lost in some skirmish with the bad magic of one of their spells.  It took me a while to get over that conversation. That night we burned a lot of sage before we bedded down, happily that was the extent of the black magic talk.

There were quite a few interesting papers given at the conference, and my favorite was by a man named Nal Morris (  He has been researching the Parowan Gap for over a decade. He argued that the Gap was of astronomical significance, and he called it “weatherman’s trail” a place of observing the sun everyday of the year. He had deduced a system based on a cross embedded in certain glyphs that pointed to spots hundreds of meters away where there had been 2 rock cairns (or piles) that marked the equinoxes (or solstices, I don’t recall). His presentation was so compelling that we headed out to the gap the following Monday to see for ourselves. So we watched the sun set on the first night, and I filmed the west facing rock. For some reason I preferred the Basin side of the gap to the Eastern side where the famous “zipper glyph” unlocked the secrets of archeo-astronomy for Nal.


zipper glyph widevisitor centerparawan gap

Freemont State Park, Utah


I just spent eight days driving thought Utah, NV, AZ and Colorado. The destination was the Contemporary Art Museum in Boulder, Colorado where I went to install “Tapestry X,” an installation or 8 tapestries based on the CMYK primary colors. I decided to do a little research for my Great Basin Interview project while I was out there. I was excited because this was my first opportunity to  see the Eastern edge of the Basin.

The first night I camped above Zion National Park by the Kolob Reservoir on the advice of the park ranger. The campgrounds in park were saturated with travelers. In fact there were so many people at Zion that Satruday I felt like I was in a NYC subway station at rush hour! So, after driving all day from Los Angeles and losing precious daylight I had a brief conversation with the ranger at the back country desk and then hightailed out of there.  The road to the reservoir was breathtaking and a fairly steep accent. It meandered in and out of the Park, first along the North Creek tributary to the Virgin River and then climbing the ridge that overlooked eroded red canyons galore. It continued into grassy meadows (outside the park) with very happy looking cows grazing and kept climbing through shrub pines and finally into Aspen groves that were bursting in bright yellow fall color.  I camped in an Aspen grove on the edge of the water and woke at dawn.

Although the resevoir was beautiful, it too populated with fisherman for my taste. They drove their trucks in and out all night, which of course sounded like they were going to drive right through my tent!  It was noisy. Utah rednecks.  I’m not sure the lower campgrounds in the park would  have been much quieter.  But the Lava Point campground was a nice spot in a Ponderosa grove that I might give try if I ever go back that way…How many times do you say “I’ve got to come back here,”  and then you don’t go back for 20 years? Well, that is what I said about Utah 20 years ago when I saw it for the first time.

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The following day I chose to drive along the back roads behind the meadow down into Cedar City and the Great big empty Basin–mostly in honor of my interview project , but also to get away from the crowds in the Park.  I only saw only one other truck on drive over Cedar Mountain to the I 15. The dirt road was very well maintained and it cut though more high meadows and Aspen groves, Pondersa and ranch country. My adventure began here, on this perfectly empty Sunday morning, on an unknown road between a national park and nowhere. After and hour or so I made the steep decent into Cedar City to ear breakfast. Then I headed North through the silvery blue-green flat Sevier Valley, so happy to be out to the Mojave and hugging the mountains.

The interstate was a mostly empty, except for a few trucks and lonely travelers heading to Salt Lake City doing 80mph!  And the road got even sparser as I climbed onto the 70. I felt silly climbing back into the mountains that I left earlier in the day.  But the point of this zigzag was to visit the Freemont Indian State Park, where I arrived at noon, fully dazed and windblown from light and heat and speeding along at 80 on the highway. Honestly, it takes every bit of reason and strength I’ve got, to chart a course on the open road and then stick to it.

The Park was established in the late 1980’s.  When they were building the I 70–the goal was to join with the I 15–they ran across a large Freemont dwelling smack in the middle of where the Interstate was slated to go.  The highway department halted, and archeologists came out from Brigham Young  and excavated about 20 sites along Clear Creek all a just few miles into the main pass that connects the Great Basin to the Colorado Plateau. The so-called Freemont people are the ancestors of the Paiutes. They traded without he Anasazi and lived in pit houses that were (sadly) demonstrated in the parks reproduction. The pit houses looked a lot like Dine, Hogan houses to me….  I took a hike around the site. The main houses had been destroyed by the freeway construction which cut right through the middle of the village. The museum they built to preserve the objects that the archeologists found was small, but nice, with a figurative remakes of a Freemont woman, a pit house diorama, cool sandals, atlatls, pottery etc.. I watched the information film about the whole excavation affair inside the museum. According to the film the Hopi recognize the Freemont’s as their ancestors, and the Navajo also. At least one sacred sites was razed to build the interstate, and there is an atlatl-throwing contest at the campground every year. I bought a book about the archeological dig and headed outside.2013-09-29 12.34.15

I meandered around the park and found the spot where the Hopi man in the film says that their emergence must have been. The wavy lines of the petroglyph at the site indicated this. A snake slithered right by my feet as I walked up to a very impressive rock that overlooked the road–a peaceful peaceful spot. Maybe the wavy line meant “snakes live here.” There was a PBA (patterned body anthropomorph) under the wavy lines. This figure is one way they link the Freemont’s across the Basin. I tried to imagine the village before the road cut though, before the whizzing of trucks on the highway, and I could not. But the air was still and quiet, even hot. I felt pretty grand sitting across from the glyph and looking out across the valley, almost far enough from the big city.  I did not go into the canyons to look for more petroglyphs although there were surely many more. I’m happy to see one or two. As I walked along the back of the ridge where there was a row of cliffs made of white calcium mixed with red earth. Perhaps there was clay here.  It was a sheltered spot, not exactly a meadow but an open areas with large table like rocks and shrubby pinyons which provided shade. An image of people working came to me:  Pottery, petroglyphs, performances.  The place made me think of  work AND play.

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Then I went back to the truck. I wanted to try another of the many walks along the creek described in the video.  I decide on the trail that led to the cave of “1000 hands.” It followed a beautiful creek for a while and then doubled back which frightened me for some reason. I felt torn about heading on to Moab, which I wanted to reach by late afternoon, and going on to the cave.  But the creek coaxed me along.  I felt like I was a child again, exploring the creeks where I grew up in Virginia. I dipped my hands into the cool water and splashed my face. The cool mountain water was very refreshing. When I got to the cave I had the distinct impression that the hand prints were female.  Perhaps it was a place for birthing children. It looked like there were only about 40 hands to me. Were there really 1000 hands that I couldn’t see?  2013-09-29 12.58.12

I find it ironic that I’ll have to read the Department of Transportation’s report on the Clear Creek excavation if I want the “full report,” ie. more information than my book by Janetski. The destroyers are also the preservers. What if I want an entirely different sort of information about the Freemont people? I want to know how the women gave birth for instance.  That is surely not in the DoP report. I want the hear the oldest myth the one you can only remember part of…

When I asked the lady in the gift store “Why didn’t they just move the road?”

She replied, somewhat avoiding my question: “Looters would have come and stolen everything. This place it so remote. It would be impossible to protect the site from scavengers.”

I had to agree with her about the remoteness.






Water Babies



I rented a 4wd truck with the highest clearance I could get and set out for the canyon. I drove a good 30 miles up into the Highlands, and then about 10 miles on a dirt road with various scrub pines and occasional driveways that got sparser and sparser as the ruts and grooves got wider and deeper. The roads were completely unmarked and I followed my intuition about which ones to take, hoping I would remember on the way out. Eventually the road opened up in the top of a golden plateau scattered with black rocks that glistened silver  in the sunlight. I stopped here for a minute to take in the sky and the vastness of the landscape, the valley I was about to enter. I looked at the truck that brought me here and I couldn’t help but think of Chevy commercials where the big trucks drive up and over ridiculous hills and whatnot. Marketing follows us everywhere, even at this edge of man’s settlement. The valley before me belonged to someone else and I suddenly felt like a stranger in a new land with very few credentials. As the road turned down from the mesa my heart leapt into my throat. The most unbelievable large boulders were strewn everywhere with 3 ft. deep ruts cutting through the road in front of me. I started my decent gingerly, and thought of the librarian who I had made a plan to call when I finished the day, just to confirm that I was ok.
After 20 minutes of driving about 1 mile and hour through the most harrowing road I have ever experienced I got down into the lowlands. Once there were no more giant boulders to navigate I was somewhat glad, but what lay in front was no less daunting. The ruts and sand and water were just as dangerous. But the land was also quite magical. There was crispness in the October air and it was warm. The storms were caught in the mountains and I was in the clear. I drove through tall sage grasses and yellow chamisa, until I saw an outcropping that alerted me into a canyon. Did I look at the map?  No!  I looked at the deep creek in front of me, and the road that veered to the right that ran into the first canyon I saw, and I chose the road. I was intoxicated by the outcropping.  It was high on the wall at the mouth of the canyon. It had three caves and seemed like a lookout. I kept driving until the road got so narrow and uneven that I could not pass further. Then got out of the truck and followed the creek on foot. I was emotional, frightened, excited and eager to get out of the car.
On foot the flood plane seemed gigantic.  I walked along the trail about 1 mile, through the sagebrush, and past the desiccated carcass of a dead horse before I realized that I might not be in the right canyon.  (I should have turned around when I saw the carcass.)  But the landscape was mystifying and I could not stop entering. I saw an old road, a footpath that was bolstered by a rock wall, that lead up and out of the canyon, towards the mesa from where I had come. I walked along it for a while, it followed the contour of the hillside, and was surely an Indian road.  I sat down on a rock. It was peaceful, quiet, still, and also eerie. There were Blue Jays, an occasional crow, the sound of a spring, cottonwood trees.  And I felt watched. I looked up to the walls of the canyon and spotted a horse on the hillside, then another. They were standing dead still, acutely aware of my presence. I became very aware of theirs in that instinctual sense. This was their land. I was in their canyon, with the 3 springs that I saw on the map, the canyon with the water babies. I felt the tension of being an unwanted visitor.

There were no petroglyphs here. That was for sure, just as bunch of wild horses who looked sad and hungry. I was nearby, but definitely in the wrong location. I ate my lunch and contemplated how long it would take to follow the Indian road, and where it might go, also how long it would take to walk back out of the canyon. By then it was getting late in the day and I did not want to be in that country after dark. I did not bring my camping gear unfortunately, nor did I feel brave enough to stake my ground and sleep in the wilderness alone. I kept thinking that if I had someone with me I would feel braver, walk further, spend the night and I decided to head back before the light changed.
I did not want to be in the highlands after dark, not driving on those roads! The trip out was at least 45 minutes on unmarked gravel and boulders the size of basketballs with the occasional beach ball thrown in. Why had I just assumed that I would take the right road at each juncture? I don’t think I even looked at the map once. And since I barely know how to read a topographical map, why would I? What am I  really doing out here? I had to ask myself.  There were clues, that I was not in the right canyon.  When I finally exited the canyon I admitted realized how excited I was by the lookout cave, which none of the literature mentioned and looked less revealing in the 4 o’clock shadow than in the noon day sun. The lady at the Desert Research Institute told me that I would have to stop at a gate at the entrance of the canyon. How could I have forgotten this? She also said that I would have to cross a gnarly river a few times.  I only crossed it once and could not see going further. Maybe the roads are just too bad from this. I retrace my steps in my mind:  When I came out of the canyon I saw the Lagomarsino bluff, I was one canyon away + a few river crossings. But the day was getting on and I had a long drive out of the wilderness.



Desert Research Institute

Reno, NV

The weather shifted today. There is a winter storm circling Reno, and big dark clouds hover over the mountains in the direction of Donner Pass. Michele called in the evening to say they would not let anyone drive on the interstate heading West unless they had chains on their tires, so she spent ½ the day getting chains… It is still sunny in Reno, only a few drops of rain. But the temperature dropped 20 degrees.

I decided to stay in the Eldorado hotel for another day or so to get my bearings while I plan my next move. It’s freezing outside! I spent much of the day driving around Reno and figuring out how to get to Lagomarsino Canyon where the petroglyphs are supposed to resemble textile and basket designs. Getting there seems to be a challenge.

When I called the Bureau of Land Management office in Carson City, they directed me to the Stillwater field office where I spoke to one archeologist who tried to discourage me from looking for petroglyphs all together. She said that they are very difficult to find, and that they are often small and corroded, or returned to the original color of the parent rock. When I brought up Whiskey Flats and the book by Robert Heizer, there was a long pause and she urged me to stick to well-marked locations.  Later she said I would get more information from books than actually going on site.  The guy at the tourist office in Virgina City told me to ride my mountain bike into the canyon, which sounded like more fun. Only when I finally found the canyon on a map and saw how long it would take I went to for the 4wd option.

I started looking for maps at the BLM office in Reno, which is located in the Reno flats, near the largest Whole Foods Market I have ever seen. There was also Sierra Trading Post, which had a big sale, and I picked up some long underwear and warm socks for the next days trek. The BLM sent me to the Desert Research institute, which is part of the University of Nevada and set on the side of a mountain.  It was very windy up there but the sun was shining and I could see most of the breathtaking Reno valley.

Some very nice ladies there helped me to locate the canyon on the series of quadrangle topographic maps. Lagomarsino was in the far bottom right corner of a map printed in the 1960’s and is no longer marked on the new maps.  This is common for historically significant archeological sites. They don’t encourage visitors. But one of the women had been to the canyon many years prior. She helped me xerox the maps and figure out the roads I needed to take to get there. They were long and windy and criss-crossed with other unmarked roads. They were patient and helpful but cautioned me that the roads were not maintained and in very bad condition, and insisted that my vehicle have very high clearance. After we had pretty much figured it out, One of the woman agreed to be my “call person”. I was supposed to call her when I got out of the canyon the next evening. This made me feel better about my insane looking plan to 4wd into the middle of nowhere with the storm looming in the mountains.

I drove down the hill to the University to check out a book dedicated to Lagomarsino by Alvin McLane.  But by then, it was pretty late in the day and I didn’t have much patience left for more research. I went through a rigamarole in the library stacks anyhow and looked over McLane’s paper and photographs to get a better sense of the landscape.  Then I called the rental car place and was lucky to get the last 4×4 truck for the next day.  It was freezing, I was exhausted and the sun was beginning to set.  I went back to the hotel and caught the tail end of the Obama/Romney debate.

I like Reno. It is an interesting town. The architecture is mostly brick, but eclectic in style, English Baroque and Victorian.  Frederick Delongchomp, started out as a mining engineer and designed most of the government buildings int he 1880’s.  A minerals town, they have a mining department at the University. Everybody wears car harts and boots, and drives a new truck. They are friendly. There were quite a few hitchhikers walking along the roads—young and old. I saw a few haggard looking veterans-coming down from the mountains to find shelter from the storm.  There is something very wild about this place.

It was also becomong obvious to me that our modern roads overlaying the land here, go to different places than the Indian roads.  One has to go deep into the hills to see these roads, and I am surprised they are still there, but there are many traces of the Piutes, Shoshone and the Washoe and the Numa and Freemonts before them. The towns: Virginia City, Reno, Dayton, Fallon etc. seem completely out of context to the petroglyph sites. (Note: read Lucy Lippards “Overlay.”)The climate has changed, and a modern way of thinking and doing has changed the speed at which we move across the land. Nor do white people don’t think like Indians, our priorities are different. Lagomarsino was the summer camp for the Washoe people. But it is also Piute land…  I am eager to walk off the beaten track, to get a sense of the land. Strong mountains — strong weather, the tension between the clouds and the mountains is palpable, and visible. I feel so alive! The air is unbelievable crisp. This is the storm that shifts the seasons–from hot dry fall to winter.

*Panel recording, (what Archeologists look for):
Aspect, orientation, presence of cracks and other irregularities, condition of the art, condition of the panel generally, (graffiti, mineral build-up), surrounding vegetation (this changes over time but it still seems relevant, especially for dyers) relationship to other glyphs, other proximities…

*Photo: far, middle close, with and w/o scale

Grimes Point, NV


I met Michele at a Ralph’s in Fallon, NV. She drove from Salt Lake City the day before. We planned to meet at Lake Lahontan but it was further than both of us imagined.  She crashed somewhere along the 50, smack in the middle of the Great Basin.  At Grimes we cruised past the entrance/picnic area and the designated petroglyph area agreeing to visit them on the way back. We headed along the road past the caves, again agreeing to visit them on the way back.  We wanted to look for “precious stones” that some lady at a gas station West of Elko had mentioned to Michele. We pulled off the road and walked out onto the flats and looked on the ground for colored rocks. I found a handful of smooth orange-brown and green stones, which turned out to be chert–according the colorblind geologist I asked at UCLA. Michele filled her pockets like I couldn’t believe.  She must have had a couple hundred stones when we finally called it quits and poured out our pockets on the truck floor. Her pile was out of hand! I wish I had taken a photo.

While we were hunting I noticed a caravan of trucks driving up to the cave parking lot. I watched as a group of about 20 people walked along a path, then they disappeared into the hillside. As Michele and I sat at the mouth of the first cave we took a few pictures and caught up on our journeys across the country. I didn’t think much about the disappearing people.  But after a while I began to wonder what happened to them. I suggested that we walk along the path they had taken before they disappeared.  There were beautiful views to the West, as we looked out across what was once the ancient Lake Lahontan. It was mostly flat land, in different shades of brown but very still and peaceful except for a few military jets.. We followed the trail on the side of the hill and came up to a generator, a bench and a small open door.  Michele immediately ducked inside.  I was fussing with my camera equipment when she came out of the cave where the people had disappeared.  “Don’t go in there!” She said. “It smells like stale piss.” She was right. It smelled pretty acrid!

Inside the rather large cave was the group of Archeologists, standing around an archeological digging site. They said that cave was a “cache cave” where the Indians stored food, and used it for only temporary housing.  I wonder if it smelled a bad 4000 years ago?  The archeologists were very nice, and had just finished a conference held in Fallon.  The cave is called Hidden Cave. You can read more about the archeology site here:

The guide was very nice and let me shoot some video in the cave after all the archeologists had gone. When he finally kicked me out, making sure I didn’t hit my head on the low doorway to the outside,  he turned off the generator and locked the door.  Michele and I we were both a little tired from our drive, the sun and a hectic morning discerning a meeting point. But we decided to venture up a little ways along the petroglyph trail.  After all it was the whole reason I had come out here.

We walked along a trail that meandered along a field of boulders that sat on the southern point of the hills. The basalt boulders overlooked the flattened basin. They almost looked as if they were cast in iron.  Many were covered with lichen. The petroglyphs were pecked and scratched onto the darkened surface of the rocks–wavy lines, concentric circles, one beautiful wishbone shape.  I took a few photos but felt distracted and a little overwhelmed by everything: seeing my stepmother for the first time in years, the stench of the cave, and windfall of information that the archeologists imparted, taking in Nevada for the first time.  It was about 3pm, and the weather started to shift. The temperature dropped 10-15 degrees (we went from tank tops to long sleeve shirts) and clouds started to roll in.  The place felt a little eerie suddenly and I didn’t want to be out here when the storm came in, so we hauled back to Fallon to pick up Michele’s car and headed into Reno. I had booked us a room at the Eldorado Hotel and was looking forward to a hot shower and clean sheets.


Lake Lahontan

Lake Lahontan was mostly dried up when I got there, with about 150 blackened cottonwood stumps out in a depression where the water once was. I was a mile or so below the Carson River damn near Silver Springs, NV. The pictures on the Internet showed a serene fisherman by a placid lakeside in 1973, but the campground looked pretty dry and dusty to me. I was disappointed.  Also, there were no hot showers as advertised. This drylake was named after the ancient Lake Lahontan that covered most of North Western Nevada after the Ice age.

I had driven eleven hours from Los Angeles along the snow capped Sierra Nevada’s barely stopping for gas, coffee and a sandwich on the 395 that day.  I arrived in the middle of nowhere just as the sun was going down.  I had just enough time to pitch my tent in the mostly deserted campground. I had not stopped long in Bishop, or Owens Valley, or Yellowstone only because I wanted to be here by nightfall.  But now I was a little skeptical of my impulse to hurry.  Why did I choose the Great Basin for my project in the first place?  My friend Leslie had mentioned that it was monochromatic.  I think she mean it is flat, dry and desolate.  Maybe the name sounded romantic, or just geologic and encompassing and difficult…I like the sort of things I can get lost in. I definitely wanted a reason to get out of LA, and I could not stop thinking about Robert Heizer’s research from the 1960’s. The beautifully drawn images of petroglyphs in his books and the controversy the books caused. Would I find what I was looking for out here?

I had driven through two Paiute reservations in Nevada that day, maybe three. And there was a Shoshone /Paiute Rez outside of Bishop, the town right before the pass that goes through the Sierra’s.  I drove by Yosemite National Park and the Obsidian Dome. The backside of the Dome was visible from the road.  It looked pretty enticing, but I was on a mission to make it to Lahontan by nightfall. I blew past Mono Lake also, incredibly gorgeous, but windy as hell.  It must have been the front moving in.  Then I followed the Walker River into the Nevada on the 208.  It was quieter once I dropped into the Basin. There was no more wind like in Lee Vining. There were a lot of birds along the river, tall grasses and a few fishermen. I was glad to be in the Basin, I had anticipated this trip for two years. I had to admit that it was not as grand as the Ansel Adams wilderness but there was something out here calling my name.

It was Saturday night. I was supposed to meet my stepmother at this campground. She was driving from Salt Lake City, but the sun was going down and I couldn’t imagine anyone finding this place in the dark. I faced the tent towards the East along the edge of the lakebed. A few other campers spread out around the campground.  There was a port-a-potty and a spigot with the mocking birds hanging around it. I watched the stars come up for a while, but was both exhausted and too excited to make my dinner. Then my friend John called.  I guess I was not really in the middle of nowhere!  We spoke for a while and then I tried to figure out my new involometer. I couldn’t make much sense of it in the dark, gave up, and crawled into my sleeping bag feeling a mixture of excitement and terror.

The cottonwoods rustled in the wind all night. And a pack of coyotes came through the camp, probably crossing the lakebed in the wee hours. They were howling and barking and making a ruckus. But I was warm and happy in my new over-priced capilene pullover and the two wool blankets thrown over my sleeping bag. I think there was a meteor shower at 4:30 AM, but I was too tired to pull myself out of the tent in the dark. The air was a lot colder than I thought. I did get up just before sunrise.  And I could feel that shift in the weather that I kept hearing about on the TV every time I stopped for gas.