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.
The 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.