Lori Carey Photography

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Black Mountain Rock Art District, Part II - Black Canyon

Our adventure through the Black Mountain Rock Art District in the Mojave began in Hinkley, 7 miles west of Barstow, where we picked up Black Canyon Road. The beginning of our route follows Desert #21 - Black Canyon Road in Massey and Wilson's BackCounty Adventures (see sidebar), but in reverse. Movie buffs might know that Hinkley was the setting for Erin Brockovitch, starring Julia Roberts.

This is a brutally harsh environment, and as we stop at the trailhead to air down and disconnect I can't help but think about the stories of the people who choose to live out here. There is not an easy place to live.

I have to admit that I've often thought about building a little ranch out here, tempted by the quiet, the solitude and the stars overhead, but I'm not sure I have what it takes to survive the summers unless I were to become a creature of the night. And I think I would soon miss the beach and the grocery stores.

On a scale of 1-10, Black Canyon Road is rated a 10 for its scenic value and a 3 for the terrain difficulty, but you need to be aware that the trail crosses several dry lakes. Caution is advised if you attempt it when the lake beds are wet because they quickly turn to a quagmire of deep, gripping mud that will bog a vehicle down. A properly equipped vehicle, advanced mud driving skills and recovery equipment are a necessity if you attempt to drive across the lake beds when they are wet.

As we crossed Harper Dry Lake the trail was more like a stream than a track and it became obvious that the recent snowstorm was going to make the terrain a bit more challenging than the easy drive we had anticipated. No worries, even the one stock jeep in our group was equipped with recovery gear and everyone was excited to see the desert blanketed with snow and ready to handle whatever came out way.

The Black Mountain Rock Art District is located between Superior and Water Valleys and contains the largest concentration of Native American rock art in the Mojave Desert. There are an estimated 12,000+ petroglyphs and a very small number of pictographs placed here over the past 12,000 years. This is an area of high volcanic activity and the basalt lava flow walls covered in desert varnish are the perfect canvas for the engravings. Large deposits of quartz and other hard minerals also made this an ideal location for making the stone tools needed to create the petroglyphs. The outer layer of patina-covered stone is removed to reveal the lighter colored rock below. The various styles of art work represent the many cultures who used the area over the years. The area was utilized by Archaic people many thousands of years ago.Then came the Southern Paiute, the Shoshone and historically the Kawaiisu people. The Rock Art District is on the National Register of Historic Places and protected by federal law against vandalism and artifact removal.

At our first stop as we entered Black Canyon the work of vandals was obvious. There were many petroglyphs riddled with bullet marks and damaged by people attempting to remove them. The good thing is that this was the only spot where we noticed any significant damage. I'm glad that destructive idiots never seem to be willing to venture too deep into the wild.

There are many interesting ideas and theories about the interpretation of rock art symbols. Not all of the experts agree and I won't pretend to even be able to say for certain what style a glyph is. But it is fun to look at a panel and imagine the story behind it:

In the photo above I see a bighorn sheep and a hunter and I imagine the circle above as the sun. Below left is a symbol that I've seen interpreted several times as a water glyph that points direction to the nearest water source, but have also seen interpreted as an atlatl (an ancient weapon that predates the bow-and-arrow) or as an opening in the rock where a shaman enters the spirit world. I haven't yet found an interpretation for the symbol the on the lower right. Left to my own imagination I see it as rain since that symbol has always represented water to me, and water on its side would be rain.

I found these bighorn sheep glyphs with bent legs interesting. One archaeologist called them man-sheep. Unfortunately these are some of the petroglyphs that have been damaged by vandals. You can see bullet marks on the rock and the damage caused by someone attempting to chip out and remove the glyph.

Older petroglyphs naturally eventually become revarnished and are harder to see and photograph. These older anthropomorphic figures were a little more faded:

There are several more recent, yet historical carvings in the rock as well. One well-known signature is that of A. Tillman, a teamster who regularly traveled the Black Canyon route during the silver boom of the late 1800's. He left his signature in several places throughout this area. This one in Black Canyon is dated July 1874:

This next one caught my eye, of course initially because of the jeep, but also because it was well done:

I found another Desert Foxes signature in another section of the Rock Art District later in the day. It was fun to think what it would've been like to explore this area in a jeep back in the 60's. I imagine it wasn't much different than it is today.

It also got me thinking about man's desire to leave his mark on these rock walls over the years, and at what point do these etchings cease to be considered graffiti and instead become artwork of historical significance. What makes the Desert Foxes glyph any different from those of Native Americans, other than when they were created? And along that line, what will future generations think of the fact that we stopped "writing on the wall" in the mid 1980's? Some interesting ethical dilemmas present themselves along that line of thought, and I've been in touch with an archaeologist who has kindly provided me with additional reading and study sources. I think I may have the kernel of a project in here somewhere, I just need to do more studying and thinking to refine exactly what it is that I have to say.

I'll leave off here and continue the trail in my next post. If you've read this far I would like to appeal for your feedback on something that I'm having a difficult time figuring out; would you rather see an entire Trail Report all in one post no matter the length, or do you prefer it broken into smaller chunks? Does this post give you too much information, or not enough? I stopped when I had reached just over 1,000 words and I've been told that an ideal post length is 400-700 words, so I know that I'm pushing the limit. I really would like to know from my readers if you would prefer that I make each Trail Report one post with less information.

Coming up next: Scouts Cove and the Opal Mountain Mine

Nothing after the jump!

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