You know how much I love a good story, and this one really put a smile on my face.
The Back Story
In 2008 while visiting the Black Mountain Rock Art District, an archaeological area of the Mojave desert that has over 12,000 petroglyphs, I took a photo which became the subject of several subsequent blog and social media posts. I was fascinated by the Desert Foxes Jeep that was scratched into the rock in 1961. While it is obviously considered "graffiti" by today's standards, I couldn't help but feel a kinship with whoever had explored this harsh terrain by Jeep before I was even born. I tried researching the Desert Foxes but was never able to find any information about who they were. I wasn't sure why that specific piece of "vandalism" made me smile when other, older ones like the heart and initials dated 1933 made me cringe. The experience kicked off an on-going photo project that explores what I call "Modern Rock Art" and asks at what point do we as a society accept graffiti and vandalism (in the wilderness) as historically or culturally significant. I became obsessed enough with the question that I even reached out to a Twitter friend who is an archaeologist to discuss the topic and she sent me links to several white papers for further research on the topic.
To be clear, I am adamantly opposed to vandalism and graffiti and won't hesitate to confront anyone I catch doing it. Tread Lightly and being a good steward of the land are common themes in many of my social media posts and published articles. But there are examples of more recent graffiti (recent as opposed to prehistoric petroglyphs and pictographs created by indigenous people) that society has decided to accept without outrage, and I find that interesting. In the same Black Mountain Rock Art District it's a common game to try to find all four A. Tillman signatures from the 1870s. Tillman is thought to have been a teamster who traveled through this area on a regular basis.
We can explain our fascination with the Tillman signatures as historically significant due to the dates they were created, but there are more recent examples which aren't (yet) old enough to be considered historic, but are cherished and even protected by locals. One example of this is Brenda, a.k.a Face Rock a.k.a. Miss Alabama, in the Alabama Hills. Local artists take good care of her and every once in a while she gets a new look, sometimes in a seasonally appropriate outfit. This is how Brenda looked in 2011.
We can't even say that we accept some graffiti due to the artistic qualities. We all rightly expressed fury at the self-proclaimed Instagram artist who last year decided to leave her art in several western U.S. National Parks and post the evidence to social media. We were horrified that someone would think it acceptable. And yet when well-intentioned volunteers cleaned the graffiti known as Fish Rocks in Trona, locals were furious and insisted that the rocks be repainted.
The Desert Foxes
Which brings me back to the Desert Foxes. I photographed the etching again in 2015, still wondering who this mythical group of desert explorers were, and I included it an article for DrivingLine magazine on the Black Mountain/Inscription Canyon jeep trail. I used it as an example of how over the years man hasn't been able to resist leaving evidence of his passage while I lamented all of the new graffiti and vandalism since I had last visited the site.
Fast-forward to December 2016 and I was wonderfully surprised to receive an e-mail from Dan Reeder, who was eight years old when he accompanied his father on the Desert Foxes jeep trip through Black Canyon in 1961. Mr. Reeder's nephew came across my photo online and recognized the logo. They were hoping that I could provide information about the location because they want to put together a family trip back to the site this spring. Mr. Reeder read my blog post about my mixed feelings when I found it and as we e-mailed back and forth he told me the story of how it came to be.
Douglas Reeder, who passed away in 1988, was a WWII vet who served as a fighter pilot with the U.S. Marine Corps. His wife was also a veteran who served as a combat nurse, and they met while in Sydney on R&R. Like many vets in the 50s and 60s, after he came home he enjoyed spending time with Jeeps and off roading. He was the President of the Desert Foxes Jeep Club in Long Beach, California and also the President of the state off road vehicle association during the mid-1960s. Desert Foxes was one of the very first Jeep clubs in California, dating back to the early 1950s, and is no longer in existence. Dan Reeder has one of the original club logo plaques in the garage workshop his father built, and he kindly sent me a photo of it along with permission to share it here.
Dan Reeder told me that even though our country hadn't yet realized the need to legally protect our wilderness and important cultural sites, as early as the 1950s the Jeep clubs were focused on conservation and stewardship. In addition to same rules we follow today about staying on designated trails, packing out trash, and making sure camps and fire pits were cleaned, they would typically do at least one larger conservation project such as a clean up every year, just like most clubs still do today. When the club leaders noticed someone scratching the club logo into one of the rocks at Black Canyon it caused a bit of a scandal. Damaging the site wasn't illegal at the time - it wasn't legally protected until 2000 when it was named a California Historical Resource (BLACK CANYON--INSCRIPTION CANYON--BLACK MOUNTAIN ROCK ART DISTRICT), but the club still recognized the historic significance of the location and the leaders were very upset that one of their members would do such a thing. The person who did it didn't realize that it was wrong because it wasn't until a few years later that our country even began to understand the need the protect these culturally significant sites. The etching was half done when they caught him, and after some discussion they agreed to let him finish it so it wouldn't look as bad as an unfinished piece would. None of the existing petroglyphs were damaged, it's all by itself off to the side on the same canyon wall.
Mr. Reeder assured me that the club was horrified when it happened, and since I've used it as an example many times in the past I wanted to share the story of how it came to be. A big thank you to Dan Reeder for reaching out and sharing the story and photo with me. I hope your family has a wonderful time retracing the trip you took with your father back in 1961 and that you enjoy revisiting that area as much as I do.
Now 56 years later it is a little piece of California history that will always brings a smile to my face when I see it, even though I recognize it for what it is. The next time I visit it I'll think of Douglas Reeder, home from the war and spending time with his young son Dan out adventuring in the desert, and my smile will be even bigger.