The Lessons in Rocks

Jutting shards of Squaw (Piestewa) Peak

To many Native American tribes, rocks are the “stone people”, or Ancestors.  I was in a sweat lodge once and the huge volcanic rocks in the pit glowed red like searing hot sponges, the holes, along with the shadows from the fire (or maybe it was my encroaching delirium from the intense heat), causing me to start truly seeing rock faces, their expressions changing, dim and glowing.  My Apache friend told me that these sweat lodge rocks have actually spoken to people – which would be very disconcerting – and have even on occasion jumped out of the pit!

Rock formations: Escarpments at  the top of Squaw Peak jutting out at an angle like great steely shards.  The buttes and formations in Sedona, ancient and majestic.  Devil’s Tower from the Close Encounters movie.  The crazy hoodoos of the Chiricahuas down in southeast Arizona, whose formations  appear to defy the laws of gravity.  Our own Weaver’s Needle deep in the Superstitions,  and Superstition Mountain itself, part of a huge caldera millions of years old, steeped in mystery and revered by the Native Americans who lived in the area hundreds of years ago.

Chiricahua Tombstone July 06 055
Duck Rock in the Chiricahuas of SE Arizona

When on road trips, I find myself wondering how the landscape was formed.  Did a huge wind caused by an ancient pole shift blow the hundreds of boulders I see from somewhere else and scatter them across this valley?  If not, how did they get here?  Why is that rock shaped like a duck?  Why is there an infusion of sparkly rock flowing through that exposed cliff face?  How did that five-foot-high layer of pale rock get into the red sandstone that’s hundreds of  feet thick?

I was in heaven when I found an amazing book that describes the landscape along each of the major highways in Arizona and how it was formed, including the features’ names. But the only problem is I always seem to be the driver, and noone wants to read to me as we pass the points of interest marked in this book.

One of the many ruins in Sedona

My love for ruins, especially Native American ruins, comes in second to my love for rocks, but I’ve realized that although I appreciate ruins for what they are – or were – ultimately, I revel in the fact that they are rocks forming a structure. There’s a wistful atmosphere of abandonment surrounding ruins, yet they make me feel so close to the people that walked there so many years ago.

The rocks thoughtfully chosen and placed…the mortar spread so carefully between the layers of rock, impressions left by careful fingers hundreds of years ago frozen in stone. I think the way I feel when I’m near a ruin comes from the rocks that form it, yet the fact that they’ve been used to build something bigger than themselves symbolizes something so much more complex.

Ruin in Canyon de Chelly

Ruins embody the fact that rocks don’t have to move to have life, they don’t have to do anything to prove they exist.  They just ARE.  They have seen so much over so many thousands of years; been silent witnesses to the milennia.  These ancient Ancestors watch and listen.  Through their presence alone, they retain their power.

Ruin in the Sierra Ancha

This is symbolic of a bigger truth for me.  The  very fact that each one of us is here on this earth is by no means an accident, or chance.  To gain a better understanding as to why you are here, like the rocks, you just need to listen and be Present.

Stop trying to influence your surroundings or life situations with your own ideas as to how things should be and just observe the world around you (especially the natural world) – allow it to teach you. By doing so, you will begin to enter into a whole new relationship with life that is almost magical!

Living this way takes trust, or faith if you will, that things are going to be OK.  It requires you to enter a state of humility, and surrender to something you may sense, but may never truly  understand or comprehend.  When you’re in this state of receptivity, little things will start to happen that seem like strange coincidences – synchronicities.  The  more you acknowledge them, the more often they will happen. It’s almost like the Universe likes the attention and will interact with you even more, the more you open yourself up and notice!

Ruin in Chaco Canyon

The tools you are given to realize your purpose in life are intuition, and the ability to follow your heart – if you are listening, these tools will always tell you when you’re going in the right direction.

I love rocks and ruins, and I don’t know why.  Finally listening to my heart led me to go back to school at age 32 as an Anthropology/Archaeology major even though I have no idea what I will do in that field, or where exploring the past will lead me.

What makes you feel alive?  Whatever it is, it’s no accident.  Explore that path with your heart wide open, even if you don’t know where it will lead you.  Like the rocks, be still and listen. By honoring that which speaks to your heart, ultimately, you honor Life itself.

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The Most Precious Stone

Peti Rock II love rocks. Stones, earth, dirt, sand, gravel – it doesn’t matter.  I love rocks in every form. Walking along a gravel road, a pretty pebble  protrudes and catches my eye, and I crouch down to pick it up and examine it further…sometimes I keep it, sometimes I put it back when I’m done. I just like to hold it and momentarily absorb its energy, listen to what it has to say.

Rocks from my husband
Rocks from my husband

One of my earliest experiences with rocks was getting a pre-compiled rock collection as a child. I was fascinated by all the different colors, shapes, names, the way the rocks felt in my hand.  Even though I didn’t get to choose which rocks were in my collection, I appreciated each and every one for its own special attributes.

In those days, a favorite pastime was visiting a construction area near the apartments where I  lived and crunching around on the gravel piles. I would fantasize that I was  somewhere else, in a dusty and dangerous desert environment; I remember the sun  beating down on my back as I pretended I had a purpose there, I was on a mission!

Jutting schist of Squaw Peak
Jutting schist of Squaw Peak

Even though it was hot and, well, rocky, I got some strange comfort in being there.  It is funny  because looking back, it really reminds me of a lot of places I’ve been in Arizona. Somehow even back then, before I had an inkling of the places my future self would visit, something within me was was already identifying with their landscapes.

Here in Arizona, especially in the desert-y Phoenix area, I love to hike.  The “rock piles” in the Valley are significantly larger than those of my childhood, but it’s still all about the rock under my feet.  The construction piles of my past were mini Camelback Mountains, rife with loose granite gravel.  But the mountain I feel a real affinity for is Squaw (Piestewa) Peak.  I love that mountain.  It has a life of its own – its own personality.  I get a strange satisfaction each time I crunch my way up it and back down again, no matter how many times I climb it.  I feel like I’m connecting to the earth and chipping away at something substantial – sinking my proverbial teeth in – with each solid step.  It is extremely fullfilling.

Squaw Peak Rocks
Rocks from Squaw Peak

Sometimes I just stand against an outcrop and feel the rock against me, and I feel so connected to it.  It’s as if by standing there long enough in contact with the rock (the more surface area the better), I might start to absorb some ancient wisdom from the depths of the mountain.  Recently, I began picking up a rock from the top every time I hike up, because the whole  process represents something to me that’s so much more than just hiking a mountain.

Sedona is an especially good place for lying on rocks (or rock formations) and for picking up cool and exceptionally charismatic rocks.  There’s a different feel to those rocks (unrelated – at least I think – to the supposed vortices in the vicinity) but Sedona’s stones are just as precious to me as the rocks I pick up in other locales.

Rocks around our house
Rocks lying around our house

I pick up rocks wherever I go.  In Alaska, you can find smooth and shiny rocks of  every color on the shores, and there are dark mossy rocks in the woods.  In New Mexico I’ve seen huge mounds of pock-marked, black volcanic rock that feel like loofah or sandpaper.  Smooth, white and cream-colored oval rocks, almost egg-like, mixed with polished glassy, translucent pebbles on the California shore.  In Utah, rough, scratchy sandstone  in ochres and yellows.  A river shore full of every color, texture, type and size of rock I have ever seen, all mixed together.  (I was mesmerized and sat there for hours!)

I pick up rocks because I like their look, but also their messages, their stories. The only problem is that once I bring them home I don’t exactly know what to do with them, and often forget what’s what…I have piles of  rocks in drawers, in containers, on display.  Unfortunately, when it comes right down to it, you can only have so many rocks lying around your house.

But then again, maybe there’s always room for one more…

A few years ago, my husband and I added the most precious little stone of all to our collection. Our daughter Petra (which means ‘rock’ or ‘stone’) was born on June 8th, 2013.

Rocks for Petra
Rocks for Petra

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2012-07-02 05.58.54“If anybody is not blown away by the Grand Canyon, they won’t be blown away by Judgement Day, either.  To spend the night on rocks that have been warmed to 120 degrees by the sun, to feel the incredibly insistent and very dangerous Colorado River rush by you, to be down in the depths of the Grand Canyon with no one around you but your own party, you begin to feel your own insignificance.  At the same time, you are made larger by that realization.”
filmmaker Ken Burns, to Arizona Highways Magazine

I recently confirmed our spots on our second Colorado River rafting trip, set to embark in July of 2015.   Since doing so, I often find myself staring off into space, my mind wandering back to our pre-baby – and virgin – trip…images flash through my mind of sun-seared red sandstone cliffs…the roiling rush of the river, like a writhing beast, beneath me during the day and beside me at night…and slowly but surely I get drawn back down, down, down into the Grand Canyon. It has a way of doing that.

Like it was yesterday, I can feel the hot, industrial-thick rubber of ‘The Rail’ (what we newbie river runners dubbed the side pontoons of the raft – the front of the raft, where you’re sure to get soaked, is The Bathtub, of course) under my sunburned legs and the soft spray kissing my face…the rhythmic rise and fall of our craft as the river swelled beneath it…Like some living thing, the Canyon is already calling to me, pulling me back in.

When we signed up for our first river trip with Hatch River Expeditions back in June of 2012, one of our main goals was to check a ‘big one’ off of our Bucket List.  I mean, what adventurous soul does NOT yearn to raft the mighty Colorado at least once in their lifetime? Little did we know that the allure of the Canyon was not something easily-escaped once whisked top-side via helicopter.  Nor did I expect, even weeks later, to start from a sound sleep, feeling the roll and sway of the raft beneath me as if I were still being carried down the river.

There is something haunting about the Grand Canyon – and something absolutely visceral about experiencing it while riding on the back of the mightiest river in America, spending a whole week sleeping exposed to sheer, sun-baked rock faces under the craziest, thickest expanse of stars imaginable. That canyon gets into your blood somehow.

Nankoweap Delta
Nankoweap Delta

For all the intensity of experience and mysteries unveiled to us during that memorable first trip, one spot stands out for me above all the rest.  Nankoweap.

“Nankoweap”…I had seen that word hundreds of times, almost always gracing the caption of a stunning photograph of ancient ruins nestled high above the water back-lit by an impossibly beautiful straight-shot view three miles downriver.

Nankoweap…the humongous delta – the largest on the river in fact – named for Nankoweap Creek, which drains into the Colorado at this spot where Nankoweap Canyon and Marble Canyon meet.

To me, the name Nankoweap had become so synonymous with these ruins perched high above the river, which were not dwellings but granaries where the ancient inhabitants stored their food, that I had no idea this place held so much more.  I had read about Nankoweap in countless captions, but never did I imagine I would see it for myself, and be able to view the remnants of its ancient civilization up close – let alone bed down in the Nankoweap Delta, where Ancient Puebloan people made their home nearly 1000 years ago in what had been one of the largest settlements inside the Grand Canyon.

Indian Dick Campsite
Indian Dick Campsite

It was day two of our trip, and we had spent the preceding night, our first inside the canyon, at Indian Dick; a popular camping spot lewdly named after a prominent rock feature that overlooks it. After an intoxicating second day on the river, I consulted my trusty waterproof mile-by-mile Colorado River guidebook (which sadly ended up in its namesake when I rode The Rail on Hermit Rapid just days later) that we were approaching Nankoweap, located approximately 52 river miles below Lee’s Ferry.

I excitedly anticipated getting a glimpse of the fabled granaries from afar, as the raft whisked us around the curve of the delta and on our way. As I braced myself and my waterproof camera so as not to miss them as we rounded the curve, imagine my excitement when I overheard the guides discussing whether we should pull in for the night – a possibility as long as no other river runners had beat us to the few good camp sites on the delta.

As we rounded the bend, I sucked in my breath; pleasepleaseplease…yes! There was nobody there!  It only felt real when our guides carefully guided our boat and our sister boat to shore – we were actually spending the night at Nankoweap!

Technically inside Marble Canyon, part of Grand Canyon National Park, Nankoweap’s expansive delta was officially studied back in the 60s by an archaeologist named Douglas W. Schwartz.  Not only did Schwartz thoroughly investigate the famous granaries in the cliffs, but also a number of petroglyph sites and ruins on the canyon floor along the river – in all, thirty pueblo structures- upon which he based his conclusion that the Nankoweap Delta may have been home to as many as 900 people at one time, most likely between AD 1050 and Ad 1150.  He also concluded that the people farmed the delta, based on remnants of ancient corncobs and pumpkin seeds that he found in the granaries.

Mooring at Nankoweap
Mooring the rafts at Nankoweap

The boats drifted to shore, as crafts of millennia past must have done, and we commenced our nightly ritual of unloading supplies and setting up individual camp sites. As the sun dipped lower in the sky, casting shadows onto the canyon walls, our guides beckoned and a good number of us gathered at the foot of the salmon-hued cliffs to begin the ascent to the Nankoweap granaries.

As we started along the sandy trail, I couldn’t help but notice our guides wore flip-flops…a modern testament (in my mind) to the woven sandals the Ancient Puebloans surely wore to make this very same trek. We navigated silently among the mesquite, tamarisk, and other brush, the trail often choked with obstacles, forcing us to scramble over toppled rocks and exposed roots. Soon, the trail began to get steeper, seemingly chiseled through the exposed rock, and the granaries came into view, over 600 feet above the river.

After a bit of huffing and puffing, we finally made it up the last stretch and the granaries sat as they had for nearly ten centuries, tucked away tight in the cliff side, accessible only by a narrow walkway. In ones and twos, we carefully navigated the precarious zig-zag path up, and finally I stood on the threshold and beheld that coveted view. I looked off down the river, relishing the moment, then let my gaze wander over to the granaries themselves. So small really; humble storage caches for a people that lived and breathed and walked here a thousand years ago. A people who, after all, were only trying to survive.

Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.
Ancient granaries, tucked away in the cliffside.

I reverently approached the caches and peered inside, trying to imagine the need – the urgency – that drove these people to store seeds that would ensure their survival in such a high and inaccessible place. Was it a fear that the river would rise? Was it to keep them out of enemy hands? Archaeologists dance around the truth, seemingly getting closer and closer to The Answer; but I am convinced there are some things we will just never know.

I let my gaze linger inside one of the small depressions and a faint shimmer of blue caught my eye. Turquoise. The revered symbol of water, sky, and life itself. Like the archaeologists trying to decipher the clues left behind by the Ancient Puebloans, I will never know for sure who left this hopeful offering or why – but to me it was the perfect embodiment of the People, whose essence and spirit will always live on within the canyon.

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