Handprints in the Canyon

The shadows grew long. I knew I had to get off the slick rock and out of the canyon soon or I’d never cross the wash in the proper place, find my way through the mud and the tangle of tamarisks, and up the other side to my truck. Shadows lengthened. Impatient and a bit depressed, I descended the canyon. I had been trying to glean some sign from the ancient inhabitants.

I’d spent a glorious spring afternoon high atop Comb Ridge in San Juan County  breathing in the wind from far across the Navajo Reservation and walking slowly, deliberately, to the top of the 65-million-year-old uplift with Charlie, my Border collie mix. He eagerly led the way, tail up, nose down, eyes bright. We had napped close to the top of the Comb in sand beneath a juniper and I’d seen a few small petroglyphs or prehistoric rock carvings on the massive sandstone fins. I’d picked up a few pottery sherds and some red chert flakes, which I put back down on the ground and covered with a thin layer of dirt. I walked without maps wanting to discover the landscape on my own.

The weather had been splendid, the temperature just right, perfect for hiking the Comb, but despite looking and searching, scanning the horizon and the cliff walls with my small birder’s binoculars, I had not seen much of consequence. Of the dozens of Ancestral Puebloan sites along the Comb I had found nothing special. I wanted to find a spectacular site that would reach out to me across time and space and jolt me out of the present, but no luck. I was tired, a little hungry, irritable, and late getting down to the truck. I hadn’t gleaned anything from the landscape.

And then I saw it. High up. Higher than I could reach. My hiking sticks had been clicking down the canyon floor as I moved quickly looking for small barrel cactus, tree roots and bends in the trail. The light was gone and though the air was not yet cool, night was coming. I approached a long south-facing alcove. Suddenly, for no reason I can remember, I looked above a low Basketmaker wall from more than a thousand years ago. The Basketmakers were early Ancestral Puebloans. This site had been severely pothunted or looted by vandals looking for bowls, baskets, anything. The desecration meant there were no standing ruins and no need to stop, but for some reason I looked up and what I saw rooted me to the spot.

My blood pulsed through my body. As silence and shadow became darkness, I saw the row of exquisite handprints ochre red and fifteen feet high. I was not alone.

In the canyons and broken terrain of southeast Utah one frequently hikes in solitude and silence. Hours and even days go by with only the mesmerizing beauty of clouds scuttling above the tops of the La Sals or the Abajo Mountains vivid against red rocks and layers of sandstone from ancient beaches. The solitude soothes and softens, but one is never alone. The Ancient Ones are present and palpable.

That day I had found no stunning rock art panels or defensive, difficult-to-access cliff dwellings. Instead I walked and hiked and napped, shook off a few sorrows, talked to a few family ghosts, and crossed from one drainage south to another. Hurrying back against the darkness I had forgotten to look up, but now something compelled me to shift my weight, align my shoulders, and there like a message from the Old Ones arched the handprints. Magnificent, they spoke as clearly as if an Anasazi, long dark hair flowing, water dripping from cupped hands, had raised his head from the small pour-over pool I had passed moments ago.

I stopped. My dog Charlie stopped. He sniffed the air. I stared at the gallery of handprints, some adult size, many from small children. This is what I had sought all day—that moment of discovery, the thrill of finding something not on any map. A village had left its mark in this low, deep alcove centuries ago as families giggled and laughed and stood on the rooftops of their small stone rooms. Now the ceilings were gone, rooms had toppled, only a few low walls remained of rectangular, dressed stones. But still in place, protected from wind and rain and sun, handprints spread across the alcove, a silent gesture of kinship in the universal sign of peace and presence, an open hand pressed upon hard stone.

In the shadows as I gleaned the red hands, large and small, I looked down the alcove. A few yards away were more handprints, white this time around the edges, negative handprints made from paint held in a young man’s mouth then blown against the wall by using a small reed tube. In this style of pictogram the shape of the hand and each distinct finger was outlined in white unlike the red prints where the hands had simply been dipped in ochre paint. I stood stunned, my dog burrowing into the sand, ready to spend the night.

I had not been stopped by a high cliff dwelling or an etched petroglyph, but rather by the simplicity and humanity of handprints waving to me across time, frozen forever in a moment of playfulness asserting, “This is us. We are here. These are our hands.”

Down canyon the stars came out one by one. The evening star appeared and then the others shone. When I could see the handprints no more I finally started walking, more slowly now, at peace. I did not worry about finding my way to the truck.

The Old Ones had been there. They would always be there. The presence of the handprints in the canyon, their subtlety and intimacy struck me more deeply than if I had stumbled upon an unknown cliff dwelling. Though they had been made a thousand years ago, the red and white hands, particularly the children’s prints, reached across time and space to my heart.

I came out of the canyon into a brilliant rising moon. I was flush with warmth and affection for a people who had left their tell tale sign in such careful, colorful patterns. I was humbled and grateful. My dog and I stepped off the steep bank into the mud and tamarisks as moonlight glinted on my truck’s windshield above us and through the trees. Then I understood the wisdom of the Old Ones. I stopped again and smiled.

I had come down through the canyon too fast, in too much of a hurry, caught up in all the modern pettiness and busyness that burdens our lives. Had I not paused to study the handprints I would have hit the arroyo in the dark with no moon to guide me. Despite my canine companion, we probably would have gotten lost. But with the moon reflected upon my windshield I found my truck on the arroyo’s opposite bank.

What had drawn me to that alcove precisely when I needed to slow down and wait for the rising moon? What had made me look up at that exact moment? I’ll never know, but in Utah canyon country, as across the West, there are always secrets in the landscape, silent signs from those who went before. There are messages from the past to the present. Stories on stones.


Andrew Gulliford is a professor of History and Environmental Studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado when he’s not hiking near Bluff. He can be reached at Gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

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