Steamboat Springs Twenty of us braced ourselves against the savage wind gusts in Vermillion Canyon Sunday afternoon, and gazed up at the sandstone walls.
I saw indisputable evidence that space aliens had visited the ancient Fremont Indian culture more than 1,500 years ago.
Pecked into the desert varnish was the figure of a man with a radio antenna protruding from the top of his skull.
Dude! Beam me up!
Just about then, the petroglyph expert shepherding our group brought me back to earth.
I was informed that the radio antenna was actually a representation of a feathered headdress.
Vermillion Canyon is about 80 miles west of Craig and 20 miles north of Dinosaur National Monument.
The Bureau of Land Management has designated it as an "Area of Critical Environmental Concern."
There has been a well-publicized movement to protect it with official wilderness status.
The Fremont culture clearly identified the canyon as a special place.
But the fact is, nobody knows for sure what native people of the Four Corners region were trying to communicate with their symbols carved into stone.
Have you ever stopped to ask yourself, "When does graffiti rise to the level of sacred native American rock art?"
I chew this question around in my mind every time I journey into canyon country, or even when I spy an aspen tree with initials carved into it.
When you get right down to it, what's the difference between a heart carved into tree bark with the slogan "Dave loves Mary," and a crude human figure chipped into sandstone?
Don't get me wrong.
I'm not launching a put-down of petroglyphs.
At times I've found them enthralling. I'm just intrigued with how our society values some kinds of street art more than others.
If they could endure for another 1,000 years, would the spray-painted gang slogans on Los Angeles freeway overpasses someday be viewed as precious examples of late Twentieth Century tribalism?
A form of cultural expression to be preserved at all costs?
Check this out.
If I'm a pioneer in the 19th century, and I carve my family's name into Independence Rock, I'm a historical figure.
On the other hand, if I go up into the Priest Creek aspen glades this summer and hack the slogan "TR skied 20 inches of fresh 'der here, Jan. 20, 1998," I'm a vandal.
But I'm guessing that if Carl Howelsen had carved his initials into a tree to memorialize Winter Carnival in 1913, they still would have named the hill after him and the tree would now be a national shrine.
I've got to admit, I'm bothered by the numbered of scarred aspen along the trail above Fish Creek Falls.
And to be accurate, I've never carved my initials into a tree.
But I once came upon such a carving that has always haunted me.
I spied it in a very mature stand of aspen in California Park.
The carving was apparently very old, based on the way the tree had healed over the scars.
And there was still the unmistakable date 1899 right below the figure of a voluptuous woman and the name of a hispanic male.
When I stumbled upon the carving, I tried to cast my mind back 100 years to picture the lonely sheepherder who must have scarred that tree with his hunting knife.
The ancient Fremont Indians and the lonely sheepherder, were all trying to achieve the same thing some little piece of immortality.
We all want to leave something behind that says, I was here, on planet earth, back in 2002.
When we returned from Vermillion Canyon I dug a little paperback pamphlet out of a storage box where I keep maps and guidebooks of the southwestern United States.
Entitled, "Easy Field Guide to Rock Art Symbols," it contains line drawings of some of the most common petroglyph forms and suggests their meanings.
On page 17, under the heading "spirituality," I found what I was looking for a picture of a little man with an antenna coming out of his head.
Author Rick Harris speculates that the figure represents "talking with the spirits."
So, I was right after all.
The "spirits" are obviously space aliens who provided the ancient Fremonts with radio antennas.
Do you guys think it would be vandalism if I carved a petroglyph in my own aspen tree?