sego canyon   16 comments

Posted at 1:36 pm in history,traveling alone,Utah

It’s been almost a month since the most recent entry to this blog. I’d been planning to catch up with a few posts to finish writing about last autumn’s trip. After all, it’s not long until I leave to head back north – about a week, in fact. However, time seems to slip away from me. What can I say?

In my last post, I wrote about visiting Arches National Park. Upon leaving Arches, I drove north up to the town of Thompson Springs, Utah. My destination was Sego Canyon, site of a number of petroglyphs and unusual pictographs. The weather was odd – the skies a gloomy pallid gray that warned of snow. I wasn’t concerned as the forecast was for snow at higher elevation, but not until that evening.

I took the old highway route into Thompson Springs. The pavement was incredibly heaved and broken up. So much so that the van pitched like a ship in heavy seas. Looking in the rear view mirror, I could see two rather unhappy looking dogs being bounced all over the mattress. I believe our top speed might have been around 15 miles per hour. In any case, eventually, we arrived at the town of Thompson Springs. The directions to the pictographs were rather vague, so I toured up and down the short main drag looking for some clue as the their whereabouts. What I found was, for the most part, a collection of long abandoned buildings. Many of the doors were open and one could see the broken remnants of furniture and bathroom fixtures. It was a little depressing and not what I’d been expecting.

After poking around a little, I came to the conclusion that it must be necessary to cross the railway tracks and proceed north out of town toward the backdrop of flat-topped buttes. However, the lane appeared to wind into an area of houses and mobile homes surrounded by what looked to be mostly ancient, broken-down construction equipment. I paused to look around, trying to figure out a route as I wasn’t keen on driving into someone’s yard. My instincts were telling me that I should just turn around and head back to Moab, reasoning that perhaps I’d drive down this road right into some kind of weird ambush devised for capturing unsuspecting tourists. However, the stubborn part of me won out, arguing that I’d driven all of this way and I shouldn’t throw in the towel just yet. After a little more internal debate, I drove onwards – slowly. At the north edge of town, I pulled up beside an old wooden schoolhouse. Just as I was about to draw the line on this misadventure, I spotted what I’d been looking for — a sign indicating that I was on the right track. There it was – a hand-painted wooden sign of one of the key figures on the pictograph, nailed to the side of the schoolhouse (see above).

Sure of my way, I drove down the narrow paved road, past curious cattle standing among sage and rabbitbrush. After a couple of miles, I nosed the van down and back up out of a deep wash, then found us approaching a small parking area with a few interpretive signs. To my surprise, there was a small 4-wheel drive SUV parked in the lot. The woman standing beside it moved quickly to get inside, but then hesitated (I suspect) after seeing that I was a woman driver. I parked and walked up to her, saying that I’d almost given up and turned back after taking a look around town and becoming discouraged. She nodded and said that she and her husband, who was busily shooting photos, had almost chickened out too. Somehow, it was rather reassuring knowing that I’m not much kookier than others.

The panels nearest to the parking area featured both pictographs (rock paintings) and petroglyphs (carved or pecked-out images). The signage described the above panel as being both Anasazi Basketmaker type figures painted in red, but superimposed with Fremont type figures pecked out of the rock. Click on all images to see larger views.

Another large panel was created more recently – as indicated by the presence of horses – by the Ute peoples of this region. While photographing these panels, the husband-photographer walked up and quite excitedly pointed around the corner of the formation, saying that the panel on the other side was just amazing.

I wandered around the corner only to be confronted by the most incredible panels of rock art that I’d yet seen during my travels. The collection of humanoid figures were each larger than life. They appeared ghost-like, floating on the sandstone surface. Their shapes were mysterious – strange heads with large, empty eye-sockets and some with extensions that looked to be parts of headdresses. The most central figures seemed to be holding up zig-zag shaped snakes. They are in the Barrier Canyon style, which is considered to be about 2000+ years old. I stood back and studied the panel, finding the effect of the images almost eerie. Normally, the art historian in me tends to kick into gear when I come upon fascinating art or architecture. In this case, my experience of this panel was different – perhaps felt on a more instinctive level. I lingered awhile, studying the images, but found it difficult to concentrate on any one of them. It was as though this group of beings was alive and oddly imposing. I took a number of photos and then retreated to my van. By now, the couple in the SUV had departed and I was now alone.

I turned the van around and began the drive back out of the canyon. The sky was looking whiter and there was the scent of snow in the air. On the way back to Moab, I tried to think of a place where we might spend the night – some place where I could plug in the little heater to keep us warm for the night. A few miles north of Moab, I turned west off the road, stopping at the kiosk for Dead Horse Point State Park and the northern part of Canyonlands National Monument. Information on the state park stated that there were sites with electric plug-ins, so I decided to go on ahead. The park is located at the top of a high plateau, far above Moab. By the time we reached the park headquarters, a stiff wind was blasting fine snow across a landscape of sagebrush and twisted juniper. I was told that there might only be one other camper in the park that evening. I found a site that seemed sheltered from the worst of the wind and got out the extension cord to set up the little electric heater and trouble lamp that I use for heat and light in the van. By now, the wind speed was picking up and wet snow began to build up over the earth, trees and our van. This is the kind of weather where, back at the farm, we would have battened down the hatches and made a pot of homemade soup. I couldn’t quite manage that here, so instead, fired up my propane camp stove in the nearby sun shelter. It would be a quick dinner tonight — some canned soup — hastily warmed as the weather turned increasingly nasty. By the time the soup was warm, I felt like one of those researchers in the Antarctic – struggling to put away the stove while blasted in the face by blinding snow. Both dogs looked up from their little nests on the sleeping bag, giving me a grumpy look as I let freezing air into the van while struggling to climb in with my pot of soup. Reasonably warm and well fed, we hunkered down for the night while frigid winds whistled by. The message was unmistakable. Winter was moving in. Time to be heading further south.

Written by bev wigney on March 23rd, 2011

16 Responses to 'sego canyon'

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  1. As usual, Bev, quite interesting. Something about camping overnight at Dead Horse Point State Park and warming soup for dinner was really appealing to me. Even if grumpy dogs were giving you a bit of grief about it!

    So, you’re leaving so soon to head back to NS? Maybe this time you’ll take the route through Dallas? We could take you to see a some livable, very funky places that we just saw this weekend!



    23 Mar 11 at 2:53 pm

  2. Was there any indication of how the town came to be so deserted?


    23 Mar 11 at 2:59 pm

  3. John – You’re going to have to try it sometime. However, picture yourself climbing into a space about 3 feet high – atop the bed with 2 dogs, with your bowl of soup. All of the van windows are now fogged over and there is ice building up on the outside of them. The only light is a mechanic’s trouble lamp hanging from a bungee cord strung across the van ceiling. It’s pretty crowded – what with the camp gear that usually gets unloaded when we set up somewhere out in the desert. That said, it was okay. I had bought a biography on a young artist named Everett Ruess who explored southern Utah in the 1930s, until he went missing and was never found:
    Even in the worst weather, we’re usually okay – with or without the electric heat. I don’t know if most people could stand living this life, but I’m okay with it.
    I’m not yet sure of my route home. If I do go through Texas, it would definitely just be a quick run through the northern part up around Amarillo. I have to be out of the U.S. and back into Ontario by mid-April due to regulations and also my health insurance coverage. I’ll be hoofing it through pretty quick. Just looking for interesting places to camp along the way – probably state or national parks in each of about 8 states along my route.

    Fred – I just did a quick look online for more info about Thompson Springs. I found a page about it and it looks as though the main reason for its decline was the construction of the interstate which is now about a mile or so north of where the highway used to pass through town. Also, the town must have grown up around a coal mine in Sego Canyon, but when the diesel engines replaced coal engines on the trains, the coal mines shut down. I think there is something going on around that location though. On my way up from Moab, I noticed odd looking metal containers being unloaded at a rail line siding just north of Moab. When I got up to the end of that highway and turned to follow the old highway to Thompson Springs, I saw the same metal containers lined up along the rail line – obviously being loaded onto trains up there to be shipped down to Moab. I saw signs for some kind of experimental power generating project around Moab, and the same acronym was on the boxes. No idea what it’s all about. Anyhow, here is the page about Thompson Springs:

    bev wigney

    23 Mar 11 at 3:22 pm

  4. Quite an interesting place, bev, and your description of your experience of it is beautifully tactile. I really get a sense of the air, the wind, the blowing snow, and the life-sized beings painted on rocks. I like that you persisted, although, I suspect if I were alone I would not have ventured that far. These sights were absolutely worth the journey.

    robin andrea

    23 Mar 11 at 4:13 pm

  5. Bev, was the biography you bought “Everett Ruess:Vagabond for Beauty?” If so (or even if not), how was it? I can imagine the cramped quarters; still doesn’t convince me that I wouldn’t just love it!


    23 Mar 11 at 10:28 pm

  6. robin – It was certainly worth the journey to see this rock art. I hope to spend more time doing the same next autumn.

    John – Yes, that’s the book. It was interesting to me because I’ve traveled through many of the same areas which Everett wrote about in his letters. Much of the book consists of letters to him family and friends. I enjoyed it. I must say Everett’s writing style may seem exuberant – but I think you have to see it as the product of someone very young who was venturing into pretty hostile areas at an age when most young people would not have attempted such a thing. I’ve packed the book away where I can’t easily retrieve it or I would send it to you!

    bev wigney

    23 Mar 11 at 10:44 pm

  7. It’s always good to hear from you after your hiatuses. Always mixed with relief, too.
    What you find “mysterious” and “somewhat imposing” looks downright creepy to me
    i’d have been out of there sooo fast when I saw that other car gone. Love getting it second hand
    from you, though.

    Happy Trails on the trip north.

    (and reading that everett Reuss book would not exactly have put me at ease.
    Ed Abbey thought he (Reuss) was wacked)


    24 Mar 11 at 12:14 pm

  8. ever since finding you and your journal i have come to understand just what a wuss i am! no way could i ever be so brave! i could live in the cramped conditions and roughing it but only for a few days – not a few months! i love your posts which allow me to “see” things i may not see, to experience these fascinating places you explore. i wish you a safe trip home and hope you will keep us updated on your progress. i like knowing you guys are safe.


    26 Mar 11 at 5:44 am

  9. The directional sign is cool. I’m almost certain I have seen that type of image before.

    There is so much mythology about the Southwest floating around, both ancient and modern. The idea of the artist going missing adds to it, although I suspect the reality behind his disappearance would be quite ordinary and pretty depressing. There are so many places and ways to hurt yourself out there.


    26 Mar 11 at 1:12 pm

  10. Hi Bev,

    Wow, what a trip! I just spent 3 hours looking at the rock art photos and writing a description of their meaning. I didn’t think to copy it and it all erased when I tried to submit it because I hadn’t filled in the name and e-mail address on the form. I know from many such experiences of my writings disappearing when finished that this means I’m not supposed to put the info out in the public domain, so I’ll save it in my head to tell you personally when we next visit šŸ™‚

    We won’t be at Nicol Island in April, but feel free to stay at our place and to use the composting toilet (you know where the house key is) or to use the outhouse.

    If you can pick some wild sage to bring north with you, we’d appreciate it. You can tell customs it’s a gift for a sacred purpose.


    Jim Poushinsky

    26 Mar 11 at 1:51 pm

  11. Marci – I don’t think my travels would suit everyone. In fact, I think they would suit hardly anyone, or at least, only someone who loves traveling with their dogs. Interesting about Ed Abbey’s opinion of Ruess. The thing that strikes me about his travels has to do with the remoteness of the location. Some of those areas are about the most remote and also most rugged terrain of any place I’ve visited. It’s difficult to imagine a young fellow wandering around mostly on his own with a burro and a dog.

    Sky – It’s actually a pretty tough way to live for more than a couple or so weeks. I sometimes think I should look for a bit larger van, but then I’d have to drive something larger than what I’m comfortable with, and also the gas mileage would be poor (this van is very easy on gas). While I’m on the road, I barely think of the difficulties or risks, but once I’m back to living in a house for awhile, I realize just how different a life it is. Still, I do like it very much.

    Mark – I liked that sign a lot too. I’ve seen similar figures, but they are Pueblo and usually of a sort of kachina type figure holding thunderbolts. According to the book, there are a couple of theories about Ruess. That he perished in the desert for the usual reasons that people do – run out of water and it gets too hot — and it sure does get hot in that region. The other theory is that he ran into some bandito types that killed him for what little he had – also possible. You’re very right – there are so many places and ways to hurt yourself out there. It’s a fact that I try not to forget when I’m wandering around. I would do these trips in autumn, but there is no way I would want to travel through those regions during the warmer months.

    Hi Jim – Yes, interesting rock art, isn’t it. I’ll talk to you about it next time I see you. I’m probably going to be cutting across the U.S. this spring – taking a different route due to the poor weather up in the west and north. It will be a bit of a challenge as I’ll be working out the route as I go. However, it should be interesting.

    bev wigney

    26 Mar 11 at 6:58 pm

  12. What an essay, Bev.

    First I got goosebumps with your account of those strange petroglyphs. Yes . . . the ones that looked like extraterrestrials {{Shiver}}

    . . and then your attempt at warming soup as winter started howling around you and the pups . . .

    Loved this: Somehow, it was rather reassuring knowing that Iā€™m not much kookier than others . . . . šŸ™‚


    26 Mar 11 at 7:48 pm

  13. Cathy – Oh, indeed, these are very strange images – quite unlike most I have seen – both in size and in style. Actually, the size of them seems very unusual to me.
    We do have our adventures. It’s no coincidence that, when I visit or camp at most places, the dogs and I are the only ones there! (-:

    bev wigney

    27 Mar 11 at 10:12 am

  14. I really enjoyed this and once again you told me about something I had not seen but will put on a list for my next time through southern Utah. Those were magnificent petroglyphs.

    My favorite way to travel used to be with an Astro van where we had a bed when we took down the back seats. I had made curtains and it was so easy to pull in somewhere and spend a night. We used to use just a sterno stove to heat up a can of something as that made for less stuff in there. It was the two of us and no dogs though. I miss it but the Astro got too unreliable and we bought a truck for the farm use which has a short bed in the back, not the same for sleeping at all even with a small canopy but we can do it and have. I liked though having the bed easy to get to the steering wheel in case something iffy happened, and we used to stay iffy places, and we didn’t have to get out to drive away.


    27 Mar 11 at 10:21 am

  15. Rain – Yes, put that on your “to do” list. I keep lists for all of my travels. Your Astro van set-up sounds a lot like the Windstar that I used for my first trip to Arizona. It was actually a good travel van when it was just Sabrina and me. Unfortunately, that’s the van that got hit with a huge chunk of frozen mud that fell off an ATV being hauled in someone’s pick-up truck. That happened on the freeway in Idaho. Right after I arrived home, the subframe broke just after I turned onto a highway near the farm. I kind of think it had been damaged when I drove through a very deep gutter in the road in Price, Utah. I was amazed that nothing was broken – but perhaps something was and it just held together until I made it back to the farm. Scary, actually. Your comment about liking to be able to move from the back of the van into the front without getting out is one of the things I like about the Dodge van that I’m using now. It has no console between the front seats, so I can just step in between to get into the seat and drive away — well, except there’s always a cooler in that space, but it’s easy enough to slide that out of the way when I want to get into the front of the van. Definitely a good thing to be able to do if you’re camped somewhere a bit iffy!

    bev wigney

    28 Mar 11 at 5:08 pm

  16. Hi Bev

    I loved the shots of the rock art they always instill a really other worldly feeling in me.
    For me ancient art,whether it is carvings or pictorial art gives me a sense of both how similar and at the same time how different we are from past cultures.

    Also the shot of sage is beautiful I really like the muted colours. Good luck with the renovations this summer.



    31 Mar 11 at 8:24 am

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