Saturday morning my mom and I found ourselves bumping along a dirt road on the north western end of Sedona, Arizona. A friend of mine had given us some vague directions on how to find petroglyphs in one of the canyons out here, and we were on a hunt. Well actually Lydia and my mom had done the real hunt the day before while I was working, and given what they found I wanted to go see them as well. They did the painful job of losing the trail and bushwhacking through sharp desert shrubs to find the way back to it. I got the easy guided tour in because of their efforts the day before.
A few miles down the dirt road we pulled the car over in a pull off by an old ranch fence from the 1920’s. We side stepped the fence and headed on our own in to the canyon. After only a couple steps I felt this softening in my chest. It was subtle, but just strong enough for me to really notice it was happening. The energy here felt different than other parts of Sedona, much deeper and more palpable. I felt this gravitational pull in towards my heart, and the muscles around my chest all relaxed and opened in response.
The hike in was gorgeous, and there was a bit of a trail for us to follow from others who had hiked in to find what we were looking for. After about an hour of walking in along the eastern wall of the canyon we were getting close. The trail cut sharply to the west and dove steeply down hill, in to the wash in the center of the canyon. We then followed the trail up to the other side of the canyon, pushing our way through some junipers and scrub oak to get to the western wall. We then wandered our way down the western wall, back towards the mouth of the canyon.
Before long the scene opened up before us. We rounded a bend to find a tall cave, maybe 30ft high and 15ft deep. The red sandstone walls were charred black from fires burned within its shelter over a thousand years ago. All along the cave wall were paintings just as old. Most had faded to just a faint image, barely decipherable. One can imagine long ago the wall would have been a mural of different shapes and colors. A lot of the drawings had preserved quite well though.
Images of animals like deer, snakes, coyotes, and elk were easy to see. There were also lots of images of people, some in groups, some alone. Some of them were dancing or holding their hands in the air. There were lots of symbols like circles or spirals, or just different patterns of dots. Some of the drawings were clear but still hard to understand what they might have been portraying, maybe different gods or spirits, I am not sure. The most touching images for me though were the hand prints left behind in the rock. They were much smaller than human hands today, even making my mothers hand look big in comparison.
After exploring all the different areas where the walls had been painted, we just sat down amongst it all in silence. It was so quiet. We could hear the wind move down the canyon through the leaves of the trees, getting louder and louder until it swept across our faces. We could hear the lizards running around through the leaves, and the birds chirping around us. And that was all. I just really felt like I needed to be still and connect with the space in that moment, with something I felt there.
This cave is where over a thousand years ago human beings had taken shelter, it’s what they had called home. Evidence of the structure they built in it were all over the ground around us, piles of square sandstone rocks that had once been held together with mud. They had without a doubt suffered many hardships together here, in this spot. Gathering enough food to survive, enduring the elements, even having to defend themselves from other animals or humans. They had also without a doubt shared love, friendship, ceremony, and community with each other. Above it all what struck me deepest in that moment was how through their artwork these ancient communities had reached out across time to share their experiences with others, to tell their stories and connect. I know there was a practical aspect to making them. It was probably a helpful way to share information and tell stories to each other. Nonetheless, I got the sense that the artists who painted these drawings had an intention that the stories they told would live on much farther in to the future, far beyond their life span.
Sitting there in the silence of it all I could really feel the presence that was created all those years ago living in this cave. It was still so palpable there, that feeling of home. In my heart in those moments I started to really understand something about human nature. I recognized the desire to connect on a deeper level inside all of us. I could see it as a part of who we are and so innately human. That softening I had felt in my chest when I first stepped in to the canyon grew more intense. In that moment, in the silence, in the presence of those ancestors, my heart opened so widely. I fell in to this space of timelessness, of unity across time and space. I could feel the connection in my heart to all of humanity across the ages. How much we bear suffering together and always have, how we struggle. How much we love to, and ultimately how deeply this love and this need to connect really is our true nature, at the heart of all things. The hand prints in the wall seemed to reach out from the rock to touch my hand, a moment of friendship across time.
After a good long moment of silence my mother and I decided it was time to move on, and we started our hike out. Back down to the wash, up the steep bank to the eastern canyon wall, and eventually back out to the car. This feeling of timelessness, of open heartedness stayed with me as we left. So much so actually that it has completely shifted my relationship to this landscape, and to the rest of this earth and the humans who inhabit it in different ways.
That evening my mom, Lydia, and I all sat in meditation before bed. I could see vivid images of the petroglyphs dancing inside my mind for the entire time. They seemed like they were trying to speak to me, they were calling out to something inside of me. I am sure it will be sometime before I can fully metabolize the experience of being out there among our human ancestors. I may never understand what message those voices had been trying to speak to me that evening in meditation, but that is fine. I can say for sure I will be doing more exploring of different petroglyph and ruins in the mean time. Ultimately just the experience of being called out to from across time has been enough to stay with me for the rest of my life.