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Arriving much earlier than expected for our tour of Fort Irwin, detailed in another post, Venue spent a half-hour wandering around the so-called Painted Rocks, where outgoing troops memorialize their time at Fort Irwin by painting unit insignias on an ever-larger swath of desert scrabble.

"We have a tradition at the National Training Center of painting rocks with unit patches and insignias," Command Sgt. Maj. Victor Martinez explains in an article posted at army.mil. They are "symbols of pride and allegiance."

The results are colorful, more self-mockingly macho than threatening, and highly photogenic; skulls, serpents, sharks, and dragons join bombs, arrows, spears, castles, and silhouettes of assault rifles, all of which gradually fade in the desert sun and need to be repainted when the unit responsible circles back to the desert base.

Unexpected cousins of Newspaper Rock, which Venue visited in Utah on a separate trip, the Painted Rocks turn geology into media, not as long-lasting as petroglyphs but still a semi-superstitious message left by humans on a thin layer of the earth's surface.

Taking a cue from the provocative approach of historian Annette Kolodny—who suggests in her recent book In Search of First Contact that Algonquin pictographs and even Norse graffiti carved on rocks near the Atlantic coast, in both Canada and New England, should be considered an early example of what is now broadly referred to as "American literature"—it would be tempting to say something similar for Newspaper Rock, outside Moab, Utah, that this inscribed landform is a kind of national literary feature, a mineralogical Moby Dick for the region.

Less a narrative sequence, however, than a multi-generational graphic palimpsest of random carvings—including nineteenth-century, twentieth-century, and, sadly, probably twenty-first-century travelers' graffiti, all adding to the historical layers on display—Newspaper Rock nonetheless promises a Rosetta Stone-like moment.

It—or, to be more accurate, the media surrounding this site, including, in an era of blogs, Twitter feeds, and Tumblrs, its charmingly antiquated name—suggests that this should indeed be some sort of monument to translation and contact, an inscribed physical manifestation of cultures predating Anglophone expansion (that is, military conquest) into the complex lands of the southwest.

Having never visited Newspaper Rock before, with its carved wheels, skinned animals, trains of antelope, serpentine geometry, buffalo-headed hunters with insect legs, and horseback riders, the poetic expectation was that a key to the puzzle of inter-cultural contact had been carved here, some mythic insight or moment of wisdom that required terrestrial near-permanence in the form of petroglyphs that scholars have been trying to decipher ever since.

In fact, it's hard not to wish for a kind of Photoshop layers menu, some kind of lensed device or augmented reality that might remove the various inscriptions that have come at different times and, in the process, see who left what where, and why.

Richard L. Bland, an anthropologist with the U.S. National Park Service, writes in a paper for Arctic Anthropology that, "Petroglyphs are a relatively common form of prehistoric communication, in the sense that those who drew the petroglyphs knew what they meant, as no doubt did many of their fellow tribesmen who viewed them."

Unfortunately, however, "The meaning or significance of these images, however, was generally specific to the individual or group that created them. There was never a cross-cultural standardization of symbols and as a result much of the meaning of many petroglyph series has been lost."

There was never a dictionary, we might say, a central database or archive of meaning from which all other petroglyphs were derived. There was no encyclopedia.

The symbols are as much pure graphic design, then, as they are literary expression; they are realized form as much as they are a mere promise of content.

Bland goes on to suggest that the specific petroglyphs he's studied in the Arctic are a form of "hunting magic," a landscape notation with superstitious consequences, but the inscriptions outside Moab seem altogether more casual (perhaps assisted by the fact that they're now found fenced-in at the edge of a state-run parking lot).

In any case, to put more of an emphasis on expectation than on the actual experience of the site, at least half of the Venue team was gearing up to see Newspaper Rock as if coming into the presence of a foundational text, the small print Europeans didn't see upon their arrival on the continent, a grimoire. Or as if visiting Newspaper Rock should be something like visiting the old British Library Reading Room, sitting down amidst a geology of broadcasts, CTRL-S after CTRL-S preserved in rock form—the Earth itself as hard drive.

It is media with a limited range, however—something to come to, rather than something you tune into from afar.

To use an annoyingly timely analogy, it is exactly not a Facebook Wall, exactly not comparable to anything more contemporary—let alone more sacred—than a painted wall sprayed with what soon becomes visual archaeology.

Seen this way, Newspaper Rock is simply graphomania on the scale of an entire landscape. It is a hillside imbued with a hint of literary content and preserved by order of the U.S. government.

Equal parts rock art, literary history, and historically preserved act of vandalism, the monument is now a kind of appendix on Canyonlands National Park, lying outside Park boundaries but acting, nonetheless, as something of an introductory signpost to the writhing and sinuous geological forms to come at the end of the region's old river beds now paved as all-weather roads.

Indeed, amongst many interesting things to consider here is the overlooked narrative genius of road design in the United States—something Venue explores in a forthcoming interview with Earl Swift, author of The Big Roads, a history of the U.S. interstate system—which has transformed this site of geological inscription precisely into a kind of entry gate for this most immersive example of the National Parks, casting however minor a spell on tourists driving by.
On the road between Palm Springs, CA, and Springdale, UT, yesterday, Venue stopped off at Nevada's Valley of Fire State Park, whose spectacular red sandstone formations both inspired its name and have also made it a popular film set (for instance, standing in for Mars in Total Recall).

One of the Park's "beehives," in which the geologic cross-bedding reflects shifts in the angle of the wind and water when the silt was originally laid down. Park photographs by Nicola Twilley and Geoff Manaugh.

Wind and water have sculpted the striated red rock into an array of photogenic shapes, named for their resemblance to elephants, ducks, and beehives.

Meanwhile, humans have added their own decorative flourishes, in the form of 3,000-year-old petroglyphs and the prosthetic-pink set of steps you have to climb to get to them.

The staircase leads directly to a viewing platform from which you can see Anasazi drawings, including several springy bighorn sheep, scraped into the desert varnish.

Microscope cross-section of desert varnish via Caltech's Mineral Spectroscopy site. Desert varnish is a curious coating found on exposed rocks in arid landscapes, composed of clay, trace elements, and microbes. Photographs of Martian rocks seem to show a similar coating, leading to speculation that if life exists on the red planet, it will be found in this kind of microbial patina.

This particular rock is called Atlatl, because of the atlatl and dart etched right at the top. An atlatl is like a ball-thrower for a spear — it acts as an arm extension to add speed and expand the weapon's range.

The World Atlatl Championships are actually held in Valley of Fire State Park each spring. In a 2008 report, The Economist describes the event as "delightfully eccentric," but adds that the atlatl is not only "a formidable long-range weapon system," but a significant gender equalizer:

According to John Whittaker, an anthropologist at Grinnell College, Iowa, [the atlatl] means that dextrous women and children can wield a spear as well as muscular men. Warfare, particularly in hunter-gatherer societies, is often a hunt with women as the prize. Women who could hurl missiles would thus be at a significant advantage.

Meanwhile, the carefully painted stairs, with a touch of salmon added to the standard parkitecture beige, are a lovely example of landscape viewing infrastructure — the carefully constructed, subtly camouflaged pull-outs, overlooks, and interpretive platforms from which we are encouraged to experience America's natural wonders.

Finally, down at the bottom of the rock, next to the picnic area, we came across a live desert bighorn. We looked at each other for a while, and then moved on — Venue toward Zion National Park, and the sheep to who knows where.

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