Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Art of the ancients: a trip to Comb Ridge

"Towards Monarch Cave"
9x12 - graphite on paper

Finally back, sort of...a cold that decided to kick in on the day of our trip managed to take the wind out of my sails as far as getting much of anything done in my studio since our return, although I did manage to go through and edit the 300+ photos I took.

Otherwise, I did some pretty bad charcoal sketches from some of the photos yesterday, and then today, this quick pencil sketch. It probably showcases my rather weak drawing skills more than anything, but it was all I was able to muster between the headache and sinus pain that has plagued me for the past 2 days.

Back to the trip.  In a word, it was amazing.   I absolutely love this land.   As we drive and hike through the washes and along the edges of side canyons, I find myself never wanting to leave.  

Butler Wash Road & Comb Ridge
We come to explore the landscape itself, but also to experience the culture of those that inhabited the region since before the birth of Christ until the 13th century.  Evidence of their presence - cliff dwellings and rock art - is found all over the area.

Comb Ridge, our destination on Friday, is a large, 120-mile long monocline that begins about 10 miles west of Blanding, UT and runs in a north-south direction, then turning east-west before terminating near the Navajo town of Kayenta.   A photo of the southern part of Comb Ridge east of Kayenta may be seen here.

Trail to Procession petroglyph panel

A non-descript dirt road just west of Bluff, UT, heads north off of Hwy 163.  It has a small blue-and-white road marker, but otherwise, there is no indication of what it leads to.  Unlike Mesa Verde, where everything is paved and made available to the masses,  Butler Wash is a completely different experience, which is its appeal.  You have to work to get there.      

Small, unmarked spur roads are the only indication of where to stop.  Trails are also unmarked, save for the periodic BLM sign reminding you of the cultural significance of the area and to not take or disturb anything.   

View of the monocline from the trail
The hikes are pretty short - generally around a mile or so - to each of the destinations.  However, they aren't casual strolls; the trail to the Procession panel went up and down some steep slickrock, with about 600' in elevation gain.  Going to the top of the Comb and looking over the rim like we did added an extra 200' or so to that.  

Our first stop was the large section of petroglyphs known as the "Procession Panel".  Named for the 179 human figures and several animals painstakingly pecked into the sandstone face, it is a remarkable piece of art in its own right:

Procession panel panorama
[click on photo to see larger image]

The lighting was far from ideal for photography, but what are you going to do?  Take photos anyway.  It was fascinating to look at the composition of the panel:  numerous small figures converge from three directions to a circle.  Some of the human figures appear to be elders or perhaps shaman, carrying curved staffs and positioned between the smaller figures:

And, there is this group of 5 that appear to be carrying torches:

Clearly, some artisan(s) went to great effort to create this panel.   It is located a few miles in either direction from the nearest cliff dwelling, far out of the way.  So, what does it mean?  Does it symbolize the mass exodus of the people from the region to the south?  A meeting of clans?  Does each figure represent an actual individual?  One can't help but to ponder such questions while looking at the panel.  

Another 1/3 of a mile past the panel, and you come to the edge of the monocline.  Some hikers we passed told us of Moki steps (depressions carved into the rock), but we didn't look for them.  Instead, we got a panoramic view of Cedar Mesa to the west, Monument Valley to the south and Comb Wash about 1000' below.
Sleeping Ute Mountain framed by the walls of the adjacent side canyon on the way back down:

I'll add more photos from the trip with brief descriptions in later posts, following the daily paintings.  With luck, that will be tomorrow.  


  1. Wow! This looks like an amazing place!
    I have never been out west....but plan to go out there in a few weeks. I've never actually been in that sort of landscape (I've only been in the Midwest and the Northeast)...your photos are making me really eager to get there!

  2. Hi Debbie - yes, this part of the country is amazing! If you've never been out west before, you'll be surprised at how very different it is from anywhere else, and the Colorado Plateau region in particular. In a few weeks, more things should be greening up and blooming, which adds to the beauty.

    Enjoy your trip!


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