Petroglyphs and GPS


Recently, after several hundred miles of freeway driving in snow, rain, mixed snow and rain, wind, and fog, sharing the highway with thousands of slurry-churning big rigs, we finally reached southern Arizona and sunshine.

We’re delighted with our new GPS (Global Positioning System). “Marcy Polo” is a knowledgeable tour director. Her cheerful electronic voice patiently recharts our route after every wrong turn. She even tells us how far we still have to drive and how long it will take us.

Our cell phone keeps us in touch with friends and family, as long as we’re within reach of the nearest cell tower. We have radio and CD player to entertain us, maps and guidebooks to point out places of interest along the way.

Between Yuma and Casa Grande, “Marcy Polo” directs us off the main highway. She sends us through irrigated fields of alfalfa, then through scrubby desert to Arizona’s Painted Rock Petroglyph Site. We lock our GPS and cell phone in the car and walk toward an outcropping of tumbled basalt boulders. We stop to read the informational signs, then walk the trail that leads around the pile of black rocks. Suddenly, the contrast between today’s travel and that of the past comes to life.

We are on an ancient trade route. For centuries, Patayan and Hohokam Indians stopped here to chisel petroglyphs in the desert varnish coating the basalt, exposing lighter rock beneath. Most of the petroglyphs are on one side of the outcrop. Hundreds of them crowd the boulders in a bewildering array of geometric shapes, animals, mythical creatures, humans. Some date back to the time of Christ. One shows a horse and rider, perhaps commemorating the Spaniard’s introduction of the horse to North America. What did the ancient picture messages mean and who were they meant for?

No one knows for sure, but park signs tell us that the broad valley before us had been well- watered before modern settlers drained off the water for use elsewhere. Life here would have been easy for the original inhabitants. Travelers, as well, would have found plenty of food, water, and firewood.

In 1774, an expedition led by Juan Bautista de Anza passed this way, en route to found the town of San Francisco. Standing in the sunshine, we could almost hear the jingling of spurs, the clop-clop of horses’ hooves. Later, stage coaches of the Butterfield Overland Mail route rumbled past carrying letters, newspapers, and merchandise. The soldiers of the famous Mormon Battalion also marched by, on their way from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Diego to help secure new lands in the west. Some of these travelers from the 1700s and 1800s left their own inscriptions.

I don’t understand how our GPS works. I don’t really understand the workings of our cell phone or radio, either. I’m thankful we live in a day when we have such wonders, but I’m also thankful for the enduring messages left by those ancient peoples. The Painted Rock petroglyphs communicate mystery and a sense of shared humanity that today’s marvels somehow miss.