The traveler sees what he sees, the tourist sees what he has come to see – G.K. Chesterton*
In central Wyoming, a 400-meter long vertical cliff erupts from from the dusty ground, utterly alone in an ocean of never-ending sagebrush. We drove mile after lonely mile to reach this sacred Native American site, where more than 300 petroglyphs were etched into jagged rocks, vaguely transcribing the hopes and dreams of America’s first peoples. The petroglyphs show animals – jackrabbit, elk, owl – some of the only other residents in this otherwise god-forsaken territory. They also show spirits and human forms, such as the “water woman,” whose turtle companion serves as a go-between the worlds of land and water. Other spirits are shown with their hands up, pressing forward, as if transmogrifying from solid rock. Some petroglyphs are thought to represent “ninimbe,” or little people, who were tiny elf-like creatures with tails and large heads. Ninimbe lurked around wells and rocky places; legend places them somewhere between evil yeoman and good-luck leprechaun.
No permanent native dwellings were ever constructed near the bluff…these rocks were the only subject for countless scorched miles in every direction. And yet, for more than 10,000 years, native Americans journeyed here from distant outposts. Some say this is a portal to the underworld. Some say this is a spiritual totem, the ultimate stop on a personal vision quest.
Where are we?
We are at Legend Rock State Petroglyph site, located about two hours southeast of Yellowstone National Park and 30 miles northwest of Thermopolis, Wyoming.
And what about THIS rock makes it so sacred?
I have a hunch. But it only became apparent as I drove away, examining the photos on my camera’s viewfinder. I may be alone in my suspicion, but by figuratively shifting the contrast between positive and negative space, where most secrets lurk, I opened up a world of mystic possibilities that, if true, deepen my connection to the rock and the people it lured for ten millenia.
I came as a tourist, I left as a traveler.
Tell us what YOU see in the comments.
I’ll comment on the specifics in a few days over at my travel blog, NatureTravelNetwork.com.