The Art of Time I: The Road to Rochester Creek

i-45fdca7c6c8f7afc7602408a91457455-birdmansm.jpgEndless miles of canyon stretch across the landscape, cutting deeply through cake-like layers of red and gray stone--the San Rafael Swell. I've always felt this hint of anticipation while traveling west along I-70. As the road drops into Green River, Utah, there's a sign that reads: "NO SERVICES NEXT 110 MILES" That sign always seemed like a taunting dare. Are you willing to enter this rugged, barren land, void of your beloved "services"?

I'm not sure if it is the remoteness or the beauty of the Swell which calls me, or the mysteries that lie within, but I find myself returning, year after year. It makes the perfect setting for stories--one short film script I've been toying with for years involves the sign I mentioned, while this fable takes place in the Swell, without mentioning any place by name. So, when I sought the setting for a novel about time and changes, the Swell was an easy choice. I'm not the first to choose these places, of course. i-8a777338f800bc8a8500906e6efa1fa4-topomap.jpg Some of the earliest motion pictures were filmed at the site I'm about to discuss--but they weren't the first, either. Somewhere as long as 2000 years ago, an artist chose Rochester Creek, on the western edge of the Swell, as the perfect site.

The perfect site for what? We'll get to that. First, is getting there. Just a few exits east of Salina, the Moore cutoff road winds across a gravelly wash and through a gap in the Coal Cliffs. (Click the map to explore the region.) Here, the cliffs of the Swell seem muted, almost worn down to rounded hills. Just when you think you've left the canyons for good, you encounter the steep walls. Here, giant cubical boulders have fallen from the cliffs, as if waiting for some pyramid builder to come and haul them away. This is the type of rock that the ancient artists chose as their canvas. A few large petroglyphs are visible from the road, as if to give directions to the Rochester Creek panel, a few miles ahead, past the tiny farming hamlet of Moore.

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"Follow the snake!" they seem to say. There, in the middle of the snakes, a small human-like figure with giant bird feet points the way. (Shown above.)i-d8613b9ac379612e04a937315eccc20a-snakesm.jpg One of the snake petroglyphs here is nearly eight feet wide. (That's my guess... if you click the image to enlarge it, you can see me standing next to it, to compare. I'm 5'4".)

i-2cb8ff58ba0bf46f28999833fe2e32b1-USCCC.jpgThere are carvings of more recent age, as well, on the backside of one boulder, including a message from the USCCC (United States Civilian Conservation Corps) in 1939. (Note the bulls-eye riddled with bullet holes.)

This section of the cliffs is called the Molen Reef, composed of rusty sandstone, mixed with a little shale, siltstone, and limestone to give an incredible variety of colors. i-4de53eba90cfa04f1ffce12d95a88c67-geo.jpgThe sediments composing the rock are from the Cretaceous and Jurassic periods; the dinosaur prints I showed in this post were in the same location. These are the same layers of stone found in the Hogback near Denver. Here, in the Coal cliffs, the layers mimic the hogback, including, from east to west, the Morrison formation, Dakota sandstone, and Mancos Shale. (To find the Molen Reef in the full size geologic map, which you can see here, look to the left of the large blue swath, near the top edge of the map.) Just a few miles west, Rochester Creek cuts through these cliffs to join the Muddy Creek. Overlooking this canyon, we find the Rochester Creek Panel.

Rochester Creek's easy location is both a blessing and a curse. While being close to the freeway makes it convenient to study, it also becomes convenient for vandals and vast numbers of tourists. The spot, once virtually unknown to anyone except a few archeologists and locals, was highlighted in a 1980 issue of National Geographic. Then, they came in droves. Steven Manning of the Utah Rock Art Association wrote on the ethics of such impact in 2004, when Range Creek* became public:

"In 1980 Gary Smith published a photograph in the January issue of National Geographic of, in his words, "an obscure panel", which he said was "at Rochester Creek near the small town of Ferron". He did not consider what would happen once this photograph was published. Ferron, and the towns around it, were soon flooded with people asking where this site was. Maps were posted in grocery stores and gas stations because the clerks got tired of giving directions to the panel. Even today, nearly twenty-five years later, people occasionally still come to Ferron with a copy of that National Geographic and ask for directions to the site. At least one store still has the directions taped to the wall; and of course, it was not long before rock art field trips were being taken to the site...."

"This is not an obscure site anymore, and it no longer appears as it did in Gary's photograph. Vegetation and rocks are gone and soil has been eroded away from beneath the panel. I remember when you could find pottery at the site. As more people visit the panel, vandalism increases. Names have been appearing in various places on and near the panel. One day the site will be badly vandalized. There is no one out there guarding it. All of this visitation is occurring because of just one picture. I wonder, if Gary Smith could have seen the future would he have published these photographs? I bet not."

After seeing the names on the panel, I shared his concern. I hope anyone who reads this series and decides to visit Rochester Creek personally will treat the site with respect. The BLM has put up signs showing the way to the panel from the Moore cutoff road, giving visitors easy directions. They also put up this sign:

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Perhaps future generations will understand the value of preserving such treasures. How? We show them how cool they can be.

In the next section, I'll get to the "cool stuff" and describe some of the art at the site. (Yes, with lots of pictures.)

Note (*): Range Creek, which I wrote on here is in a much harder-to-reach location than the Rochester Creek Panel. To visit Range Creek, you need a permit from the state, a 4-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle and quite a bit of stamina. Hopefully, Manning's concern is exaggerated, and the artifacts and petroglyphs at Range Creek will not be threatened.

Map credits: Topographic map via Topozone; Geologic map via the USGS.

Part II Part III

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my goodness, i saw your link at dK and came over / much to my surprise and delight the swell and the Moore Road / i have traveled this route many many times / i live in Moab / nice site

By katherine (not verified) on 17 Jun 2006 #permalink

Thanks for stopping in, katherine! As you can tell, I love the Swell... and the southeastern section of the state is gorgeous, too. There are some great rockhounding sites near there. I hope you'll return to enjoy the rest of the series. :)

Excellent Collection of Images

By RedRock Backco… (not verified) on 20 Aug 2009 #permalink