On our third evening at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site, just after dinner, I saw a flash of light illuminate the window of our back door. A few seconds later, I saw another one, and then another. I put on my shoes and went outside. The sky was clear, but hovering just above the northern horizon, I spotted a large white cloud. The cloud was full of energy and every few seconds, three or four bolts of brilliant white lightening would streak through the space between the cloud and the earth, and shear the night. Remembering that sound moves slower than light and that each second represents a mile, I began counting the seconds after each flash waiting for the rumble of thunder. But no sound ever came. I watched for over an hour while the cloud mysteriously remained anchored to one spot, spitting silent lightening. Just before we went to bed and I took Melo and Pix out to do their stuff, the cloud was still there.
Later that night I dreamed I was in a large room in some sort of expensive, high-tech office tower. Between me and the window that made up an entire wall of the room, stood a group of five or six business people, both men and women. Although I didn’t recognize any of their faces, by their expensive clothing and body language, I sensed they were very important world leaders, the elite of the elite. Like the cloud I saw earlier that evening, they exuded power and were over-brimming with confidence and pride. To demonstrate their mastery over the world, they tossed a handful of what looked like marbles or small shards of colourful glass into the air. Instead of falling, the marbles lined up one behind the next and began circling each other on a horizontal plane like leaves on an invisible whirlpool.
Unimpressed, I glanced out the window behind the leaders and, far in the distance, reflecting on some of the office towers, I saw a bright orange glow. “Look,” I said, pointing out the window. Everyone turned to look as the glow quickly burst into a conflagration that began to destroy everything in its wake. We all watched in shock as concrete, glass, and metal towers were swiftly consumed by the rapidly approaching flames. The floating marbles were quickly forgotten when we all realized that it was too late to escape. “See,” I said. “See what your power has brought us to.” I woke myself as the flames began to swallow our building. I was unable to fall asleep again. I comforted myself with the thought that not all my dreams come true.
“That was a very important dream,” Luc said to me when I told him about it the next morning. “Power without humility is very dangerous.” And then he added, “Donald Trump has much power, but he lacks humility. This makes him very dangerous.”
Luc was a man we met while camping at Painted Rocks Petroglyph Site. We saw him when we drove in. He was working on building a personal sized RV on the back of a small trailer out of plywood and 2” X 3” lumber. After we registered, we walked by him while he was driving some screws into a sheet of plywood with a rechargeable drill. I yelled out to him, “It’s going to rain tonight!” He glanced up at the cloudless sky and laughed. We went over and introduced ourselves. Kat spotted his license plate and knew he was from Quebec. Fortunately, because I don’t speak French, his English was almost flawless. He said that the snow had driven him south. But although he was a snowbird (like us), he wasn’t a typical one. For some reason, he reminded me of a grey heron.
As we chatted, we all immediately connected. There was a genuineness about him that is rare to find. I sensed a bright soul and kindred spirit. When he smiled at us, we saw that his top teeth were missing except for his canines. He reminded me a bit of an old dog when he grinned. Later that evening, when we got together, I noticed that he now had teeth. I wondered if he’d once been a scrapper. “I was bad when I was younger,” he said at one point. He was shorter than me, but stockier, with a generous belly that he proudly displayed like a happy buddha. He told us he was 67 years old, almost ten years older than me. I told him that he didn’t look it. I wasn’t just being polite. He really looked like he was in his mid-fifties. “My father was 80 when he died and he died with black hair,” Luc said.
Within only a few minutes of meeting, we were talking about the meaning of life and the nature of the human soul. Well, maybe it was me talking about the nature of the soul. Sensing he was one of the few people I’ve met who could grasp some of the more subtle spiritual concepts that have come to me over the years, when we got together around his campfire that evening I couldn’t stop myself from subjecting him to a fifteen or twenty minute monologue describing what I’ve come to understand is the source of consciousness and root of our being. After I finished, I sat back and eagerly waited for his response. After only a brief pause, he said, “Your heart is so plugged with your thoughts and concepts that the Chi can’t come out.” A rougher man might have said, “You’re full of shit.”
His comment shut me up on the spot as I thought about the old teaching tale from the East where a student meets an enlightened master and, while burbling on and on about meaning of life, the old monk pours tea into the student’s cup, but keeps pouring even as the cup overflows. The lesson of the parable is that you need to empty yourself (or not be so full of yourself) if you want to make room for something new.
Over the three days we spent at Painted Rocks, Luc gave us much to ponder about. As we sat around our respective campfires, we talked about life’s purpose and shared stories of our adventures. It felt like we had known each other for a thousand years. One of the things he said that stood out for me was: “I spend most of my waking moments reminding myself: Life is beautiful. Because life is beautiful.” This made me think of the Oscar winning Roberto Benigni film of the Italian-Jewish father who tries to convince his son that their time in a German concentration camp is nothing more than a fantastic game.
Luc also told us that we should alway try to be grateful for what we have, no matter how much or how little. This seems at first a bit simplistic, but our wise friend Ardel back in Vancouver always told us that gratitude was one of the most powerful ways of connecting to the universe.
On our first day at Painted Rocks, I visited the site of the petroglyphs. I was expecting two or three rock paintings, randomly scattered and hidden amongst the stones similar to the ones we saw at City of Rocks in New Mexico. Nothing prepared me for the hundreds of ancient symbols, some covering an entire boulder as big as a Volkswagen Beetle like some sort of ancient manuscript.
Signs along the trail talked about how some of the glyphs were thousands of years old. I’m not sure how they could tell, though, since it’s impossible to carbon date rocks. One of the signs near the entrance to the site suggests that the rocks could have been drawn by “a hunting and gathering culture that lived in this region between approximately 7,500 BC and about 1 AD.” But no one really knows who drew them, or what they represent. I recognized some symbols because they were universal. The circle with a dot in the middle, for example, is recognized as a symbol for the sun in many traditions, including as far away as the middle east. It’s also an ancient symbol for God.
Most of the rocks with petroglyphs were volcanic basalt that, either as a result of thousands of years or wind, sun, and rain or some other unknown and possibly cataclysmic event had acquired a layer of black “varnish,” as the archeologists refer to it. According to other signs, the symbols were “pecked” into the layer of black varnish using stone tools, exposing the lighter tea-coloured basalt underneath.
Sadly, as with most places we visit, there was modern graffiti interspersed with and, in some cases, completely obliterating the ancient symbols. In one spot, someone has carved in his last name: Fitzgerald, and included a date: 1928. It looked like it had been crudely scratched by a nail or other sharp instrument into the rock yesterday or earlier that morning, and not from a time before my father was born.
While talking to Luc about the symbols, he said that this was a sacred place. He told us that, for hundreds of years people would come here for vision quests. “They would eat peyote or the sacred mushroom and come here and meditate on the symbols.” He quickly added, “But it’s not necessary to take any peyote to make the symbols come alive. If you meditate on the sky for half an hour, or even fifteen minutes or so, and then look at the symbols, they will come alive and speak to you.” I thought about how the symbols would look in an altered state of consciousness and imagined them filled with neon light, like in the old Pacman video game or the movie Tron.
I didn’t think I was going to be able to find a quiet enough time to see the symbols in their full glory. Although the site is still relatively unknown, there were countless other camera-toting tourists hopping around between the rocks every time I visited the site. I’m not sure what they would have thought of a tall skinny guy standing in the middle of the rocks, staring at the sky, and then suddenly gazing intently at the drawings on the rocks. I doubt that the experience would have been very meditative. Still, I regret not trying it.
We’ve read some online reviews by others who came to the painted rocks, visited the stones, maybe camped for a night or so, and moved on complaining that “the rocks aren’t really all that spectacular and there’s nothing much else to do there.” But the entire region is special, “holy”, as Luc says. It’s also visually spectacular.
Over the next three days, Kat and I hiked around the surrounding hills. The entire region is volcanic and, although there are no real trails, it’s easy to cross over the open plains and wind between the black rocks, mesquite, and various cacti including prickly pear, cholla, and the iconic saguaros that stand like sentinels. I came across other, more remote spots, and I saw more symbols. Disturbingly, across the road to our campground I found some petroglyphs directly beside a telephone that had been driven into the hill. It was like a gigantic stake impaled into the heart of an ancient culture.
Although I wasn’t able to meditate on the petroglyphs directly, I was drawn to a deeper communion with the spirit of the land. Perhaps I was inspired by our conversations with Luc, or perhaps I was drawn to the primeval volcanic landscape, but I felt an inward call. On one of my solitary hikes, I strapped my old accordion on my back and found a remote spot on the top of one of the hills facing the sun high above the western ridge of mountains. On impulse, I took off my sandals and planted my bare feet on a smooth flat stone to better ground myself to the earth. I played my rain song and my wind song. I played to the sun and to the stars.
Plant your roots firmly into the earth,
and with all your might,
Strive towards heaven.
As Luc had suggested, after each song, I thanked the rocks and the cacti and the wind as if they were my audience. I was filled with the beauty of the land and, even if I didn’t have an opportunity to experience a vision quest amongst the petroglyphs, I felt like a new awareness had awakened inside of me. Whether it would remain with me after we left Painted Rocks I didn’t know, but I hoped I could rekindle it whenever I would find another sacred place in nature.
On our final evening, Kat made a wonderful vegetable lentil soup and offered some to Luc. Later that night, as I watched the mysterious cloud filled with silent lightening, it reminded me of something from a science fiction movie, where the cloud is really only a screen concealing a huge interstellar space craft. It didn’t look real as it hovered for hours in one place. Was it a coincidence that later the same night I dreamt about the leaders who, flaunting their power but lacking humility, ended up destroying our world? As we journey onward, I will remember what Luc taught us and try to be grateful for whatever moments we have left.
And I will pray that those moments are more than a few.
Kat talks talks more about Luc and some other special people we met here: