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October 8, 2013

Four Corners desert tells story of the Southwest

(Continued)

I'm much happier, and probably a better student, when we return to solid ground. I'm also happy to be back in the van, which is gloriously air-conditioned and filled with ice-cold water.

The last day of the trip starts with a cold yet beautiful dawn, with stars in the night sky so numerous that I'm left rather stupefied and speechless. I've been to places where you can see lots of stars at night, but nothing like this. They seem to merge with the horizon.

Floating down the San Juan River takes you through the iconography of the West that John Ford made famous. In fact, the cabin used as the home of John Wayne's character in "The Searchers" is nestled along one bank.

But our journey has a purpose: We're on our way to Butler Wash, a great panel of petroglyphs, some of which date back more than 4,000 years.

Off to our right as we come around a bend in the river, we can see vague pecked-out shapes against a dark cliff wall. Our Navajo river guides, Marcus and Greg, pull the rafts ashore, and we hike up to the panel. There are representations of bighorn sheep, snakes, atlatls (a cross between a slingshot and a hand-held catapult, used for hunting) and figures that appear to have antennae growing out of their heads.

The oldest petroglyphs are high up on the wall and sport long legs and trapezoidal torsos; the drawings get newer as they work their way down. Some of the more memorable are human representations that resemble lizards with clawlike hands and feet. This is yet another reminder that this part of the world was inhabited long before Christopher Columbus ever set sail.

Back on the river, Ricky gives us a lesson in geology — 300 million years of it. Navajo sandstone, Mancos shale, Permian shale, anticlines, synclines and monoclines. All of it crumbly and crumbling, all of it slowly being eaten away by the brown/green ribbon in the middle.

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