Then came the hard part: farming and ranching the desert. Today some of the towns that pioneers raised in the plateau country have vanished and others look withered, affirming the observation of Wallace Stegner, peerless Western historian, who knew the Colorado Plateau well. "It is scenically the most spectacular and humanly the least usable of all our regions," he pronounced.
The forbidding rock itself beckoned during the years after World War II. Scattered in the formations were pockets of carnotite and pitchblende, uranium ores wanted for building Cold War arsenals and fueling nuclear power plants. Some of the uranium prospectors struck it rich; most didn't. Just about all of them melted away after the demand for uranium peaked during the 1970s, leaving a scatter of ramshackle cabins, an occasional rusting truck, and piles of slightly radioactive tailings in melancholy testimonial to their quest.
Indians, too, left a record, including a pictorial one that can unnerve. Sometimes a hiker trekking beside a wall of sandstone feels a prickly sen-sation: Someone's watching. Then he sees a figure like a sentinel, painted on rock in ocherous red. And another. "What are you doing here?" they seem to say. "We were here first."
Such figures—often larger than life-size—are found in hundreds of Utah sites. Some have no eyes. Some, no arms or legs. Perhaps they were deities. Archaeologists call this ghostly art the Barrier Canyon style, after a major art site in Canyonlands National Park. Little is known about its creators, hunter-gatherer cultures that left behind little but their art and are vaguely called Archaic people.
Minute paint flakes recently collected beneath two sites and subjected to radiocarbon tests indicate that the paintings could be as much as 8,500 years old. If correct, such dates would make this spooky art more than twice as old as most experts had thought. Archaeologists have reacted cautiously to the new dates, however; they generally want multiple datings to be sure.
Elsewhere in the canyon country, hundreds of stone canvases depict not only humans but also bears, deer, serpents, birds, and scorpions. Painted onto the rock or incised or pecked into the surface, they are the handiwork of more recent, better-known cultures, such as the Basket Maker, Fremont, and ancestral Puebloan. (This last is the name that's supplanting offense-giving Anasazi, which is said to mean "ancient enemies" in Navajo.)
Successive cultures are thought to have viewed the art they discovered on the canyon walls with wonder or fear. Today, visitors to the region's many parks and monuments regard the land itself with awe. But a few thoughtless jockeys of dirt bikes and all-terrain vehicles carve ruts that will last for decades, even centuries. And sometimes a knife-wielding vandal decides that a precious rock-art panel is incomplete because it doesn't bear his initials.
Meanwhile, the land writes its own story, ever so slowly. Pushed by tectonics, the realm rises a centimeter or so every year, while erosion takes a little off the top. Time marches on in canyon country, taking its own sweet time.