A few months ago, I headed to Nevada in search of several rock art sites along the Pahranagat Trail. After starting out with a bang in Arrow Canyon, my search in the South Pahroc Wilderness was a total flop, as I didn't find any rock art at all! After popping into the local BLM office for some tips - which they couldn't share - I aborted my plan altogether for an alternate, ultimately amazing, itinerary.
Returning home, I had a "brilliant*" idea. Like many other Americans, I watch and read a bit of news here and there, and one of the things I've heard about over the last several years are these requests to our government for information that might otherwise be hard to find. You know, a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.
Now, before I get too far into this story, I think it's best to be up front with a rather important spoiler:
On the final morning of the trip, as I turned on my camera to take the first photo of the day, I noticed that it wouldn't focus properly. After about 15 seconds, a message appeared on the screen.
Now, I have two high-quality microSD cards in my camera - exactly to protect against a situation like this - the idea being that every photo gets written to both cards, so that in the event that one fails... no big deal.
So yeah, it's my fault.
The funny thing is, it's not even the rock art photos that I'm going to miss. In fact, I could probably retake all of those in a few hours, now that I know the locations. Rather, there was an afternoon photo - looking north across Upper Pahranagat Lake as some thunderstorms rolled through - that had really interesting lighting. That's the one I wish I still had, but even without it, life will go on.
Who knows, maybe out of curiosity I'll even pay an exorbitant amount of money to get the data on the microSD card recovered. I've always wondered how that process worked, and what's another $1K when I just had to buy a new fridge?
Anyway, back to the story with a few photos from @mrs.turbodb... now, where was I? Ah yes, I was the genius who'd just filed his first FOIA request.
I had no idea how long I'd need to wait for a response, but my request had been quite clear, so I hoped that it wouldn't be more than 6-8 months. You can imagine my surprise then, when I received a response only 2 months later!
Page 1: Basically, my request.
Page 2: A one-liner reply (more on this later), and boilerplate.
Page 3: Boilerplate and a signature.
I was unsurprised, disappointed, and glad at the response. Disappointed in that the one-line response was - essentially - a URL to the public rock art guides that I'd explicitly stated I already knew about and was not looking for. Unsurprised mostly because I would have been surprised if it were this easy to uncover "unknown" rock art sites. And ultimately, a little glad that this was the same response any other "unknown bozo" one would get to such a request.
Plus, in addition to the official letter response, I also received the following via email:
In addition to the link provided in the response letter, the Archaeologist at the ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ Field Office is providing the following information:
"Generally speaking, by law, we do not release cultural resource site location information to the general public. This information is protected under National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), Section 304 (and subsequent DOI regulations and policy). The ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ Field Office and ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ manage several public rock art sites. They are all only a few miles away from the area the Requestor specified. We have brochures in the public room for these sites. If the Requestor would like one or all of these brochures, we'd be happy to send them by mail. Additionally, we also have a few booklets about Lincoln County Rock art sites in the CFO public room. If you have questions about the cultural resources we manage here in Lincoln County let me know. I have a passion for local archaeology. Please contact, ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ , Archaeologist, BLM ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ Field Office ▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ (▮▮▮▮▮▮▮ @blm.gov) with any questions."
I thought this addition was very cool, and so I immediately contacted the archaeologist and we had what I considered to be a wonderful (even though I never got any of the information I was looking for) conversation. Perhaps the most important element of that conversation was this series of paragraphs:
I'm grateful that you appreciate the limitations around sharing such sites with the general public. I'm prohibited to tell you locations by law, regulation, policy, and ethics. There's another reason to consider. Although they are a lost language, every rock art site (or as they are otherwise called, rock writing) are sacred spaces to Indian tribes. Each and every glyph is a message from their ancestors. The public sites are created in consultation with local Indian tribes. They have agreed to allow these sites to be observed by the general public as examples their ancestors’ story telling and communications. So while you are perfectly welcome to wander around as you have, other than the public sites, I simply cannot tell you the locations of sites that you don't already know. Consider discovering these sites as part of your adventure.
Also, I hope that you, too, as an adventurer and chronicler respect the laws and considerations that I must abide by not revealing the specific locations to your readers. Photos of the panels don't reveal the locations. But photos of the surrounding landscape, or even rock outcrops can be used to "line up" the locations like a "rock art gunsight." Show your readers the messages from the ancients but allow them their own path of discovery.
I encourage your continued exploration of public lands. And I sincerely hope you research, visit, and discover more of these fascinating messages from the past.
So often, it's easy to get caught up in and focus on the "finding" of rock art, on "going to" a historic site, or "capturing" an iconic view. The reminder that the experience, the wandering, and the discovery that are most important elements of an adventure is one we should all embrace as often as we can.
My initial attempt to "find" the rock art foiled, there was another reason for a trip to the area as well: I'd driven the Tacoma home after my recent Three Days of R&R trip to Utah for a bit of maintenance, and we needed to get it back down to Las Vegas, a much more central starting point for most of our adventures. I figured that with a few days to wander around, we were likely to find something even if we didn't find everything, and at the very least, we'd have a good time in beautiful country.
As always, the first day was a slog. Pulling out of the garage just after 8:00am, we didn't stop for more than a few minutes over the course of the next 14 hours, eventually finding ourselves in northeastern Nevada, just south of Wells.
Calling it a night, we setup camp just east of Spruce Mountain, and climbed out of the already warm tent just before 8:00am the next morning to continue south towards the Big Rocks Wilderness and Pahranagat National Wildlife Refuge (PNWR).
The Orange Mallow was out in full force as we headed south. (photo credit: mrs.turbodb)
It was a couple hours later that we turned off the highway and headed off on a dirt track - Little Boulder Road - that would deliver us to the north end of the Big Rocks Wilderness. A beautifully sunny day, temperatures were still pleasant enough that I enjoyed hopping out of the truck for a photo here and there - the Tacoma winding its way amongst the ranges, the ranges stretching far and wide below pillowy white clouds.
Out to take another picture! (photo credit: mrs.turbodb)
Rolling along at 15mph, it took another couple hours to reach the end of the road and the beginning of our first hike. Naturally, I'd stopped a half-dozen more times along the way, the most interesting of those leading to a slow-motion dance with a Short Horned Lizard that happened to catch my eye as it scurried off the road.
This wasn't the lizard we saw this time, rather it is one of only two other horned lizards ever I've seen (both of which were on the NMBDR).
After eating lunch - some turkey sandwiches and chips, kept cool by the new Dometic fridge - we set off. The road we'd travelled ended about halfway up a canyon, and I hoped to find a single rock - covered in art - somewhere further up canyon.
The rock art I hoped to find. (photo credit: Sam Styles)
Ultimately - after more than a few miles climbing up and down over boulders in what had become rather sweltering heat - we were unsuccessful in our search. Big Rocks Wilderness, it seemed, wasn't going to give up its secrets so easily! I found myself wondering if this would be my second trip to the Pahranagat Valley without finding any of the rock art I was looking for.
Thankful for the air conditioning, we explored our way south along the edge of Big Rocks, soaking in the views - the clouds for our entire trip were splendid - and investigating side roads as they presented themselves. It wasn't until we were ready to call it a day and make our way to camp that we finally stumbled - completely by accident - on two rock art sites!
One with pictographs and the other with petroglyphs, it was awesome to finally find a couple of the needles in this impossibly large haystack, especially as they were sites that we'd had no clue about at all!
And with that, we headed south - to the PNWR - where we hoped to find a camp site along the lake that we could call home for the next couple of days.
Our view from camp the following morning.
Somehow - even arriving at sunset - we ended up with the best camp site of the bunch. While this isn't either of our favorite camp areas - it's simply too close to the highway - I think we'd both admit that we very much enjoyed sitting in the shade of the cottonwoods over the course of the next 36 hours.
Now Friday, we had only one hike planned, and I knew it wouldn't take us all day. That was just fine with me, because - as I've previously mentioned - reading my Kindle under the cottonwood was a much more pleasant experience than picking my way over black volcanic boulders, hot from the 94°F temperatures and beating rays of the sun.
In fact, after setting out at 9:00am to explore Black Canyon - and area I'd searched for petroglyphs on my last visit but come up empty - it was only a little after noon when we climbed back into the air-conditioned oasis that is the cramped cab of the Tacoma. Having successfully found the petroglyphs we'd hoped to see, we crossed our fingers that no one had moved in on our shady spot along the lake. Luckily for us, they hadn't!
One of the Pahranagat Man petroglyphs we found in the area. (photo credit: mrs.turbodb)
A dotted-hunter holding an atlatl (left), and another anthropomorphic figure, atlatl in hand (right). (photo credit: mrs.turbodb)
After a few hours in the shade - reading and napping the name of the game - it was a relief to see thunderclouds moving in. Still more than 95°F, we welcomed the intermittent rain and gusty wind that blew over the water before cooling our camp.
In fact, when it was clear that the remainder of the day would be more clouds than sun, we even ventured back to the Black Canyon for a second time in the same day. It wasn't that we were looking for rock art that we missed - though we did find some of that too - rather, there were a few panels that were half-in-half-out of the sun on our first visit, and I hoped that with the sun behind the clouds, I could grab photos that were a little less contrasty.
Frankly, it was a huge success. Not only were the petroglyphs easier to capture, but the dark thunderclouds made for a dramatic series of shots. I think. You know, because of the whole "microSD card" thing.
Returning from our second experience of the same hike, we once again enjoyed our shady site until our stomachs reminded us that it was time for dinner. A reasonably quick ordeal - we've got the whole taco-ritto thing down to a science - we wrapped up the meal with a little more than an hour until sunset. And, not wanting to spend another night next to the highway - which, even with earplugs was not an enjoyable experience - we made tracks for a spot I'd found on my previous trip to the Black Canyon.
A few miles from the highway and sheltered by low hills, the silence was deafening. Or, maybe we were simply deaf from the constant hammering of engine brakes and drivers veering into the rumble strip over the last 24 hours. Whatever the reason, we soon found ourselves sleeping soundly for the next 12 hours.
The following morning...
Climbing down from the tent just before 9:00am, we didn't have anything planned - except for delivering the Tacoma in Las Vegas - on this last day of our adventure. Needing to burn a couple hours, we decided that a hike around the Upper Pahranagat Lake would be a nice way to get a different perspective on this place we'd called home for the last couple of days, and soon we were strapping on our water, slathering ourselves with sunscreen, and gathering up cameras and binoculars for the three-mile loop.
After a half mile - as we were crossing a damn that forms the southern end of the lake, we noticed that someone had aligned two of the binoculars in a rather humorous orientation. Pulling out the camera to snap a photo, it was immediately apparent that something was wrong.
I've already told this part of the story.
In the flick of a switch, I knew that this trip would no longer be cunningly titled, "The Rock Art I Was Looking For." Rather, it would extend my "Curse of the Pahranagat."
Hoping I could solve the issue with my computer later - which, we all know by now, I couldn't - I swapped in my second microSD card and clicked off a couple photos before we continued on.
Looking through either binoculars will reveal the same common species: bird brains.
Ultimately, this was a rather dismal hike. While we'd known that the trail along the eastern edge of the lake was the road that passed by all of the camp sites, we hadn't realized - and definitely didn't expect - the "trail" along the western edge of the lake to be a powerline road, more than 100 yards from the lake itself. That far from the water line there are no cottonwoods - and thus no shade - and even @mrs.turbodb commented that it seemed rather "lazy" to connect two dusty gravel roads and call them a "birding trail."
Still, it wasn't entirely without excitement.
You look like a rattlesnake but have no rattle. Are you a Gopher Snake?
This lizard was enormous - about 8" long from snout to hind legs - and liked to puff up his blue neck as he kept a close eye on me.
Fancy too, always wearing that black tie.
After passing a few folks fishing - for blue gill and catfish - we wrapped up the loop a little before noon, temperatures once again climbing into the "it's getting a little too hot" range for those of us used to dreary gray skies of the Pacific Northwest. We had a 90-minute drive from our current location to Las Vegas, and where cold drinks and In-N-Out burgers awaited our arrival.
And from there, a much-more-pleasant-than-driving-for-two-days, two-hour flight home.