Wandering Wide-Eyed in America, Part 2: An Immigrant Photographs His New Country's Past

Though Americans are fascinated by the story of the European pilgrims who came here in the 1600s in search of a better life, the continent's history is much older, and much richer.

Yes there were a people here long before our Pilgrims!

I would guess Amsterdam is our favorite European airport, with a hundred yards walk from the baggage carousels to the railway station and when you get to downtown, the central rail station asks for only another 100 yards walk to, for example, a comfortable and convenient hotel, the Ibis. And if you wanted to use a Rail Europe pass to nip down to Leiden, that Dutch town that saw the departure of the Founding Fathers as they headed for the New World, well that town is only 27 miles off to the southwest.

We went there for two reasons: first, to look at the microscopes that Anton van Leeuwenhoek (1632-1732) created which Leiden has on view at the Museum Boerhaave and, second, to get the feel for this town from which the Pilgrims sailed.

We will let the photographs speak for themselves.

Leiden, Netherlands and (insert), Leeuwenhoek and one of his microscopes. Anatomy dissection at Leiden Medical School.

Top two images: Leiden, Netherlands. Insert fragment from Leiden Church courtesy Pilgrim Monument, Provincetown, MA. Bottom image of Mayflower Pilgrim Monument, Provincetown, MA.

Plymouth Rock as the landing place of the Pilgrims gets more publicity than Provincetown on Cape Cod where historians suggest the pilgrims spend their first six weeks in the New World. Yet it has never seemed to me that the Rock had all that much going for it. I lived an hour away in New Hampshire and never found the site all that busy with tourists. Maybe it’s hard for locals to enthuse about something that happened almost 400 years ago. But where else in the United States can you find much else that old?

There’s a lot in America much older but it’s not Euro-centric. The original First Americans must marvel at how little validation immigrants give to their Native American lives. The problem with the rock art across North America is that few persons understand what it says or even when and who made those marks on the rocks.

Snow Canyon State Park in Utah. Mormon pioneers’ graffiti written in axle grease. Anasazi or Paiute Indian rock art.

We are standing in Snow Canyon State Park in Utah with a geologist, Ken Puchlik. “It's a land,” he says, “lost in time where two great geological provinces, the Colorado Plateau and Basin and Range impact each other. It's one of the few places in the world with all the pages in the book of geological time,” he says. The Anasazi lived here till about 1200 AD, then the Paiute Indians appeared then some of the Mormon pioneers — their graffiti-like names and dates from the 1880s still visible, written in axle grease on the sheer walls of Navajo sandstone.

Now coming to local spas are those seeking rejuvenation, hoping for help in lifestyle choices and trusting inspiration will come from the 5,000-foot-high red peaks dominating the area. They want to be moved by mountains. They are today's worn-out Americans.

“When I started here in 1999,” Deborah Evans, the former general manager of Red Mountain Resort once told me, “Our clients arrived mentally tired. Now they come burned out. Time is the big luxury and we never have enough today.” The resort offers professional guides who really understand both the location and its heritage.

Another day we have Boma Johnson, who has both a Master’s in Native American studies and in Archaeology. He has earned the trust of local tribes with his sensitivity to Indian spirituality over the years. (“It's OK to call them Indians,” he says. “That's what they call themselves.”) He bends over rocks in Red Rock Canyon in Utah that show the dense black “desert varnish” of manganese and iron oxide. Chiseled by stones out of the varnish many centuries ago are the petroglyphs described by Johnson as “story panels sharing information with viewers in attempts to communicate.”

But perhaps the red rocks themselves communicate.

Asked what does a geologist think as he ponders this land around him? Puchlik replies, “Our land is fragile. The rocks speak of unmentionable chaos. They show order is limited and the slate can be wiped clean at any moment by the wrath of nature. Life is precious. We ought to slow down and enjoy it.”

Top image, Red Rock Canyon, UT. Clockwise: Top left Hell’s Canyon, ID; Phoenix Desert; desert near Albuquerque, AZ, Sonoran Desert, AZ.

Mesa Verde, CO: Square Tower House; Cliff Palace; Museum wall art.

More than 600 cliff dwellings have been recorded at Mesa Verde in southwest Colorado near Four Corners, a site where the Anasazi lived from 600 AD to 1300 AD. It was established as a national park in 1906. The question always arises at those pueblo sites: Why were they abandoned? At Mesa Verde the natives ultimately killed off the big game and deforested the mesa. Then a 23-year-old drought hit in 1276 and the Anasazi left.

The Ancestral Pueblo people lived here for 400 hundred years in what is now northwest New Mexico. They carved their homes out of the volcanic tuff in a fashion similar to what the natives did in Anatolia in central Turkey. Once you carve the outer shell of tuff the rock becomes soft and can be manipulated but exposed to air it then again becomes hard. A severe drought caused crop failure and the natives evacuated the site around 1550.

Aerial view Monument Valley taken on a hot and bumpy day from our old 1958 Cessna 172 #7255M my son, Michael and I flew cross country in 1972. Rock art in the Navajo Park of unknown age.

Goulding's Trading Post in Monument Valley, the Navajo Tribal Park made famous by Hollywood, is still thriving despite the competition it now has, the View Hotel, the upscale property the Navajo built in their park in 2008. Gerald La Font, in 1995 the owner of the post, opens our car door. “Welcome to the real world,” he says. He's not kidding. Brought up near an Indian reservation in Gallup, NM where his father had a trading post, he feels the wilderness is the only reality. “There's nothing phony about life here,” he says. “What you see is what you get.”

What you get at Goulding's is surprisingly comfortable desert living. The post was built in 1923 by Harry Goulding and his wife “Mike.” They went to Hollywood in 1938, on their own initiative, knowing no one there and with only $60 in their pockets to talk John Ford into seeing their beloved valley as the location for his new western, “Stagecoach.” The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

We arranged a tour with a local Navajo. Afterwards we told La Font we had seen and photographed some fascinating rock art. We noticed it and asked our guide if he’d take us closer. He did. La Font smiled and said, “You were lucky you saw it yourselves first. He would never have drawn your attention to the art, it’s not their style.” He laughs when he remembers Goulding’s movies shown to the local community. The themes were mostly cowboy versus Indian tales, mostly Apache Indians. The Navajo saw themselves as good guys and always cheered for the cowboys!”

Pawnee Rock, KS

Wrote Stafford County Republican newspaperman Henry Inman on May 20, 1886:

“During the half century included from 1823-73, which latter date marked the advent of the railroad in this portion of Kansas ‘Pawnee Rock’ was the most dangerous place on all the Central Plains for encounters with Indians, for at that particular point on the great international ‘trail,’ the Pawnees, Kiowas, Arrapahoes and Cheyennes made their not infrequently successful raids upon the ‘pack’ or wagon trains of the freighters across the continent”

Inman writes that at the summer solstice the “the precipitous front of the south side of the Rock casts a deep shadow … over the broad trail which was the highway for hundreds of years, of all the Prairie Tribes on their periodical hunts to the feeding grounds of the buffalo southward across the Canadian, and northward, far beyond the Platte.”

But today the Rock has no “precipitous front.” Much of the Rock’s bluff was broken off for buildings like rail depots and houses for workers. If only those chipping away at the face of the Rock had known that another writer, Will Durant, would say about a hundred years later: “Most of us spend too much time on the last 24 hours and too little on the last 6,000 years.”

Photography by the author.

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.