Trail Tales

Reaching Back

[July 2019 | San Juan Silver Stage] By Ken Reyher

A SHORT DISTANCE FROM WHERE I LIVE is a rock overhang halfway up a mountainside. It offers a cramped but hidden vantage point from which to view the valley below, and littering the earth are dozens of chips of flint someone discarded long ago. I have sat among those bits of stone numerous times, looking out across the valley wondering who left them, and under what circumstances. I can make several guesses, but accept the fact that I can never really know for certain. The flint chipper will remain a stranger. Even so, when I sit beneath the overhang, something tells me I am not completely alone.

I always replace each chip to the spot from where it came, not so much because of any law forbidding its removal, but more because it once belonged to someone like myself. It would be wrong, in my mind, to disturb the legacy of another; someone who once walked these mountains, hunted in them, loved, laughed, and watched the stars at night.

Modern man so often measures the past in terms of his own experiences and what he sees through his own eyes. He has become comfortable with the continuing technological advances that mark the present age. What he fails to comprehend is that this same modern world increasingly isolates him from his relationship with the past. His glaring lights even blot out the stars at night, stars with ancient names that fewer and fewer people of this time even remember.

He so often labels earlier civilizations as being primitive, a label usually measured in terms of economic and intellectual complexity. He forgets that Colorado turquoise has been found in Aztec burial sites near Mexico City, and that California seashells have been dug from ancient graves in Colorado. Silk cloth was carried from China to ancient Rome, and there is speculation that Phoenician galleys sailed to the Americas more than 15 centuries before Columbus. The library in Alexandria, Egypt is estimated to have contained a half million books and manuscripts as early as 200 BC.

These are some of the things I think about when I sit beneath the rock overhang among the flint chips. Similar thoughts occur when I walk the ancient ruins of the American Southwest. I think of the pottery left behind, some of which is so complex that it took modern potters years of experimentation to duplicate. I think of the water-tight baskets woven nearly two thousand years ago, preserved and hidden away, utilitarian and yet incredibly beautiful. The weavers had no written language, yet it can be assumed they had a rich oral tradition. Like the manuscripts of ancient Alexandria, these long-ago stories have also been lost to time.

Immortality cannot be found in the mortal realm even though long-surviving relics sometimes present the illusion that it can. Life itself—the laughter, the passions, and the people from each age—ultimately slips into oblivion. So it was with the flint chipper. His only legacy seems to be those discarded bits of stone. I wonder what I shall leave?

Ken Reyher is the author of Wilderness Wanderers: The 1776 Expedition of Dominguez and Escalante, Silver and Sawdust, High Country Cowboys, Antoine Robidoux and Fort Uncompahgre, and numerous other books about the history of Western Colorado.