Advent. In need of a getaway, I drive to an RV park at town’s edge, beyond bullet-factory din and smoke from the paper mill. To get to the oldest church I know, I hike upstream along the Snake River. I’m shadowed by bluffs of basalt whose columnar folds spiral massively down, vast accordions of stone. Strewn with the afterbirth of volcanic labors, the trail’s rock litter warms me.
I skirt winter grasses, chicory and thistle. Corraled by slackwater from the dam downstream, the ancestral river flows buried here. When I glance up, a loon I spotted is gone. In loose talus a remembered rattler recoils. Midriver a fisherman trolls for steelhead; near shore a merganser paddles feeding. A slow mile brings me to large clusters of basalt that harbor my destination.
The rock shelter is like the stage of a small theater roofed by an overhang. On scarred stone slabs, in faded red ocher, thousands of years stare back. Damaged by vandals, only a few petroglyphs are decipherable now. A humanoid figure, horned, elbows cocked Egyptian-like; a circle with cross appended—the goddess engram? What might be bluffs form an arc, licked by the sun’s rays. And surely this is a deer, nearly erased, like a shadow whispered from stone.
The signs evoke mysteries. Of hunter and hunted, of awe and fear, of hand and heart caught in the act of creation. As I gaze time melts away. Does the stone, ever so slightly, pulse to my breathing? In a precarious world, however tenuously, these presences beckon—gods, creatures, stone, water and sky, emblems of our belonging here.
On my hike back the fisher is still fishing and the loon still gone. The glyphs seem to swim alongside me. In a season of sacred birth, I leave a rough cathedral shaped by the earth and native artists. The holy land is always under our feet. I thank this ground, this river, and those long ago. The stone holds their gifts like an offering.