A bear, a mammoth, and wading across the Dark River to the Light

On June 30, Ted, Oggie, and I hiked toward the rim of Arch Canyon with Bear Cave as our destination. As Oggie and I followed Ted past yucca, manzanita, pinyons, and junipers, the old story, “The Pilgrim’s Progress” came to mind.

John Bunyan dreamed the story while imprisoned for ministering outside the Church of England’s authority. He wrote most of Part I in 1678 while in prison and Part II in 1684, four years before he died.

The allegory describes Christian’s pilgrimage from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. Positive his hometown is about to be destroyed, he asks his wife and four sons to accompany him, but Christina isn’t ready to leave home yet, so Christian sets out alone.

Along the way, he encounters many challenges such as the Slough of Despond, Difficulty Hill, the Valley of the Shadow of Death, and the Dark River.

Although we didn’t have to slog through the Slough of Despond or climb Difficulty Hill on our hands and knees, we did encounter a few challenges on our hike, especially for me with a fear of heights.

After we walked about 15 or 20 minutes, we came to a sheer drop-off. Fortunately, a dead pinyon had once grown against the cliff, so Ted climbed down the remaining nubs of its branches. I lowered a nervous Oggie down to him and followed.

Next, we came to a steep rock chute which I squeezed down first, getting my watch, camera, and hips hung up on the sides. Ted lifted a still resistant Oggie down to me and slid down himself.

We descended another, wider chute and then walked along the canyon’s edge, skirting boulders, ducking under a rock overhang, and peering into shallow, moist caves until we finally clambered over a hollow log into a cavern as big as a football field with a 20-foot ceiling.

Over a dozen large ponderosas grew in front of the entrance, one of which had curved its trunk around the top of the cave and seemed to be thriving in the world below and the one above.

Toward the back of the cave, large roots snaked above the alkaline soil like sea serpents, and a tiny spring-fed stream ran along the southwest wall, nourishing vibrant moss and feeding a pool of water in the opposite corner.

We had come to see the blackened pictograph of a bear, perhaps three by five feet, which dominated the back wall, but the Ancestral Puebloans had also painted humanoid figures nearby. Modern people had charcoaled their names on the walls and fallen rocks; and, most surprisingly, an ancient artist had drawn a mammoth not far from the bear.

So much of the mammoth’s image had flaked off, we didn’t know if it was a natural feature formed from the cave’s black splotches or some other creature like a turkey or goose. Whatever it was, it stunned me.

Some archeologists believe the highly mobile Paleo-Indians followed big game such as mammoths, mastodons, ancient bison, and giant sloths across vast territories including the Four-Corners area which at that time enjoyed much wetter winters.

Certainly, the cave contained the primeval magic of art which spanned the human and animal worlds and reached across millennia to touch us in 2020.

If the cave wasn’t celestial, it felt close to it with light filtering through the great-hearted ponderosas to illuminate alcove columbines growing across the sandy floor.

After we ate lunch in the cave’s cool shelter, we explored another nearby cave. Its ceiling had collapsed, probably hundreds of years ago since other artists had incised petroglyphs on top of the rubble.

Then, we headed back to the top of the canyon and across the sand and sandstone to our Jeep.

The next day, on July 1, three Blanding men, two of them related to us, died in a pickup rollover, and on July 3 one of my son’s high school friends died from cancer. Yesterday, July 15, I found out four more people have died, all from the care center.

Again “The Pilgrim’s Progress” came to mind as our community grieves for our loved ones.

In Part II, Christina, her four sons, and Mercy, a neighbor, decide to join Christian in the Celestial City. Because he has blazoned the way, this troupe has an easier time even though a soldier assigned to protect them still slays many giants blocking their path.

Gathering strength and experience as they travel, they finally make it to the Land of Beulah where most choose to wade across the Dark River.

On the other side, they’re transported by Shining Ones to the Celestial Realm where their loved ones wait.

Life, as John Bunyan penned, can be viewed as a pilgrimage with obstacles, dangers, and losses along our path.

The artists who painted the bear and mammoth may have been invoking a kind of magic to honor those power animals and to integrate their strength and wisdom into their own lives. They may have also painted for protection or for help with hunting.

They loved their families as much as we love ours and made their pilgrimage a long time ago. Whether their heaven was the same as the one John Bunyan dreamed, I don’t know, but I do believe we’ll all be met by Shining Ones when we wade across the Dark River to the Light.

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