Ship Rock

New Mexico

July 2013

I don’t remember how I first came to know about our next destination but as soon as I learned about this rock, I knew I needed to be here.  Look at this thing!

I mean, look at it!

This is Ship Rock.  Ship Rock is magical, or at least it is sacred.  Legends abound.  In one Navajo story, the Natives were continually harassed by their enemies.  The medicine men prayed for deliverance.  One night the gods answered:  they caused the ground to rise up as an enormous bird.  Great party trick.  Flying south for a day and a night, carrying the Navajo to safety on its back, the bird finally settled at sunset into its current spot to rest.

However Cliff Monster, a giant creature something like a dragon, already lived here.  Not being the sharing kind, CM climbed up on the bird’s back, trapping it.  The newly arrived Navajos, interpreting this aggression as akin to painting graffiti on the school bus, sent Monster Slayer to battle with Cliff Monster.  A Godzilla vs Gamera kind of throw down ensued.  Alien v Predator.  King Kong v Godzilla.  You get the picture.

It was one hell of a fight.  The giant bird was injured.  Monster Slayer killed Cliff Monster, cut off its head and heaved it to the southeast where it became today’s Cabezon Peak.  (Cabezón is Spanish for “big head.”)  The injuries to the giant bird appeared fatal but to keep the bird alive, Monster Slayer turned the bird to stone.  This bird-stone, this enormous rock, is Ship Rock, all that remains of the big bird.

And thus the Navajo came to live in this land.  Understandably it still holds great religious and historic significance.

This uplifted land in the native tongue is called “Tsé Bit’ A’i” or in English, the “Rock with Wings.”  From the right view, the rock, true to the myth, looks like an enormous bird sitting with folded wings.  The summits north and south are the tops of the wings.

But no, the white people just can’t keep their hands off things.  From certain angles the rock resembles 19th century clipper ships.  Thus, Ship Rock.

But this may not be the way it happened.  In another story, the Navajo community lived peacefully on this mountain, coming down to plant their fields and to get water.  All was well.

But as these stories go, because they would be boring and pointless if they didn’t, all did not remain well.  One day while the men were working the fields, a gesuntah thunderstorm came up.  Lightning split off part of the rock, destroying the trail to the lofty settlement, and only a sheer cliff remained.  Those who did not work the fields — women, children and old men — were stranded on top.

They starved to death, their bodies settling into the ground.

Gods lifted up the land and provided a safe home, and gods cast down the lightning that cleaved the rock and created fatal circumstances.  Same gods?  Different gods?  Dunno.  Possibly mommy issues.  Trying to figure out the gods’ motives can keep us busy for a lifetime.

To this day, some Natives fear that anyone who climbs up the rock will stir up the chiidii, or ghosts of the dead Navajo.  The telling goes that if you stir up the ghosts, they will steal the corpses of their dead brethren.  It is therefore forbidden to climb Tsé Bit’ A’i.  None of these stories provide any explanation about what ghosts might choose to do with corpses.  I wonder if stories like these give rise to the latest zombie apocalypse tales.

Were there really giant community-carrying birds?  Was there a great cinematic battle between a dragon and a dragon slayer?  Is it all metaphor, that the magic of Tsé Bit’ A’i is more about the power to lift the human soul above the problems of daily existence?  In the ascent thrives the awareness of the Great Spirit.  Tsé Bit’ A’i has always been a pilgrimage destination, a favorite location of young Native men engaged in the rigors of solitary vision quests.

Other legends abound concerning this megalith, all of them leading to a ban on climbing.  Y’know, everyone, leave our corpses the hell alone.

Of course, this prohibition hasn’t kept people off the rock.  Earlier in the 20th century, twelve unsuccessful attempts to summit Ship Rock led enthusiasts to call this place “the last great American climbing problem.”  Could it be the gods, or the ghosts, who have made summiting such a difficulty?

Nope.  In 1939, a Sierra Club climbing party, with David Brower as part of the group, made it to the top.  Later, Brower, a highly successful mountaineer, was sponsored to become a member of the Sierra Club by famed nature photographer Ansel Adams.  Brower eventually became the Club’s first executive director and led many conservation and preservation causes.

Today, as I write this, is David Brower’s birthday.  Lisa and me?  We’re headed to Ship Rock.  Having just visited Four Corners Monument after summiting Arizona, we jump back in the car and, I admit, turn on the air conditioner.  Perhaps we can get some relief from the 104° temperature.  Yesterday in Phoenix, our thermometer registered 115° so we think today is positively comfortable.  We turn on the cool air anyway.  Motoring southeasterly from the conjunction of the four states nearly to our destination, we have an experience we had only ever heard about.  We find ourselves in the throat of a genuine haboob.


an intense wind and dust storm

More about this phenomenon in my column

The haboob being spent, we park the car in a small dirt pulloff on the Red Rock Highway, next to a great stone wall.  My thought is to hike the open desert to the rock, a distance I estimate to be about three miles.  Alas, it is too late in the day and we are short on time before sundown.  Without a word, Lisa fires up the rental car, aims toward this monumental rock and leaves the paved road for the dusty plain.

Our route may or may not be a dirt road, it’s just too difficult to know for sure.  Winding this way and that, bouncing in the ruts, avoiding holes and rocks, kicking up tons of dust, we bound along for a good 20 minutes until, near Ship Rock itself, she parks the car.  We are half a mile from the base;  we walk from here.

Ship Rock, or Tsé Bit’ A’i, this towering, brownish, craggy, vertical-sided volcanic rock, has been here for 27 000 002 years, give or take twenty minutes, and is the most outstanding of 80 eroded volcanic upliftings in the area.  In Arizona on our way here, we drove past another volcano remnant called Church Rock.  Church Rock is impressive, eliciting an “Oh my!” from each of us.  But Ship Rock is the premier.

The main spire of Ship Rock reaches up 1800 feet above the Four Corners New Mexican plain.  To stand at its base, or even to stand three miles away, it is difficult to get a sense of just how big Ship Rock is.

I could tell you that Ship Rock is composed of fractured volcanic breccia and an igneous rock called minette, but it might not mean any more to you than it means to me.  Instead, I’ll tell you that it is likely that Ship Rock formed more than a half mile under the surface of the earth and became exposed as erosion worked on it.

Three high walls of rock, called dykes, radiate as much as five miles distant in different directions from Ship Rock.  These walls formed the same time as the main feature.

Whether or not I believe in other people’s gods, I try not to trample them.  A Pascal’s Wager kind of thing.  Seventeenth century philosopher Blaise Pascal offered this “wisdom” in choosing whether to believe in God…

1    If there is no God, and you believe in Him, it doesn’t matter.  You’ll be fine.

2    If there is no God, and you don’t believe in Him, it still doesn’t matter.  You just can’t lose.

3    If there is a God, and you believe in Him, well then, hail and hallelujah, your soul is golden.

4    If there is a God, and you don’t believe in Him, it’s a one-way trip for you to the Netherworld or worse, possibly a tangle with Monster Slayer.

The conclusion is, you’d better put your belief in God, just in case.  Umm, the nonsecular reasoning is a bit thin, don’t you think?  Like betting on a horse race, although many people pray to the horses in a way that looks more like religious fervor than Pascal offered in his “Wager.”

Anyway, betting on Pascal, I try to be respectful of the beliefs of others, even if they are not of my own spiritual bent.  Given that, here we are at Ship Rock, a holy site.  There is something about it that appeals to me on some deep level.  I do not know what it is, I’ve not tried to analyze it and I’m content to know that it thrills me and not know why.  Same thing with Devils Tower in northeastern Wyoming.  A spirit kind of thing?  How the heck do I know!

I wonder, how close are we allowed to get?  I understand “Don’t climb on the mountain,” but where is the mountain itself and where is the surrounding land?  At what point are we on the mountain, on holy ground?  Is this prohibition like an invisible fence for your dog where, not until you have crossed the boundary do you know it?  Or is it more like love, where the boundaries are unclear, ever changing, nebulous?

I’ve always assumed that if there is a spirit that I can violate, it is omniscient enough to know that my intentions are to not violate.  (Silly me.)

We nose around Ship Rock for some time and neither one of us breaks an ankle, loses our lunch, feels the hair stand up on our necks or is hit by lightning.  I guess we do all right, respect-wise.

Although…  in the distance, back toward the road, a dust cloud kicks up.  It’s not at all like the haboob;  it must be of a different origin.  Yes, we can just make out a vehicle or two along with something shiny, moving along from left to right.

It stops, or they stop.  Based on no evidence, we decide that it is not a threat so we continue our exploration.  When finished, on our drive back to the road, it becomes clear that they are not the police, or bandits, or mustachioed drug dealers as we might have feared, but rather a film crew complete with models and cameras and reflectors.  They must be using Ship Rock as a backdrop.  I wonder how Cliff Monster would feel about using the rock for commercial purposes.

While we have no issues and succumb to no voodoo, one cow didn’t make it.  What you can’t see — which is why I chose this photograph — is that something spine-tingling happened to this cow, perhaps literally.  You can see that it’s got its shape, it’s skin and hair.  Closer examination reveals the oddity;  the carcass has been hollowed out and the bones that remain, about half of them, are thoroughly cleaned, no soft tissue adhering to them at all.  Three legs are missing but the femur from the fourth leg is within the carcass.  Its eyeballs rest in the sockets and teeth are properly situated in the upper jaw.  The mandible is gone.  I can only guess that the cleanest band of flesheaters have had at.  No blood anywhere, no leaked fluid, no stains on the ground.  Dry as can be.

I have heard of cattle mutilations.  In fact, the first report of such a thing was in early 17th century London.  Since then, thousands of these mutilations have been verified around the world.  Never are there surrounding footprints or tire tracks, no animal parts are scattered and cuts are so clean as to look surgical.

In a letter dated 1975, written to the Colorado Bureau of Investigation from then Senator Floyd Haskell of Colorado, it is stated that at least 130 cases were reported in Colorado over the previous few months and “…in virtually all the cases, the left ear, left eye, rectum and sex organ of each animal has been cut away and the blood drained from the carcass, but with no traces of blood left on the ground…”

Foxes and opossums have been given a lot of credit for being the butchers.  Apparently the sides of foxes teeth are terrifically sharp, enough to make such clean cuts.  I think opossums were mentioned just because they are so ugly.

With our current cow here at Ship Rock, New Mexico, my guess is dermestids, flesh-eating beetles, or blowflies, whose hatched eggs feed on the carcasses of dead animals and decaying flesh.  But there are no critters on the carcass or flying about the place.  No blood.  Nothing.

Extraterrestrial visitors have been mentioned from time to time.  Especially here in the same state as the city of Roswell, Alien Capital of the World.  This is my favorite explanation.  It could happen.

Or even, how about the spirits of the corpses from the top of Tsé Bit’ A’i.  Hmm…  Could be.  Could be…

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