To find the oldest church in town, I drive to an RV park by the Snake River, leaving behind the din of a bullet factory and fumes of a paper mill. I hike a trail on the bluff beside slackwater backed up from Hell’s Canyon Dam miles upstream, trying to envision the buried river that still flows here. Steep bluffs of basalt flank my way, hexagonal columns twisted into folds of a massive torqued accordion. The trail’s rock litter is the fossil afterbirth of ancient volcanic labors.
I skirt bunchgrass and thistle stiffened by winter. When I glance at the river, the loon I saw moments ago has dived or flown. I pass loose talus and recall a rattler’s tattle of warning several springs back. Boat in the channel, a fisherman trolls for steelhead. Near shore a merganser paddles with the current. Looming before me, clustered domes of basalt harbor my destination.
The rock shelter is like a small theater beneath an overhang of stone. On the scarred wall in faded red ocher, thousands of years stare back. Thanks to vandals, only a few petroglyphs are visible now. I make out a human figure, elbows cocked Egyptianlike; a circle with appended cross–a female divinity? I see dawn’s linear arc, licked by rays of the sun. And here, nearly erased, is a deer, whispered out of stone. The wall once held a kaleidoscope of sacred images. I conjure native worship or a shaman’s initiation of the young. For a moment I wonder who I am and how I got here.
These signs evoke hunter and hunted, cycles of life, death and regeneration. As I look the stone seems to breathe back. It holds the fleeting figures of a time, however dim, that’s still with us. Gods, creatures, earth, water and sky–emblems of belonging. In a season of birth, I stand in a rough-hewn cathedral, shaped by earth and its aboriginal artists. The holy land is under my feet. Hiking back I carry its gifts, thankful for what nurtures us, this hallowed place and gracious time.