My grandfather's rock

February, 2015 ∙ 10 minute read

I was 22 when I originally wrote this back in June of 2004, but I've never shared it with a larger audience before now and in fact just recently rediscovered the file on my hard drive. My grandfather is still alive and celebrated his 90th birthday last year by skiing into the 10th Mountain Division Hut in the Colorado backcountry. As you might guess from the story, he hasn't slowed down a bit.

It is the summer of 2004 and my grandfather has been scheming with me for months now to go look for his Rock. Nobody else is willing to go with him and my grandmother’s ageless wisdom has forbade him from embarking on this adventure alone. The Rock is a slab of Wingate sandstone somewhere in the middle of southern Utah that bears the impressions of an ancient creature.

In the first few years after his graduation from the Colorado School of Mines my grandfather worked for a company called Pacific Uranium. He was both the president and sole employee. The Company was owned by one of the Marx brothers who had started a number of small, single employee subsidiaries all in search of Uranium in southern Utah. They first offered my grandfather $500 a month and 50,000 shares of the company which were pretty much worthless. If he found Uranium, the stock prices would soar and he’d make good money with his shares. If another one of the subsidiaries struck it rich he’d get 25% of the value of his shares and in this way the Marx brother was able to maximize the number of people looking for Uranium and minimize the number of employees who would cash in when the ore was actually found. My grandfather thought he’d be smart and bargained for $750 a month and 10,000 shares. This turned out to be a mistake because he did end up finding Uranium and figures that his 50,000 shares might have be worth half a million (1950) dollars had he not bargained his way out of them.

This is the story that slips out between the cracks of our conversations as a parallel past to the present adventure. And to me it is so real because I am that boy, straight out of college with the whole world ahead of me, and the thrill of spending your days wandering around the desert in Utah speaks to my heart. At this point in his life my grandfather was married and had two young children all of which were living in Salt Lake City. He would spend 11 days in the field and 3 days at home flying his own airplane back and forth between the Mormon suburbia and the holy wilderness. My grandfather purchased the plane after failing to get the company to buy him one and the settled upon deal was that Pacific Uranium would pay for the mileage at 10 cents a mile, but my grandfather would purchase the plane himself. The small bird was purchased for $950 dollars and sold for $800 a year and a half later.

This same plane, I find out on the way home from the trip, has a rich history that continues to connect my grandfather to this land, and as we drive back through Utah we decide to cut the corner at Moab and go looking for Wally Winfield. Wally was an old Uranium squatter buddy of my grandfather who still lives in those parts. This idea comes to fruition in a gas station outside of Arches where the old-timers drinking coffee at the counter confirm my grandfather’s suspicions that Wally is still alive and well. We buy a map from the lady behind the counter and with much instruction from our new friends, leave the tourist traps behind and enter the back roads of Utah. The idea is that we will drive over the Beaver Mesas to see where my grandfather use to land his plane on Wally’s airstrip and down into Gateway where Wally still lives. A couple of wrong turns, some beautiful wildflowers, a cattle drive, and many stories later we land in Gateway only to find that Wally is having a fly-in up on his old landing strip. We probably drove right by him. I guess that back in the Uranium crazed days, Wally would only let certain people land their airplanes on his strip. My grandfather was one of those that he liked and their friendship has lasted these past 50 years, but Wally use to fire his shotgun at anyone else trying to land. Those are other stories to be told elsewhere.

Back to the adventure at hand…

At this point I have no idea where exactly we are headed. My grandfather first discovered the Rock 50 years ago during his explorations in this part of the world. He had spent his day wandering around on top of a mesa and as he climbed back down over the edge to drop into the valley where he’d left his jeep he came all of a sudden to a slanted rock with three or four good-sized dinosaur footprints down the face. It was dusk and the effect of the fading light combined with his solitary travels in this vast wilderness caused a shiver to run down the back of his neck. It was almost like the creature had just meandered past, leaving his tracks in the ground, and I have no doubt that my grandfather looked over his shoulder to see if the beast was still near. Dusk is also a time in which many cultures believe the physical and spiritual world are susceptible to collision and by extension maybe even the past and the present. So who knows, maybe there were dinosaurs walking around that evening leaving footprints in the rocks.

From my perspective it is doubtful we will find the thing. It is one little rock in the middle of a huge land mass and the last time my grandfather was there he flew in on his own little airplane. My fears are latter affirmed as the two of us pour over USGS quadrangles on the side of the road. I’m trying to explain how to read the edges of the maps and my grandfather’s response is that they didn’t have to worry about things like this in his day because there were no maps of this land!

After a night in Grand Junction and breakfast with an old friend we find ourselves on a graded dirt road that climbs up the canyon walls and pulls us away from the civilized world — if that is what you would call the strip of pavement in the desert of Utah that we left. We check our maps once again and this time I have a general idea about where the Rock might be and where we need to drive to get close. The point on the map my grandfather shows me is on top of the Wingate Mesa and from the contour lines it looks like we will be scaling a shear cliff to get up there. Our road winds below these cliffs and we peer out between scary sections of the road to look for a passable route up to the mesa. So far there doesn’t seem to be anything that is not worthy of a few cams and a lot of hard work but we are not prepared for that kind of adventure so I keep driving. At last we find one point that may warrant an attempt. The cliffs have broken off leaving a large bolder field that from the road looks treacherous but climbable. And so we pull Grammy’s Subaru over, pack up, and take off into the heat and scree and vast emptiness in search of The Rock.

The climb is endless. The Subaru fades. We slip up through the lose sand and rock to the base of the boulder field, breathing hard and fighting small swarms of gnats. The immensity of the land doesn’t fully hit you until you get out of your car and start walking. We scramble continually upwards stopping every now and then to drench our insides with water, fighting off the immense heat that promises to cook us from the outside if we don’t continually fuel our bodies’ refrigeration mechanisms. The gnats get worse and standing still for more than a few seconds brings them on in such immeasurable numbers that your frustration with these small creatures spills over and you keep walking in circles even while drinking water. At last we reach the boulder field and the wind starts to pick up a little, cooling our bodies and driving the bugs away. Upwards we scramble, using all four limbs now. We chimney up large fissures in the rocks and I look back to see my grandfather spread out over a boulder face moving up the rock like he has forgotten he is 80 years old. I can almost see the boy he was so many years ago: alone in this desert wilderness with his dog and a jeep, scrambling through the ancient rocks in search of treasure and himself.

Our eyes are constantly on the lookout for tracks of the ancient creature but eventually we reach the top unfulfilled but eager still to keep searching. As my grandfather rests I take off across the mesa, diving under rocks, skirting sage brush, and flirting with the cliff edges. I am bent on the dinosaurs I know are just over the next ridge or hidden in that crack. But after an hour of searching I still have found nothing so I make my way back to our exit from the mesa and catch up with my grandfather to begin our trek back to the car. A bit disappointed, but not ready to give up yet, we begin to down climb off the Wingate and drop through the boulder field with the sun getting lower in the sky. The wind has really picked up now making it impossible to keep your hat on your head as you snake through the land holding on to your life with all four hands. And then I hear a whoop of excitement from behind me. My grandfather and I have each been taking different routes down through the rocks. He is some ways behind me and off to the side so I pause, not sure if the noise I heard was really him. But my hopes are confirmed by a second whoop. I turn back uphill in great excitement to find him perched next to a large slab of sandstone that has fallen with its smooth face at a 70 degree angle to the ground exposing the very thing we have been looking for. There are 4 distinct footprints etched in the face of the rock. They look like the footprints of the raptors from Jurassic Park, with three pointy toes and a stride length for a creature not too much taller than me. In my grandfather’s memory the footprints he found all those years ago were those of a much larger creature: a stegosaurus perhaps. But in my mind raptors are much cooler than stegosauruses and we are both thrilled at our find. We take pictures and make an attempt to get a charcoal rubbing of the footprints, but nature prefers that our stories grow and change over the years of our lives turning reality into romance and so the materials are ripped and torn from our hands leaving us with a wad of dirty paper and a couple of poorly exposed pictures. To us however, this matters not, for although these were probably not the same footprints my grandfather found so many years ago, our mission has been successful, and eager to be off our feet we slip and slide through the loose rock back down to the dusty Subaru.

Tim's Avatar Hi, I'm Timothy Clem.
I'm a product engineer, programmer, and hacker at GitHub in San Francisco.