This Spring saw us at the Vernal Storytelling Festival, run so well by Aaryn Birchell and her team. The festival features public tellings in the auditorium of Vernal’s middle school, outbound workshops and performances in other local schools, as well as a symposium for young story enthusiasts featuring workshops with the festival’s featured tellers. The drive to Vernal from Provo is punctuated by views of antelope herds and other wildlife, and a visit to Vernal should include a stop at Dinosaur National Monument, as well as a drive just a few more miles down the road to the Josie Morris Ranch for a dose of Butch Cassidy lore. And on Main Street, you won’t want to miss the giant Green dinosaur statue. He (she?) wears a costume for every major holiday, including a cap and gown for high school graduation, and bunny ears for Easter.
Among our favorite places to visit in the area is the McConkie Ranch, about ten miles North of town. The McConkies bought the place in the thirties, little knowing that the cliffs rising from the valley floor were covered in some of the most spectacular petroglyphs in a state that has plenty of great ones. Years later, Smithsonian and National Geographic would document these treasures.
But the McConkies didn’t buy the ranch because of the petroglyphs. They inherited all of this priceless heritage unwittingly, and became its keepers. They’ve since built a parking lot, clearly marked the trail to the best petroglyph panels with signs and stanchions, and stand at the ready (if you can catch them at home) to tell you all they know about the rock art on their property. That art includes the famous “Three Kings” panel, the panel that the Smithsonian has called “Utah’s most outstanding site.”
As storytellers, Suzanne and I couldn’t stop talking about the interesting position the McConkies are in: sheer happenstance making them the keepers of this ancient story, and leading more than 7,000 visitors a year to their front door. The McConkies have embraced their role, not only allowing the tourist traffic, but welcoming it. On today’s episode of the Apple Seed, in addition to recordings made live at the festival of Ed Stivender and Regi Carpenter, we take you on a visit to the ranch. Get a look at some of the petroglyphs right here. You’ll see “Shield Man,” with his big hands and spidery fingers, and “Bigfoot,” the petroglyph that in some ways has become the ranch mascot. You’ll also see the Three Kings panel itself. As you look at the photo, remember that this panel hangs precariously more than fifty feet from the valley floor (as Jean Makenzie McConkie, our guide, put it, “Walk to the end of the trail and look up.”
The stories behind ancient rock art remain mysterious. These pieces sure are amazing things to look at. And to wonder about.