In 1100 AD Henry I became King of England, battling his older brother Robert for years to establish his reign. In what would become Northern China, the Liao Dynasty crushed the Zubu, while to the south, under the Song Dynasty, the population of China surged to nearly 100 million. Following the bloody crusades, Genoa, Venice, and Pisa were awarded trading privileges in return for their service. And across the ocean, unknown to the “civilized” world, the Freemont Indians quietly thrived.
The 5.5 miles round trip hike to Calf Creek Falls in the Escalante Grand Staircase took us through a winding canyon where one community of Freemont Indians once hunted, grew corn, beans and squash, built granaries, and carved a large petroglyph high on one of the canyon walls.
The hike can not be taken quickly. Especially in October when the way is filled with golden aspens, large expanses of green reeds, red oak leaves, and the brilliant orange of canyon walls beneath a deep blue slice of sky. The creek burbled to our right, a pair of crows called overhead (their cries echoed down the canyon so that we heard them long before we saw their circling, playful flight), and above, a pale moon moved from one cliff top to another.
As I walked, I contemplated the Freemont people who had lived in this paradise. Their children would have climbed the cliffs for adventure, or perhaps to retrieve grain for their mothers. They would have swam in the pool beneath the falls at the trail end. They could tend their fields peacefully, hidden behind a few bends in the canyon. The creek flowed clear over a sandy bottom and scooped walls rose securely above them. For the Freemont Indians, life would have been one of simplicity—tied to the seasons and the land.
Then I wondered what they would have thought to see our world. Cars, homes (with glass windows), electric lights, appliances, indoor plumbing, instant hot water, smart phones, and so on. I aimed my camera, and the digital code of 1s and 0s recorded the scene that later translated into an image on my computer that I can share around the world via social networks. Though I walked where they once did, our worlds are more than centuries apart.
There are bigger differences than the technological advances. What would the Freemont Indians have thought of a world where they would need a permit to grow corn for the community, where they could grow only what was specified, and where they would have to pay for their water use, plus a heavy portion of their harvests to the entity that gave them permission to grow it? And would they be confused by other restrictions such as boundaries, fences, and work schedules?
We arrived at the end of the trail where the lower falls bursts over a rock ledge to drop 126 feet into the pool below, creating an oasis in the desert. We sat on a log and let the cool, misty breeze brush against our faces. In the summer the pool offers refreshing wading and swimming to hikers, but in October it was still spectacular.
We sat while the whisper of the wind seemed to carry the laughter of the ancient people against the red rock walls that soared around us. I turned my head, as if someone had just passed down the trail behind me.
They would have gone when they wanted, built their homes where they wanted, planted what grew best, hunted when they needed, and paid no burdensome fee.
Despite all the modern conveniences of life that I take for granted, including the computer I write this on, I couldn’t help but believe that they had the better deal.
However, if I had been a Freemont Indian, I’m afraid I would have filled the walls with petroglyphs.