Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

01 Aug

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2008, edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

by Clint Thomsen

Tyler parked his car near the old Iosepa cemetery. After the half-hour ride, the engine’s abrupt hush amplified a profound silence. A crescent moon hung over the Stansburys and the stars began to fade with the morning’s twilight. The range’s western slopes still hid from the half-light, stifling any attempt to visualize our unmarked route. Even by this early hour, a diffuse heat had rested upon the valley.

We stopped on a foothill and gazed down at the abandoned Hawaiian town site, where overgrown sidewalks fade to dust and a lone, tall tree marks the corner of a vanished town square. The buildings themselves are gone, but a certain inscrutable feeling lingers. It’s a feeling characteristic of historically rich places — but in this case it’s mixed with reverent undertones of aloha.

I fell in love with Iosepa a decade ago. Curious at an unexpected cluster of vehicles on the hillside, some friends and I investigated. We were greeted warmly by a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei who told us how his Mormon ancestors came from Hawaii and built a town there called Iosepa.

He talked about the town — the traditions, the hardships. And though the tidy community died out in 1917, its spirit lived on it its settlers’ family lines. We had stumbled upon their annual celebration, and they invited us to stay for dinner.

Attempting to grasp the irony of a tropical, sea-loving people settling an arid, landlocked desert, I queried our hosts long into the evening. One mentioned a rock high in the mountains, into which Iosepa’s settlers had carved images of boats, turtles and palm trees in memory of their homeland.

The paradise/desert contrast is literary gold, and most writers mine it liberally when addressing Iosepa. But our mountains and Great Salt Lake sunsets actually reminded at least one Hawaiian of his island home: “It’s the pseudo-ocean, the islands on the lake,” my friend Alan Serrao once told me. “The clouds that hang low and heavy on the mountains with peaks popping through them — it looks a lot like home. The Hawaiians that came here must have noticed this.”

Early Hawaiian Latter-day Saints weren’t unfamiliar with arid mountains and remote locales. Iosepa, Utah, is actually the second LDS Hawaiian settlement to bear the name. The original Iosepa, located on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, was the first gathering place for Hawaiian LDS in 1854. The isle is much more desert-like than its lush neighbors. It’s still only sparsely populated today.

Like Utah’s Iosepa, the Lanai settlement faced many hardships. Water scarcity and crop failures contributed to the eventual decision to abandon Lanai for Laie, Oahu. Some of Lanai’s settlers also ended up in Skull Valley.

But as similar as some aspects are, a pseudo ocean isn’t an ocean, and Skull Valley isn’t Hawaii. So wistful tales of ocean-scene petroglyphs didn’t surprise me. I had to find that rock.

“Unless you’ve been there before, it’s hard to find,” a man at Iosepa once told me. “But it’s there.”

I’ve recalled that first statement many times since that evening, as I’ve sometimes casually, sometimes seriously tried to locate what he called “Story Rock.” My quest to find the elusive rock art was the subject of my first column in this newspaper. I spent a day scouring the mountainside, but my search proved fruitless.

Eight months later, I sat in a hotel lobby with Dr. Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam, who was conducting a field study of the Iosepa town site. I had stopped in to help him wash some of the artifacts he had unearthed that day. Pykles handed me a toothbrush and a bag full of glass shards, then joined me at a water basin.

On the floor were several crates filled with artifacts. To Pykles and team, each glass fragment was a priceless clue into Iosepa’s past.

“Ah, the tedium of archaeology,” Pykles remarked, hoping that brushing clay off glass wasn’t boring me. It wasn’t.

Pykles and I had discussed Story Rock at the Iosepa celebration last May. He had heard the stories but hadn’t yet gone looking. I had all but given up. Then after a luau, a familiar face greeted me and scrawled a crude map on a scrap of paper.

It would be July before I would have time to test out that map. Tyler had been with me there 10 years ago and was eager to share the discovery. The sun was starting to peek over the Stansburys and our route was becoming clear. So far, my unpretentious little map had been dead-on.

A few ridges and a couple cheatgrass fields later, it stood before us. Walking toward the limestone slab, the petroglyphs seemed to jump right out at us. First an island scene complete with a palm tree and birds. Then a sun. Then a circle of figures holding hands. And those were just the obvious examples. Nearby was a figure in a boat, a jellyfish, and what looked like whales or sea lions. Even further were a deer, a lizard and a picture-perfect sea turtle.

The carvings had a definite turn-of-the-century look, and were carved several centimeters deep into some of the sharpest, hardest rock I’ve ever felt. The complicated locations of some of the petroglyphs had us puzzled over how the artists could have positioned themselves to make the etchings. We waited for the sun to fully rise, then I photographed each figure, hardly able to contain my elation.

Scanning our surroundings, it was easy to see why I hadn’t found this spot before. I thought of the Hawaiian pioneers who trekked to the top of this mountain to carve their island memories in this rock. Did they do it in memoriam? Or was it more like when I carve my wife’s name on a tree trunk? We may never know.

All I know is that unless you’ve been there before, Story Rock is hard to find.

But it’s there.


Author’s note:  I receive several emails every week from geocachers and explorers who have read this article and want directions or waypoints to Story Rock.  For various reasons, including anthropologic and cultural concerns, I am not at liberty to disclose the location of the Iosepa petroglyphs.

I’m certain that at some point, word will trickle out to the public.  Sadly, once this happens, I give this site a year, tops, until it’s tagged, otherwise defaced,  or completely destroyed.

I know there are many respectful and responsible people who would love to see the petroglyphs.  But don’t ask me– I’m not going to tell you.  No offense intended.  If you do happen to locate the petroglyphs in your own travels, do me a favor:  keep the details to yourself.  Thanks for understanding.  –ct


3 responses to “Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

  1. Kristine Shreve

    August 1, 2008 at 2:45 pm

    I bet that was a really big moment when you finally found the rock. I’ve never heard of this town or this story, but it certainly sounds fascinating.

  2. Curt Hall

    August 7, 2008 at 5:16 pm

    Clint, could you provide me with directions or a GPS coordinate to this rock? I’ve been to Iosepa many times, but Salt mountain is a big area to start looking.


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