Legend of the Grand Mesa Thunderbirds
I love Grand Junction and the western half of Colorado. I grew up here and my appreciation grows daily. Its “regular & real-ness” of people and sublime edge and curtain topography are what comfort and inspire me daily. As we grow in population, I hope the Grand Valley will mature in culture and carry a greater appreciation for the landscape and outdoor joy in our midst.
The Thunderbird Hieroglyph watches over the sublimely beautiful Grand Valley.
I want to share part of my life story that contains a connection to this land and to the greater cultural history of the area. This story relates to a feature on the Grand Mesa that looks over us everyday. After reading this, I hope more of us will look back at the Mesa with a deeper sense of history and a feeling of how the Ute natives that lived here before us looked at their world.
As a young man of 17 I went fishing at Butts Lake on the Grand Mesa with two of my closest friends. We watched huge trout cruise the shore and ignore our dangling lures... I grew bored. I scrambled straight above the lake unwittingly discovering my favorite hiking trail in Mesa County, the narrow ridge of Crag Crest. As I returned to my friends on the rocky lake shore, we heard an eerie sound for several minutes. The air seemed to vibrate like a whale song blown through a continuously curving vacuum hose.
We looked at each other and said nothing as the air moaned and vibrated. All was perfectly calm around us. We were unnerved. We packed up our empty tackle and hurried down the trail for the car. On the drive home we stopped at Alexander Lake Lodge for a soda and some answers. We asked a gray haired man at the counter if he heard any strange sounds or winds that day. He said nothing as he handed us a sheet of paper that told this story;
The Ute Indians local to the area believed that great Thunderbirds ruled the skies and lived atop the Grand Mesa. One day the great birds attacked the Ute village and carried children to their nest on the Mesa’s edge. The fiercest warrior disguised himself as a tree and climbed the Mesa to the nest. He discovering that the children had been eaten. In vengeance the warrior threw the Thunderbird eggs over the Mesa's edge to the valley below.
The Thunderbird and Serpent hieroglyph 'highlighted' in winter. The white shale makes it easier to see in summer.
The Thunderbirds returned to find an empty nest. They looked down to find that their offspring had been swallowed by a giant serpent (I think the serpent is meant to represent the Colorado River) in the valley. The great birds screeched down and clinching the giant serpent in their huge talons and lifted it high over the Grand Mesa. In a raging storm the birds ripped the serpent hurling electrified pieces to the forest below, creating huge scars on the Mesa's previously smooth flat top. The storm raged and the gouges were filled with sorrowful tears from loss of their offspring, thus forming the many lakes of the Grand Mesa.
One of the Ute names for the Grand Mesa roughly translates to “Land of the departed spirits.” The Ute’s ritually suspended the honored dead high in the trees for their spirits to be carried by wind into the spirit world that exists on the Mesa. It is said that there are two strange winds that blow across the Mesa ’s crest, one is the Thunderbirds screeching for their lost young, and the other is from the Ute warrior calling for his child. I’m not sure which one I’ve heard, but my guess is the wail of the Thunderbirds.
A Legend for All to See
We can lay eyes on the legend everyday from the Grand Valley. Just below the north edge of the Mesa above Palisade there is a light colored hieroglyph in the pines forming the shape of the great Thunderbird. Below the feature is a slender chute through the trees that is rarely visible. "F Road" aka Patterson Road points directly toward the feature. The Ute legend says the Serpent Chute is the height of ten lodge-pole pines. The legend tells that when this Thunderbird grabs the snake, it rains in the valley. I don’t suggest that I believe this or any other myths, but I have seen this happen. As my family returned from a long trip out west, I saw the setting sun strike the Thunderbird and then light up the snake on the west face of the Mesa. Just then it began to rain and spread life giving rain across the valley. Keep your eye out for the great Thunderbird -and perhaps a storm foretelling light show- on the Grand Mesa above town. Listen for the winds of the moaning Ute warrior or the screech of the giant birds when on the forested plains, lakes and ridges on high.
The Thunderbird and Serpent hieroglyph The white shale makes it easier to see in summer.
I long for a more complete grasp of the Grand Valley's history, but I think this legend adds a cultural element that is currently missing in our collective story. I do suggest that we remember the past; as history's lessons can yield a brighter future for us all.
Please add photos at will. If you have additional information or corrections I'd love to take it on.
Touching the Bird
Few bother to investigate the Mesa above Grand Junction and Palisade even though it is in our view daily. Colorado National Monument founder John Otto envisioned trails ascending the vertical expanse near Palisade and attempted to build the "sunshine trail" but a massive rock slide ruined a considerable portion of his efforts. His attention was diverted to managing his new monument for a dollar a month in 1911... There are land issues that may also hinder extensive use.
May 2003 Dirk and I climbed up the Swan feature to Palisade Point and traversed to a pick-up at Land's End ranger cabin. August 28th 2009 I had the opportunity to climb the Trinity Peaks in the stunning Grenadier range of Colorado but instead chose to visit our local legend with my big-brother Dirk, a partner willing to suffer the bramble and snagging territory. We incurred a nightmare approach into the night on the lower ramparts by following the obvious road diverting us toward Chalk Mountain. Oops.
The serpent's giat bird-egg boulders in summer. The bird is said to be ten lodge-pole pines long/tall. Sounds about right.
After a course made good and a nights rest we awoke at daybreak and hiked on. We witnessed considerable bear scat ascending toward our goal on defunct road grades presumably placed for erecting power lines and perhaps cattle grazing access.
at 9AM we rounded the lower ridge and the bird came into view.
Below is the view up close from under the great Thunderbird. there are a few more added in the image section of an August 28 foray up the Serpent and Thunderbird Couloir.
Bsalt cap cliffs rim the top of the Mesa and prevent easy passage. Basalt is similar to the stone used for Egyptian tombs.
It is an interesting alpine style climb for our area. Much of the approach can be made on old road grades. Now having skied up and much of the way down, a firm winter snow pack and good route finding could reduce the difficulty of shrubbery slowing the ascent. The narrow Serpent Couloir is filled with rounded bird-egg boulders cemented in place by chalky runoff. The bare upper slope is firm white chalk like stratified shale forming the body head and beak. The steep forested slopes above required crawling through scraggly bushes, aspens, downed and struggling pine, and other brambling to reach the high cliffs at the iconic rim of the Mesa. We traversed with more struggles through rough foliage to the break a the head of Rapid Creeks drop into the large drainage bowl.
Here is the view from under the Thunderbird.
[img:547886:aligncenter:medium:Looking from the inside the roots of the tree that forms the crested plumage at the top of the great bird feature.
The author on Crag Crest Trail on the top of the mostly flat Mesa.
Dirk stands under the great bird before an August 2009 ascent.