Myth and Mystery: Church Rock

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“Church Rock” is a familiar landmark just off the highway between Moab and Monticello, Utah. I’ve driven past this interesting rock formation countless times over the years going to and from my grandparents’ home in Monticello. Last month after visiting Grandpa Ramsay I timed my trip home to be there at sunrise and capture the wildflowers that were said to be the best seen in this spot in 30 years. I assumed early settlers named it “Church Rock” simply because they thought it looked like a church. I was surprised to learn about a week ago that there’s quite a story attached to this area, including the belief by some that it is (or was) the “spiritual center of the universe”!

Here’s the gist of the story according to a couple wikipedia articles: In the early 1930’s, a spiritualist named Marie Ogden–a wealthy, well-educated widow from New Jersey–had been traveling around the country lecturing, gathering followers, and receiving “divine revelations” through her typewriter. At a lecture in Boise, Idaho, she announced a revelation directing her to establish a religious colony dedicated to “the truth.” Soon after, she and her followers purchased land in Dry Valley (location of Church Rock), which she indicated would be the site of Christ’s second coming, and began an ascetic commune known as the “Home of Truth.”

She purchased the county newspaper, the San Juan Record, made herself editor, and tried to recruit new followers through sharing stories about her revelations (received through her typewriter). The utopian Home of Truth commune grew to about 100 people under Ogden’s leadership, and part of the “myth” of this story is that her followers started to hollow out the inside of Church Rock to use as a place of worship. Ogden had revealed that this area was the “spiritual center of the universe”, and that those closest to the “Inner Portal”–centered in her living quarters–would be spared in the coming apocalypse. If you look closely at the photo, you’ll actually see a small dark opening at the base of the rock. The truth is that a local rancher, Claud Young of Monticello, contracted to have the 16′ x 24′ area blasted out with dynamite to store feed and salt licks for his cattle.

Things got really interesting in 1935 when a member of the group named Edith Peshak died of cancer, in spite of Ogden’s promises of a spiritual healing. Ogden claimed in a San Juan Record article that she had been communicating with the deceased Peshak and that the woman was in a state of purification and could soon be brought back to life. According to Ogden, Peshak was only “mostly dead” and this is where the writers of The Princess Bride got the idea for the Miracle Max scene (ok, I made that up just now). Investigating authorities found Peshak’s body well preserved, reportedly having been washed three times a day in a salt solution and “fed” milk and eggs by injection (didn’t make that up). The investigators decided to leave the body with the colony, determining that it was not a health threat, and since other residents in the area were in possession of old mummies of indigenous people they had found in dry caves (what?! I guess 1935 San Juan County was progressive in its views on mummy possession. Because who doesn’t want their own mummy anyway?)

Things really fell apart in 1937 when Ogden began writing again about the woman’s imminent rising, still claiming that the woman was not actually dead. This time investigators discovered that the body had been cremated by Ogden soon after the prior inquiry, and all but seven remaining followers abandoned the Home of Truth. Ogden continued to support herself by publishing the newspaper, and through teaching piano lessons to the children of Monticello. (MOM!!! Did you, your siblings, or any of your friends take piano lessons from Marie Ogden?!?) She died in Blanding, Utah in 1975. The Home of Truth is now a ghost town, with remains of buildings visible on private land near the road that leads to the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park.

I had no idea about any of this until about a week or two ago, but I wonder if this Church Rock print will be worth more if I tell people it’s of the spiritual center of the universe? 😉

JSW

P.S. The image is a “focus stack” of about 7 frames, combined to achieve sharp focus from front to back.

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Sacred Places

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“Many of the tribal peoples of the world recognize that there are four places in nature where you can find deep peace and remember who you really are. One is in the deep woods; one is in the desert; one in the mountains and one near the ocean. ”

Angeles Arrien, “The Second Half of Life” transcript

Where are your “sacred places” where you can find deep peace and remember who you really are?

A couple weeks ago I took a quick trip down to Monticello, Utah to visit my grandfather. Grandma passed away in July and he’s alone in the house now without much family nearby so I thought I’d go hang out with him for a bit. He put me to work on the farm and pretty much wore me out, but on the drive back I stopped to capture a few landscape images.

I decided to visit a place I’d never been before in the “Island in the Sky” area of Canyonlands National Park; a remote location called “False Kiva.” It’s well known to landscape photographers, but you won’t find it on any of the park maps. Technically it’s an archeological site and the national park personnel don’t really want many people going there to disturb it, but it’s not hard to find directions if you do a little searching online. It is a human-made circle of stones hidden high up in a protected alcove overlooking the canyon hundreds of feet below. The “False” kiva name is due to the unknown origin and purpose of the stone circle.

If you know where you’re going the trail isn’t hard to follow, as parts are marked with small rock cairns. But I followed a “false” trail at the beginning and wound up at the top of a huge cliff about a thousand feet above the canyon floor, probably directly above the False Kiva alcove. There I found a young Asian couple who had also taken the wrong path looking for the site, and after consulting my directions backtracked a little ways to find the right trail that wound down the rocky cliffside. The couple walked with me for a few minutes, then decided to stay back as they weren’t certain of the path and looked a little worried about where it was leading. The late afternoon sun was hot, the trail rocky and steep in places, and my seasonal allergies were in overdrive, but I found my way down the rocky cliff face then up to the hidden alcove. It’s the kind of place that you don’t know you’re close until you’re right there.

I was the only one at the site, and I just stood there a little stunned for a few minutes as I looked out over the expansive valley below. The amazing view, the complete silence (except for the sounds of my breathing and heart beating), and the unique feeling that surrounded the site made me completely forget about the camera and tripod I had been carrying and just enjoy the peace that enveloped me. Simply stated, this felt like a sacred place.

I’ve had similar feelings at many other sites. Delicate Arch, Angel’s Landing, Yosemite Valley, Pearl Harbor, the Lincoln Memorial, Bryce Canyon, LDS temples, the summit of Pikes Peak, and Martin’s Cove are just a few off the top of my head. These kinds of places are often unique, awe-inspiring, and/or associated with important experiences, facilitating calm reflection and eliciting feelings of peace, power, and reverence. I’m also grateful that sacred places don’t always need to be situated in unique or dramatic settings. My backyard patio, car, living room, and office (among other ordinary places) have all been sacred sites for me at times, when my mind is right. As I think about this, perhaps one of the greatest life skills a person can develop is to be able, in any setting, to quickly set aside the trivial and mundane things that often occupy the mind and transition to a state of openness, reflection, and reverence; to be able to “find deep peace and remember who you really are”; to make wherever you are a “sacred place.”

Back at False Kiva, I did get around to setting up my tripod and recording some nice images of this unique location. I took my time and had been there alone for over an hour when the young Asian couple finally arrived. They had backtracked to the very start of the trail and then found their way. I enjoyed talking with them for a while, then left to let them enjoy the serenity of the scene with just the two of them.

Reflecting on my visit to False Kiva has made me feel grateful for sacred places in my life.

If you don’t mind sharing, what are some of your favorite “sacred places” (in nature, or otherwise)?

JSW