Life lessons are not always from books. Rather, they arise from one’s life when least expected. Some life lessons come from a traumatic situation that envelopes you like plunging in a cold, glacier-fed lake. You feel the shock and comprehend the lesson abruptly and immediately.
I learned my life lesson from the snake rock in a more subtle manner, as though the snake carved in the rock crept through the brush and struck when I didn’t even know it was there.
It was the summer of 1968, and I was working at my summer job while attending school at the University of Arizona. I was fortunate enough to be hired by a local geophysicist to conduct geophysical surveys in the desert just south of Casa Grande, Arizona. It was my second summer on the job, and I had been promoted from entry-level “five-dollar rented mule” to journeyman “five-dollar rented mule.” Simply put, my job was to put a five-gallon can of water on my back, drag out three-thousand feet of heavy wire in a straight line, and then dig holes in the desert sand and rocks to make electrode pits. I was paid a whopping $1.85 per hour, plus $8.00 per diem.
I did not know what I was doing. I was required to pack water, drag wire, and dig holes. I was part of a crew of four other “rented mules” and a crew leader who pretended to know what he was doing. He had the maps, and he told us where to pack the water, drag the wire and dig the holes. Our job was located just south and west of Casa Grande, out in the desert where nobody wanted to go. Arizona weather in July 1968 was hot in the morning, and it got hotter as the day progressed. The days seemed endless as we started just after dawn and worked until the crew chief decided that we had done enough.
I had just finished doing what I did best. I hauled water, I drug wire, and I dug holes in the desert. It was about two o’clock in the afternoon, and the chief decided that we had done enough for the day. The temperature was well over 105°F in the shade, and there was no shade. The chief called me on the radio and told me not to go back to the operations center but rather proceed around this hill, and he would pick me up. I collected my gear and started the two-and-a-half-mile hike to the road. As I looked up to get my bearings, I happened to glance up. There, on the side of the hill, was this rock, a big, black rock made of volcanic material. I was amazed to see the carving on the rock and approached it to get a closer look.
There it was. The Snake Rock.
It was at that time that my simple peabrain took over. I decided that I had to have that rock.
It was lying on its side about halfway up the hill. It mesmerized me, and for several minutes, I just stared at it. It was at that time that my simple peabrain took over. I decided that I had to have that rock. I didn’t think about the size and weight of the rock. I didn’t think about how hot it was, sitting out there in the desert sun. I just knew that I had to take it.
So, I did.
I picked it up in my arms as if it were a baby and began to walk. As I walked, the rock seemed to get heavier and heavier. But, no matter. My stubbornness took over. The heavier the rock felt, the more stubborn I became. After an hour and a half, I arrived at the truck, only to be chewed out by the chief because I took so long. I was still well entrenched in my stubbornness, and I just endured the tongue lashing from the boss.
The ridicule came next.
“You’re an idiot!”
“Couldn’t you tell how heavy the thing is?”
“Didn’t you know that everybody was waiting for you?”
“What, in all that is holy, are you going to do with a stupid rock with a snake on it?”
I had no answers for them other than I knew that I had to have that rock. I later weighed the rock at 123 lbs. Ouch.
I brought the rock home to Tucson, Arizona, where it lay in repose on my mother’s back porch like a grand trophy. Somehow, she ignored my foolish behavior and treated me like a hero. Whenever people would come to the house, she would proudly show the snake rock and recount (brag about) the story of my heroic deed. Mom was the best.
My first life lesson: If you start something, then finish it. Stand by your principles and never give up. All of that sounded great at the time.
My mother passed away some 20 years later, and her house was sold at probate. My sisters and I took possession of her worldly goods and distributed them appropriately. There was the snake rock. At the time, I knew only that I was responsible for the rock and must take custody of it. I loaded it in the back of my truck and took it to my home in California. I knew that I had to take care of it. I had become its steward because it became my responsibility when I took the rock from the desert.
My second life lesson: Responsibility is not something that you can just discard when it’s inconvenient. I was reminded about my first life lesson and knew that it was essential to stand by my principles. I had started something, and therefore, I had to see it through. The rock passed back into my ownership. At present, it is resting against my front porch. It’s been there for the past 21 years, a tall sentinel for everyone to see when they visit my home. I look at it every time I enter my front door. It has become a totem to me, a symbol of strength and protection. I don’t know where I came up with that idea, but the thought rarely leaves my mind whenever I see it.
And now for the third life lesson: I do not own the rock. I never have. That rock owns me. I am merely its custodian, responsible for it. I understand now that I took that rock, even though it was not mine to take. By the very act of taking it, I had chosen to take responsibility for its care, its security, and ultimately safe return to the land and people from where it came. It has always been an object of interest and fascination to me and a story to recount to others. To its people, it reflects a line of history from its origin to present-day people: the Tohono O’odham Nation. My curiosity drove me to look to the past and find out more about the rock. As I learned about First Nation people and, more specifically, the Hohokam, ancestors of the modern-day Tohono O’odham, I began to understand more about their culture and history. I realized that the rock must be returned. From my research of Arizona tribal boundaries, I learned that the rock came from the territory inhabited by the Hohokam and now the Tohono O’odham Nation. I am now aware that perhaps the rock is a significant and essential connection to their heritage and culture. The rock as it sits is nothing more than a conversation piece from Arizona: a rock with a snake carved on it. It had no meaning without the cultural and historical connection to the people who carved it. To them, it is a connection to their heritage with a perspective of their ancestors.
I do not own the rock. I never have. That rock owns me. I am merely its custodian, responsible for it.
My research led me to the Tohono O’odham Nation. I found information about their museum and their cultural center. When I reached out, I connected with Peter Steere, who worked as the archeologist for the Tohono O’odham Nation. I was pleased and excited about his reassuring response and interest in the rock. I sent him a picture of the snake rock, and he shared a little about its origins with me. He told me that it was most likely a petroglyph carved by the Hohokam and could be as old as a thousand years. He was happy that I wanted to return the snake rock to its rightful home and told me that he would help me realize my goal.
So now, I have reached my final life lesson. It’s disappointing that I had to live to this age to learn this most important life lesson. There is no statute of limitation on accountability and responsibility other than “end of life.” Reaching the end of life when unresolved issues and obligations remain unaccounted for is a tragedy. I had to face the truth that I am accountable for my deeds no matter what, and it’s my responsibility to acknowledge to accept that truth. That responsibility is a commitment that will remain with me until I achieve resolution. I was apprehensive that I would be chastised for my thoughtless deed. I confronted my apprehension and chose to take responsibility for my actions. I must do the right thing for the right reason. There is an added value to this story. I learned more about a nation of extraordinary people and their culture, who, despite the adversity they faced from our society, dared to survive with dignity.
So, here I sit, reflecting on the past 53 years of my life and the story of the snake rock. This life lesson did not come easy to me, nor did it arrive with fanfare. We are always responsible for the things we do in life, and more importantly, we must recognize our responsibility to the most significant person… ourselves. And so, I chose this opportunity to connect with a First Nation Culture, embrace the significance of their heritage, and return the snake rock to its rightful home. I have gained appreciation and respect for the culture and the people and look forward to the final stage of this journey. I am returning the rock to its rightful and enduring home.
I look forward to the trip.
My first reality check! I wasn’t going to be able to lift the rock. Fifty-three years ago, when I was young and strong, I lifted the 123 lb rock and carried it in my arms for two-and-a-half miles in the desert when it was 105 degrees outside. Now, I had to ask for help to even lift it into my Jeep. So I asked my young friend Jeff to come by and lift it into the back on top of a protective cover. He appeared to struggle a bit but claimed that it wasn’t too tricky. Ah, youth. I know that it is just a rock. But to me, it was a cherished artifact.
I left for the desert early on that June morning. It was still dark outside, but that’s when I love to travel. My trip took me down through San Diego and then east on the freeway towards the rising sun. As I left San Diego, I also left the bustle of scrambling to get to work on time. When I crossed the last mountain pass, traffic was virtually nonexistent. As the mountains faded in my rearview mirror, the broad expanse of the desert lay before me, and I faced the long straight ribbon of the highway with nothing but desert and agriculture.
Hot, dry winds bathed my face, and that old familiar smell of the Sonoran desert filled my nostrils.
I crossed the state line from California and passed through Yuma, Arizona. The desert landscape changed even more so to scrub brush, rocks, and dirt. I realized that I was entering Hohokam land that now is the Tohono O’odham Nation. When I reached Gila Bend, I found two gas stations, fast food “choke and pukes” and a tourist trap that sold a variety of small concrete statues to tourists. There, I left the long, straight, eastbound freeway ribbon for a two-lane highway, heading south. Hot, dry winds bathed my face, and that old familiar smell of the Sonoran desert filled my nostrils. I drove for what seemed countless hours through sahuaro cacti and mesquite scrub. I passed through the community of Ajo and another small community called “Why.” Thank goodness that I didn’t blink. I would have missed them. There wasn’t a person in sight.
As I approached Sells, Peter Steere, archeologist for the Tohono O’odham Nation, phoned me to see where I was. He sounded excited and eager for us to meet. Or, should I say, eager to receive the rock. He told me we could meet at the local gas station with a small market and then proceed to the museum located ten miles away on another, even smaller highway. I waited outside the small market, pacing back and forth. The rock’s journey to its final resting place was close at hand. I noticed that the community was closed down due to the Covid-19 pandemic, with only the market open to serve the residents. It was evident that I, as a tourist from California, could not be mistaken as part of this community. Friendly, courteous nods greeted me with, perhaps, some curiosity. I saw no facial expressions as everyone wore masks. I thought, however, that I could recognize “smiling eyes” behind the mask. After a short period, Peter arrived and greeted me with a friendly handshake. He was not what I expected. He was an older gentleman with a white beard just like mine. After the brief salutations, Peter instructed me to follow him to the museum just through the town, a short ten miles down another highway.
The museum was located just off the highway, down a dusty dirt road. It reminded me of the roads I traveled while working in that area some 53 years ago. The dirt road, the dust, and the ever-present heat brought me back to that time when I was just a five-dollar rented mule. A reminiscence that I thought I had long forgotten.
I drove by the museum to the back entrance. The museum building looked recent in its construction. It, again, was not what I expected. It was a beautiful and relatively modern structure nestled among the scrub mesquite and cactus, a perfect place for the rock’s final resting place. I knew this inanimate piece of stone would fit and belong. A feeling of pleasant relief swept over me, and I knew that I was doing the right thing.
Dedric Lupe, the museum Curator of Collections, met me at the back entrance of the museum. He greeted me with brief introductions to his two associates. They were there to move the rock into the museum. But first, Peter asked to see it. I opened the tailgate door of my Jeep, and he quickly removed the covering. His eyes seemed to light up when he saw the carving on the face of the rock. He reached out, gently caressing the snake carving as if it was a long-lost friend. I could tell he was happy that this artifact was finally home.
Dedric and his two associates lifted the rock from the back of my Jeep, using the covering. They struggled under its weight as they carried it up the four steps to the cart for transport. It was cumbersome. I noticed Dedric looking at the rock and then at me. “You really carried this rock two-and-a-half miles, and how much does it weigh?” he asked. When I responded that it was 123 lbs, he asked me why I didn’t drop and leave it. I was reminded of my first life lesson. If I start something, then I must finish, I responded. I was also worried about losing the connection between the rock, its heritage, the Hohokam, and the Tohono O’odham Nation. Losing the link was the very reason that I chose to drive ten hours through the desert to return the artifact in person, a piece of history that deserved to return home. That was my responsibility.
We left the rock in the quarantine room and went to Peter’s office. He pulled out a map book and asked me to pinpoint the exact location of the rock’s initial resting place. After fifty-three years, I could still find that spot with little difficulty. Peter shared some Hohokam history and told me about their past as agricultural specialists capable of growing crops in the desert. He told me that the desert was filled with artifacts; petroglyphs, pictographs (rock paintings), village sites, and burial sites. The rock turned out to be unusual in that it was a petroglyph of a rattlesnake rather than other animals or symbols. He indicated that carvings of lizards were much more common. He also told me of the struggle they experienced finding and preserving the artifacts. When visiting the desert, people would find and take artifacts without thinking. Or, in some cases, search for and steal artifacts for monetary gain. I was pleased to hear that other people had contacted him over the past six months to return artifacts they had acquired without considering the damage caused to the Hohokam and Tohono O’odham culture and history.
Just as I thought that I had learned all the life lessons from my “Snake Rock,” I realized that there was more. For instance, there is an indescribable value in doing the right thing for the right reason. And now, I fully understand the importance of preserving culture and honoring the connection between an artifact and a people’s heritage.
I gained a great deal of satisfaction from this trip.
I want to express my appreciation and thanks to Peter Steere, the Cultural Affairs/Tribal Historic Preservation Office Manager, and Dedric Lupe, Curator of Collections at the Tohono O’odham Nation Cultural Center & Museum.
Peter’s parting comments will remain with me and should be a guiding principle for us all. Southwest Arizona and New Mexico have many historical sites that contain artifacts. If anyone finds an artifact, it should remain in place. Please take a picture of the artifact or write a description, but leave it. Record the location using GPS or a map, but leave it. Contact the Cultural Center and Museum and provide them with information regarding the nature of the artifact, pictures, and location. Some of those locations may be burial sites. Leaving a burial site untouched is essential. Understanding, respecting, and honoring past and present cultures will connect our culture with theirs. There is great dignity in that.
And, I cherish the thought that the Snake Rock is home where it belongs.
Please contact Peter L. Steere or Dedric Lupe for information or assistance: