CHINA LAKE NAVAL AIR WEAPONS STATION, Calif.
Arguably the least accessible art gallery in the world opens its doors in intervals between missile salvos and roadside bombings.
It's open only when the airspace is clear of B-52 armadas loaded with the latest in laser-guided and bunker-busting weaponry and after prospective visitors undergo a thorough security check, during which foreign nationals will be unapologetically weeded out.
When the smoke clears and security suspicions are put to rest, the art treasure in southeastern California presents itself to the public in all of its creative effusiveness and primitive mysticism.
There is no way to underestimate the importance of what is hidden in shallow lichen-covered canyons in the middle of this sprawling top-secret weapons-testing range the size of Delaware.
"In terms of rock art, I view it as the Sistine Chapel," says Raphael Reichert, a professor at California State University in Fresno who has been studying American Indian art for decades.
"There is nothing that compares with it in North America — from Barrow, Alaska, to the Isthmus of Tehuantepec; from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon."
The somber rocks of Little Petroglyph Canyon offer a cool shade from the desert sun — and silence.
No voices, no litter, no human footprints on the sandy bottom. Just the gentle rustle in the wind of creosote bushes on the rim.
And drawings — hundreds of them streaming like an endless kaleidoscope alongside the walls of this unique open-air gallery created by nature — yet decorated by man.
There are scenes of hunt and scenes of war. Men with spears and women with towering hairdos.
The artist, thought to be an early descendent of the Shoshonean tribes, managed to etch in stone rain and lightning, grief and joy.
There are countless carvings of bighorn sheep, birds and even a mysterious long-necked animal that has all the appearance of a giraffe and whose identity scientists still try to ascertain.
"We believe it is sort of like a diary," says Richard Stewart, an Owens Valley Paiute tribal elder, as he surveys the canyon with silent pride. "Indians in general like to draw pictures when they tell a story. That's what you see here."
A four-wheel-drive revs up its engine, climbs a roadless hill and stops in front of two rock outcroppings in sight of a shiplike plywood structure that cannot be photographed but that, base guides say, is being used by B-52 crews for shooting down laser beams in mock attacks.
More petroglyphs — smaller and less sophisticated, but nonetheless work of an ancient artist who shot arrows at scurrying rabbits.
"Every time we go into these canyons, we find more and more of these," explains Russell L. Kaldenberg, a Navy archaeologist who works permanently at the test site to supervise the historic treasure.
He estimates that 60,000 petroglyphs are scattered across the naval station.
But David S. Whitley, an adjunct professor at Arizona State University and author of about a dozen books on Southwestern Indian rock art, says the number is more likely close to 100,000.
On top of that, there are remnants of ancient villages, ritual sites and obsidian quarries, Mr. Whitley notes.
Historians agree on one thing: The U.S. Navy's testing range sits right atop the remnants of an ancient civilization created by prehistoric nomads, who are thought to have streamed into North America from Asia across the now submerged Bering land bridge and flourished along the Coso Mountain Range about 10,000 to 11,000 years ago.
The national historic landmark is firmly in the custody of the Navy, which established its presence in the China Lake area in 1943 and for the past four decades has played an atypical role of art curator.
Given the base's remoteness and the stepped-up post-September 11 security procedures, only about 3,000 visitors a year make it to Little Petroglyph Canyon on closely supervised tours, says Peggy Shoaf, a spokeswoman for the naval station.
That is a modest figure compared with millions of annual pilgrims at other national monuments and parks.
All weapons testing takes place far from the petroglyphs, base officials say. Nevertheless, it sometimes creates scary situations.
In 2005, officials acknowledged, a Sidewinder missile impacting miles away sparked a brush fire that reached Little Petroglyph Canyon and raced through it with untamed fury.
"We were concerned the surface of the rocks would pop off from the heat," recalls Mr. Stewart. "Luckily, it did not happen. In fact, the fire has revealed even more petroglyphs because it has burned the vegetation that was concealing them."
There is no guarantee that the outcome will be as benign next time.
These perils notwithstanding, government and independent archaeologists and rock art scholars are unanimous in giving the Navy "excellent" marks for taking care of the national treasure.
The Navy also helps to protect the art from the main threat to historical and environmental preservation: us.
"I guarantee you that if the naval weapons center had not been there, you and I would not be looking at that pristine art," Mr. Reichert says. "You would be looking at paint spray, you would be looking at instances of people taking high-powered rifles and simply firing at things, just at random. I've seen it in other places."
Mark Rudo, an archaeologist with the National Park Service who periodically inspects the China Lake treasure, raises the same concerns, adding that because of vandalism in areas widely open to the public, his agency is "fine with the status quo."
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