Suzanne Walker

The first bite of the needle into my skin was astonishingly painful. Of course I had been told what to expect when getting a tattoo, but it was still a shock.

My friend was on her feet and out of the room at the first sight of the needle, and the tattoo artist was not much of a conversationalist while at work.

I sat alone, gripping the slick plastic bench as ink was pressed in, feather by feather. An hour later, I left the tattoo parlor with the image of a raven in flight on the inside of my right ankle.

Having made the decision at just sixteen (not even legally able to get a tattoo without a parent present), I’ve often expected to feel a sense of regret. Not too many teenage decisions look exceptional a decade later. And yet today, there is no regret. In fact, my raven is as fundamentally a part of my skin as my freckles. My tattoo is to me today what it was then: a totem.

Strictly speaking, a totem is ‘a natural object or animal believed by a society to have spiritual significance’ⁱ. It may be a bit of a stretch to say that the raven has meaning for my society as a whole – many in my society have asked me why my eagle tattoo is ‘colored in’ black. Still, the raven is significant within the smallest unit of a society: my family.

It began when I was 13, and had just ridden the Slickrock trail for the first time. When my father, brother and I had stopped at the town overlook on Swiss Cheese Ridge, we noticed a couple ravens slowly circling. They floated, then dove, then flew back up. One would fly beneath the other, flip onto his back and extend his talons to grab at the other bird. For 10 minutes the two played on the updraft of air circulating along the ridge. The next morning, when my father noticed the leftover pile of hash browns on my plate, he scooped them into his napkin.

“Bet the ravens will like these,” he said.

For 12 years, we have been leaving leftovers for them: a bite of pancake, bits of breakfast meat, a bruised banana. The raven pair might begin to follow us as soon as we entered the trail, or wait until we rode off the ridge, but without fail we saw them each time.

After a few rides, the ravens even began to communicate with us. I learned that their distinctive, screeching caw was only a greeting. Once the birds had exchanged this call, they would begin to converse in a more nuanced series of gargling, clicking sounds – as though they were rolling marbles around in their gullet. As we watched, my dad and I imagined the conversations being exchanged and even tested our own raven fluency. The ravens would call back to our initial caw-greeting, but our conversation skills left something to be desired.

Some years later, I had hiked into Slickrock alone. On my return, I found myself following a trail that gradually descended toward the basin of sandy grassland below Lion’s Back. I realized that unless I wanted to extend my hike considerably, I would need to find another, more direct route back to the parking lot. The first split of trail that headed north would take me in the right direction, I reasoned. But soon that trail faded away and I was left in a narrow cleft between two towering red fins. I stopped, looking ahead of me: should I climb the fin, and run the risk of getting rim-rocked, or follow the valley? While my head was tilted back, I saw my raven soar over. Reflexively I called out ”Which way do I go?”

The bird looped back around, let out a sharp cry and flew down the valley. I followed, but soon he was out of sight. I stopped in the sand, just as he flew back over my head. I spun around, watching him circle. Once again, he cawed and flew down the valley. I followed, until he settled atop a sandstone fin above me.

In the distance, I could make out a grey slab of pavement: the parking lot. I then looked down at my feet and saw that I was standing in the middle of a well-worn cattle trail. I looked up at the raven.

”Thank you!” I called out.

The raven took off from his perch, flying in the direction of Swiss Cheese Ridge.

Two weeks later, I was sitting the tattoo parlor listening to the hum and buzz of the needle as the last of my totem’s feathers were inked in.

Suzanne Walker is from Boulder, Colorado, and has been exploring the Moab desert for more than a decade.