Mystery may tickle the human imagination, but when mystery runs amok they call it bizarre.

There are some mysteries in this world so bizarre you wonder if they really are what they seem to be. In most cases, nothing short of seeing will quell the disbelief.Perhaps that is why hundreds of people make the long hike every year to view a stunning painting on a cave wall in Canyonlands National Park. The pictograph, called the All American Man, is believed by many experts to be at least 700 years old, and is so named because it features a human figure sporting a shield - with distinct red and white stripes and a dark blue field.

Almost without exception, visitors ask, "Is it real?"

"Of course it's real. it's right there in from of you," smiles Ken Sleight, a Moab outfitter who takes tours into Salt Creek where the pictograph is located. "The real questions is who put it there."

The depiction is so American-flag-like that some people flat-out refuse to believe it is of ancient origin. How could Indians living centuries before columbus have happened upon a design so closely paralleling the American flag?

Many, like Sleight, believe the pictograph is the work of 19th-century cowboys "with a lot of spare time on their hands" and nothing abetter to do than explore Indian ruins and play hoaxed on other cowboys.

The most common story told in southeastern Utah is that one of the Dalton brothers, a cowboy from Blanding, painted over an existing pictograph as a hoax, and later bragged about it.

The problem with Dalton's story is that he wasn't the First or the last cowboy who claimed to have painted it.

"I've heard so many stories about how it got there, I don't know what to believe" said Chas Cartwright, Canyonland National Park archaeologist. "I certainly hope it's authentic. And I think most people want to believe it was done anciently."

Many archaeologists, on the other hand, are adamant in their defense of the pictograph's antiquity. Both the colors of the paint and the style of the pictograph are consistent with the other shield figures in Canyonlands dating to the Anasazi of 1200 A.D. or older.

Winston Hurst, an archaeologist and curator for Edge of the Cedars Museum in nearby Blanding, believes it unlikely that a cowboy would go to the trouble of duplicating not only ancient artistic styles but that he would use exactly the same color shades and linear patterns as on pictographs of proven antiquity.

There are myriads of extremely rare pictographs of various color combinations in Canyonlands - blues, golds, reds, yellows, blacks, whites, greens. But there are no known pictographs besides the All American Man with the red, white and blue combinations.

"Maybe it's one of those mysteries that is better left unsolved," said Sleight.

The real mystery, says Cartwright, is not whether All American Man is of ancient origin or not. The real mystery is who were the ancient people who painted such a cornucopia of brightly colored shield and face figures throughout Canyonlands? And why is there such a rich concentration of unusually creative art along the Colorado River?

The "face motifs" are restricted to a very small area of Canyonlands, while the "shield motifs" have a limited, though wider distribution in the region.

"The artistry is amazing," said Cartwright. "They are not standard stick figures but very stylized. There is an assumption with the faces that they are Anasazi because they are found with traces of the Anasazi culture. But there is no solid evidence of that."

Cartwright suggests the people may have been a cultural mix of Anasazi from the south and Fremont from the north and west. Perhaps Canyonlands marked the transition zone between the two cultures, both of which disappeared about 1300 A.D.

There is ample evidence that the area around Canyonlands was a major crossing point for ancient cultures, and it stands to reason, said Cartwright, that Fremonts were crossing the river to the southeast and Anasazis to the northwest.

Cartwright sees a lot of Fremont characteristics in the "motifs" common to Canyonlands. But the architecture is almost exclusively Anasazi.

"There are a lot of questions about Fremont and Anasazi and what their relationship to each other was," said Cartwright. "Why do we find so much Fremont style on the east side of the river? Why do we find a lot of shield figures in the Price area? I don't know. Why do we find so much rock art of this kind in this particular area? I don't know."

Of this peculiar style of art, the All American Man stands as one of the most peculiar. "We've got others here that are just as strange," said Cartwright.

Yet the All American Man may be dying. Constant abuse by modern man has taken its toll on the painting, jeopardizing its survival for future generations. People have thrown water on the panel to bring out the colors. Some have outlined the panel in chalk to make it stand out better.

"We don't treat it in any way to preserve it," Nordling said. "The accepted way of preservation is to leave it alone and try to educate people as to the damage they can cause."

The All American Man is available to anyone willing to make the adventure, though back-country permits are required and Canyonlands rangers want to make sure visitors understand the delicate nature of all pictographs.

"We will tell people about the pictograph panels and how to get to them, but we want to talk with them first," said Nordling.

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The All American Man is not easy to get to, involving a 13-mile trek down a rough four-wheel drive trail and then another 5-mile hike through willows, sand and cactus. Then it's a crap shoot as to which cave in which side canyon the pictograph is hiding in.

"It's a well-known site, it's listed in books and on maps. But it's hard to find, though several hundred people a year find it," said Nordling.

Real or not, the pictograph remains one of Canyonland's most stunning, if not unbelievable, attractions. And as long as it could be real, people will keep on making the trip.