I was poking around the internet, wasting time as usual, getting too steamed about a world too far beyond my control. Bears Ears. Politics. Scanning through an uplifting article entitled “It Was Always About Oil, Coal, Gas and Uranium” penned by Lisa Pike Sheehy for Patagonia’s blog The Cleanest Line, I found my bleary eyes focusing on a fat blue swath cutting across a map of the area formerly known as Bears Ears National Monument.
That blue swath indicated two things: 1) a giant chunk of land that The Bears Ears Intertribal Coalition and President Obama had seen fit to give monument designation to was no longer protected as a national monument; 2) as the color blue on the map legend indicated, it was full of uranium. What a big stinking coincidence.
The next thing I did was what any self-respecting desert rat would do: I made plans to visit the blue swath before it gets turned into a uranium pit. Why? For all the altruistic reasons you might expect: I wanted to document the place, to fight the possible intrusions of extractive industries, to be a good environmentalist. But if I’m to be honest, my motives were also selfish. I didn’t want to miss this opportunity. I wanted to see it before it was too late.
My partner Megan, our dog Tioga, and I meet up with Crispin at the junction of 95 and the Moki Dugway in southeastern Utah. He’s the same as I recall: hard-nosed, slow spoken, quick witted. A bit cynical, but rugged and charming. Meg is instantly smitten with his scrappy dog Yum Yum—a feisty and indefatigable Jack Russell that jumps straight into her arms. “I hatched that one from a moon squirrel egg,” Crispin informs her. You’d expect this kind of babble from a tie-dyed hippie. But coming from Crispin, who is a straightlaced hunter and constant skeptic of new age drivel, the pronouncement is as surprising as it is inscrutable. That’s why I love this guy. He’s un-pin-downable. Try and fit him into some box or school of thought, and he’ll weasel his way out every time.
We stash a car just outside Natural Bridges National Monument and pile into Crispin’s truck to drive to the trailhead. The road corkscrews its way up to a narrow pass between two prominent and attractive buttes—Bears Ears West, and East—which top out just under and just over 9000’ in elevation, respectively. All too soon, we leave the Shash Jaa Unit—the southern component of what is left of Bears Ears National Monument—and are back in the Manti-La Sal National Forest.
The landscape looks more like what you’d find in the mountains than the desert. Fat ponderosa trees smelling of butterscotch intersperse with picture book groves of white aspens. The air is cool. It’s enough to give you the feeling that there might be a gurgling brook, cold and clear, right around the corner. The only hint at the desert environment to come is the predominantly sage underbrush. Even as we park the truck at the Woodenshoe Trailhead and begin our hike, there’s precious little suggestion of where we’re about to be.
But the trail goes down and down and down. Soon enough, it becomes apparent we are in a gulch. Then the gulch starts to feel like a defile. The defile becomes a canyon. After four miles, we’re at the junction with Cherry Canyon, and our forest idyll has transformed into full blown desert.
Well, kind of. The landscape here has as many personalities as Crispin himself. There are still pine trees everywhere, and the canyon bottom is densely vegetated—even grassy. But the soil is red sand, it’s hot, and suddenly we all realize we are very thirsty. The timing is good, since there are scuzzy pot holes nearby which, though coated on the surface with algae and water bugs, are surprisingly cool. When filtered, the water tastes lovely.
The going is slow, and laborious. If you’ve never tried hiking in deep dry sand, try it sometime. We barely cover two miles an hour when we are truly moving. But most of the time, we’re even slower. We find ourselves stopping over and over to inspect a pile of scat, a depression that might have water, a mostly inexplicable pile of potsherds far from any dwellings, something that looks like a window tucked into an alcove high up along the cliffline of Cedar Mesa sandstone. We had talked about doing a 40-mile loop, but eventually decided we didn’t have enough time. I’m immediately relieved by our decision. What the hell is the point of hiking mile after mile through the heat of the day? This place is alive. There are things to see. It takes time and patience to experience the desert. Agendas are best left at the trailhead.
At the end of Day 1, we are holed up in an unnamed side canyon, nestled into a stout grove of ponderosas. Meg and Tioga are in the tent. Crispin is sipping tea. I’m sitting on a log with Yum Yum on my lap, writing. Above us rises a steep hill full of prickly plants, and no trail. And above that, precariously perched upon a sloping layer of slickrock, are a couple of cliff dwellings. “Do you know how many ruins could be in this canyon?” Crispin asks me. The question is rhetorical. Crispin knows I don’t have the damndest clue. Neither does he. Neither does anyone else for that matter. The terrain is simply too dendritic, the travel too tough, the water too scarce, and the scale of the desert too enormous to ever do an exhaustive survey of this small part of the Colorado Plateau.
But the landscape is hospitable enough. Plenty of vegetation, arable soil, shade, elk herds, shelter, potholes, and springs that hold water even on this extremely dry year. Don’t get me wrong, it would still be hard living. I use my imagination to turn black water streaks into sun-glinting waterfalls. Stone and timber and mud-cemented houses fill with watchful eyes and furtive movements, patterned pots of maize and yucca. I envision trails populated not with people of our ilk, but with the original people to call this place home. Someone wild and wily and better suited to this living. My hips and shoulders are tender from the nominal weight of the dehydrated food and liter or two of water I’ve been carrying in my backpack. What kind of weight, I wonder, did they carry?
Ordinarily when I come to the desert, I am looking for lifeless objects. Stone, to be specific. Citadels, arches, gaping amphitheatres, towering walls. Here, these are not the main attractions. Instead, what draws the eye is an oasis of life. A long snaking line of green at the bottom of a red and orange hued valley. You can imagine a civilization thriving here—not just tourists. There’s a tacit understanding that falls upon us immediately that we need to adjust our focus from large to small. From monoliths to potsherds. From arches big enough to fly an airplane through to a tiny window tucked under an overhang high up a cliff band, which gives away a hidden dwelling. We attune our eyes to the opaque pearlescent, carmine, and lavender hues of chert, the gridded pattern of man-made rock walls, carved depressions that may have served as footholds in steep stone.
At 6 AM we are up and moving. The goal is to beat the heat. On our way up to the ruins, there are potsherds everywhere. Endless flints of chert chipped off of spear and arrow points, and chunks of old pottery bearing white and black patterns everywhere you look. The camp we stayed at last night was too far off the trail, and too close to here, for us to be the first to head up this hill recently. But still, the going is laborious.
The first ruins are accessible via a semi-technical slab. I can picture lithe four-year-olds scampering up the sandstone slickrock 1,000 years ago, and full-grown adults today balking about how unsafe it is. The times they are a changin’. There are three small rooms, all separated by timber beams still perfectly preserved. The roof of the middle room is stained from woodsmoke, leading Crispin to surmise it may have been a dwelling, or used for ceremonial purposes. The other rooms appear to be granaries.
In a high alcove, about 50 feet above, we see tall timbers stacked up against a cave wall. I have been climbing technical rock for 16 years, but as I inch out a narrow sloping ramp to try and access the cave, even I go a little weak in the knees. A misstep here would be fatal. I’m positive the footholds were carved. I’m positive granny and child alike casually walked this way many years ago. I’m positive I can make it. But I don’t. They may not have needed a rope, but I sure wish I had one. Lord knows how they got those timbers up there.
The next ruin, a bit down to our right and even more exposed than the first, is a collection of well-preserved rooms, some with roofs still fully intact. We enter on the west side. In one room there is a deflector stone and a ventilation shaft—features typical of kivas. But kivas are usually underground. More mysteries. The far east side of the ruin is all precipice. Cliff above, cliff below. But there is a tiny gap in the impasse that draws my eye. I tunnel through on my belly, squeezed like a lizard in the horizontal crack. My right leg and arm dangle into hundreds of feet of space but the position is surprisingly secure. Soon I round a corner, and am out of sight. The gap widens, and suddenly I can crawl, then kneel, then stand up. Just like that, beneath me is more terra firma, a gentle vegetated slope leading to who knows where. I walk uphill a short ways, and quickly realize I can double back westward on a sloping ramp hidden out of sight amid the sheer cliff above the cave. I tiptoe above my unsuspecting friends. When I return to the dwelling, I have completed a vertical loop around the homestead. Another trick of the desert. Looking back at my circle route from below, I can barely believe it was possible. Applying the same vision to the other steep walls and escarpments that surround us on all sides, I suddenly see secret pathways everywhere. I’m overwhelmed by the amount of exploration still left to do.
After packing up camp, we continue down canyon for a long, dry stretch. The only information we have about water in the area is that the next source is seven miles away. So we fill up and drink heartily at every pothole we come to. By now, we’ve overcome any sheepishness we once had about “dirty” looking water. I drench my shirt in a black puddle to stay cool. Meg parts the surface algae of a small depression, dipping her bottle underneath. Ironically, the fear of running out of water has us drinking more than we normally would, and we’re all well hydrated and comfortable.
Eventually the sandy bottom gives way to limestone slickrock, and suddenly there is a spring pouring out from under a tree branch for no apparent reason. We all bend and drink straight from the source—the water is frigid, crystal clear, and sweet. Beyond and beneath, the spring empties into a series of small shallow pools and cascades. This is Wates Pond—a veritable paradise in the middle of the most inhospitable part of the canyon thus far. The desert provides.
We make camp for the night near the oasis. Fire rings abound, but we have no need for them. The night air is pleasantly cool, and by the time the sun goes down, we’re just about ready for bed. We fall asleep to a chorus of frogs.
We wake with the early rising of the sun and pack our minimal belongings. But before we go anywhere, we’ve got to huck a couple cannonballs into the deepest pool in the Wates Pond area. I’m momentarily transported to a trip Crispin and I took to Kanab Creek a little over a year ago as we lounge and laze in the clear waters, looking for frogs and lizards. I know Crispin and Meg are eager to head back to check out more ruins (there aren’t nearly as many signs of them this deep into the canyon, as those peoples spent most of their time up on the plateau above the canyon), so we don’t linger for long. But there’s a part of me that just wants to sit here all day.
The day before, from up at the ruins, Crispin had glassed through the binos a shimmering streak of water cascading down a cliff on the other side of the side canyon where we slept. We all agree to head up that way and make camp there. There’s nothing normal about camping with Crispin. You don’t flock to established sites, or stick to well-trodden trails. You go where the elk go. You check out “stuff,” “things,” and other attractions far away from the beaten path.
By the time we make it to the “cascade,” we are tired, thirsty, and hungry from a long walk up a steep hill bristling with thick pokey underbrush. The cascade is nothing more than a healthy seep. If we were dying, we’d be damn happy to have found it. We’d put our lips right up to the calcified wall, and suckle at the damp surface. But we are not dying, and there is water in the canyon bottom below, so we decide to leave.
It’s at this time, perhaps because I’m slightly bedraggled from the long and fruitless detour, that I’m starting to wonder if this has been worth it. The archeological sites and thriving ecology have been fascinating, and a good reminder of the fact that there are other reasons to protect places than dramatic vistas and stunning stones. But the whole thing is subtle and understated. I have to (hate to) admit it, but I’m yearning for some icing on the cake. Some jaw-dropping mind-melter of stupendous geological glory. As if the desert is listening to my inner monologue, my wishes are suddenly granted.
Just as we reach a little trickling spring, I look up and see an enormous arch of stone. It’s more like a hollowed out egg shell—a giant empty dome with a pinhole poked in the back of it. My eyes struggle to take in this radical piece of desert geology. This one, of course, isn’t on the state license plate, or the cover of a million different gift-store trinkets sprinkled throughout Moab and surrounding towns. It’s not anywhere on the internet, and even if you are feeling adventurous, I still haven’t given away its exact location. It’s just there. Standing alone. Waiting out time and civilization and uranium mining and all the other nonsense. It was there before the basket maker people, the ancestral Puebloans, the Navajo, and the Mormons, and I’d be willing to wager it will still be there after we make this planet uninhabitable to humankind, or blow ourselves to smithereens—whichever comes first.
At this moment, in this spot, with this company, there is no better place to camp in the world. And not because the arch stands, but because of what the arch stands for. Timelessness, and in the same breath, fragility. A certain insouciance to the pedantry of man; one of the lingering places we haven’t bent to our will. And a reminder of what humankind used to be—something a bit more respectful of mother earth. Something that stepped a bit more lightly. The arch is not necessary to make the argument that this place should be protected. But it sure is the cherry on top.
Night falls. Stars shine. And we sleep. There’s not a fiber in my being that wants to leave in the morning.
We get up before the sun hoping for an Indiana Jones moment, when the light pours into the arch from the keyhole slot in the back and illumines a secret map on the red sandstone wall of the cave. But it’s the wrong time of year. The rising sunlight dances right up to the edge of the slot, then continues in its long arc across the sky. It won’t enter through the keyhole at all. We’ll just have to come back in winter when—if winter ever comes to be correlated with snow again—we should be able to ski back to this same spot.
Our trip ends, then, not with a bang, but with a slow slog back up to the canyon rim. It’s not long, nor onerous, but we are all slightly tired from the past few days of bushwhacking adventures, and the final miles are spent in silent contemplation.
I can’t guess at what the other members of my cohort were thinking during this march. But I recall my own thoughts with crystalline clarity. I remember wondering what it was we were looking for out here in the desert. To start with, water. Shade. A flat place out of the wind to cook and sleep. And beyond that, potsherds, ruins, petroglyph panels, bear tracks, Moki steps. But we have the bare necessities at our fingertips back home, and there’s plenty of photos of the rest on the internet and in museums. There must be something else that draws us here. Something else we came for.
The only conclusion I can come to is that there is something innate about the search itself. It is precisely the experience of not having everything at our fingertips that brought us here. I believe you will find a certain commonality among backpackers, which is that they are searching for the experience of having to search. We seek to seek. In the end, all the philosophizing and moralizing aside, there was a significant part of me that wanted to explore the big blue swath on the map simply because, to me, it was blank. It was mysterious. I wanted to see what was there.
If you can understand that, I think you’ll understand why it’s worth protecting the Dark Canyon, Bears Ears, or any other big blue chunks of land rich in uranium, coal, or whatever other resource we’d like to extract from them. We modern humans have everything, and yet we are missing something utterly fundamental. And for some reason—not for a bad one, I would argue—we think we will find it here, hidden among these empty homes, walls of stone, and desert solitude. I can’t exactly put it into words, but I know it is there.
The Fight For Bears Ears
The latest monumental challenges may feel set in stone. The Forest Service and BLM, at least, are acting as if it is. Heck, official maps have even been adjusted. But really, it’s not a done deal. To begin with, numerous entities—including Patagonia—have brought suit for what many legal experts are claiming is an egregious abuse of executive power in reducing the monument boundaries. So there is hope that not much at all will come of this.
But even if it does, you’ll take solace in knowing that the area we hiked in is designated as Wilderness, overseen by the Forest Service (and as such, protected from mining claims). As I learned while researching for this article, that blue swath is not uniformly organized or managed. Some is still protected, some is not. And while the Wilderness designation is not perfect (hell, you can take pack animals, dogs, and who knows what else down in there), the area is doing pretty well right now. The ruins we visited were in good condition, trash was nearly nonexistent, and even though the area has been covered in a variety of popular hiking and canyoneering books, it was pretty quiet.
Unfortunately, other parts of the blue swath, (i.e., the canyon rim) is managed as the Manti-La Sal National Forest, which is not only home to a much denser collection of archaeological sites, but also totally sanctioned OHV travel, and quite a bit of looting. More worrying still, National Forests are vulnerable to mineral extraction. The major advantage conferred upon National Monuments is that new leases to extractive industries such as oil, gas, and uranium cannot be granted. A Canadian mining company has already filed claims to mine silver and other minerals from the area recently removed from Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, so it wouldn’t be at all surprising to see other mining companies following suit in this excised chunk of Bears Ears. And even though that doesn’t mean the Dark Canyon Wilderness is directly under fire, just remember, it’s directly downstream from totally viable locations for future uranium mines.
Keep an eye on Patagonia, Friends of Cedar Mesa, The Wilderness Society, and High Country News, and I can guarantee you that if anything happens out there, you’ll know right away.
A Final Note on Respecting Archeological Sites
One of the most fascinating things about the Dark Canyon Wilderness is the presence of cliff dwellings, potsherds, petroglyph panels, and other forms of artifacts. The fact that you can walk right up to them, with no interpretive rangers or placards telling you what they do or don’t mean, with no fences or barriers standing between you and an incredibly moving experience, may be the best thing about the place.
But that freedom comes at a cost, and the cost is being on extra good behavior. Better than good. Your best behavior. Don’t even think about doing ANYTHING to disturb what you see. Don’t pick up the potsherds, don’t put them in your pocket, don’t bring them home. If you see a petroglyph panel, don’t run your fingers over it, don’t carve your initials below it, don’t try to clean the dirt off of it with water and some good old fashioned spitshine. If you see a dwelling, don’t try to squeeze through windows or doors to enter it, don’t test the integrity of the structure, don’t comb through the soil for hidden treasures.