Sandstone colored lizards zip along the slickrock where they’ve been sunning themselves. We’ve startled them from their reverie. The sky is a stern blue, so intense it burns to look upon. Ravens flap overhead, their croaks and chortles echoing down the curved canyon walls. It’s a sharp day; the desert is still, yet if you stop to listen, there is a trembling as if the land is poised to bite and sting.
We enter Owl Canyon by stepping off a flat sandstone ledge and climbing down a narrow gap between two boulders, using a juniper tree for support. At its deepest point, the canyon is 500 ft. below the desert plateau, but we must descend a crooked maze of storm-carved shelves to reach its lower recesses. It’s slow going. I squat low like a yogi and extend one leg over a steep stair-step until the tip of my boot finds purchase. Carefully, I transfer my weight down and continue on. Behind me, my partner, Rory downclimbs, wary not to let the burden of his backpack throw him off balance. At one point, we crawl on all fours through a low passage underneath a toppled boulder.
The trail takes us ever deeper into the canyon, past big emerald pools: secret water caches for wildlife. The majority of streams and water sources in the desert are temporary, evaporating in the dry summer months. As we make our descent, Owl Creek flows stronger and beside it delicate flowers bloom in bright pops of purple, white, and yellow. I catch a sliver of movement and see a green and white garter snake slithering away into the underbrush. Around us, rust-colored sandstone cliffs rise to heights of 200 ft. or more. Desert varnish, like wet watercolor smears down the cliff faces, painting them black and brown.
Our plan is to follow Owl for seven miles until we reach the confluence with Fish Canyon. From there, we will turn upcanyon and walk another three to four miles along Fish before making camp. It’s early April, the time of year colloquially known as “desert season.”
The days are warm, but not as searing hot as they will be in just a few months. At night, when the sun disappears beyond the canyon rim, the air will turn cold.
The Fish and Owl Canyons Loop is a seventeen-mile trail formerly in the Bears Ears National Monument. If you look at it on Google Earth, the land is flattened and distorted by the 3D rendering. The desert looks like a brownish grey brain. Hundreds of wrinkle canyons bend and twist and intersect across a sandy desert cortex. On a map, this canyon country is deceptively void of spirit. The closest town is Blanding, forty-two miles away. There isn’t much else nearby, and that’s why I like it. Empty, lonely places on the map draw my gaze and set my mind wandering. My backpack is kept loaded with camping equipment, ready for the moment I might dash away into the wild.
* * *
The American Frontier closed in the late 1800s, but the idea of vast, open land stretching for eternity across an unknown continent still lingers. It’s more than a romantic notion. It’s part of the American grain. When the 1890 census reported that the so-called Frontier Line, a line beyond which there were fewer than two persons per square mile, could no longer be continuously drawn across the map, the historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote “and with its going has closed the first period of American history.”
Turner was teaching at the University of Wisconsin when he learned about the fall of the frontier. At the time, its importance was seldom studied or discussed, but Turner immediately understood the influence a changing frontier line had held upon the formation of American democracy and our collective psyche. In 1893 at the World’s Columbian Exhibition in Chicago, he delivered a lecture entitled “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” which later became known as his Frontier Thesis.
Turner declared that the advance of the frontier is what made Americans less European and more American. The struggle with wilderness is what defined our character. With each successive generation of colonists, pioneers, farmers, and ranchers that pushed the frontier line westward, Americans evolved, adapting to the challenges of the wild. Turner believed the frontier was responsible for many of the qualities that typified Americans at the time: “That coarseness and strength combined with acuteness and inquisitiveness; that practical, inventive turn of mind, quick to find expedients … that restless, nervous energy; that dominant individualism, working for good and for evil, and withal that buoyancy and exuberance which comes with freedom.” He ominously ended his thesis with a warning as to what the loss of the frontier would bring to America in her next chapter of history.
Turner referred to the frontier as “free land,” an inherently flawed concept as it negates to mention the Indian Wars, years of bloody conflict that eventually saw the majority of Native Americans relegated to reservations. And while much of this land was free to settlers, it was initially paid for by the United States. Throughout the 1800s, the federal government purchased or acquired through treaties massive tracts of land. By 1853, the federal government owned most of the continental United States. Utah, Nevada, Arizona, and California were ceded from Mexico, and the Midwest plus parts of Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana were purchased from France. In an effort to develop a strong agricultural economy, the United States Government passed a number of Homestead Acts during the late 1860s. These essentially gave 270 million acres away to over a million homesteaders – immigrants, women, as well as African Americans after the Civil War. The frontier was quickly parceled up and closed. What land wasn’t given away in homesteads and land grants remained federal land, regulated by either the U.S. Forest Service or Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Turner’s thesis has been a subject of debate for over 100 years, but despite its flaws I can vouch for the veracity of its primary argument on an instinctual level if not an intellectual one. There is a feeling that comes when the last house disappears in the rearview mirror and the line of the road arcs into the horizon as if curving around the globe. The sinking sun meets you head on in a blinding fury, as if it’s trying to welcome and hinder you at once. Driving west is always better than east. It’s like escaping into the imagination of the land. There is excitement and hope out West, even if the frontier has never been experienced in living memory. There is still open land, if not boundless then at least plentiful.
Some seventy years after Turner presented his thesis, the Pulitzer Prize winning novelist Wallace Stegner penned an earnest letter to the Bureau of Outdoor Recreation about the importance of wilderness to America’s heritage and identity. In it, he echoed many of Turner’s ideas, but Stegner’s letter was also a call for the preservation of our remaining wild places. Wilderness was useful not only as a place for outdoor recreation, but for its inherent spiritual value as well . He presented the importance of the “wilderness idea” as a resource unto itself. Because the fight against wilderness shaped our collective national identity, he begged that we hold onto the idea of it not solely for our own individual health and sanity, but for that of the country as well. “The reminder and the reassurance that [wilderness] is still there is good for our spiritual health even if we never once in ten years set foot in it,” he wrote. Stegner called wilderness “the geography of hope,” the source of Americans’ characteristic optimism. Bitterness and pessimism is the product of industrialization.
Our history with the land has rarely been a loving one. We’ve ripped forests up by their roots and decapitated mountains. Fields and streams have been choked by chemical fertilizers and pesticides. And plant and animal species once prevalent – like the American chestnut and jaguar – are fading from living memory. I’m reminded of something President Theodore Roosevelt said: “We have become great because of the lavish use of our resources.” Roosevelt felt their finitude and it disturbed him greatly. He became known as the conservation president, setting aside 230 million acres for federal protection, creating the United States Forest Service and the Antiquities Act of 1906, which has been used by nearly every president since then to designate national monuments. The enormity of protected land in the United States – thirteen percent – can be deceiving. The sheer size of the continent masks the damage we’ve done, are still doing, in a way that would be more noticeable in a smaller country. Protections for our public lands and the environment have always been tenuous at best and they are now threatening to snap like brittle reeds in the wind.
Since taking office, President Trump has begun to upend numerous environmental regulations and policies, many of them Obama-era but plenty others from previous decades. The first sign of what was to come began when all references to climate change were removed from the White House website in January 2017. A month later, Trump issued an executive order asking for the review of a rule that placed many of the nation’s headwaters and waterways under federal control and protection; while also revoking a rule that placed greater restrictions on dumping mining waste into nearby streams. Then in December of 2017, President Trump announced that he planned to drastically reduce both the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments.
National monument status provides additional funding for law enforcement and education, as well as increased protection for the environment. While some national monuments have been reduced in the past, no one has ever taken scissors to the map and slashed 1.3 million acres. Almost immediately, three federal lawsuits by numerous environmental organizations, five Native American tribes, and Patagonia were filed against Trump. They argue that because Roosevelt’s Antiquities Act does not explicitly state that the President has the authority to reduce a national monument, the attack on Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante are illegal. But because no one has ever challenged the reduction of a national monument to this degree, the battle will be, shall we say, monumental.
* * *
Fish and Owl Canyons lie directly south of the national monument’s namesake, two matching buttes that prick up like the ears of a black bear from the surrounding desertscape. Over a million acres in size, the land surrounding Bears Ears is a land of immensity: old grizzled mountains, deep mysterious canyons, looming sandstone towers, and the confluence of two major rivers – the San Juan and Colorado. Within its boundaries, tucked away in secretive hideouts, nooks and crannies, are the roughhewn cliff dwellings of the Ancestral Puebloans. The ruins appear as a ghost would from the corner of your eye. You see them and then they’re gone with the turn of the canyon.
There is one such dwelling at the entrance to Owl Canyon. The trail snakes down steep slickrock when, suddenly, off to the right, the three cold eyes of vacant windows appear. The dwelling is tucked away high on a red cliff under a sloping overhang. There must have once been a juniper or cottonwood ladder leaning against the rock and perhaps a small irrigated garden with maize and beans. If you were to scramble up to it, I’m sure you would find pottery shards and old corncobs scattered amongst the ruins. Perhaps there would even be petroglyphs, magical images of goats and gods, painted on the rock walls.
Bears Ears is one of the most archeologically and culturally important regions in the United States. It is sacred land to many southwestern tribes, descendants of the Ancestral Puebloans, who continue to hunt, forage, and gather herbs and medicine in the area. The Navajo believe the buttes are a shrine to guard their people. For decades, Native Americans have fought for greater protections for the region. Grave robbing and looting still fuels a lucrative black trade market, and countless human remains and artifacts – some over 700 years old – have disappeared or been destroyed. The region also faces the insidious threat of energy development, primarily oil and natural gas; though in years past, Utah was host to many largescale uranium operations.
In 2016, the Navajo Nation, along with the Hopi, Zuni, and two Ute tribes formed a coalition, which was supported by thirty tribes in total, and drafted a proposal for a national monument. The campaign was bolstered by conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, who in recent years have helped grow Utah’s outdoor recreation economy into a $12 billion a year industry. Though Rory and I typically explore the area on foot, it is also enjoyed by climbers, mountain bikers, hunters, anglers, horseback riders, and white-water rafters. I shared a joyous sigh of relief with millions of Americans when Barack Obama designated Bears Ears as a national monument in the waning days of his Presidency.
The euphoria didn’t last long. Less than six months after its designation, Bears Ears was up for review. Over the course of several months, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke examined the designations of both Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. There was a public comment period which received over 1 million responses, meetings with opponents of the monument including Governor Gary Herbert and the San Juan County Commission (but not supporters like the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition), and a “listening tour” through Utah.
Critics claimed the review was a handout to oil and gas companies and land transfer advocates. Denying any such thing, Zinke said “We also have a pretty good idea of, certainly, the oil and gas potential — not much! So Bears Ears isn’t really about oil and gas.”
That statement has since been disproved. In March of 2018, The New York Times and the Yale University Law School sued the Department of the Interior and received access to documents relating to the Trump Administration’s review of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante. Numerous emails show that oil, gas, and coal development was a deciding factor in the decision to reduce both monuments. One email sent from Senator Orrin Hatch’s office says “Please see attached for a shapefile and pdf of a map depicting a boundary change for the southeast portion of the Bears Ears monument.” The new map would “resolve all known mineral conflicts.” The new boundaries for both monuments are clearly drawn around known oil, gas, uranium, and potash deposits.
As heartbreaking as the reduction of Bears Ears has been to those of us who live nearby, it is only one prong of a multi-pronged attacked on the American wild. In December of 2017, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge was opened to drilling when it was included as a provision in the new tax legislation. And just recently the Department of the Interior announced plans to rollback hunting regulations that banned baiting and shooting bear cubs and wolf pups in their dens, and using motorboats to shoot caribou while they’re swimming. The empty places on the map are quickly being scribbled over, filled in, and rubbed out.
* * *
We make the turn from Owl Canyon into Fish. The dead and dried limbs of an old cottonwood clack in the wind like bones. At this point there is no trail to speak of, but the sand shows the way of traffic. Rubber boot-prints of various geometric and angular designs lead us up the canyon. Occasionally we cross the soft pad of a coyote or the scurry mark of a kangaroo rat. Lizards leave haphazard lines in the sand with little clawed marks on either side. I take care not to step on these tracks for no other reason than I’d rather see a coyote print than a boot. I can’t escape my own trail in the sand.
Only a sliver of sky is visible, as if it was shaved by the canyon walls above. The sun saturates the turquoise sky and red sandstone, painting an unmistakable division between heaven and earth. I love the sharp and sudden contrasts of the desert: a burst of green cottonwoods by a spring, the brilliant pink rose blooming in the prickly pear, the unexpected beaver dam forming an oasis in the parched landscape.
Rory and I find a campsite in the shade of a large boulder. It’s been a cloudless day and I’ve drunk nearly 3-liters of water. My face is coated in a thick layer of sunscreen, sweat, and sand and my feet are swollen and sore. I’ve never felt better. I take the water filter down to the stream where silver minnows dart away. The dotted shadows of water striders pace deliberately across the surface. As I make water for our dinner, I think about how distinctly American a moment like this is. Not because even half of the country would seek it out and enjoy it, but because it is even possible at all. This land and this moment is available to anyone if they want it or need it. An experience like this would be impossible in Western Europe.
When I read about wildness and nature in England it’s elusory, almost nostalgic. As Robert Macfarlane noted, “thousands of years of human living and dying have destroyed the possibility of the pristine wild. Every islet and mountain-top, every secret valley or woodland, has been visited, dwelled in, worked, or marked at some point in the past five millennia.” At this moment in America, however, there are still places that are as close to a “pristine wild” as is possible and we are on the cusp of losing them.
And with them we will lose ourselves. If the land is what shaped us into who we are today, we cannot afford to chip away at it until there is nothing left of either of us – the land or the people. That night, Rory and I lie out on a perfectly flat rock and watch the gloaming fade into night. Vultures cruise in circles above the canyon rim and from far off I hear the cry of a peregrine falcon. A lone bat wings through our campsite and disappears into the rolling darkness. I listen for nightbirds and conversational coyotes, but the cold night wraps us in silence.
In the morning, I crawl out of my sleeping bag and stretch my arms overhead, bending upwards and backwards, feeling the stiffness in my joints crack and moan like an old cottonwood. The dawn is brimming over the canyon walls and we pack our things to get a head start on the sun. We meander up the slickrock stream bed, pushing through willows and pathfinding when the cairns disappear. It is a holiday weekend and we pass several groups of hikers making their way into the depths of the canyon. They ask how long until “they get there,” and I’m not sure what they mean. As far as I’m concerned, we’re already there.
The last mile is a long slog up hard scramble rock from the stream bottom to the rim. I stow my trekking poles and use my hands to clamber up the rock slab. The canyon opens below me like a gaping maw. Its teeth are sharp should I fall. Our progress is measured by the ravens. From the mid-way point, the desert oracles float parallel to us with an occasional flap of the wing. Soon we’ve climbed above their flight path in the canyon below and watch their glossy backs from our position near the rim. The trail dead ends at the bottom of a cliff face, ten ft. below the plateau above. I jam my hand in a narrow crack and pull myself up. I scooch my boot up onto a knobby hold and bump my other hand into the crack. It isn’t a difficult climb, but if I slip there is a 500 ft. tumble to the bottom. I heave myself over the ledge with a sigh of relief. Rory comes up shortly after and we make tracks back to the trailhead.
* * *
I kick my boots off and peel away my socks. Rummaging around in the backseat, I find my sandals and a clean shirt. I walk around to the back of the truck and drop the tailgate. Taking a seat, I reach behind me for the cooler and a bag of Frito’s. Rory’s gone off to the find the toilet, but I’m too hungry to wait for him. I crack open a Pabst tallboy and lean back, admiring the view unfolding before me. The light is so fierce the horizon is a white mirage. A tangled scrubland of cedar and sage stretches into the distance where it finally meets a line of mountains. The red sandstone isn’t as noticeable from here, but the white caprock lends itself to the arid palette.
I take another sip of beer and a song comes to mind. I smile at the well-worn lyrics. This land is your land, this land is my land… Woody Guthrie’s folk song has been referred to as an alternative national anthem and Bruce Springsteen called it “the greatest song ever written about America.” I remember singing it in grade school after reciting the Pledge of Allegiance every morning. Sadly, the ubiquitous, and perhaps old timey nature of the tune has overshadowed its importance as a protest song. Guthrie, who grew up during the Great Depression, spent much of his life roaming the United States. He saw breadlines and jalopies, the unsettled migrations and injustices of the Dust Bowl. This Land Is Your Land is one of his best social commentaries, but its most radical lyrics are often left out. My favorite go something like this:
There was a big high wall there that tried to stop me.
The sign was painted, said 'Private Property.'
But on the backside, it didn't say nothing.
This land was made for you and me.
At the end of a rare 1944 recording, Guthrie asks Is this land made for you and me? It is either oddly prophetic or a sign of just how little has changed. My fear is that as the frontier fades from our memory, we will lose touch with the land in our increasingly urbanized society. I am terrified to write about the wild in the past tense. What will happen to landscapes like Bears Ears when fewer and fewer people understand the value of them?
I take another sip and eat a few more chips. A raven cackles in the cedar tree above me and that is the only sound. Everyone should have the right to sit in the back of a pickup, sweaty, salty, smelly, with a beer and watch this land. I think if they did, at least once in their life, maybe we wouldn’t have to fight so damn hard to save it.
*Photo 1 - Bears Ears Buttes, by Bob Wick
*Photo 2 - Cedar Mesa Citadel Ruins, by Bob Wick
*Photo 2 - Cedar Mesa Grand Gulch, by Bob Wick
*Changes to Bears Ears National Monument, map by Stephanie Smith, Grand Canyon Trust
*Photo 3 - The author hiking Fish & Owl Loop in April 2017