I am sitting in front of my computer, doing what I do to make my pennies, but in a few hours, when my writing is done, and the car is packed I will head out to my favorite place in the world, the most beautiful place in the world, my second home, Indian Creek.
I don’t know exactly where I’ll sleep, my second home contains no bedrooms, thus I’ll spend the night in my tent in the piece of real estate I briefly claim, a campsite on shared, public land, where I can see two beacons of hope — the North and South Sixshooter towers. These towers are not overwhelmingly large, only a few hundred feet, pure rock exposed atop talus cones. This was once the ocean, I understand. I am not a geologist but I trust the rumors that I’ve heard.
I’m a poet, which in this modern world is both the best and worst thing you could be. I probably should be a social media guru, or the founder of a high tech startup, but my heart and soul were molded by people like Jack Kerouac, Ken Kesey, Martin Luther King Jr., and Edward Abbey, and so I follow the call of beautiful things and let it lead my heart where it goes.
Yeah, I probably have like four hundred and twenty seven dollars in my bank account, and will have slightly less when I return in a few days to go back to my day job. I should probably hunker down and write more — but when the desert calls me I can do nothing but heed its call. Plus, when you ain’t got ‘nuthin, you got ‘nuthin to lose. Bob Dylan told me that. I guess I have him to blame as well for this rabbit hole of soul searching in beautiful places.
I’ve been at this for 17 years now. Climbing was the impetus. It saved me from going to the dark places that Kerouac went. He was a climber, but he never really had climbing, you know? He found his home in the bottle. I like to have a couple beers now and again myself, but I’m simply climbing too much to drink all the time.
I started in the gym, so in some weird way this old abandoned grain silo converted into a climbing gym in the Midwest paved the way for me to become an environmentalist. I’m a shitty environmentalist though. I just love the land so much I could not live without it. I don’t fight for it, as much as I should. I’m just now realizing I need to become more of an activist. I’ve been too busy writing the land love letters all these years.
If I’m being truly honest — and honestly that’s the only job a writer really has — I am the most engaged in politics when there is a threat. In college George W. Bush and company were the threat, and I was a budding writer, who spent half my time composing poetry about the outdoors, and the other half writing scathing editorials for everything that he did, from starting wars, to the massive oil and gas leases that were sold off at the end of his presidency.
So, of course now, after two decades of enjoying the red rock desert that we call Indian Creek, and learning about the changes in the air, I’m finally drawn to do something. What that something is — well, time will tell. Action speaks louder than words, and at the moment I’m just a guy who writes too many love letters to beautiful places.
Here are the basics of what’s going on. The love of my climbing life, the place where I would want my ashes scattered if I died today, Indian Creek, is about to change. First off, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) will start charging for camping in the fall. It’s a minor change, and the fee will only start at five dollars per site for the two most popular sites, Super Bowl and Creek Pasture. For dirtbag climbers it feels major, Indian Creek is the last of the big climbing destinations in the United States to remains free to camp at. Freedom is at the heart of what climbing used to be about. And freedom is free, right? But, climbing is not what it used to be, and there are way too many of us these days. And climbing is not free. We shit, we drive on roads, and we impact the land. We must be managed.
I think this will cause the largest fuss amongst climbers this season, for good reason, losing this last stronghold of free camping is certainly something to lament. In reality, there are greater threats to climbing in Indian Creek, most notably the movement to move protected, federal lands into the hands of the state, who would, in turn let entities such as the oil and gas industry use it as they wish. The best (or should I say worst) example of this is Utah’s Republican Congressman Rob Bishop’s recent Utah Public Land Initiative (PLI). It’s no surprise that conservation groups including the Access Fund, American Alpine Club, and the Outdoor Alliance are rallying to fight the initiative.
As I learned about this initiative and reached out to various contacts I have in the outdoor industry, I found out about other factors that could change how we use the land. The BLM is working on a new Master Leasing Plan (MLP), something they do every 25 years, and there’s also the Bear’s Ears National Monument proposal. The latter would protect the Indian Creek corridor, but at the moment the proposal is vague on how the status would affect climbing and other recreational activities.
So these things have all been swirling in my head this winter, as my beloved desert thaws out and becomes perfect for climbing. I’ve wondered what I should do. I knew I had to get involved, and I knew it had to be with a local organization. So, I reached out to Friends of Indian Creek, the Moab-based non-profit and asked them if I could help out. After some going back and forth, they said they could be in the need for a new board member in the near future. I happily said I’d take the post if it was available, and it looks like I’ll be able to get into the role here shortly, perhaps later this spring.
So the story is over there, right? Well, not exactly. We have to go to Southern California first.
Earlier this month I had the pleasure of spending a week in the Joshua Tree National Monument. I lived in J-Tree one winter ten years ago, and I learned quite a bit about myself in that time period. I lived in a tent for over a hundred days in a row. I soloed domes and watched sunsets and sunrises. I met new friends and trusted my life to them on the other end of the rope. But, I didn’t realize how formative those times were until this winter when I wrote a memoir called American Climber and the J-Tree times came back to life in my mind. I mean how many people get the privilege to forget about modern society and live in a tent for 100 days? Ten years later, with more modern distractions than ever, we need these public lands for soul searching and looking inwards.
In the memoir I also reflected on how important the desert was to me. Sometimes you surprise yourself when something comes out of you, and instead of just merely reflecting on the natural beauty of this land, I realized it gave me something deeper, a gift I could use each and every day of my life, the gift of hope. Here are some of those words I wrote while reflecting on the days after 9-11, which was right around when I discovered the red rock desert.
This world of machinery and war, it’s all too much isn’t it? If there is a God who created us, and is watching over us, God surely did not give us this life to fight so much, right? If I were still in Illinois I know I would have sunk deeper into a darkness, given the coming war, but I had seen the light already, and the light came from the sun, and if you were in the right place (nature) at the right time (sunrise or sunset), well, there was a certain beauty to it that made you believe. Believe in what? Hope.
And where do you find hope? Bob Dylan asked us that a long time ago in his epic poem, “Last Thoughts on Woody Guthrie”.
His answer, his hope, in the poetic way only Dylan can communicate, was in Woody Guthrie, as he lay dying in the Brooklyn State Hospital, and it was in the Grand Canyon at sundown.
My hope was in the sunrise at Hartmans in Gunnison, as it awakened me every morning. It was in Yosemite, a place I truly regarded as a Promised Land that could save the lost soul. Hope was also in the red rock desert of the Colorado Plateau. Moab. Hope was in the desert.
I know America is not a perfect place. We are scarred from years of injustice, war, and tragedy. Land has been stolen, given back, and stolen again. I don’t understand the past and why humans do the things we do. But, I do know why we protect important places, and for the rest of my life I’ll do all that I can to protect this desert, even if it means that I spend more time fighting for it than actually enjoying it. I hope those days never come, but I know it is my duty to provide hope. I can do it by writing my little love letters to the wild, but the wild does it best, by what it naturally does, providing hope. And, Utah, and the rest of America needs that now more than ever.
Luke Mehall is the publisher of The Climbing Zine. His third book, American Climber, will be published on April 11th of this year. His other two books are The Great American Dirtbags and Climbing Out of Bed. You can find more of his work at www.climbingzine.com.