Ancestral Passages- The Future of Southeastern Utah

In my Dad’s Land Cruiser, I exited I-70 and turned onto Highway 24, heading south, my spring break adventure about to start. I had just flown home from graduate school to visit my parents and to seek a little rest and relaxation in canyon country. It had been a while. Schooling in the Midwest has its advantages, but one of the biggest disadvantages is that I cannot visit regularly the wild, remote desert landscapes of Utah.

I needed to call Dad and discuss itineraries. I had a few locations in mind but really hadn’t decided on one. “Dad, I am planning on gassing up in Hanksville, and could go left on Highway 95 toward Lake Powell and Bears Ears or take a right to visit Capitol Reef National Park.”
“Hmmm…” my father responded. His suggestions weren’t very helpful.
“Dad, where to?” I asked while ordering a shake at the greasy spoon Stan’s Burger Shak. A place I remember frequenting as a child.
“Well, there’s always discoveries to make around Bears Ears. Grab the notebook in the center console of the truck. I marked some places in there. I am sure you’ll remember a few.” My dad spoke with a calm, jealous voice: “Check them out.” I could tell that he yearned to be with me, but he and my mother had obligations. Our schedules just didn’t mesh.

“I’ll call you in a few days and let you know what I find.” I knew cell phone coverage would be sporadic at best. This corner of southeastern Utah is home to some of the most remote country in the United States. A land vast with emptiness. Well, not really…. It’s a land of wonder, discovery, and peacefulness. Some view it as a sagebrush filled landscape waiting for energy exploration and/or development. However, I view it as a land that begs the visitor to get out, stretch the legs, and wander the canyons with a keen eye. As a visitor, I get to peer behind the next boulder or spy into the sandstone alcove on the canyon wall. I never know what I might discover or what might prompt me to sit, gauge, and contemplate.

I eased down Highway 95, a scenic byway, and marveled at the views. My parents started taking me to canyon country when I was three years old. No, I don’t remember much from that age; but now, I was set on making some new memories. I pulled over on the right just past the bridge spanning Fry Canyon and across from the Bears Ears Lodge. I parked and gathered my canyoneering equipment for a hike down the canyon. My dad had marked this destination in his book. As I read his description, I was surprised to recall vividly when he brought me here during the summer of my 5th grade year.

Yes, I know canyoneering is not something one should do solo, but I knew the canyon and felt comfortable. I dropped into the canyon right away; the walls immediately rose. Soon, I slithered my body through a sandstone slot. My eyes spotted the first water hole. “Oh boy!” I yelled to no one in particular. The water didn’t appear deep, but immediately rose to my waist as I slowly entered the caramel colored water. My feet gained purchase on the wet sandstone, and I waded through the water-filled slot. Within ten minutes, I emerged to bask in the high spring sun. I meandered down the canyon at a comfortable, leisurely pace. There were faint footprints in the sand, but I knew it was just a matter of time before millions of sand crystals would cover them and wipe clean the canyon bottom.

Underneath a cottonwood tree, I stopped briefly for a snack. As I munched on my trail mix, I surveyed the rock walls for markings. Surely, the Anasazi visited this canyon. Onward. Before too long, I was at the anchors of the only rappel in the canyon. My memory was rattled loose as I stepped into my harness. I remembered two anchor bolts. Now, there were three. I inspected the bolts and webbing to see if they were solid and in good shape. I triple checked everything and slowly eased myself into the sandstone abyss.

The walls were sculpted, a golden brown in color, and simply heavenly to my touch. After I pulled and coiled the rope, I focused attention on the canyon ahead. Water filled the canyon from wall to wall. I slowly lowered my body into the pool. Not feeling anything under my feet, I realized this was a “swimmer.” Hypothermia was a genuine concern as I doggie paddled my way to the sunlight waiting to greet me at the canyon exit. After 100 feet or so, my feet touched the sandy bottom. The water receded to my waist, knees, and finally my ankles. At the exit, to warm myself, I stood in the beam of sun shining onto the canyon floor. I replaced my wet shirt with a dry one stored in my waterproof bag. I retrieved my camera, buried in the same bag; I had a great picture to take. The sunlight streaked into the canyon, illuminating the Anasazi ruins perched high above the canyon walls.

I glanced upward and spotted an ancient Anasazi “city” built into an alcove. The dwellings might have housed 15-20 residents, 700-800 years ago. On this day, it sat empty like someone had just left for water, hunting, or food gathering. I laid back on the slickrock boulder to rest, snack, and ponder. “Exactly!” I called out. The place was perfect—an enormous alcove above the canyon floor that put a roof over their heads and faced west, while a water hole, the one I just navigated, provided much needed water. Brilliant. These sandstone structures formed the ultimate castle and estate. Ravens circled and gawked overhead telling me that I better get moving.

I slowly made my way back to my vehicle savoring each view along the way. The land was mine. In the distance, I could see Highway 95 and the lodge; but I heard no sounds. This is a place where visitors respect the silence, beauty, and remoteness of the land and experiences on it. I reached Dad’s cruiser, threw in my gear, and took off to find a campsite. Along the way, I passed the Bears Ears Visitor Center. A somewhat hidden place, the architecture and colors blend into the sandstone and the juniper and pinyon pine trees that cover Cedar Mesa. I knew of a place where my parents took me, so I steered the cruiser toward it as the western sun hit Navajo Mountain south on the Navajo reservation.

There’s nothing like a juniper fire! The aroma of the dense wood is just sublime. I sipped a glass of Cabernet, which I happened to have “borrowed” from Mom’s cabinet at home. I marveled at the view and the landscape before me. The Bears Ears area has so much varied terrain. Seven hundred years ago, hundreds of fires might have been seen from this very spot. The juniper and pinyon pine trees that cover the landscape today would have served as the heating elements for all those fires. And, on this night…I savored mine.

The following morning as I packed my cot and kitchen utensils, I surveyed the map buried in my dad’s book. On the map, he had marked a site with the words, “special place” I don’t recall as having visited. Today is just as good as any…. I stopped at the Kane Gulch Ranger station to connect with Dad. The “special place” was going to be even more remote, so I wanted to let him know where I was going.
“Dad, hey there…just checking in. All is well. You?”
“Everything is fine up here. Mom is at work, and I’m ready to leave. Are you having fun?”
“It’s been wonderful, dad. There’s this place entitled, ‘special place’ on your map. Any pointers on visiting the site?”
“It’s pretty straight forward. Just be mindful of the intersections. Are you spending the night out there?”
“I plan on it. I’ll contact you tomorrow when I get out. Bye, dad. Love to you and mom.”

I understood my father worried about me being in this remote country solo. However, he raised me to be just who I am: an independent thinker and adventurer, hesitant but never scared for the next big adventure. I departed the ranger station and drove north. The actual Bears Ears peaks stared back at me through the windshield. The road gained altitude, as I got closer to the pinnacles; the road descended between the two peaks. I entered a whole new world on the backside.

The Land Cruiser traversed through meadows filled with lush green grasses. Ponderosa pines towered to great heights, and the temperature cooled some 10 degrees in those 2,000 feet of elevation I had gained. During the summer months, this alpine mesa was home to Native Americans for cooler temperatures and the animals they hunted. Fields of lush grasses, stands of aspen trees, and groves of ponderosa pines make this environment a unique, special landscape.

I scanned the map and reread the notes my dad left for me. A beautiful drive…very remote…a place that makes the visitor want to explore the backcountry even more. His written phrases, within his notebook, made me want to hurry. The road dropped off the high-altitude mesa toward canyons with names such as Dark, Gypsum, and Horse. The road appeared to be in decent shape, so I picked up my speed.

Miles of red dirt road later, I stopped to read a sign buried in the scrub oak tree branches. Was that my turn? Sure enough…it was. I took it; and within a few minutes, I emerged onto the canyon rim. I loaded my backpack for a hike. The trail down was steep, so foot placement was key. I glanced over my shoulder and noticed a large alcove through the foliage. Could there be something in there? The hunt was on…I blazed through the dense branches and overgrowth. My shins got battered. I looked down and noticed one of them was bleeding. I continued and, without anticipating it, walked right up to an enormous ruin. Dumbfounded, I stared at it. “Is this real? This is 700-800 years old? It looks like it was built yesterday.” I paused before I entered the site. In all of my explorations to the area, I had never seen a ruin in such fine state. It was truly remarkable.

Over the next hour or so, I carefully tiptoed speechless around the site and ruin. How could this ruin stand for so long and remain in such a fine state? The remoteness of the place was its true benefit. It sat almost 50 miles from a paved road. And, the alcove was a natural weather protector. I hiked south and found a few other ruins just below the canyon rim. I circled back to the Land Cruiser, pulled out my chair, and sipped a cold beer while I admired the view and setting.

The next morning, I pulled over into the Bears Ears Visitor Center parking lot to call dad. The visitor center had a sign hanging from it stating, Celebrating 10 Years, 2028.

“Hey Dad. All is well. I am out safe.”
“That’s great to hear, Lilly.”
“Dad, I just left the ‘special place’ you labeled on the map.”
“Is it still in good shape?”
“Dad, it’s in unbelievable shape! It looks like it was just built. I am at the visitor center now. The center is new to me. When did this get built?”
“I think it was five or six years ago. It’s a loooong story.”

Author’s Note:

My hope is that in the year 2028, my daughter, Lilly, will visit the Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante area like we’ve done over the past 20 years. We know political parties on both sides are passionate about Bears Ears and the Grand Staircase; but realistically, both parties won’t get all that they want. Can’t they make a compromise? Is it all or nothing? I understand that’s our nation today, but we can change it! Access is important. I totally understand and defend that sentiment. Protection of wild landscapes and precious Native American dwellings and artifacts is critical. I do feel and think that many who do not favor the monument status also do not want coal and oil exploration to mar the landscape. How can two sides come together? Impossible? I think not.

The Bears Ears and Grand Staircase areas are phenomenal places. Both are worthy to explore. Currently, the monument status is reversed or changed—pending numerous lawsuits. Will the courts decide the fate of Utah’s land? Apparently so….

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