Finding Purpose and Place in Bears Ears
Following her monthlong bikepacking trip through the area around Bears Ears National Monument, Ashley Carruth put together this reflection on managing solitude, embracing vulnerability, and the importance of respecting the history and cultural significance of the places we pedal through. Read it here…
Apparently, there are some lessons I need to learn over and over again. For example: The dentist always knows if you haven’t been flossing; when in doubt, over cook dehydrated beans; and sometimes, just sometimes, a good ass-kicking is needed to knock some sense into you.
I hoist my pack over my head and onto the limestone ledge some eight feet above me. A stepping stone bobbles from side to side as I balance on tiptoes, reach my hand above my head in search of a solid hold, and scramble up the cliff face to join my pack on its perch. I scan up the canyon for any sign of humans: a trail, footprints, cairns, broken willow branches. I’ve never been much of a math person but I run some quick numbers anyway. Mile per hour pace: 1; Number of dawn-to-dusk days bikepacking through the Bears Ears National Monument: 11. Inches of precipitation in Bluff, Utah, within the past seven months: 0.3. Personal fatigue rating: 9 out of 10.
As I consider the dark sky and the expansive redrock labyrinth yawning some 40 miles before me, my own words from three weeks prior echo in my head: “40 miles in three days is no problem,” I nonchalantly told my boyfriend. “I’ve run that in just one day over four mountain passes. It can’t be that hard.” As thunder erupts above me, I cough, nearly choking on the slice of humble pie I imagine lodged in my throat. Suddenly, 40 miles in this place, alone, feels daunting. Before I know what I’m doing, my tent is out of my pack and assembled on a sandy beach beneath a cottonwood tree, a soft rain pattering against my tent as I drift asleep. It is only three o’clock in the afternoon but it feels good to be cocooned in a small space, as if I needed to shelter myself not so much from the rain, as from the vastness of the desert.
It seems like I’ve been down here for months, even though it was only yesterday that I pedaled some 50 miles from the Bears Ears Buttes through snow, hail, and rain storms to the Sundance Trailhead at the bottom of Dark Canyon. Upon arriving at the trailhead, I stealthily hid my bike beneath the crooked branches of an ancient Juniper tree, careful to cover my tracks in the cryptobiotic soil before shouldering my backpack and plodding toward the canyon rim. My knees ached as I peered down the 50-degree talus field that drops 1,200 vertical feet in less than a mile to the canyon floor. More noticeable than my aching knees was the sense of existential dread in the pit of my stomach. I was exhausted, dehydrated, and caked in 11 days’ worth of good Utahn dust. I ducked as a white throated swift dive-bombed over my head and zipped beyond the ledge. I anxiously peered past the bird and into the depths of the intricate spider web of canyons below, listening to the thunder rolling across the sky and half-expecting a fleet of Ringwraiths to gallop by, brandishing a flag that read “Welcome to Mordor.”
Leading up to this bikepacking trip, I wasn’t particularly stoked about the solo stretch. As a card-carrying extrovert, long stretches of solitude are sort of my worst nightmare. For some reason, however, I had insisted on blocking out this week as “Ashley-time” and refused to let any friends or family join. I now regretted that stubbornness, which became apparent in my accostal of every person I encountered along the way. I wouldn’t merely talk to a stranger. I would talk at them until enough self-awareness kicked in that I’d offer a meek apology before reluctantly going along my way, but not before I’d steal a quick glance back in hopes they’d offer an invitation to share some whiskey and stories around their fire that night.
So, I was half-surprised to find myself not only traveling without the company of other humans, but without the one tool at my disposal that could get me back to civilization far quicker than my own two feet: my bike. I considered a million options for bailing: Ride to Hite and hitchhike home? Call a friend and invite them to join me? Fake an injury and employ the SOS function of my SPOT? As tempting as these ideas were, I dismissed them and tried to remember why I was here in the first place.
I’d been mulling over a possible trip through the Bears Ears National Monument since President Trump eviscerated the monument by 85% back in December 2017, but hadn’t quite found my adventure muse until I was skimming an email from the Cairn Project, a non-profit that supports programs to expand outdoor and wilderness opportunities for pre-teen and teenage women. The newsletter announced a new fundraising strategy to enlist adventurous women to serve as ambassadors and use their athletic endeavors, from running the Boston Marathon to climbing Denali, as a way to crowdsource for the Cairn Project.
I put aside the newsletter and decided it was time to pay my dues. The Cairn Project has provided $10,000 in grant funding to the San Juan Mountain SOLES (Sisters on Leadership Expeditions) the outdoor education and leadership development organization for local high school girls that I co-founded in 2014 with Durango-based environmental activist, Rachel Landis. Our goal with SOLES is to develop a community of young women committed to supporting each other in leading healthy lives rooted in big mountains and confident leadership.
It felt good to have a bigger purpose for this trip beyond fulfilling my own need to be rad. As an educator, I am always looking for new ways to engage my students in relevant issues in their own community. I aspire to help my students foster a connection to wild spaces and a love of the land while understanding the ways those connections not only help the land itself through environmental stewardship but also lend themselves to personal and collective well-being.
My bikepacking trip could serve as recon for my curriculum: I would return armed with knowledge about the Bears Ears and connect my students to a public land use debate right in their own backyard. What I didn’t anticipate were the ways in which unplugging from everyday life would enable me to connect more meaningfully with myself, the environment and community.
Return to Dark Canyon
I’m standing atop a crumbling butte of red rock scree, an attempt to get one more bar of cell phone service. As I watch the sun sink behind the Henry Mountains that stand like guardians over Lake Powell, I imagine hordes of sunburned teenagers shivering in their speedboats as the day’s heat dissipates into the cooling night sky. Phone service be damned, I chuckle, as a cloud of dust appears in the distance. The sight of my boyfriend’s Tacoma careening across an otherwise empty desert floor reminds me of a chase scene from some old Western movie. He skids around a corner and nearly catches air over a knoll before momentarily dipping into a wash and out of sight. This wasn’t exactly part of the plan. A little over two weeks ago, we agreed that he’d pick up my bike at the Sundance trailhead and drive it around to the other end of Dark Canyon, where he would meet me after I had hiked the entire 40 miles through the canyon.
Nonetheless, I’m at ease now that Graham is in sight with ice cream and fresh vegetables in tow. Graham, on the other hand, is clearly not as relaxed as evidenced by his “drive it like you stole it” technique. He must not be able to see me in my current perch and the last contact we had was a preset “Need help. Bring the supplies.” alert I had triggered on my SPOT some four hours earlier. I figured I had about 20 minutes until he arrived, so I let my mind wander back to my days spent in the depths of the Dark Canyon.
The morning before I decided to turn around and bail on my plan to hike the entirety of the Dark Canyon, I awoke to the slow drizzle of rain drops on my tent and the deep rumble of thunder rolling down the canyon. I experienced a moment of cognitive dissonance as I pieced together not so much where I was, but what I was: alone. The recollection of my solitude sunk in and lodged itself as a pit in the bottom of my stomach. My chest tightened. A flurry of questions flooded my mind: Was there danger of a flash flood? Would there be enough water further up as the canyon rose through juniper and pinon trees and even higher into aspens and ponderosas? Would I be able to make the miles in the time I had allotted?
These were questions, born from an anxiety new to me.
And so I did what I always do amid emotional discomfort: I moved. I crawled out of my sleeping bag, lit the flame on my stove, and began my morning ritual of making coffee and oatmeal, packing up my tent, consulting the map. In the face of uncertainty, I took comfort in these simple but routine tasks.
—Mary Austin, Land of Little Rain
I had been solo for three days; three days longer than I had ever been in the backcountry. Three days from when my go-to adventure buddy and local mountain biking legend left me at the top of Comb Ridge just before offering me the sage advice (mid-pee no less) to “listen to my instincts and tell my fears to fuck off.” Three days until Graham would pick up my bike I stashed at the trailhead and shuttle it to the upper reaches of Dark Canyon.
As I brewed my coffee, I tried to discern my fears from my instincts in this particular moment. Rain was just a drizzle, surely not enough to cause a flood. I scanned the canyon, noticing its topography and identifying several routes to higher ground should the rain’s intensity increase. I examined the map and tried to estimate when I might run out of a water source, how much carrying capacity I had, how long it would take me to cover the 40 miles before me. If my anxieties were based on irrational fears, I could reason my way out. And if not, I could bury myself under three long days with a heavy pack and challenging canyon scrambling.
I drained the last of my coffee, neatly folded the nylon filter, and tucked it into my pot on top of the stove and fuel canister. I stuffed my tent into my pack, slipped my map into an outside pocket, and shouldered my pack. But something gave me pause. Perhaps it was the steady drip of rain that induced momentary insanity, or the soft sand that beckoned to me, or maybe it was my noticing the bend of the canyon wall adjacent to my camp and how the concavity of that wall might just have killer acoustics. Whatever it was, I pulled my phone out and opened Spotify to the first song that came to mind: “Thunder” by Imagine Dragons. I figured if the weather wouldn’t cooperate, I’d give it the middle finger. And then I threw myself a dance party.
And isn’t that the fickle way of the desert? A place of contrast, at times harsh and vacuous, eager to remind you of your vulnerability. But when the golden hour of dusk arrives, and the setting sun’s light cascades across the valley floor and canyon walls, the day’s heat dissipates into the starry night, and your anxiety from a day worried about finding water and avoiding rattlesnakes is replaced with awe, you’re reminded that everything is ephemeral and there is truth to that old adage: The only constant is change.
I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I made the decision to turn around, some six hours after my ecstatic dance party, I was letting the desert change me. This change didn’t necessarily come easily. After all, my friends, colleagues, and students often describe me as a driver. I’m the type of Type-A person who thrives on filling her day to the brim with equal parts professional objectives, outdoor recreation, and social time.
In a short story entitled “The Bowl,” my literary crush, Terry Tempest Williams, writes about a middle-aged woman who finds herself in a cherished desert canyon from her childhood, having “left the city, her family, her children, left everything behind to retrieve her soul.” While in the canyon, the woman gathers clay to sculpt three small figurines in her family’s image. At one point, the woman finds herself, and the three figurines, in the wake of a flash flood, swallowed by mud: “She sank up to her knees in the wet red clay, only to find that the more she tried to pull one foot free, the deeper she sank with the other. Finally, letting go of her struggle, she put the bowl and her family aside, and wallowed in it.”
I saw myself in that woman’s struggle. I recognized my own arrogance in my underestimation of the desert and remembered that this trip wasn’t about proving anything. It wasn’t about setting some PR or establishing a new route. It was about understanding the significance of the Bears Ears and why this monument is worthy of protection. I couldn’t do that with my head down, crushing miles. After all, the desert doesn’t care how much of a badass you are. It doesn’t care how many miles you cover or how many vertical feet you climb. You are just a blip on the geologic timeline that carved this canyon into what it is today.
And so, like Williams’ woman in the quicksand, I let go of the struggle and my ego. I chose to do less in order to experience more. I would spend the next three days exploring the lower part of the canyon I had just ascended, slowly taking my time to notice the way the light shifts throughout the day, listening to the cacophony of croaking frogs at night, observing the flickering shadows of cottonwood leaves across my sleeping bag, jumping off limestone ledges into lap pools, scrambling to higher ground to see the canyon from a different viewpoint. And in slowing down in these ways, it soon became apparent how much just one different vantage point can change one’s entire perspective.
Beef: It’s what’s for dinner?
The dirt road slowly erodes into a sandpit, my front tire augers in, and I’m suddenly flying over the handlebars. My cell phone pours out of my frame bag and into the sand. It is really a small thing, but in my state of the three Hs (hunger, heat, and hostility) I let loose a roaring “FUCK!” and begin to cry. Graham looks a bit stunned, but quickly picks up my bike and leads me away from the wreckage. Nothing some shade, water, and a pound of cheese can’t fix. We have been riding through Beef Basin for the better part of the morning, a bit anxious given our waning water supply.
Beef Basin is located just outside the south boundary of Canyonlands National Park, and with Trump’s shrinkage of the Bears Ears Monument boundary, the basin remains threatened despite its natural beauty and archaeological significance. And despite its proximity to the park, it is one of the more inaccessible areas in the region, requiring high-clearance four-wheel drive, extra fuel, plenty of water, and a certain level of resiliency; any amount of moisture renders the roads impassable.
We left this morning at first light to try to beat the heat, and in our haste to break camp, we neglected to eat breakfast. The gnawing pangs in my stomach promptly vanish as we roll past a rotting cow carcass at the foot of the welcome sign to Beef Basin. This basin’s blistering heat and lack of water don’t discriminate between man and beast.
Amidst mouthfuls of tuna wraps, we double check the map for spring locations and keep pedaling, stopping occasionally to wander through the many freestanding Pueblo masonry structures and towers. The numerous springs throughout the region made Beef Basin a suitable place for prehistoric farming and while our water supply is dwindling, we keep faith in this knowledge. Not long after my hangry outburst in the sandpit, Graham and I encounter the first spring on the map. Or rather we encounter a PVC pipe diverting a once-pure spring into a murky trough, covered in a thick layer of green slime, and surrounded by fresh cowshit. We investigate further, following the pipe to its source, only to find a slow trickle running through a hoofprint-pocked trench teeming with flies and more manure.
This would be the way of our spring quest for the duration of our stay in Beef Basin; although we eventually find a suitable spring after dropping below the mesa’s rim, beyond the thirsty cattle’s greedy tongues. At the spring, we fill our dromedaries to the brim, our bikes now 16 pounds heavier, and as the sun begins to set, pedal away from Beef Basin, torn by the juxtaposition of the natural beauty, cultural significance, and environmental desecration, a contrast we never would have noticed had we not been traveling in this way: slowly, deliberately, up close.
I think about patterns of human settlement. I decide we are not meant to zoom through landscapes at the rate we do, nor inhabit such wide ranges of land. At one point in our evolution as species, home was that which you could reach by foot. That scale of residency entails a heightened level of intimacy with the land and the type of knowledge that matters for our basic survival: The ability to squat on a piece of barren slickrock and sense the location of a pothole several miles out on the horizon line; to map the precise locations of springs and have the wisdom to protect them.
That night, after our infamous tour de Beef, we lay our sleeping bags down under the stars and along a cliff edge high above Beef Basin. Somewhere just beyond the basin, Dark Canyon carves its way toward Lake Powell. As I drift asleep, I think back to the springs in Dark Canyon, the lap pools and waterfalls, the giant cottonwoods, and about the Colorado River those springs feed. I imagine the countless farms and cities scattered throughout the West that rely on the power generated by Glen Canyon Dam. Each spring we divert, contaminate, or run dry, means that much less water downstream.
It’s easy to forget about the fragility of the desert when it’s opening a can of sandstorm, flash flood, or heat stroke whoopass. But now that I’m finally slowing down and paying attention, I can see how the puzzle fits together–an image best captured by the rotting carcass at the foot of the Beef Basin welcome sign.
Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?
My arms flail and my legs convulse. My pulse skyrockets as sweat drips down my forehead. Rather than dial search and rescue or even get out his first aid kit, my brother rolls the camera and begins narrating in an Australian accent: “We’re coming up on a wild creature,” he begins as he slowly pedals closer. “I’ve got to be very, very careful about how I approach this beast. Hers is one of the rarest. This is, folks, what 30 days of bikepacking through the desert can do to an otherwise sane homo sapien.”
I am not in fact suffering from some deadly snake bite, but rather had reached the top of a monster climb and, overcome with joy at seeing the San Juan Mountains again after nearly a month in the desert, pumped some Anderson Paak through my iPhone’s speakers and had a solo dance party.
Before you judge, consider this: Who hasn’t danced euphorically at the sight of alpenglow on mountain peaks, or felt a calming sense of clarity and focus while sitting on a canyon rim? Each of us has a certain landscape or particular place that fills our soul, fulfills our hopes, restores us to our true nature, reminds us of our connection to nature, that we are a part of it, not separate from it. And unites us with others who share that same connection. Connection to a place heals us.
This I learned from bikepacking with my big brother.
My brother arrived in Moab three weeks into my trip. I was a feral child of the desert, he, a sea-level transplant. He had recently quit his job in Riverside, California, and was looking to discover a new version of himself. We met up at a bed and breakfast around the corner from my favorite thrift store, WabiSabi, but before he’d let me give him a hug, he made me take a shower. I emerged several pounds of dirt and shades of tan lighter and he wrapped me in an embrace that only someone of his 6’3”, 200-pound stature can conjure. At dinner that night, he approvingly commented on my deviation from societal norms as I ripped apart spare ribs with my bare hands, mouth rimmed by barbecue sauce. Over pints of cold microbrews, we agreed we’d leave Moab the next afternoon to begin the 6,500-foot climb over the La Sal Mountains.
The morning of our departure, we sorted our gear in the backyard of the B&B and I tried to convince Ry-guy to lighten his load. Camp chair? Hell no. Solar shower? That’s what cow tanks are for. He insisted on bringing everything, and so I Bonnie Parkered half of his food and shoved it into my paniers. I wanted revenge for our childhood years spent out in the backyard, Ryan teaching me a new sport every day and bribing me with promises of ice cream should I correctly catch and release each baseball 100 times. When I finally succeeded, hand extended for my prize, Ryan would shake his head and reply, “I’m 10. You think I have money for ice cream?” However, I had limits to my need for retribution, as I knew there was a fine line between inciting just enough suffering from Ryan to balance the scales, but not so much as to provoke rage. What I didn’t expect were tears.
We couldn’t be more than 45 minutes from Moab, slowly grinding our way up Sand Flats Road as I consider that leaving in the heat of the day might not have been the best choice. I glance back over my shoulder to see Ryan standing over his bike, furiously pulling on the straps of his seatpost bag. I circle back and pull up beside him, taking in the scene before saying anything. His bag is flopping against his rear tire, and he can’t seem to get his fingers between the narrow gap under his saddle where the straps connect. A stream of profanities flies through his lips as he tosses his bike on the ground and storms off. After a few moments and several more profanities, Ryan returns. “This is fucked! I wanted to be totally prepared,” he declares, dejection heavy in his voice. I look up, a lightbulb going off in my head. I had assumed my big brother was infallible, but I could clearly see that he was afraid, worried he would let me down or that this bike trip would be too hard. I gently pat him on the back and offer these grand words of inspiration, “Welcome to bikepacking, bro. Shit’s going to break, climbs will be hard. That’s just part of it. I don’t care how fast we go or how often we have to stop. But if you can’t keep your anger in check, well, it’s all downhill back to Moab.” Ryan nods his solemn acceptance of these terms. We continue the upward slog, together.
That night, huddled around a campfire, Ryan can barely eat. He’s worked. And as he tells me as much, I notice tears streaming down his face. He admits that the past several months have been marked by depression, loneliness, and self-doubt. I think about the thin line between fear and anger and realize that my big brother, who I thought could know no fear, is plagued by it. Fear he won’t be financially secure. Fear he’ll be alone. All he wants is community, a sense of purpose, connection to a place. Things we all need, yet rarely get.
That night, under a full moon and clear sky, we talk about the route ahead, about his job, about the search for connection. As I wonder why I have to learn the same lessons over and over again, I redefine the purpose of my trip. I have to once again check my ego at the door. Three weeks in, I wanted to prove to myself how strong I was. How fast I could crush these climbs over the mountains and back home. However, it became clear that this leg from Moab to Durango would be about connecting with my brother. About being real with each other. About helping him prove to himself that he could do it.
Three days, 160 miles, and three mountain passes after we left Moab in our dust, Ryan documented my euphoric dance party then joined in himself. We unabashedly shook our bodies in the middle of a dirt road, mountains extending in all directions, the harshness of the desert a distant memory. We were whole, alive, and fully present. We were healed. At least for now.
Connection to Past and Future
There are over 100,000 archaeological sites in the originally designated Bears Ears Monument, and while I experienced a mere fraction of those sites, I have come to learn how important that connection to the past is.
Heritage: something handed down from the past. There are many claims to a significant heritage within the Bears Ears Monument controversy. Some claims (rooted in various tribes’ creation myths) date back to time immemorial, and some to the late 1800s with the arrival of Mormons in Bluff.
While it’s important we value each individual’s connection to place and ancestry, the recent evisceration of the Monument reflects a blatant disregard of Native Americans’ heritage. In The Edge of Morning, Klee Benally, a Dine traditional dancer, anarchist, musician and filmmaker, writes “What part of sacred don’t you understand? Essentially, we’re saying why isn’t it enough for us to say a site is sacred and should be set aside and protected and respected because it’s integral for our spiritual practice to be continued.” The fact that the Trump administration has ignored the unprecedented collaboration between five Native American tribes in designating the original monument, especially given our government’s legacy of oppression toward these tribes, and the fact that the claim to the sacredness of land seems to hold very little water in western society is something we should all find disturbing.
A thought: We ask many things of the land, and offer little in return.
Riddle me this: The land of many uses is needed for the many users among it. How do we decide which users’ uses matter most?
Question: Who will speak for those yet to come?
Another way of thinking about heritage is not just what has been handed down by past generations, but what we will pass onto the future. How many wild places will we protect to allow a place in which our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren can lose themselves and find themselves again?
Change is inevitable. Wildfires will continue to ravage our forests, water and wind carve away desert canyons, carrying specks of sandstone away. However, the mountains and canyons will endure. We, on the other hand, are fleeting. Our lives here are short and we’re reminded of that each time we pick up a piece of pottery shard or run our hands along the eroded walls of an Ancestral Puebloan ruin. They were here some 700-2,500 years ago, left their mark, and then moved on.
Through my work as an educator, I am striving to pass on an ethic of sustainability, an appreciation for and connection to a sense of place, and the ways in which that connection to place lends itself to a deeper connection to self and community. This fall, I’m taking my 12th graders on a five-day field trip to the Bears Ears. We’ll partner with Monticello-based Canyon Country Discovery Center to learn about the archeology and geology of the area. We’ll observe sustainable ranching practices at the Nature Conservancy’s Dugout Ranch in Indian Creek. We’ll interview a diverse array of Utah residents about their perspectives on the Bears Ears Monument. And as any idealistic teacher would, I hope we’ll form stronger connections with each other and the land as we share stories and s’mores around the campfire at night.
When I come upon a contaminated spring, or inhale the smoke from a nearby forest fire sparked by an engine of the economy, I cling to words like these by Terry Tempest Williams: “We, too, can humbly raise our hands with those who have gone before and those who will follow. Hand on rock. We remember what we have forgotten, what we can reclaim in wilderness.” I’m home now, no longer immersed in the singularity of purpose that can only come from a day spent riding your bike from one point in the desert to the next. I’m inundated by a seemingly endless to-do list and at times feel scattered and unfocused. But as I prepare for another school year in a community and place I love deeply, I wonder what impressions upon the rock my hands will make. What will I leave behind to those who follow? I hope as much wilderness as possible.
About Ashley Carruth
Ashley Carruth has developed a deep sense of place and community during the decade she’s spent in SW Colorado. Your best bet in finding her is to listen for her classic “yeeooop” call as she summons a group of high school students on yet another “Carruthless” sufferfest through the San Juan Mountains or Colorado Plateau. More specifically, Ashley teaches 12th grade Humanities, coaches mountain biking for Durango DEVO, and co-directs San Juan Mountain SOLES, an outdoor education and leadership development organization for high school female-identifying youth.