Last December, my brother Will and I took my father, who now has serious trouble walking and resides in an assisted living facility in Austin, Texas, to Utah. The aim was to meet up with some of his longtime friends, mostly members of the Sierra Club, who are infatuated with the Colorado Plateau. These pals and comrades-in-arms have been gathering in a tiny hamlet to ring in the New Year for decades.
Boulder, Utah. Where the heck is that, you might say? Well, you’d be forgiven for your ignorance and yet you would probably want to know more, because it’s a pretty far-out place in many ways. For one thing, it’s in the middle of the southern part of the state of Utah. The big, weird rocks and utter loneliness of the whole area have such an effect on people that I understand my brother when he calls it ‘the church of southern Utah.’ Being there is, in fact, like going to church, in the best sense of the term. You feel reverant and somehow purged of all bad feelings by its mystery, minus the mumbo-jumbo.
Now Boulder is supposedly the last town in the lower 48 states to receive mail by mule. The poor mules walked along a scenic trail which some of them apparently fell off from time to time.
Their service to the community ended in the 1930s, when the federal Civilian Conservation Corps finished a gravel road connecting the two metropolises of Boulder, population 266, and Escalante, pop. 878, further to the south. This circuitous link, which goes up and around and down, is called Hell’s Backbone and is kind of a wild ride, too, as the name implies. Most drivers these days would prefer Highway 12 from Escalante or Torrey, to the north. But another possibility is the semi-paved Burr Trail that comes in from the east, and that’s what my brother decided to take to get our father to Boulder for New Year’s Eve.
When I was a teenager in Salt Lake City, I did some backpacking in the canyons of the Escalante (the last river to receive an official name in the lower 48) and its tributaries, including a lovely place called Death Hollow. It may have gotten its name from the long-suffering mules falling into it. It is truly lovely, though. And those trips changed my attitude towards a state I was new to and not getting along with very well. That church of southern Utah experience came over me, and I realized there was something sort of magical down there in those fissures and streambeds and rocks.
I then moved away from the West, and didn’t go back to that part of the state until after Clinton created the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. That seemed like a wondrous thing. Extraordinary land protected forever. Until the end of time. That was the reasoning behind the designation of the first national monument, Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, in 1906. It was supposed to go on like that, forever!
But as my father loves to say, after Chaucer, “all good things must come to an end.” I guess that is true, but don’t know it should be so. In any case, the US has had its ups and downs as a country. For example, the bit about the end of time, wasn’t that what the government said to Native Americans over and over? In the 1868 treaty with the Sioux, the Indians were promised the Black Hills of South Dakota forever and ever, until the end of the world. I remember reading that somewhere, maybe in a museum. But the agreement, signed and sealed, only lasted until the next gold rush.
We know, in fact, that the US has not seen the end of the gilded eras of robber barons, blatant and tolerated corruption and total lack of respect for treaties and people’s rights,etc. Our current president, who doesn’t like exercise and knows nothing about natural beauty, has declared that the monument lands of Grand Staircase/Escalante and Bear’s Ears, created by Obama at the request of five local Native American tribes, have now been reduced by half and 85% respectively. This is to open up these places to oil and coal development and save them from being overprotected for the general public. The general public, ordinary people who like walking, in goobledygook language, have been referred to as ‘special interests.’
Well, when we, my brother, sister-in-law and father, came into southeastern Utah on December 30th (from New Mexico via a tiny piece of Colorado) we drove past the southern end of Bears Ears on state highway 95, a road that doesn’t get much traffic in the winter. We crossed paths with one car on the 90 some miles to the Hite Bridge over the Colorado river. We had a schedule to stick to but I couldn’t help gawking. Bears Ears is sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni and Ute peoples and is chock full of well-preserved artefacts from ancient dwellings going back over 10,000 years. Not to mention an incredible trove of Triassic fossils.
But most of that has to go, to allow coal mining or oil drilling to boost the local economy, say local politicians, Secretary of the Interior Zinke and Trump. They think nothing of tearing up places that are akin to Mayan temples or the Vatican. I shook my head. Surely there had to be a way to save all of this fantastic land from fly-by-night activities.
We reached the Colorado, crossed the striking white bridge at Hite and then went over the Dirty Devil river soon afterwards. This is the northernmost point of Lake Powell, the reservoir created by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado. The lake is receding and what we saw below us was unnavigable. We stopped to take pictures and I let my old dad out of the car to stretch his numb legs
Then we piled back in to continue our drive over to highway 276, which we turned off of just before Lake Powell’s Bullfrog Marina to get onto the Burr Trail. I had never traveled on this particular route before and was wondering why that was so. How could I have missed it? But here we were, at last, on a perfect day in the dead of winter. It’s 67 miles to Boulder and the only sign of humans or development that we encountered, apart from what we were rumbling on, were two gung-ho cyclists and some cows grazing in the southern end of Capitol Reef National Park. No towns, no farms, no houses, no telephone poles, electrical lines, no nothing except for mountains, plateaus, escarpments and canyons. All of that overwhelms you, and also makes you feel thirsty for water, even when it’s cold. No country for unprepared people, that’s for sure.
The Henry Mountains (last peaks to be named in the lower 48) appeared off to the east, and the Waterpocket Fold to the west. Capitol Reef was due north.
At a certain point, we went up over the Fold, which looked as if some gods were messing around and started hurtling slabs of rock into a line of clay. The pieces then got stuck every whichway. That seemed about as plausible an explanation as anything else. What the heck. We all did a lot of gaping and picture snapping and sighing. If we’d lingered a little bit longer, with some alcohol, we might have started speaking in tongues or something.
Our party reached Boulder just after sundown and joined my parents’ old friends at one of their homes. I found a calendar there with pictures of reunions from bygone years, including one with my mother in it. I touched her face. She was gone, but her spirit was here with these people. She had fought the good fight for air quality and preservation of public lands. She also liked Boulder. I remember when she was thinking of selling her house in Salt Lake and buying property here, where the nearest supermarket is over 30 miles away and state liquor store many miles more. “That’s crazy,” I told her. “You like malls, boutiques, theaters….and wine, for god’s sake!” My mother reconsidered, and she and my father, still on more or less amicable terms after their divorce, contented themselves with visiting their community of friends on a yearly basis.
Our hostess this evening thanked me for bringing my father. “Like old times,” she said. Her husband, Gibbs Smith, had passed away very suddenly a few months beforehand and the get-together in 2017 was a tribute to this man, a publisher and man of ideas, who had sort of started the whole Boulder adventure to begin with. After the northern part of highway 12 was finally paved in 1985, the village became easier to get to from the capital. The good road basically put it on the map for nature-loving city slickers.
Gibbs printed some beautiful volumes about the Escalante area itself, one of which I look at fondly now and then. Some of the people I met at our New Year’s Eve gathering, where we quaffed wine that had been brought from all over, included the developer who designed and built the attractive Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we stayed, and a photographer and alpinist who lives near Boulder but travels the world. He said that after going to Ladakh in the winter, he most looks forward to exploring the unknown, unnamed canyons of southeastern Utah in the spring.
We briefly discussed the fate of Grand Staircase/Escalante and Bears’ Ears. I was struck by the fact that these seasoned activists didn’t seem to be terribly worried about sudden rampant destruction. They pointed out that many things, such as coal mining on the nearly impenetrable Kaiparowits Plateau, to the west of where we were, had been tried in the ‘70s, and come to nothing. Mining and energy companies want things to be cost effective. Hauling ore that might not be as desirable as in the past from places that have few roads and no people makes even less sense than before. An encouraging sign was that a power plant, the Navajo Generating Station, just south of the Glen Canyon Dam, was slated to be closed. It is the sole customer of a local coal mine. So much for more of that.
Utah, as we all know, is a red state, which means that ‘development’ is considered synonymous with ripping up the earth. It is unfortunate that one of the most interesting and intact landscapes on our planet is under the stewardship of people who couldn’t care less about it. But that’s how the cookie crumbles, sometimes, and why you have to be constantly on your toes if you disagree with lax stewards.
We spent the next few days with our friends who knew every little cave and slot canyon in the neighborhood. I cajoled my father into trying to do part of an easy trail strewn with pieces of petrified rock. I held his hand to get him over slightly steep spots, and waited for him to creep along the flat ones. I knew it might be the last time he had the opportunity to actually hike in the church of southern Utah.
Wallace Stegner’s Beyond the Hundredth Meridian, about John Wesley Powell and his explorations and legacy, is a must. Powell, by the way, was the man who named Glen Canyon, the Escalante river (after Father Escalante, the 18th century Spanish explorer), the Dirty Devil river, the Henry Mountains, etc. After getting through the first half of the book, which describes Powell’s trips down the Green and Colorado, you’ll want to throw on a pack and run out into the wilderness yourself.
Trail Guide to Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by David Urmann, publisher Gibbs Smith
Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey
The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey
Red by Terry Tempest Williams
Archeological significance of Bears’ Ears:
Information about Boulder: http://boulder.utah.gov/;
Boulder Mountain Lodge: https://utah.com/boulder-mountain-lodge
Burr Trail: https://www.nps.gov/glca/planyourvisit/driving-the-burr-trail.htm