Save The Desert
Backpacker|March - April 2020
Bears Ears is a desert paradise. It's up to all of us to keep it that way.
By Morgan Sjogren

The desert always seems so pure. Scooping up sand in the wide entrance of Arch Canyon, I cast my gaze upward where clouds linger on the sandstone spires, as if to hold onto the view just a bit longer. With the sun kissing my cheeks into a smile, my eyes trace down from the rim to a line in the cliff which clutches a small, rock structure. I’m reminded: The desert is less nature’s blank slate than it is an ever-growing time capsule, collecting stories for a millennium and revealing them to those willing to listen. My story lives here, too.

It was this exact spot, in 2017, during my first hike in Arch Canyon—one of my first in the greater Bears Ears area—where I realized not even the soaring canyon walls were enough to shelter me from a broken heart at what my life had become. When my eyes dried, I got up, brushed the sand off my legs, and left. I was looking for escape, but the canyon was offering only depth.

Throughout history and literature, the desert has been a place of healing, exile, and solitude. Its vast open spaces hold crevices and caves, a mingling of exposure and protection that sets the stage for a reckoning. I came to Bears Ears because I needed space to be alone, to rest in safety, to scream at the sky. After that first, failed hike, I contemplated leaving the desert. But I knew that wouldn’t really help me get better. I decided to stay—all year—navigating the network of twists and turns through the rock strata. I thought going deeper into the geologic layers would scour me of the film left by a tumultuous divorce and expose something better underneath.

Wild weather swings and harsh terrain ensured I never got stuck in the quicksand of inner turmoil. The focus required to live in this environment moved me past my trauma and kept me in the present. I never feared the coyotes howling nearby in the night; they were friends who would protect me from the violence I had escaped in my marriage.

I’d wanted to be alone, but soon found, through pictures pecked into sandstone and moonlight illuminating an orange wall decorated with human handprints, that Bears Ears is not an empty desert wilderness. It’s a place with a human history that dates back 2,500 years or more, to when the Basketmakers first carved their existence from the sandstone here. There are stories—old and new—all written in the sand. It’s impossible to feel alone.

Cradled by the desert and falling in love with it, I forgot my personal problems when I heard that the area might lose its National Monument status, reducing the level of federal protection. A few months later, it happened. The 1.3-million-acre monument’s boundaries were redrawn, scaling them back by 85 percent and making the excluded areas vulnerable to mining, drilling, and other extractive industries. I cried again, but not for myself.

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