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.
Continue reading your story on the app
Continue reading your story in the magazine
The BEST NIGHT OF YOUR LIFE
The national parks are our national treasure, and these 10 campsites are the best they have to offer. Hike in, pick up your jaw, and post up in paradise.
Slide for Life
Taylor Gibler, 26, barreled towards frozen peril after stumbling on Mt. Baker in June of 2020.
Two gutsy climbers tackle South America’s highest summit.
Liz “snorkel” Thomas – Hiking Icon
Thomas has thru-hiked more than 20 long trails, including the Pacific Crest, Continental Divide and Appalachian Trails (the Triple Crown). On top of that, she set a fastest known time on the AT for an unsupported woman and has completed dozens of urban thru-hikes as well. This issue, she joins Backpacker as a contributing editor. Here’s some of Thomas’s best advice and insight fed by more than 20,000 trail miles.
The old backpacker’s adage is that the lightest gear is what you carry between your ears: your brain. Ultralight gear often requires more know-how than traditional gear. Here’s how a Triple Crowner approaches her packing strategy.
Tuna Melt Crunchwrap
Put a backcountry spin on a fast food cult favorite.
Out in the Open
In one of America’s least visited national parks, I find my authentic self.
Fire and Ice
Find alpine bliss halfway through this snowshoe beneath an active volcano on Artist Point Trail in Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, Washington.
A Moment in Time
The climb up Mauna Loa’s volcanically shifting landscape is never quite the same, no matter how many times you do it.
THIS SEASON’S TOP TRIPS & PICKS