The Running Bum

Running Wild With Words

This blog is sponsored by Almond Breeze. The content and opinions expressed here are that of my own.

The familiar ache in my feet puts a smile on my soul as I hop from creek boulder to sandy banks deep into the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. The 16 mile loop being my longest run in months, there are no objectives for this outing other than to cover lots of beautiful terrain now that sun finally has the strength to dry up the muddy mess winter made of the desert. I rejoice running in shorts!

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A super alpine start of 3 pm made it possible to take the final miles in as the canyon walls are painted orange in the dusk light, their magnificent towers reflected in the sandstone tinajas I stop to drink from when I get thirsty. Darkness settles in, and yet I can still make out the gleaming pools and distant ridge lines in the shades of black. I walk the final mile to let it sink in.

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Back at the trailhead I chug my recovery drink, creamy Chocolate Almond Breeze Almondmilk that tastes so satisfying I must stop myself from downing the entire carton. I chase it with a few big spoonfuls of peanut butter (protein) and devour tortilla chips (electrolytes). Recovery is incredibly important after a long day playing outside, and replenishing my system with simple foods that give me strength is always my post-finish plan of attack.  With my lifestyle, Shelf-Stable Almond Breeze is such a reliable vehicle for these types of drinks since it doesn’t require refrigeration. While this go-around I’m pretty desperate to chug the ingredients down my typical recovery drink includes the following (all blended directly in my Jeep using a 12-volt inverter plugged into my cigarette lighter):

  • 1 Cup Unsweetened Chocolate Almond Breeze Almondmilk
  • 5 Tablespoons Peanut or nut butter
  • 1 Banana
  • Sprinkle sea salt
  • Pinch Cinnamon
  • Blend and drink!

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When I’m feeling replenished I head back home, to a remote mesa, to light a fire, eat dinner and camp. I’ve spent the bulk of this winter continuing to live in my jeep out in the canyon country of southern Utah. With the completion of my next two books (Outlandishand The Best Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument Hikes), I needed time in the wilderness to center myself. Back in Bears Ears especially, I enjoyed the still splendor of winter, devoured books by the campfire, explored the landscape blanketed in snow, and contemplated my next endeavors for writing, running, and adventure.

The day after my Canyonlands run I returned to cell service and received an email inviting me to run the Boston Marathon in partnership with Almond Breeze. I’ll admit this was a tough decision –the first honestly being a reluctance to leave the desert. My list of canyons, mesas, and historic routes I want to explore grows daily. Even a weekend away pulls me from objectives that are admittedly impossible to complete in this lifetime.

As a former competitive track and road racer I’ve also always qualified for the race opportunities I’ve participated in. In previous marathons I’ve qualified for Boston 4 times but never entered the race. Since switching to trail and mountain running, road races have slipped far from my agenda. Now, after a winter of crawling and stopping slowly through canyons buried in snow, I feel ready to take on numerous adventures, but racing a marathon?

But therein lies the opportunity for challenge and adventure–which I relish! With less than 4 weeks to prepare, I set myself up to experience running a marathon the way most folks do–on a wing and a prayer that mixing some running into a life focused on life, not running a marathon, could get me to the finish line. I’ve trained Disaster Style before, and I certainly know I can do this–it just requires a bit of suffering.

With exploratory projects in the desert already lined up, they would simply have to double down as my “marathon preparation”. My current training plan is a collaborative effort to get *Expedition Ready* devised by my new *coaches*— a collective of amazing southwest writers, historians, archaeologists, past explorers—and myself. The concept is far out there, the details are fine, the routes  big, the outcomes unknown, the beta requires time travel, and the stories eagerly wait to fly onto the page. Here are some sample workouts:

  • 2 hour jog along a road strewn with petroglyphs
  • 90 minute run chasing Jeeps up slick rock ramps in Moab
  • Hill Run up the Moki Dugway
  • 4 day backpacking trip to Rainbow Bridge National Monument
  • Climbing dangerous ancient Moqui steps and doing sprints atop the cliff
  • Long days with a heavy pack exploring new routes to a location which shall remain unnamed

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In between my “big training days” I go for jogs/walks, write stories, and stretch out. Simple. While I feel far from the fitness and speed I once had, I’ve noticed a far more remarkable shift–pure joy! No longer compelled or coached to do x, y, z because it is on the schedule, I can listen to my body while also utilizing it creatively to combine my passions. As a result I am using my vehicle (legs and feet) to take me through some of the most beautiful landscapes.

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Boston will be a wild adventure, trotting down the concrete jungle with a massive herd of humans. It’s an extreme contrast to my solo meanderings in the desert amongst deer, lizards, snakes and toads. But the spirit of exploration is to branch out from what we know into new territory. I can fully attest that if Almond Breeze had not contacted me, I would not be flying to Boston tomorrow to run a road marathon–my version of terra incognita. However, I am incredibly grateful for Almond Breeze’s support—both in terms of providing me with nutritious fuel for my training and adventures, and for the opportunity to expand my adventures. My only goal is to fully soak the experience in with every step I take, and no doubt carrying a few grains of sandy desert memories with me.

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This story is published in issue 7 of The Gulch. Subscribe here.

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Like a lone desert tower, I sit on the red dirt, eyeing a storm over Navajo Mountain. It’s January, a cold and dark time to be out camping, even in the desert, but I cannot resist any opportunity for quixotic exploration across the Colorado Plateau. Be it canyons, history or artifacts, this is a place layered in secrets, steeped in mystery and covered in controversy.

During my explorations in the Southwest, my mind often bushwhacks through time. To a time long before Glen Canyon was dammed, before white men put this region on a map, and before humans stepped foot where dinosaurs roamed. My imaginary time travel has taken me down narrow slot canyons with Everett Reuss, on bumpy covered wagon rides down Hole in the Rock road, and to corn storage hubs in ancient Puebloan hideouts. Despite the perception that the golden age of discovery is long over here, the shifting layers of sand, strata and politics still draw a certain breed of mad ones, fools and wanderers as the landscape calls out over the faint zephyr winds, “Explorers wanted.”

So, on this trip back in time, I join Ansel Hall, perhaps best known and revered for his role as the National Park Service’s first chief naturalist between 1923-30. His efforts within the park system are punctuated by founding the first park museums and other educational endeavors, including self-publishing his own visitor guidebooks when the government would not produce them to his standards. A California native (like myself), Hall was entranced with exploring the Sierra Nevada, starting out as a ranger in Sequoia National Park and working his way up the Park Service hierarchy always with a focus on education.

In Kayenta, Ariz., circa 1932, alongside prominent local explorer John Wetherill, Hall became increasingly entranced by the area’s densely pocketed nooks, slithering canyons and vision-gripping mountains. “One cannot be long in the southwest without crossing the trail of John Wetherill,” Hall explains in his first “Help Wanted” ad, hoping to recruit 10 willing explorers (1933). “In the (eighteen) eighties he discovered Cliff Palace and many of the spectacular ruins of the Mesa Verde. Rainbow Bridge, Betatakin, Keet Seel, Inscription House and dozens of other names have been added to the map through his inquisitive and energetic quest for what lies on the other side of the mountain.”

To some, Wetherill was often considered less than savory in his exploratory and excavation methods. In the academic and conservations worlds, his process was a little more “cowboy” than other professionals in his field:

“‘Look at this!’ (Wetherill) walked over to the corner of the long low room and dragged out an enormous three-foot bone that he had found the week before, with the remark that he, ‘guessed the rest of the beast is still mostly underground.’” (Hall, A. California Monthly, Vol. 30 “Explorers Wanted,” 1933). Despite his lack of formal training, there is no denying his pivotal contributions to archaeology in the Four Corners.

 

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 Hall’s own appetite for adventure extended beyond his home turf, and his extensive collection of diaries detail wanderings through Madrid and Paris where he took in local gastronomy, became enamored with waitresses and toured museums. I imagine Hall and Wetherill out in the canyons on an idyllic fall afternoon trading stories. As Hall brings up his Central American travel exploits, Wetherill, true to salty local style, is not impressed, “Why go to foreign countries? There’s plenty of exploring to be done right down in this country; and as for scientific work – well, it’s hardly been touched.” (Hall, A. California Monthly, Vol. 30 “Explorers Wanted,” 1933). Hall, like so many who arrived in the Southwest before (and after him) must have been swept away in this prophetic statement while taking in the statuesque views of the Four Corners region, leading to the deepest rabbit hole of all –conservation. The duo put their crafty minds together, dreaming up an expedition with an end goal of a new national park.

The area in Hall and Wetherill’s discussion was roughly 700 square miles between the Colorado and San Juan rivers on Navajo tribal Land. Their proposed national park is quite literally filled in with red crayon on an original USGS map and encompasses a vast amount of landmark terrain, features and cultural sites. To launch the park proposal, Hall organized the Rainbow Bridge Monument Valley Expedition in 1933. A Depression-era project, on paper the expedition was something that should not be, and yet flourished in spite of the economic draught.

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The RBMV Expedition shifted from a one-season project to a behemoth production over the span of five years (1933-38) and is considered one of the last “great” expeditions of this scale. The primary objectives were ambitious: produce accurate topographical maps of the area; contribute significant discoveries to the fields of biology, geology, paleontology and archaeology;  and advance education, outdoor experience and protection for the area.

Hall was known to many as a shrewd businessman and romantic idealist but orchestrated the impossible to fund this mission. With minimal federal dollars, he pulled together corporate sponsors like Ford, Gilbuck Boats and Leica Cameras to donate funds, vehicles and equipment in exchange for photographs, stories and film from the expedition to be used in ads. The expedition’s 1938 estimated operating expense report tallies the costs at $6,000 for travel, commissary, motor, pack, haul, science, equipment, buildings, contingencies and misc., and 43 men. With inflation, that is over $105,000 today.

Hall’s “Help Wanted” ads targeted young lads with disposable income, projecting an opportunity for wild west excitement and the summer adventure of a lifetime, for $275. His charismatic recruitment rallied more than 250 applicants over the course of five years.  “Does it seem strange to ask a man to pay for the privilege of working hard, living entirely out of touch with civilization for a couple of months, and possibly even enduring some measure of physical hardships?” (Hall, A., “Explorers Wanted.”)

 

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 Expedition artists sat on canyon ledges to paint romantic scenes of Rainbow Bridge, as aerial photographers soared in planes overhead capturing stunning panoramic photographs of the indescribably unique landscape. On the ground, teams of strong, hearty guys hauled excavation gear by pack mule to remote locations in scorching heat. With no trails to follow, and sand storms and cloud bursts mentioned in nearly every journal entry, the expedition members were privy to an experience precious few were privy too – summer monsoon season OUT in the desert. They dealt with unbearable waves of heat slashed by torrents of rushing water, sometimes from storms as far as 50 miles away and indiscriminate lightning strikes in the exposed terrain. Perhaps no other season and no other place can remind humans that we are just animals at the mercy of the land. Water and food were necessarily rationed, yet photos show crew members crawling happily exhausted out of their tents in the early morning for that first cup of coffee, sun peeking over the canyon rim.

Maps used during the expedition show swaths of roadless land, requiring Hall’s assemblage of Ford vehicles to overland through sand dunes, washes and the same clay that almost stuck my Jeep this morning. Old expedition photos of men pushing the Fords in the most motley of places does not hint at hardship. In nearly every photograph, those toiling in the exposed sunlight, descending perilous cliff bands, toppling over rapids in small boats, are smiling.

Right now the spirit of adventure runs high.” (Hall, A., Adventures in Crooked Canyons, a Radio Address Over KGO, 1936)

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***

My Jeep’s tires leave behind a trail of mud on the highway as Ansel and I head past Glen Canyon Dam and take it due north, past Navajo Mountain, Tsegi Canyon and Monument Valley. We pull over in Valley of the Gods and make camp beneath the Super Blood Wolf Moon and watch the eclipse. The shadows of rock monoliths fade to black as the moon bleeds red, and there is no place we’d rather be. Without the noise of news channels or the distraction of Netflix, there is nothing to do except watch the universe move. For all the destruction we humans inflict on wilderness, this is one of the reasons we need it most.

The next morning, we take off for a run into an oncoming January storm on turf Ansel so romantically wanted to protect. With each gust of biting wind, I hear the submerged canyons, the rock art and the rapids of Glen Canyon shouting not so distant warnings. Valley of the Gods is no longer a part of Bears Ears National Monument. No major oil or gas development has occurred yet, but it is mere miles as the red tail hawk flies from glaring reminders that the worst can happen. While still federal public land, this place is far less protected from mining and oil leases than during its brief monument tenure. As we run on, leaning into the sleet, I ask Hall if he ever imagined the toll politics and destructive industries would take upon this once undamaged landscape. Of course, a man of his wit surely had this foresight – Hoover Dam began construction in 1931. Soaked like desert pack rats caught in a flash flood, we run back to the Jeep and return to the road, bound for Mancos and Durango.

Ansel and I ponder the land recently slashed by President Trump from Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, this once-protected landscape, adjacent to the massive cement wall that is Glen Canyon Dam. Beyond the 185-mile long reservoir of Lake Powell, what remains of the also-reduced Bears Ears National Monument sits in close quarters to holes carved deep in the earth to extract uranium. The most recent partial government shutdown brought critical public land protection and related research efforts to a grinding halt over funding roadblocks for Donald Trump’s proposed border wall. Among many other complicated issues, a wall would impose serious disruption to critical wildlife corridors in an ecologically sensitive region. Like ripples down the Colorado River that suddenly stop at Lake Powell, it only requires flipping a few chapters back to see we are not witnessing anything new.

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Both Hall and Wetherill once made their homes in Mancos, where they worked at Mesa Verde National Park. Wetherill discovered the ruins that would become Cliff Palace, and Hall took charge of concessions in 1937. Excited and ready to dig deep into this story, I spend the next few days with Ansel touring Mancos and excavating the expedition’s photo archives housed at the Center of Southwest Studies at Fort Lewis College. Once inside the terrain of boxed archives, the RBMV Expedition is no longer left to my imagination – I am holding and reading the very journals Ansel penned with his desert loving hands.

 “In these days most of us believe that exploration is practically a thing of the past. We envy our pioneering grandfathers, who made their way west into a land of the unknown. During the past three quarters of a century, our frontier has been pushed back, until there is very little wilderness left.” (Hall, A., Adventures in Crooked Canyons, Radio Address Over KGO, 1936)

“What discoveries may lie ahead of them, nobody knows. That is what makes exploration such a fascinating game.” (Hall, A., Adventures in Crooked Canyons, a Radio Address Over KGO, 1936)

We comb through black-and-white photos of smiling young men frolicking naked in the San Juan River, pushing vehicles through sand and marveling at ancient Puebloan structures. These are activities that resonate with anyone who has ever spent considerable time in the desert Southwest. However, there is a striking dissonance in many of these photos –specifically those taken in Glen Canyon – familiar experiences in a (currently) extinct place. As I thumb through the photos of placid water, sandstone towers, side canyons and sandy shorelines now submerged, Ansel attempts to wipe my tears but I step away. I don’t want to flood these black and white canyons.

 “Men floating down the river on air mattresses. One sits up and mattress folds like a chair. Ends in free-for-all-struggle.” (Down the Colorado, Photo Journal

Amongst the serious documentation and harrowing reminders of the devastation an area like Glen Canyon has encountered, humorous and gleeful play breaks shake me back to my natural optimistic state – the joy of experiencing these places, after all, is why these men invested in this expedition; why I am invested in stories like these. I wipe my tears and refocus on the incomprehensible swath of terrain still out there, calling me, and Ansel, onward.

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 A few weeks earlier, I met up with archaeologist Andrew Christenson over a greasy diner breakfast in Prescott, Ariz. Christenson is considered to be the leading research expert on Hall and the RBMV Expedition. He curated many of the materials now found at the Center of Southwest Studies, in addition to spending time with living members of the expedition. Christenson feels that the expedition’s most significant contribution is placing discoveries like Cliff Palace, Keet Seel and Tsegi Canyon into historical context, helping to form the cultural time sequence we reference today from Basketmaker to Puebloan.

Other successes include utilizing aerial photographs to study the distribution of vegetation across the region. Birds of the Navajo Country was published. Rattlesnake venom was gathered to produce snakebite serum. Dinosaur tracks were uncovered, and the fossil of a small bipedal dinosaur named Stegosaurus hall was discovered, a direct nod to Hall.

Yet, there would be no national park – Hall’s five-year vision quest could almost be deemed a failure. Given the duration, financial backing and manpower, groundbreaking discoveries were minimal. Even producing accurate topographic maps, one of the main objectives, was too difficult, based on the topography of the tormentingly twisted landscape.

This is also a convoluted relief, as so much of the land in question already belonged to the Navajo Nation. During my research at the Center’s archives, I longed to come across documented reasoning for Ansel’s unjustifiable scheme to stake a national park there. Was the expedition a noble project or a modern evolution of manifest destiny? Hall did write a proposal in 1937 for the Navajo to take the reins for future recreation and tourism on their land (specifically in Tsegi Canyon) while maintaining their traditional way of life, not by attempting to change their environment, but by adapting with it.

 “I propose to encourage the Navajo to live in their traditional way – to raise sheep and horse – to weave rugs – to develop their own arts and crafts – and also to profit from the influx of tourists rather than being pushed aside by them.” (Hall, A., Plan for the Northern Navajo Country, 1937)

Hall was willing to pull his own funds, rally corporate support and quit all of his other endeavors to bring this vision to life. While I cannot say that any of this justifies the planned park, it does contextualize Hall’s personal political leanings and life’s mission. One can only hope that had the national park proposal passed, Hall would have been at the forefront of rallying for native involvement, profit and especially rights within the boundaries for traditional practices.

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Ironically, the creation of Hall’s national park would have prevented Glen Canyon from being dammed. Damned if you do, damned if you don’t – the cryptobiotic crust of this landscape is impossible for anything to tread lightly upon. Glen Canyon itself was the tradeoff to protect the Green River from being dammed near Dinosaur National Monument. But as Hall prophesized, we are running out of wilderness to be used as trade.

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I’ve come to understand that public lands management is not a black-and-white chess match but more like watching a once blank map get bisected by highways, mines, smokestacks, concession stands, political bargaining and potentially even walls. I find it impossible not to carry the romantic idealism from my time travel with Ansel forward. With the recent government standstill, I shift my energy to what I can do.

Amongst folks most devoted to this place, I am warmed on a 4-degree morning here in Mancos, by the tight-knit fabric holding together Stegner’s “Geography of Hope.”

Recently passed on to me via email, I read about a federally employed archaeologist in Prescott offering to volunteer his free time for local projects. This got my muddy wheels spinning. Beyond my willingness to explore, observe and report with my hands and feet, I am not a scientific professional. Nor was Ansel or most of the men on his expedition. I’ve sent out multiple emails asking if I may volunteer my time for archaeological, paleontological and mining clean up around the Colorado Plateau. It’s time I get back out there and explore the terrain that brought me to this place in the story, to take positive steps for its future.

But for now, I’ll stroll with Ansel in the snow around Canyon of the Ancients until I find out if there are still any explorers wanted.

Editors Note: All photos and lantern slides featured in this article were captured by original members of the RBMV expeditions and featured courtesy of the Center for Southwest Studies.

Morgan ran away to the Southwest two years ago without any plans other than to explore the canyons while living in her Jeep. The story found her out there though, and she was asked to write the first guidebook specific to Bears Ears (The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes). Her Four Corners-inspired writing is focused on public lands and human powered adventure/exploration. Her next books, Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic and The Best Grand Staircase National Monument Hikes unleash into the wild this spring.

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Pre-Order Now: https://aerbook.com/store/MorganSjogren

(Unleashing this beast May 2019!)

Outlandish is a sun-soaked starter manual to fueling your own epic. In this guide, the canyoneering wordsmith and adventurer Morgan Sjogren shows how outdoor adventure can become your lifestyle. Through her riveting personal stories, flavorful recipes, and the book’s gotta-go-there photographs, Sjogren shares her advice and lessons learned from years exploring the desert Southwest while living out of her canary-yellow Jeep Wrangler. Outlandish is a gorgeous guide to a more adventurous life.

In Outlandish, Sjogren shows how to sleep better in a car, build a cooking fire, overcome calamity, repurpose bacon grease, leave no trace, sun-dry tomatoes on your car hood, cook food on a hot engine block, and select practical gear for your tailgate kitchen. Equipped with little more than Outlandish, a backpacking stove, a cooler, and a few staple foods, you can seek out your own adventures fueled by Sjogren’s inspiring outdoor lifestyle as well as her favorite burritos, dandelion salads, campfire blondies, and prickly pear margaritas.

Sjogren offers up dozens of recipes that draw from the places she’s been―Sedona, Bears Ears, Yosemite, Silverton, Utah―and help her tell intoxicating tales of exploration and mishap. There are taco recipes remembered from the highest mountain in Mexico and “50 Shades of Burritos” with flavors taken from around the Four Corners.

Outlandish is equal parts fuel for the body and food for the soul. This smart and meaningful guide comes straight from the Utah canyon country and deserts of Arizona to share lessons learned from a life lived in wilderness. Sjogren’s exhilarating guide will stoke your desire for adventure while offering tools, tips, and tricks that can help you launch your epic.

 

 

Screen Shot 2018-10-22 at 2.34.38 PMWhat her story—set in the American Southwest—reveals about the future of our public lands
“They said if we didn’t succeed they would never hire women again.”Ada Hatch’s smile reflects the brilliance of her yellow sundress when she says this. But it’s not a sugary smile; it’s a grin full of spunk and vigor, one that hints at true adventure and wisdom.Now 76 years old, Ada spent the summer of 1962 working as one of the Southwest’s first women hired to work on an archaeological site as part of the Glen Canyon Salvage Project (1956–1963). It was her first job and a mission backed by the National Park Service through the Museum of Northern Arizona. As construction on the Glen Canyon Dam neared completion, the project, which spanned more than 2,000 prehistoric sites, aimed to conduct “archaeological, ethnographic and historical research under emergency conditions in the Glen Canyon area of the Colorado River in response to the threat of losses posed by the Glen Canyon Dam” (excerpt from a letter sent to Ada from the Department of the Interior). It was a rapid-paced effort to uncover, contextualize and attempt to understand the complex history of the region’s Ancestral Puebloan cultures who lived in the area long before any European settlers. An already challenging task was crunched into a nine-year time span before the opportunity to learn from the land would be lost forever.

Constructed between 1956 and 1963, the Glen Canyon Dam created one of the largest man-made reservoirs in the United States—Lake Powell—diverting water from the Colorado River to provide water and hydroelectric power to millions of people in the West. The controversial project drastically changed the landscape from a flowing river between towering red sandstone canyons (186 miles within Glen Canyon alone) to a huge lake with 1,960 miles of shoreline and a capacity to store more than 26 million acre-feet of water. The water levels began rising in 1963 and continued to rise until 1980, flooding the canyons above the dam and around the Colorado River, Countless side canyons, narrow slot canyons, picturesque grottoes and 18 rapids were lost, along with an irreplaceable wealth of archaeological sites.

A present-day photo of one of Lake Powell's side canyons. Lake Powell was created by the development of the Glen Canyon Dam between 1956 and 1963.

Like the pottery and artifacts that Ada helped unearth from the desert soil, there are layers to her story. It requires digging. Her immersion into canyon country began in a place with a long history that is now obscured. The research, documentation and stories she was part of cannot bring back what is submerged under the water and silt created by Glen Canyon Dam. But like the artifacts Ada and her crew unearthed, Ada’s stories are a reminder that if we listen, we may find the past has taken new forms.

Ada, a 51-year resident of Page, Arizona, a small town originally built for the workers on Glen Canyon Dam, welcomed me into her home built lovingly, piece by piece, by her now-deceased husband LeRoy. “I met my husband when I was 35, I was married for 35 years, and now I’m on to the next 35. It’s been a good life.” Ready to tell her story, Ada had a photo album, newspaper clippings and maps out on the table. The essential components for an evening of desert-dweller raconteuring.

Glancing around Ada’s home, it’s impossible to resist the urge to gaze out the window, where distant red sandstone cliffs sit adjacent to Lees Ferry and the Colorado River just prior to its entrance into the Grand Canyon. Every wall, shelf and tabletop is thoughtfully adorned with local decor, artwork and photography. It’s clear that Ada herself is a part of the desert and a colorful piece of its artwork. “Any art that I purchase for my collection, I make sure to learn how to make it myself so that I can fully appreciate it.” She shows me a Navajo-style rug (still on the loom), silver molds and baskets she has woven.

The inspiration for Ada’s collection began the summer of 1962 on Paiute Mesa at the site known to archaeologists as “Pottery Pueblo,” a structure from the Tsegi phase of the Pueblo III culture. The excavation uncovered 15 courtyards, 81 rooms and 5 kivas. Specifically, Ada and the women in her cohort, Dorothy “Dottie” Deal and Mary Anne Stein, were tasked with the tedious work of cleaning, stamping and cataloging artifacts, mainly potsherds. In addition, 10 Navajo men helped excavate the site while a group of archaeologists—who were also men—managed the research and oversaw the work. The ceramic evidence collected by the group helped determine that the structures were inhabited by household units of migrant farming families between A.D. 1260 and 1280. (Stein, Mary Anne, 1984, Pottery Pueblo: A Tsegi Phase Village On Paiute Mesa, Utah; Dissertation for Southern Methodist University).

Ada holds up black-and-white photos of the summer she spent working on the Glen Canyon Salvage Project in 1962.

Inspired by the ancient artistry, Ada, Dottie and Mary Anne took the time to learn to make coil pots in the traditional style: “After you scrub 5,000 pieces of pottery, you want to understand the full weight of what you are working on. We collected the clay, boiled beeweed for the coating, and picked yucca to make paintbrushes.” Ada kept the pot she made for many years before it eventually fell apart.

Although Ada only worked as an excavator for a single summer, the experience sparked a lifelong love affair with the area where she still hikes weekly and explores the endless maze of canyons that weave in and out of Lake Powell’s shoreline. “I said I’ll stay here until I see every canyon. I find a new canyon every single time I go out.” Page is situated near many of the Southwest’s major geological attractions—the Grand Canyon, Vermilion Cliffs, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

Ada heads to the kitchen and returns with ice cream and a plate of cookies (fuel for our mission to dig up old photos, read through her documents and pinpoint locations on topo maps), and then opens up a map searching for the location of the Pottery Pueblo site. She finds the site on the map and explains there was no road to get there in 1962 and that today, even with the road partially paved, it would still take many hours to reach. The red sandstone mesa is more than 500 feet across and flanked by two box canyons. The climate isn’t for the faint of heart—the site is surrounded by low piñon, junipers and shrubs, which offer minimal relief from the heat.

Thumbing through black-and-white photographs of their camp, work sites and artifacts, Ada reflects on what she considers the best summer of her life. There are photographs of the entire crew reuniting in 1999. Beyond memories of sleeping under the stars, Ada’s recollections are filled with shenanigans. For example, she and the other women pulled a squeamish prank to find out whether the men actually brushed their teeth, “We stuck a mouse’s tail in a toothpaste tube. It took three days for it to come out and it made them scream!” Ada, Dottie and Mary Anne still remain close friends, visiting each other annually. Several of the men have passed away in the last few years, but Ada’s memories are all fond, especially for her boss, archaeologist Alexander “Lex” Lindsay.

Detail of a black-and-white photo of a woman working on a loom during the summer of 1962.

Ada explains, “He was very serious. He was anxious for us to go. He told us, ‘You girls are gonna make the difference, and if you succeed out here this summer you will put more women in the field. But if you don’t succeed, we’re not going to send any more out.’ ” Ada pauses, “And unfortunately that’s just the way that things were.”

She explains that Lindsay’s concerns were largely focused on whether the women could withstand the extreme living conditions, including primitive camping in a remote area of the desert during the hottest time of year with limited water. Ada affirms that all three women handled the accommodations without any issues.

As archaeologist William D. Lipe, who also worked on another site for the Glen Canyon Salvage Project, notes in his paper, “Glen Canyon, Dolores, and Animas-LaPlata: Big Projects and Big Changes in Public Archaeology,” in the 1950s, the field of archaeology had a common practice of placing men in the field and sequestering women in the lab—or worse, not hiring them at all. Despite the stern pronouncement made by Ada’s superior, the Northern Arizona University sector of the Glen Canyon Salvage Project was one of the first to challenge the norm.

Following that summer, Mary Ann went on to earn a Ph.D. in archaeology, using research from the excavation to write her dissertation “An Archaeological Survey Of Paiute Mesa” (1966). Ada earned a master’s degree in anthropology from Northern Arizona University, while her work on Pottery Pueblo inspired her to learn the Diné language and become an elementary school teacher at the Tuba City Unified School District. To this day, she still volunteers in the Page Unified School District, teaching students to read and how to write in cursive.

Ada arrived in the Southwest after the dam was already built and the water was creeping up, making her work on the Glen Canyon Salvage Project a bit like diving into the deep end. Her work required her to strive to preserve a place she would never fully know. And in turn, she has spent a lifetime in the Southwest and continues to use Lake Powell and her boat as a launching point to explore new canyons. The past has opened up new doors.

Lake Powell today.

In addition to exploring the area surrounding Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Ada is committed to preserving and protecting it.  “It’s been hard to adjust to the increase in tourism to the area over the last few years. Especially the traffic and the trash.” Ada says human waste and disrespect for the land might pose the most imminent threat. She finds and picks up trash on every hike that she goes on and has volunteered for week-long cleaning missions (she humbly highlights this for the way people are treating public lands, not for her services). But beyond the news headlines and politics, Ada feels that the simple act of leaving no trace and picking up trash is a straightforward step that every person who visits our public lands can take right away to conserve them.

Part of the work to protect public lands involves recording and sharing stories. Ada’s experiences exploring the Glen Canyon area for more than 50 years provides incredible context about the future of the places we care about. Ada loves this place so dearly that she made it her home, continues to study it and in turn, helps protect it. The future of any place will always be uncertain, but the intricate layers of a story told with love help carry the legacy of those places into the future.

 

unnamed-1.jpgAnother endless drive across the desert. Dust swirls. silent mind.

Arrival feels as impossible as the beer I can’t quite reach in the ice chest behind my seat.

Visions of sitting outside by a campfire at sunset. A night walk through the sage brush. Being in one place for a night.

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Stillness can only be found -inside- it seems.

Driving on down the bumpy dirt road. Tire goes flat. Nothing was built to last, but sure was made to fix.

RoadTrip-5.jpgThe circles continue. Closer and closer together. Tighter turns. Nevada, Utah, Arizona, California. Home on the wide open western range. Places become the familiar faces, to a neighbor on the way home to where? I’ll never get there. There’s no place to arrive. I’m a vehicle. I pass, write on through.

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Photo Credit Jay Kolsch

You are uninviting, treacherous and hostile but also hauntingly beautiful, mesmerizing, inescapable. I am possessed by enigma. Unable to resist long trips to see you. Deep inside your canyons I find myself in a lovesick spell, drawn towards each twist, turn, pour off and log jam with no concern for the danger that inevitably I will face. Your direct sun bakes the sand directly into the cracks of my dry skin as you envelop me. Exposed in your interminable horizon I am free. Squeezed between your narrow passages I want to know every inch of you. And yet I know I will never do more than scratch my feet across the surface of your cryptobiotic crust.

You warn me not to visit during summer—you wrongly assume the biting flies and monsoons will keep me away; along with the bitter cold winter storms and impassable wet dirt roads. I can’t quit you.

Running towards you and into myself on a long, narrow, winding route with no markers, I have fallen in love with a place. You etch yourself like rock art onto my soul, like the canyons your thorny brush has carved into my skin.

But the wilderness, the desert, doesn’t love you back.

When I wrote that line, or something like it in my first book, I meant it. And I actually started to believe it. Sitting alone near the Paria river I contemplate why I chose to invest my love, my precious time, on something incapable of loving me back in return. Unrequited. And yet, I always return with the same anticipation, reuniting with a lover I’ve longed for.

Because if you truly love something you go. You spend time with it. You listen to it. You learn from it. You share secrets with it. You look deep inside of it. You immerse yourself in it. You care for it. You expect nothing from it.

And above all, you protect it.

When I get past the noise in my own head, the discomfort bestowed upon me by being near you, I see clearly you love me in your own language. A tinaja filled with water when I need it most. Romantic barrel cactus blooms at my feet. Silky sandy beaches beneath golden sunlight and next to waves of….more golden sandy beaches. Shady coves and slot canyons to incite my imagination. Ribbons of mud in canyon bottoms to gleefully slide across. Sitting alone in silence with you I have companionship with full autonomy. Solitude.

Today, in the desert, sprinting across your sand dunes, finding solace in your deep dark recesses and feeling the warm zephyr winds across my face, I whispered “I love you,” between the narrow canyon walls. The words themselves utterly meaningless, but the way it felt, hand pressed against the striped rocks and warm sun flashing into my eyes, was everything. Alone with you, I relearn the meaning of love.

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