Morgan Sjogren’s 2019 Book Tour and Event Dates
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John Wetherill near Rainbow Bridge in 1923. Courtesy of Harvey Leake.
Ch-ch-ch-ch-cha. The gears of my Jeep grind to a stop as I attempt to reverse out of my U-turn in the middle of the two-lane highway cutting across the backside of Navajo Mountain. It’s as if Sunny (the name of my stubborn old yellow mare) knew we were near the end of the paved road where her services were no longer required. Using fourth gear, the only one still working, I limp the old gal off the side of the road and tie her up next to an old metal water tank, “Bull Shit” streaked in red graffiti across it. I grab my pack and continue on without her, as is becoming far too customary on my desert expeditions.
A storm blew my Jeep north to canyon country over a month ago, when I began following a muddy road retracing the footsteps and stories of one of the Southwest’s most notable, misunderstood and elusive explorers – John Wetherill. John’s work spanned ranching in Mancos, owning a trading post in Kayenta and guiding the rich and famous in the desert. However, he is best known for his major contributions to U.S. archaeology, along with his brothers in the Wetherill clan, who differentiated the Basketmaker people from the Puebloans based on skull shapes, in addition to locating sites like Cliff Palace and Keet Seel. John is specifically written into the history books as the first white man to step foot under Rainbow Bridge. Despite his national renown and lifetime of accomplishments, John was a quiet guy who kept thin records, less than 15 pages scribbled in pencil, of his explorations (Blackburn, Fred. The Wetherills, 2006. P. 128-131). Unlike his more outspoken brother Richard, whom he out-lived by 30 years, John shunned spotlights on his accomplishments and often handed off the credit of his discoveries to the tourists he guided (Blackburn, p. 111).
The silence created additional space for trolls to fill in the blanks, accusing John and his brothers of unethical excavation practices like using dynamite in cultural sites and plundering artifacts for profit. All disproved in time, his fine work and revered reputation among natives and academics spoke volumes. Nary an explorer of the region, past or present, would deny being inspired by “Hosteen John” (a nickname respectfully given to him while living amongst the Navajo in Kayenta). Until the very end of his life in 1944, most adventurous souls (including Teddy Roosevelt) heading into the heart of what still remained a mysterious blank on modern maps, chose to hire him as their trusted guide.
John Wetherill in Glen Canyon. Courtesy of Harvey Leake
What little we know about John has been relayed through the reports of the men he guided and Wetherill family history, much of it passionately compiled by his great grandson Harvey Leake who is devoted to this documentation in addition to his day job as an electrician. My quixotic mission to “explore with John” began by meeting with Harvey in mid-February at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Disheveled and frazzled, my tan brimmed hat hiding my desert rat’s nest of bed head, I parked the Jeep and ran through the snow into the Shrine of the Ancients to make our 9 a.m. appointment. Harvey, already out-front waiting, greeted me eagerly while insisting we go inside to find a quiet corner to talk. As we took our seats, Harvey cannot hold back, “You got John all wrong!” It’s a direct criticism of my characterization of John in, “Explorers Wanted” (my last story for The Gulch, Issue 7). The admonishment is paired with an exuberant smile and a spark in his eyes – the kind that wells up when you are about to share something special, like a grandparent bestowing a birthday gift to a young child.
Ears wide open, I scribbled furious notes as Harvey set the record straight about John’s pedigree as a pioneering archaeologist and first-class human being. Stories about John could fill countless adventure novels and Western films, and perhaps that’s why his personal records are slim. The man seemingly used every precious second of his life tracing the lore of desert mysteries, while helping others curious spirits do the same. In terrain that at the time was still not completely mapped and is still in times of modern navigation tools seriously mysterious and seldom seen, John covered an unfathomable portion of it.
“When you get to a fork in the trail, will you choose the path of progress or the path of light?” -Harvey Leake
From here Harvey’s tone took an abrupt turn and he looked directly into my eyes, “When you get to a fork in the trail, will you choose the path of progress or the path of light?” he asked. Not exactly the dry history lesson I came here for. He explained this question is a tenant of the Wetherill family passed down to Harvey via their Quaker roots and life amongst the Navajo. The Quakers believe that human actions are directed by personal responsibility (“inner light”) as opposed to being puppeteered by God. The Navajo similarly believe in the personal choice to select positive thoughts and actions to impact the lives of not just themselves but the collective, as explained by Wolfkiller to John’s wife, Louisa, who translated many of his stories from Diné to English. Outliers in mostly Mormon Mancos, the Wetherill’s faith rooted in spiritual equality ultimately made them feel more at home amongst the Navajo, prompting their move. Reminding me that this was not a rhetorical question, Harvey asked me once again which path I would choose, to which I responded, “The path of light.”
Harvey smiled, and we proceeded to pull out maps, including a topo from 1953, to dissect an expedition route I planned to retrace. Two hours later, we’d hardly scratched the surface when Harvey needed to hit the road. Waving as we drove our separate ways, I rolled up a burrito and headed to the South Kaibab Trail. Looking down into the snow-frosted layers of geological time, I contemplated my next move in between bites of beans. Despite fully knowing that the tremendous recent snowfall would make canyon wandering impossible, I returned to the Jeep and pointed north on the highway. The “path of light” leading me to Cedar Mesa.
I kick my running shoes together, shaking off some of the red Utah mud they’ve become caked in as I’ve spent over a month of the Colorado Plateau’s wettest winter on record living outside in the same canyons that John also called home. During long dark nights, temperatures dipped into the single digits, I devoured accounts of John’s “discoveries” and adventures as told by his exploring contemporaries T. Mitchell Prudden, Neil Judd, Jesse Nusbaum, Ansel Hall and Charles Bernheimer. Burning the midnight oil (of my headlamp) I read that, “Nearly all the brothers’ archaeological excursions took place in winter, the only season they could spare from ranch work. The sheer logistics of Wetherill’s toil in Grand Gulch – up before dawn, working long into the night, camping in snowstorms, packing artifacts by horseback over 100 miles back to Mancos – testify to his diligence.” (Roberts, David. In Search of the Old Ones, p. 36) In these words I found comradeship for my efforts to stay warm at night wrapped in thrift store fur coats and down blankets, full days navigating new winter approaches into already sinuous canyons, and the reward of experiencing the details of this place in a way that few will ever know.
It’s far from an ideal time of year to be in Grand Gulch and surrounding canyons, the same area where John discovered the infamous Cave 7 burial site. And yet, stomping around in thigh-deep snow will remain some of my fondest passages through this landscape. Buried boulders made every step precipitous as I used a downed juniper branch to scout for ankle breakers and self-arrest on the ice-glazed slickrock. Low sunlight and the contrast of the white foreground brought new life to rock art as faded red handprints and etchings of spread eagles wings lurched from the rock to touch me. Cliff dwellings, woven into the pockets and folds of the landscape, now demurely peeked out from behind towering curtains of ice suspended from caves in mid-air. The surrounding sandstone walls were bedazzled by gleaming chandeliers of frozen hanging gardens.
It felt as though the snow and ice would cling to Cedar Mesa indefinitely – further freezing its portal into the past. A rare intimacy and stillness overtook me as I slowly moved through it. “The snow will be with us for several moons now, and if you roll in it and treat it as your friend, it will not seem nearly as cold to you.” (Wolfkiller, as translated by Louisa Wetherill, p.64) I clung to this guidance as I deepened my friendship with winter, the daily freeze-thaw cycle entertained me immensely, and the season momentarily felt eternal. And yet, the sound of dripping, then flowing, and eventually rushing water told otherwise as the sun rapidly melted the canyon Valhalla into a muddy oasis.
Even the heaviest winters are ephemeral in the desert. Today, the sun warms my back as I leave the broken-down Jeep behind and follow the dusty, dirt rez road to its true end, the place where the Rainbow Trail, blazed first by John, begins. Though there is a well-maintained trail laid out in front of me, I take a moment to comprehend what traversing this landscape sans maps or marked route felt like for John. I look over the unending expanse of slickrock domes, hidden canyons, river confluences, and untouchable mesas all butted up against the ribcage of Navajo Mountain, the heart of this landscape. At 10,300 feet, it is still covered in snow, and the occasional icy breeze blows down, making the contrasts of this region, the past and present, the known and unknown, all the more enticing.
Along this convoluted road from Bears Ears to the Rainbow Trail, I’ve serendipitously crossed paths with prolific writer David Roberts, whose award-winning work spans from mountaineering to the Colorado Plateau (his true love). He and his wife Sharon were visiting from Boston and graciously welcomed me to stay with them in Bluff as we spent several days trading stories and driving around Cedar Mesa. Mornings began with dark steaming cups of coffee as we both furiously edited our upcoming books. One afternoon drive around Cedar Mesa prompted continuous storytelling and beta exchanges – the passion for place buzzing louder than any song on the radio ever could. We stopped at the ghastly gash in Comb Ridge, where Highway 95 bisects it, and stared up at its grandeur. Despite both of us having traversed the ridge, (documented in David’s Sandstone Spine, which guided my own crossing last fall), we continued to dissect the ways we would do it if given another opportunity to explore an 80-mile-long swath of stone. Nights wound down with cold beer as we rotated between reading local history juxtaposed with each other’s stories. Before his departure back home to Boston, David connected me with researcher and John Wetherill chaser Fred Blackburn, along with a slew of tips and reading materials to keep my momentum humming.
I met up with Fred in Cortez over a greasy diner breakfast. He held back no profanities as his storytelling dove abruptly between Wetherill history and his own work as a BLM ranger, which he described as his “Vietnam” and “doing his time.” It is imperative to note that Fred’s extensive “reverse archaeology” helped document much of John’s discoveries and pinpoint their “lost” locations, most notably Cave 7. Our conception of John today is as much owed to Fred (and Harvey who has teamed up with him as an ally) and his tireless efforts to locate John’s poorly documented work. Plates cleaned, we moved our party (meeting is much too stiff a word after five cups of coffee, five strips of bacon and the expletives being launched between us), to Fred’s office. Digging through his extensive archives, we ultimately blew off discussion of John completely, shifting to the future of Bears Ears, a place Fred says he won’t return to, like many proclaim about Glen Canyon, now looted and maintained beyond his nostalgic recognition. We did manage to pull out the maps, and Fred excitedly drew his favorite route to Rainbow Bridge upon it, complete with notes for tracking water and rock art. So enraptured in our banter, Fred lost track of time and had to bolt for another appointment. He encouraged me to stay behind, and I lingered just long enough to peruse the photos on the wall and his historic book collection.
Despite having extensive information about John Wetherill directly from primary experts, my head spins, unable to process it all. I can’t yet put my finger on what could possibly be the missing piece. Rather than a clear picture of John, these encounters gifted me a treasure trove of maps, beta, clues, stories, laughter and genuine friendship only understood among the obsessed, or perhaps possessed, explorers of the Colorado Plateau. And above all, an even greater itch to get out and explore. David and Fred, and Harvey, are my Scarecrow, Tin Man and Cowardly Lion, walking arm in arm down the path lit up in late-afternoon sunlight on the Rainbow Trail.
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!
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.
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):
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”)
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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(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.