The Running Bum

Running Wild With Words

By Morgan Sjogren in The Gulch Issue 9


Cruising down the long lonely highways of the Colorado Plateau there are often more billboards than cars, demanding the attention of a captive audience while blocking the view of the surrounding sandstone canyons, cliffs and spires. The scene always makes me wish I could call up Doc Sarvis, a fictional crusader in Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang, for some “night-riding on a routine neighborhood beautification project, burning billboards along the highway.”

Amidst the mostly appetite and spirit depressing chain fast food signs there are attempts to make cultural connections, like the Burger King WW II Code Talkers Exhibit in Kayenta. However, my travel weary eyes are rejuvenated each time I spot a burgeoning collection of colorful road art with vigilant warnings about an invisible serial killer.

 “Radioactive Pollution Kills. It’s time to clean up the mines.”

 The protester, a bright yellow billboard, never tires of standing tall with its message held high. Located off HWY 89 between Flagstaff and Page, it is strategically adjacent to artwork created by local physician and artist Jetsonorama (Chip Thomas), whose art can be spotted on billboards and buildings across the Navajo Nation. “While many people may be aware of the invaluable contribution of Diné Code Talkers during World War II, few are cognizant of the contribution of Diné uranium miners towards the end of WWII and during the Cold War,” Chip explains. “Anglos first discovered uranium on the reservation in 1943. Diné miners worked over 500 mines on the reservation until uranium prices dropped in the mid 1980s.”

The Colorado Plateau has a dirty past and a deadly secret. There are over 500 abandoned, defunct, and unsealed toxic Uranium mines that have never been cleaned up on the Navajo Nation. During the Cold War 5 million pounds of “yellowcake”, that is, 90% of nuclear materials were drawn from Diné land, making the U.S. the leading provider of this radioactive material by 1956. According to Chip, “In the 15 years after the uranium boom the cancer death rate among the Diné doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. During this period the overall U.S. cancer death rate declined.”

The same beautiful natural features that attract our admiration also stand above high concentrations of Uranium. Today public land boundaries continue to be drawn around sources of Uranium for potential extraction and processing despite the fact that it is currently not even profitable to mine this yellow poison. It is no secret why the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument were redrawn. In 2018 I staked a mining claim in the areas removed from the Monument, hoping it could serve as a conservation tactic to block actual Uranium mining. However, in digging beneath the surface with my own hands into the world of this toxic mineral, I learned that future undeveloped mines are only a fraction of the problem.

The Canyon Mine near the Hopi Reservation and only 12 miles from the Grand Canyon South Rim continues to pump contaminated water despite not producing any ore in decades. White Mill Mesa, owned by Energy Fuels, is the only operating conventional Uranium processing mill in the U.S. It’s only 3 miles from the Ute Mountain Ute Reservation, 20 miles from Bears Ears and the towns of Bluff, Blanding, and Monticello, where nearby groundwater is affected. With a half-life of 4.5 billion years, even closed mines will continue to pollute surrounding water sources, affecting the 40 million people who depend on water from the lower Colorado River basin. There are no protective barriers in place to defend nearby residents and there are no signs warning visitors about these hazards.


Arizona artist, Jerrel Singer, whose murals adorn water tanks and walls between Cameron and the Grand Canyon, explains, “The effects of Uranium mining are invisible. The government seems to think that a fence will solve its problems. My family are ‘Downwinders’ and have been affected by the nuclear testing they conducted in Nevada, which gave my once healthy dad deadly cancer. My art references this and showcases the beautiful land, but knowing that some of is still dangerous, I cannot go home to see my grandparents’ place, for the wind blows in that direction from the mines.”

As you drive through the desert, look closely: the “ugly highway” so described by the Monkey Wrenchers as they tossed beer cans out the car window, is transforming into a gallery of protest art. The corporate and government desecration of tribal and public lands is being recycled in a rebellious activation of the 1st Amendment. The highways through the Navajo Nation are evolving into perpetual exhibits of discontent calling motorists to action—to join the march.


The Green Room, the latest piece by Chip, silently leads the charge. The square abandoned building glows neon green from within its outer walls plastered with an image of black and white sheep. Chip dubs the piece: “a place of meditation + contemplation.” He further elaborates about his inspiration for the piece: “As a physician at a small clinic on the Navajo nation since 1987, many of my patients have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of uranium mining. I asked a co-worker whose father worked as a uranium miner in the mid 60s and who died of a uranium- related cancer if she’d share with me any memorabilia she had of her father from that period. Her mother also died of a uranium-related cancer and she has an older brother presently suffering from a uranium related cancer.”

With the doorway wide open, The Green Room’s hypnotic neon glow set against the muted pink and brown striations of the Painted Desert tugs on your curiosity, and whispers across the road, “Come, find out.” And so on a recent drive to Flagstaff I pull over in front of a dilapidated and abandoned trading post, and crawl through the opening in the red wooden fence. The pause from the long drive to examine Chip’s bold and gritty artwork is meditative in its own right but my mind finds no stillness. Rather, it picks up speed. If each of the 500 abandoned uranium mines were marked with neon green biohazard billboards, would we all sheepishly keep driving?

The art will continue to speak for the families, land, and future so drastically impacted by uranium mining, but more voices are needed. To learn more about how you can take action, The Grand Canyon Trust is a tremendous resource for educational materials, volunteer opportunities, and signing petitions. Beyond speaking with our votes, we can also write letters to our elected officials and representatives urging them to support relevant legislation, like the Grand Canyon Protection Act that aims to halt mining in the Grand Canyon forever. Lastly, the BLM and Forest Service both include public input in their management plans. It is critical that public land owners (all of us) participate in this process, especially during planning periods, by writing letters and attending public meetings.

Morgan Sjogren runs wild with words and lives outside on the Colorado Plateau. Her Four Corners-inspired writing is focused on public lands, human-powered adventure and exploration. She’s authored three books: The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes, Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic, and The Best Grand Staircase National Monument Hikes (due for release in 2019).

Explore and find your way by joining Morgan Sjogren on her sun-soaked journey through the Southwest and the clear beaches from her dreams.

An original story for

Running in the desert

There is no hint of where I am in the darkness. Only trust as I creep towards a place to park for the night. Weary from months of ceaseless roaming and running big miles to explore and write about wild places in the west my eyes cannot resist closure as soon as I arrive. Presence is as much about turning in as absorbing what is outside. As I drift off to dreamland my last thoughts are a micro-jolt of anticipation about my location.

I crave the mystery of this anticipation. At first light I open my eyes to tropical waters dancing as the pink sunrise kisses the ripples as they drift back to the sea. The air is soothing and warm against my bare skin, it smells of sweet plumeria blooms. Where the hell am I?

Morgan sitting on the ground with a sunset

Beep! Beep! Beep! The sound of a delivery truck backing up wakes me from my tranquil dreaming. The sunlight sneaks around the Mexican Blanket covering the front windshield and pinches my eyelids open. I curse reality—I have to pee. Sitting up, head still ducked below the low hanging roof, I swing the door open and face the day.

It’s a Walmart parking lot. Again.

Camped out on public lands I usually hop barefoot into the dirt, squat and pee as I take in each new day’s beautiful view. Canyon walls washed aglow in orange light, sparkly snow dusted mountain tops, and gurgling rivers weaving around boulders.

And yet, this parking lot feels decidedly even more public and wild with the fluorescently lit isles swarming with eclectic and eccentric human creatures (myself least not removed from this strange herd). I grab my leather moccasin boots, and I walk through the lines of the parking lot to face the day.

I’m barely awake as I walk through the doors, pleasantly greeted by a kind woman with gray hair and smiling eyes. I fumble my way to the restroom and after I’m relieved beeline it to McDonald’s to grab a coffee. I hit the produce section and stock up with a rainbow of fruits and vegetables—in the southwest, Walmart is an oasis.

Morgan and her yellow Jeep in the desert

I take my bounty and coffee back to the parking lot where a few sips of liquid black jet fuel propel my memory to jog back to last night’s dream.

The turquoise waves on a white sandy beach called to me, and guided me to a boat anchored not too far from the coast. Unquestioning I walked toward the humble wooden boat, stepping my toes into the warm water first, then wading and then finally swimming before pulling myself aboard. There the calm waters immediately grew into immense swells. It surprised me but did not scare me. I knew what to do—I pulled up the anchor and drifted directly into the beautiful storm—knowing that each and every direction was my own. 

I quickly get back in the Jeep, turn over the ignition, drop the e-brake and depart from the parking lot. My destination is still unknown, but my path is clear. Hope is not actually waking up on a sandy tropical beach, it’s that every single day the sunrise can kiss your cheeks and open your eyes.

Public lands and parking lots like this are beacons of freedom—a place that anyone can choose to rest their weary body and soul to recharge in pursuit of living their life. These are the places where you can always feel at home in this world. Yes, in the middle of nowhere and even at a Walmart parking lot. This is the American dream.

Purchase Outlandish to fuel your next adventure!



In these strange and scary times it’s more important than ever to read between the lines, understand our rights, and stand up to help protect threatened places and people.

When I started writing The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes I simply wanted to provide an informative and educational hiking guide so that visitors to Bears Ears National Monument could do so safely, with respect, and with an introduction to the public lands issues/current events affecting this incredible 1.35 million acre tract of land. As I fell more and more in love with Bears Ears it became impossible not to spend as much time researching and understanding the issues and policies affecting it, as my insatiable desire to spend intimate time in the canyons. To this day both seem impossible to ever digest, but I continue to move forward, like hiking slowly on a hot day to the next precious water source, in hopes that I’ll understand just a little bit more. In hopes that this knowledge can help someone else, or help me help this place just a little bit more.

The future of Bears Ears seemingly sits suspended in time since Trump’s 85% reduction in 2017, but monsoon clouds are emerging over the canyons once again. From the BLM move to Grand Junction, Colorado, the new Bears Ears Management Plan, and a proposed plan to dismantle NEPA there is a lot to be concerned about. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but like a hiking guide, I feel compelled to share what I have found along the way in hopes that it might spark something in you, for this place, that needs unbridled defenders rushing to the front lines like the wildfire sparked in Dark Canyon last month (photo above).

Bears Ears Management Plan


The new Bears Ears Proposed Monument Management Plan was released on July 26. The full document is 800 pages long, but the Executive Summary is only 24 and worth a read. I think it is especially enlightening to point out how ever so slight the difference between Plan A (the current management plan) is to Plan E (the plan they are proceeding with). Plan D is the original proposed plan and E reflects alterations based on public comments and other factors (and with only minimal variation). As Archaeology Southwest explains, “Only Alternative B met the BLM and Forest Service’s legal responsibilities for national monuments.” To help digest this, take a look at the outline of inadequacies pointed out by Friends Of Cedar Mesa, Archaeology Southwest, and the Conservation Lands Foundation.

So now what? Understanding all of this and how you the public can get involved looks hazy, feels scattered, and is not streamlined. This article can’t change that, but I have compiled the responses, suggestions, and insights of several groups heavily invested in the future protection of Bears Ears. 

Public Protest Comments

The Grand Canyon Trust explained to me that responding with a public protest comment is only effective if you have participated in other public comment periods for Bears Ears. This is because you must reference your previous comments, refer to the issues you pointed out, and specifically discuss how the new management plan does not address these areas of concern.  In addition, too many comments, especially those not carefully researched and thought out, risks inundating the BLM with protest comments that distract from those sent by lawyers defending Bears Ears in the courts.


map_Bears_Ears_Proposal_8.5x11.jpgIf you haven’t sent comments during previous periods, there is another course of action they are suggesting for anyone concerned about Bears Ears–to comment and support the BEARS Act (which stands for Bears Ears Expansion and Respect for Sovereignty Act). If passed, the Bears Ears Act would adjust the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument to protect the full 1.9 million acres that the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (@bearsearscoalition) originally proposed (see picture above via Grand Canyon Trust). You can submit a comment in support of the BEARS Act here.

Indigenous Past and Present Rights


To understand the original designation and a major part of the ongoing push for a different management plan, it is important to understand that Bears Ears National Monument was the result of a historic unified effort of five tribes (Hopi TribeNavajo NationUte Mountain Ute Tribe Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe plus 30 supporting tribes), uniting to protect this area that is culturally significant to each of them. Both the Inter-Tribal Coalition and Utah Diné Bikéyah websites offer excellent resources to understand this critical history and meaning of Bears Ears. With this in mind, note that the current management plan does not call for a cultural resource management plan until two years from now! Here is the Inter-Tribal Coalition’s official statement about the new management plan that puts this sacred landscape and cultural resources at significant risk.

Visit Bears Ears With Respect and Comment

In addition to Archaeology Southwest’s comprehensive list for ways to get involved, they include two of my favorite methods:

Yes, even this preservation archaeology focused publication encourages visiting Bears Ears with respect. It is important to experience a place like this to even begin to comprehend it and engage in this conversation. We also need people to physically go to these places, and especially sign in to the trailhead registers, to show the BLM and Forest Service that low-impact recreation is one of the multiple uses they should prioritize in these areas. If we don’t exercise this, literally, it is easier for them to justify another use method (like grazing or mining). Low-impact recreation ultimately causes the least harm on the landscape and cultural resources, while inspiring future stewards to pay it forward. If it’s impossible for you to get out to Bears Ears, get out to your nearest public lands and think about the context, of how much that place means to you, the eco-system it supports, and what your reaction would be if it’s protection was suddenly threatened, reduced, or eliminated!

Delayed Plans To Manage Recreation


With Bears Ears ever-present in the news, it is inevitable that with it will come an increase in recreation. According to Access Fund, management plans for recreation will not be created for three years. This means more people visiting the remote places in Bears Ears, but with no new plan to accommodate this, ranging from educating the public about safety precautions and visiting with respect, to methods to protect cultural resources from impacts. Access Fund is one of the plaintiffs in the ongoing lawsuit that argues President Trump’s reduction of the monument was illegal. It’s also a prime example of how people falling in love with a place, in this case, rock climbers who frequent Indian Creek, can increase the desire to step up and do something for the bigger picture and larger landscape.

Bigger Picture: What moving the BLM out of Washington D.C. means for Bears Ears


I met Stephen Trimble a few weeks ago in Salt lake City, ironically the same day the BLM announced their move from D.C. to Grand Junction, Colorado. Stephen is a fervent public lands defender, is on the board of the Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, and devotes his life to writing about these special places. His latest Op-Ed for the LA Times explains the complicated BLM move and how it relates and resonates with the perils facing Bears Ears, Grand Staircase-Escalante, and the future of all public lands. All signs seem to point in the direction of transferring the land back to the states in an effort to streamline access for extractive industries. This article explains why this is bad for public lands.


The Future of NEPA

Our ability to comment and weigh in on management plans, like this one for Bears Ears, is largely the result of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act). The Forest Service (which also manages portions of Bears Ears in conjunction with the BLM) is proposing major changes to this policy the includes a 93% reduction in public comment periods. This will drastically reduce the American public’s direct input on how our public lands are managed. The Outdoor Alliance explains the impacts and details of this, as well as provides a place for you to share a comment about the future of public comments (and NEPA) with the Forest Service. If you have a fear of time commitment, this literally takes less than a minute. Even if you aren’t the type to write a lengthy public comment, defending the rights of your fellow American’s to do so is an important way you can help out!

Roadless Rule Rollback

If your head is spinning (mine is), take a break before reading about the Roadless Rule rollback (especially in Utah and Alaska). This Forest Service proposal puts sensitive habitats, plants and wildlife species in danger. High Country News breaks it down and also provides a handy form to facilitate a speedy method for you to comment on this, yet another threat, in the ongoing assault on the preservation of public lands.

Wilderness Tithing

Donate or become a member of the groups who are taking action in the lawsuits against the federal government and their unlawful reduction of Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. Below is a quick (not comprehensive) list:

Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition, Friends Of Cedar Mesa, Grand Staircase-Escalante Partners, Grand Canyon Trust, Wilderness Society, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Access Fund, National Parks Conservation Association, Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, Western Watersheds Project, WildEarth Guardians, and the Center for Biological Diversity, The Natural Resources Defense Council.

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Trail runner Sarah Lavender Smith is doing a personal fundraiser for the Conservation Lands Foundation, “the only nonprofit dedicated to protecting & enhancing the National Conservation Lands and national monuments managed by the BLM. Their watchdog role, and their support of the 70 community-based groups who do hands-on conservation work and advocacy for these threatened public lands, is needed more than ever as the current administration seeks to weaken protections and exploit the outdoors for short-term economic gain.” Sarah will run 170 miles unsupported through the Grand Staircase this fall to help raise awareness and money. Donate here for a chance to win a copy of Outlandish and other prizes.

Now what? 

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Photo via The Gulch Magazine

Digesting all of this is exhausting, let alone taking action. This is where it is best to offer “one final paragraph of advice” from the OG defender of wilderness himself, Edward Abbey:

“Do not burn yourselves out. Be as I am – a reluctant enthusiast….a part-time crusader, a half-hearted fanatic. Save the other half of yourselves and your lives for pleasure and adventure. It is not enough to fight for the land; it is even more important to enjoy it. While you can. While it’s still here.”

Regardless of the lengths you go, any that you take on will make a difference in Bears Ears, public lands, and your fundamental rights as a citizen of the U.S. Personally, I’d like to thank you for reading this, for taking the time to learn a bit more about the policies and current events shaping our public lands and our future.





Morgan Sjogren’s 2019 Book Tour and Event Dates


Have a venue or event you’d like me to attend? Contact

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The Path Of Light was originally published in The Gulch Magazine Issue 8. Subscribe to keep these stories alive!

John Wetherill near Rainbow Bridge in 1923. Courtesy of Harvey Leake.

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

John Wetherill in Glen Canyon. Courtesy of Harvey Leake

Rainbow Bridge in 1909. Courtesy of Harvey Leake

Rainbow Bridge in 1909. 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.


John Wetherill napping at Rainbow Bridge in 1909. Courtesy of Harvey Leake

John Wetherill napping at Rainbow Bridge in 1909. Courtesy of Harvey Leake

“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.

Exploring the expanse of slick rock domes near the Rainbow Trail. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Exploring the expanse of slick rock domes near the Rainbow Trail. Photo by Stephen Eginoire


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.

Painted wall. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Painted wall. Photo by Stephen Eginoire


On this hike I am (actually) joined by Steve Eginoire, The Gulch founder and editor, and his trusty desert husky, Phil. For “research purposes,” we unanimously renounce our previous identities and time travel via a 1920 Expedi­tion to Rainbow Bridge. Leading the charge with my tan cowboy hat and bolo tie, I’m Johnny (Wetherill), the des­ert-dwelling explorer forging a life in the canyons. Steve channels Charles Bernheimer (along with a German ac­cent), the self-proclaimed “tenderfoot cliff dweller from Manhattan.” Bernheimer, a wealthy East Coast business man, used portions of his fortune to fund annual South­west expeditions over 15 years, hiring John on each of his missions (Bernheimer, Charles L., p. 6). Scampering alongside the mule train is Clyde Whiskers (Phil), a San Juan Paiute whose name is etched on so many of the can­yon walls circa 1969 and 1975. It’s not exactly historically accurate, but we enjoy calling out to Sir Whiskers as he waddles down the trail wearing his doggy backpack.

In all, we spend four nights and five days to complete our round-trip outing to Rainbow Bridge and its surround­ing canyons – overkill in terms of time needed to cover the distance, but not nearly enough time to absorb the expe­rience. We are equipped with several maps and a slew of sightseeing recommendations from Harvey, Fred and Da­vid. Like a weathered cowboy, I am quick to roll out of bed each morning as the sunlight emerges over the high canyon walls and warms my face. I boil water for coffee as I simul­taneously pack up my bedroll. Bernheimer takes care to meticulously lay out, reorganize and repack his gear each morning – a process that he has no doubt gleaned from climbing, where every piece of gear must be accounted for as if your life depends on it (because it does). I tease him about this as I read an article by Harvey that exposes Bern­heimer’s quirky city dweller habits on expeditions – dress­ing up in fancy riding pants, refusing to drink anything but boiled water and all but tolerating the simple camp food. Berny is a good sport and volleys back, “Are you in a hurry to get somewhere Johnny?”

A huge alcove shelters a large Basketmaker II site. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

A huge alcove shelters a large Basketmaker II site. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Despite the stunning posture of Rainbow Bridge (the largest natural bridge in the world) being the turnaround point, our hiking is not directed by distance or destination, and we are equally eager for the return trip. The canyon’s clues guide us along the path of explorers past. We are mesmerized by the details tucked into the jumbled tex­tures of this fractured and faulted world of stone. A mas­sive alcove sheltering a Basketmaker II site overwhelms us, Slickrock ramps and ancient hand carved moqui steps inspire scrambling. Inscriptions on the canyon walls draw us further into their stories. Gleaming pools of clear wa­ter stop our momentum, but further our experience, as we stop to swim and splash. Later we bake like lizards on the silky, skin-toned sand as oak trees leaf in bursts of green before our very eyes. We race dusk to the next pass and are rewarded to a double-edged sunset overlooking two distinct valleys as their horizons stretch our imaginations. Our evening camps increase in scenic beauty each night, and we indulge in the simple luxury of a campfire, boiled mashed potatoes with bacon, and bedtime stories read aloud from David’s In Search of the Old Ones.

On our final day, as we climb back up and over the passes between canyons, my eyes can hardly comprehend the far-reaching mystery and beauty stretching before us. I’ve pushed the pace for most of the trip but now find myself trailing, stalling, slowing down – no doubt searching for a way to linger here, if not outright stay. A chill down my spine and tears in my eyes signal a deep and instantaneous connection that I’ve only encountered in precious few landscapes. I’ve come to recognize that it’s more than a feeling but rather an intercellular knowing, perhaps better described as the inner light, that I am incapable of ignoring.

Somewhere over the Rainbow. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Somewhere over the Rainbow. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

At the base of Naatsis’áán (Navajo Mountain), with the Bears Ears behind me and Grand Staircase-Escalante in the distance, I stand at the heart of the places I’ve lived for two years. Dwelling out in the wild and within the landscape – tucked deep in canyons, sheltered in caves, bivvyed on mountains, snuggled with wildlife, laid completely bare across spines of slickrock – I feel at home in the boundless outer space. The cliff dwellings and inscriptions have never baffled me, they serve as beacons of hope that, like those who walked here before me, I can live here too. The migrations and exodus of the ancient ones ultimately remain a mystery, as does how I found myself, a California girl, so suddenly and deeply immersed in this place. Some questions are not meant to be answered, they are prompts for exploration. Here I feel a deeper connection with the rocks, the waterways, the wildlife and the past than I have in the countless towns I’ve temporarily called my home. Living in the desert lends itself to my restless nature – the words nomad, wanderer and explorer are etched onto the walls of my DNA.

I recognize fully that I am a visitor here, that this land and its roots are not my own – but what is? So often I’m asked where I’m from, and the answer has evolved from everywhere to nowhere, but these days I find myself saying, “right here.” Home is the dirt beneath my feet. Human boundaries cut, confine, contain. Earth expands, uplifts, reveals. Like everyone else, I’m merely passing through.

Inscription in a remote remote canyon below the Rainbow Trail. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Inscription in a remote remote canyon below the Rainbow Trail. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Who was John Wetherill? My exploration for John did not guide me to an obscure journal or a definitive answer. Black and white photos, quotes and oral history only provide hints. As I walk in the footsteps of his explorations, and even sit beneath his name written across the water-varnished red canyon wall beneath Navajo Mountain, I realize that to know John is more about getting to know this place, to which he devoted his life and made his home. Though his writings are few, what he managed to scrawl with his weathered hands characterizes him best, “The desert will take care of you. At first, it’s all big and beautiful, but you’re afraid of it. Then you begin to see it’s dangers and you begin to hate it. Then you learn how to overcome its dangers. And the desert is home.” (Hosteen John)

Yes John, the desert, there’s no place like it. I arrive back at my Jeep more thankful than ever that it will not start – at last, a way to stay.

Rainbow Bridge. Photo by Stephen Eginoire

Rainbow Bridge. Photo by Stephen Eginoire


Morgan runs wild with words and lives outside on the Colorado Plateau. Her Four Corners-inspired writing is focused on public lands, human-powered adventure and exploration, (including her first book The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes). Her next books, Outlandish: Fuel Your Epic and The Best Grand Staircase National Monument Hikes unleash into the wild this spring and summer.

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):

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


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


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.



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



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.

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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