Morgan Sjogren ➸ Running Bum

Writing to protect the soul of wild spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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***

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lake Powell today.

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

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

 

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Photo Credit Jay Kolsch

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

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

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

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

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

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

And above all, you protect it.

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

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

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The interminable intervals of green trees and worn farmhouses below heavyset clouds along Interstate 91 in Vermont tugged at the tears buried in my eyes. Behind them sit visions of long runs beneath 12,000 foot peaks on dry dusty eastern sierra roads when Gabe would paint pictures of his home state and mountains, “It’s so green. You’d love it Mo.” And it was, even greener than he ever made me imagine it to be. When I finally made it, I felt two weeks too late.

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Exactly one year ago both Gabe and I walked off the track in Portland likely for the last time as competitive track racers. I came back from months of injury and to PR by 1/10th of a second in the 5000 meters. Gabe struggled through a 10K after weeks of lackluster training. It can always go either way. I’m not sure either of us knew we were “done done” that day, but as we walked slower than I’ve ever walked before towards the car I felt painfully aware that the stoke of chasing numbers on the clock did not mean as much to either of us as it once did. I tried my best to cheer him up, to plant seeds of summer fun, of future racing and that there is so much more in life than racing or even just running. I didn’t want to drop him off and leave him alone in his hotel room that night but he insisted and so I did. When Gabe made up his mind there was no arguing, which is why we so often fought like brother and sister in between repeats in Round Valley or before getting on the bus. No mind though, Gabe was always first to incite an apology when it felt right on his watch, the same way no run was done until he decided it was done. Which is how many of his 20 milers became 23 milers.

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Gabe and I bonded over our love for the mountains and for running. Simple. Getting either of us to leave our 8,000 foot sierra sanctuary literally took an important race to push us out. Otherwise 12 months of the year we were holed up and logging miles beneath our beloved granite peaks. A distaste for leaving town left us to spend holidays, Thanksgiving and Christmas together every year with anyone else that stayed back in town. Gabe came to Mammoth not knowing how to cook a damn thing and by the first Thanksgiving could cook a whole turkey with all the fixings—and nearly eat in one setting. Stuffed to the gills we’d sit around with our teammates and write haikus. I’ll never forget the one he wrote. It wasn’t a haiku at all, but instead the genuine sentiment made me realize that our band of misfit runners and local dirtbags was truly a family. “This was the best Thanksgiving ever. I am so full. I’m so grateful for my family here in Mammoth.” I kick myself for not keeping the poems we all wrote and shared around the table as the snow fell down outside in the night sky.

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Today the memories are still so real that they bombard me in real time. I can hear his voice and see his beautiful seamless stride flying around the track and down the mountain roads he loved. In between I can hardly focus on reality. I go between feeling numb and feeling everything at once. Our lives experienced upheaval from that day on the Portland track forward, just in vastly different directions. We both left Mammoth without much notice, with a feeling of needing something much different and far away from our mountains no matter how much we loved them. When Gabe and I ran together it was a safe place. Our conversations often went silly, wild, weird, deep, supportive, sad and silent. On one of our last runs together we ran past the Mammoth/Yosemite airport and piece by piece designed the ultimate new airplane that could drop each passenger off at their individual destinations. We’d have the ability to band together for a time and when we each needed to go our own way we could simply press a button, eject and take off on our own flight, our own desired course. I think this memory haunts me most because that is exactly what we did. From the original crew of runners that arrived in Mammoth in 2013 everyone has now gone their separate ways. Moves to new states. Starting new careers. Recharging running careers. Being crowned Kings of Cannabis. Getting divorced. Having babies. Gabe often expressed how hard it was to watch our family disbanding. With so much upheavel in his young life that began far far away in Ethiopia, he once told me that he wished we could all be one fucked up family together forever. When he left I could not blame him for getting out. Soon I left Mammoth too.

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Gabe’s final destination, back home in Vermont with his family, would be just one of the many places I passed through in the month on June. We all have our own ways of dealing with the chaos of life, especially when it hits us in tidal waves. For me, the response seems to be to keep moving and experience as much as I possibly can, resisting the urge to get hung up on any one moment. I stared out the window letting the green flash by in a moment that would thankfully last longer than most on my two-day drive from the east coast to Colorado. Alice In Chains interjecting my thoughts, “Am I wrong? Have I run too far to get home?” In my own quest to find a space to call home, living a nomadic life on the road and constantly having to move on from places and people that I love, I contemplated the strain that type of existence likely played in Gabe’s young life. No point in analyzing now. I’ll never understand the intricacies of what Gabe was dealing with, the past that haunted him, nor the pain that he lived with.

 

What I will always remember are the many laughs that we shared. That he started each day in the back of the Mammoth Track Club van studying Amahric, Arabic and Spanish. The way he’d quote rap songs in between intervals to pump us up, “Nothing can stop us, we’re all the way up!” When he learned to cook with salt for the first time. Sporadic pep talks when he’d pull me aside and tell me how much potential we both had in running—that we couldn’t give up, the best was ahead. Watching him run with his powerful and graceful stride down the dirt roads of long valley or crushing an uphill tempo at 9,000 feet. His c-walking dance moves that always surprised everyone in the room. Double days taking ice baths in the creek to ensure that we were completely recovered for workouts. Listening to his stories about the other mountain areas he lived in–Vermont, Gunnison and Ethiopia.

In July I made it a point to pass through Gunnison where he went to college and earned two NCAA Titles in the 5K and 10K. Almost a month after I heard the news of his passing in Bears Ears and collapsed to the ground and yelled out into the canyons, the wounds were still raw. And along the way I had the beautiful privilege of seeing the journey that Gabe took with his running across the country to some of the most beautiful spaces imaginable. A journey that would eventually lead him to Mammoth where he would run a 2:12 marathon and 1:01 half marathon—solidifying him as one of America’s best distance runners and an Olympic hopeful.

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It’s been months since I’ve been able to open up this draft. It’s Thanksgiving today, the first in my recent memory without him, and his two heaping plates of food, and away from home in our mountains. I flash back to one of the last runs we had together at Laurel Pond across from the Mammoth airport. Over the course of a brisk paced 8 miler in even brisker temperatures we hatched a vision for a “self-ejecting” plane that allowed individuals to press a button and launch themselves in flight, apart from the rest of the crew and go their own way. The way they needed. I didn’t realize fully then, and perhaps he didn’t either, that we were both about to press the button on a flight far away from the Sierras that would completely alter the course of our lives. It’s only when we are forced to let go and move on from everything we’ve ever known that we can finally blaze a path all our own.

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It’s difficult for me to understand Gabe’s choice except that I never doubted him. He expressed a similar sentiment to me. Gabe ran his life on his own terms until his tank was empty. His smile and stride flash by in fleeting memories to remind me that everything can be gone in an instant, but the memories will always remain embedded on our soul. The pain of losing a dear friend still feels like Epsom salt in a blister after a long run, but with time my gratitude grows, it reminds me of what it is to live a life beyond the edges of comfort and safety. That it is better to run towards your passion until there is nothing left than to give up, or worse, never try at all. What a gift to have run this earth alongside such an incredible burst of a human. Thank you Gabe.

 

 

Afterward: It seems beyond fitting to me that Adrianna and Jeremy Nelson gave birth to their first child, Alexandra, on Thanksgiving. What a gift to bring a new spark into the universe and help give her the wings to chart her own course.

 

 

 

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Photo: Andrew Burr
Morgan Sjogren and Jenn Shelton run into the beauty of the unknown in the French Alps. Photo: Andrew Burr

The Disaster Training Plan

Morgan Sjogren   |   Jul 26, 2017
Story originally published on Patagonia’s Blog “The Cleanest Line”

“We just have to run 20, 30 or 50 miles a day over some mountains. What could go wrong?”

When I received my itinerary from Jenn Shelton to run the Tour du Mont Blanc, I took a hard swallow of quickly drying saliva, knowing that my background as a middle-distance track racer (specializing in the 5K) would not prepare me for the 105-mile Tour du Mont Blanc which passes through three countries (France, Italy and Switzerland) and gains 30,000 feet of elevation in the technical terrain of the Alps. While I lacked the typical preparations needed for a through-trail run of this magnitude—I don’t run 105 miles in a full week let alone four days—my stoke to explore a new mountain range was high, as was my willingness to hop on a plane to Chamonix and prepare myself for the biggest run of my life with just five day’s notice.

Granted, this particular method did not help me or my running compatriots, Jenn and photographer Andrew Burr, actually finish the Tour du Mont Blanc (TMB), but it proved effective enough to help me run farther than I ever thought imaginable in three short days, despite torrential downpours, wrong turns, snowy mountain passes and minor injuries. While it’s no scientific formula or rule book by any means, the Disaster Training Plan will help prepare you (mostly mentally) for maximum adventure and “fun” when you have the urge to take on something way beyond your current fitness, perceived ability or experience level. You don’t have to be a professional athlete or an ultramarathoner to complete an epic multiday trail run—you just have to be crazy enough to say yes and accept the inevitable beat down that will happen to you along the way.

Photo: Andrew Burr
The locals stare in wonder as Morgan Sjogren and Jenn Shelton giggle their way directly into the next storm. Photo: Andrew Burr

Pregame

Every runner knows that with less than a week until your event the only thing left to do is taper (to rest your body), carbo load and hydrate. I took this very seriously in the days before taking on the TMB—with an “easy run” straight up the vertical K in Chamonix “just to get a coffee.” Another option is to just lay in the grass and stare up at Mont Blanc as you study the guidebook. Individual definitions of the chill pill may vary. The result (hopefully): feeling in tip-top condition on the first day, so you have a true baseline of just how hard you will run yourself into the ground.

Pack Light

If you are using the Disaster Training Plan, you are already a glutton for punishment so don’t make it worse by bringing anything unnecessary in your pack that will weigh you down. I carried my trusty M10 Jacket, Houdini Pants, Nano Air Jacket, extra socks, water and lots of snacks. Bottles of rosé are important. Don’t forget those. They quickly help you forget about that next 5,000-foot climb up ahead.

Ready, Set, Hike

On game day, we set a not-so-strict start time of 9 a.m. and took off … at walking pace. This confused the hell out of me because in track I run fast, not slow, and walking is not even in my forward motion vocabulary. However, I learned this strategy will save your legs for the long mountainous stretches of trail in the days to come. Three days later I sang the praises of the stage one “Tour of Sidewalking” as I crawled, exhausted, shivering and with trench foot, up two 5,000-foot Italian mountain passes in a massive rain/sleet/snow storm. I will never scoff at the notion of walking ever again.

Photo: Andrew Burr
When disaster strikes, just furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment. Photo: Andrew Burr

Refuel

On long days, make sure you are eating plenty of real foods—things like spaghetti and meatballs, beer (yes, that’s a food group), candy, Nutella and hard-boiled eggs. There is no science behind this. You have two options in the disaster plan: Eat what tastes good or eat what is available. A soggy tuna sandwich can quickly become both when you are lost in Italy with many hours of running ahead of you over yet another mountain pass.

Shake It Out

When you complete a section of a multiday adventure, don’t immediately sit down and start drinking wine. Open the bottle and stretch it out. A bit of active recovery in the form of yoga, light walking, medieval sword fighting or even dancing will help keep your blood circulating and your muscles from cramping up. Remember: You’re not done yet, so don’t act like it.

Read the Maps, Guidebooks and Signs

You’re already going much farther than you have any business going. Don’t screw it up with a wrong turn and make your day exponentially longer. Of course, this is the disaster plan and you likely didn’t even take weather conditions into consideration before you started. All it takes is one heinous storm of slashing rain to leave your map in less-than-useful condition and the signs impossible to find through the mashed potato thick fog. When this happens don’t forget to smile and find other uses for it like toilet paper, tissue or even a rain hat.

Photo: Andrew Burr
Jenn and Morgan consult useless rain-soaked maps in a quest to find the next refugio. Switzerland. Photo: Andrew Burr

Expect the Unexpected

When the Disaster Training Plan is followed properly, you will have a distinct advantage over your fully trained compatriots: no preconceived expectations. Even the most skilled, talented and prepared adventurers will face challenges and major obstacles, but a bold soul like you expects this and therefore is much more resilient in the face of adversity. It’s what you signed up for. When disaster strikes you will furrow your brow, look it in the face and laugh with the madness of truly living in the moment.

Heart Trumps Training

The mental training required to complete a big mountain mission can’t be overlooked. Andrew—a climber who admittedly did not run more than six miles (ever) before the TMB—is likely an alien or has magic powers, but he swears that he is able to keep pace with professional runners (all while carrying heavy camera equipment) because of his mental game, “If you love adventure, you have to be able to turn your brain off and enjoy the suffering part of the process.” So yeah, it’s going to hurt. Deal with it.

Accept Failure and Enjoy the Journey

Some rad dude (Yvon Chouinard) once said, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong.” Disciples of the Disaster Training Plan are seeking just that. You didn’t jump on this trail to get a finishers medal or set a Strava record. This is a transformative experience. One that will break you down to nothing more than your underwear (because your clothes are permanently soaked) as you eat yet another plate of pasta at an Italian refugio while the rain beats down upon the tin roof. You will wonder how you will take one more step, but you go on anyways because you have no choice—the nearest train station is an entire country away over, yes, another mountain pass. However, the Disaster Training Plan does not discourage making the bail-out option your new goal. Sitting through a marathon travel day of hitchhiking, plus multiple trains and buses, in your rain- and cow-shit-soaked clothing is a right of passage all its own.

Photo: Andrew Burr
Rain-soaked gear? No problem! Morgan dines in her underwear and demonstrates one of the benefits of the Disaster Training Plan: always having a great bar story. Photo: Andrew Burr

Be Willing to Recover

Don’t expect to walk away from this game plan in one piece. Afterwards, you will drink whiskey. You will need ibuprofen. You will buy cheap frozen peas to reduce the swelling. Your ass will be laid up on the couch. You will elevate your swollen limbs. But you will accept and ingest all of this with a twisted smile on your face basking in the glow of proving the naysayers (most likely your own body parts) wrong.

While the Disaster Training Plan may not leave you fully ready for the heinous slog you are about to begin, it will save you from the worst type of agony possible: the regret of not even trying. At the very least you will always have a cool bar story, and maybe a few battle wounds, but more than likely you will uncover a piece of yourself that can only be found deep in the wilderness while traveling under the power of your own motor along the edge of a path unknown.

 

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Morgan (“Mo”) Sjogren runs wild with words anywhere she can get to with running shoes and a pen. A lifelong competitive runner, Mo is a newcomer on the trail and mountain racing scene. She currently lives out of her Jeep Wrangler at the best trailheads all over the western United States.

The mountains strengthened her legs, lungs heart. But the desert, it strengthened her soul. It’s silence sang loudly and it’s dirt danced wildly around her. The one place the kept calling her back.

She cracked open the windows and let the summer rain inside and set her spirit free. There were burritos to make…

A few attempted cracks of the beer cap on the ephemeral sandstone rock saluted the world of open freedom. There was nowhere to go but a place as still as this one allowing a whirlwind within to unlock the magic.