The Running Bum

Running Wild With Words


At 18,491 Feet Pico De Orizaba is the highest peak in Mexico and the 3rd tallest in North America.

On March 18th Michael Versteeg and I summitted the mountain together. Then  he decided he wanted to run up it.

Two days later he broke the FKT for ascent of the peak by 8 minutes (2:02) and set the standard for also descending the peak (46 minutes) for a total time of 2:48.

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Link to original story:

“Keep digging!”

I’m slinging an ice axe like a backhoe into the muddy road on Deer Flat, a stretch formerly within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument. My partner, Michael Versteeg, spurs me onward as he too uses his ice axe in an attempt to dig out the front tire of our van, buried up to the wheelbase in the hellacious clay that keeps most everyone off this high-elevation mesa during winter. We are completely stuck and it’s obvious no one has driven down any of these San Juan County roads in weeks.

Morgan and Michael's van in a ditch

It’s hard not to laugh amid our deep frustration and the sweat on our brows, but we press on. We came here to investigate. We’re outdoor athletes staking a mining claim, with no intention of mining.  

On Feb. 2, this swath of Utah land*, overseen by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), was reopened to mining claims. Places like Deer Flat are no longer protected within Bears Ears, along with critical areas that used to be part of Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument. The loss of protection is a result of President Trump’s December announcement allowing public land boundaries to be reduced. Now, more than 1 million acres are potentially open to “mining, drilling and other industrial activity,” according to The New York Times.

In preceding weeks, news media explored whether there might be an 1870s-style land rush on the now-unprotected land. Headlines read: “A Modern Land Run? Trump move opens Utah to mining claims under 1872 law” (Reuters) and “Uranium Miners Pushed Hard for a Comeback. They Got Their Wish.” (The New York Times). So far we haven’t seen any miners. We haven’t seen anyone. Just Michael Versteeg—writer, climber and Arizona Trail FKT holder—and me, covered in mud, toiling with our “mining tools” to unearth the van, which appears to be perilously close to making Deer Flat its new winter homestead.

The archaic mining laws governing this process were written nearly 150 years ago, raising important questions of efficacy and relevance in 21st century land management: How simple is it to stake a mining claim? How does this process work? Would it be possible for us to go and stake a mining claim, and if so, could it be used as a land preservation tool?

Just a week before the administration’s decision to resize Bears Ears and Grand Staircase took effect, we dreamed up the scenario of effectively “racing” miners in order to “block” them. If successful, perhaps larger conservation groups and corporations could follow suit and we could collectively protect these sensitive areas that are susceptible to future mining.

Bears Ears

We derived the concept of using a mining claim as a potential preservation tool from Michael’s research for an essay he penned about cattle ranching on public lands. He learned about an interesting “fight fire with fire” tactic attempted by the Grand Canyon Trust in Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument in the ’90s. Michael explains, “The nonprofit purchased some cattle grazing leases to attempt to preserve sensitive areas but that also required leaseholders to actually graze. And just like that, the Grand Canyon Trust entered the cattle business.”

At best, we could use this tactic by staking a mining claim to potentially protect 20 acres of land from mining, while also learning a great deal about the multi-use of our public lands system. In our quest, we quickly discovered the process of staking a claim is not nearly as simple as it sounded.

And if we staked a claim, would we have to actually mine? After all, this would directly counter our original objective (to preserve and protect a swath of land from new mining) and it isn’t really a career path either of us are considering. According to the General Mining Law of 1872, striking a claim requires the following:

  • Erecting corner posts or monuments
  • Placing a monument in a conspicuous place (This can be a three-foot-high stone mound, wooden post or metal post.)
  • Posting a location notice on the monument that must include: the date and location on the ground, the names and addresses of the locators, the name of the claim or site, the acreage claimed and a description of the parcel on the ground (This does not qualify as an official “discovery” of a valuable mineral but simply a claim.)
  • Complying with the requirements of 43 CFR Part 3830, 3832 and 3833 (which implies figuring out what the heck 43 CFR Part 3830, 3832 and 3833 means)

As we read through the mining resources available on the BLM’s website, it appeared to us that striking a claim only required that we:

  • Not put down stakes on prohibited land (like a national monument, which inhibits new claims but not pre-existing claims) or on someone else’s claim
  • Follow the exact parameters/instructions for the type of claim (lode or placer—ours would be a lode)
  • Record the site with the county clerk (which costs $12)
  • Send the recorded documents to state BLM headquarters and pay your fees ($212)

Should your mining claim be approved by the BLM headquarters via this process, you are only required to complete the annual maintenance and assessment work (valued at $100 in improvements to your claim) or file for a waiver (this is the 43 CFR Part 3830, 3832 and 3833 stuff).

In fact, if you do wish to actually mine, staking a claim does not give you the right to actually do so. According to the BLM brochure for mining claims on federal lands, there must be a proven discovery of a valuable hard mineral (another process altogether). If you stake a claim but make no discovery, it is even possible for someone else to come and discover something before you do and take over your claim via a court dispute. Another key piece of information: If you actually make it past these stages, having a claim does not mean you own the land; it merely gives you permission to extract surface minerals. Following the multi-use ethos of the BLM, it is perfectly legal for gas and oil leases, cattle grazing, recreation and any other permissible use to co-exist within the plot of land where you are mining. So, even if we were successful in staking a claim and making a valuable mineral discovery, we would only potentially be protecting 20 acres from other mining activities and not other uses.

To ensure we had all of the correct information and to procure the proper forms, we headed straight for the Monticello, Utah, BLM office on Jan. 31. Dressed in our working pants, brimmed hats and boots, and plenty dirty after living on the road for several weeks (skiing, ice climbing and exploring hot springs all over the West), we certainly felt we looked the part. Here, most of our remaining questions were answered and we were able to get hard copies of the information available online.

Back in the van, I time traveled deep into 147-year-old mining laws and history, while Michael had a modern breakthrough—LR2000. This is the software program the BLM uses to record all active, pending and closed mines, and therefore, our key to discover where mines have been claimed in our areas of interest and what 20-acre plots were still available. Upon entering the world of LR2000, he was treated to a complicated system, difficult even for a man who used bioinformatics (aka complicated computer codes) to study anthrax in a Northern Arizona University lab in his past life. Michael furiously scribbled down numbers and drew lines across our Cedar Mesa/Grand Gulch topo maps and, before the lunch hour was up, had uncovered the information needed to locate mines or free spaces to claim.

We hit the road with stakes in the trunk and dreams of protecting 20 acres of land. Our first stop was the former eastern boundaries of Bears Ears (about two hours outside the town of Blanding) to locate what other claims look like for inspiration and instruction. The area is dotted with active and inactive claims staked next to one another for miles, and all are as simplistic as the 1872 law explicates—four metal stakes in the ground and a monument post in the center. Some mines did have piles of tailings and remnants of old mining activity, like rusted tools and tin cans.

Michael prepares to place stakes 660 feet from their monument, per the requirements of a lode mining claim.

Ready to stake our claim, we made our way up Deer Flat, a plateau on the southwest edge of Elk Ridge, an area rumored to hold the next boom of mining activity in the area, and according to LR2000, also heavily staked out (likely pre-existing claims). As we drove up the winding dirt road, I took in the beautiful views of White Canyon dropping sharply next to us, and the actual “bears ears,” two distinctly shaped, high-elevation Wingate sandstone mesas, in the distance—reminders of the true reason we are here.

High on Deer Flat, conditions changed rapidly. A thin and melting layer of old snow sat atop a perilously thick and slick layer of muddy clay. Our van skidded into a thigh-high dirt embankment, delaying us four hours.

It was 4pm on Friday and we had nothing to show for our work except a damn near empty gas tank and everything we needed to stake a claim. After freeing our van, Michael and I looked at each other—why not keep going? Windows down, I hung my head out scouting locations as my tumbleweed of blonde hair whipped around in the wind. We settled on a spot just below the road that jutted out across the rim of Deer Canyon. We pulled over and loaded up our packs with four metal stakes, materials for our monument and location notice sign, a climbing rope (to measure the dimensions of our lode claim), an ice axe and a few beers. We jumped down the sandy roadside, hopped over the boulders and tiptoed around cacti.

Morgan tapes their notice of location to the monument at the center of the mining claim.

“This is it!” Michael stood on top of a rocky outcropping, declaring the place for our monument. He hammered metal stakes into the ground with an ice axe and inserted a 4-foot length of plastic tubing and built a rock pile to support the base. I taped our location notice across the finished design officiating our claim. The moment stung with irony—how much time, work and money we put in this week for an unknown, if not outright frivolous outcome. The only claim we were staking was our love for the land.

As the sun set, Michael and I came to terms with the fact that we would not be able to finish staking our claim before dark. We set up camp alongside our mine and devoured beans and tin cups of whiskey as the stars appeared overhead. I lay wide-awake all night wondering about the uncertain future of this incredible place.

The sun sets over areas formerly within the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument.

Saturday was another working day as we hauled our packs back to our mine monument first thing in the morning. Using our 70-meter climbing rope, we measured and selected the locations for our four stakes. We scrambled over slick rock, held the rope across wide ledges and crawled through dense juniper trees. At each stake, we stopped to take in the views that ranged from dripping springs to sandstone towers, and then moved on to our next marker.

We staked the claim in less than half a day, making this surprisingly the quickest part of the entire process. But since it was a Saturday, we had to wait around until Monday to record the claim with the county clerk and mail the finished documents along with a check to the BLM headquarters in Salt Lake City.

Their claim sits on the edge of a canyon, which made staking it another adventure all its own.

In total it took us six days to research, stake and file for a mining claim. We asked the clerk’s office staff whether they saw a bump in claims since Feb. 2 and they gave no indication there was any activity beyond normal. The LR2000 software can take weeks to update, in addition to the 30 days notice allowed between the date of staking and filing a claim. Therefore, it is yet to be seen whether there was any increase in recent mining claim activities. We did, however, connect with an NBC Left Field reporter, Ali Withers, who came to the area to test the same concept. She completed the process and her approval is still pending. The Salt Lake City BLM office did send us the stamped paperwork for our officially accepted claim dated Feb. 7, along with 36 pages of reference materials—an A+ in the lengthy test of successfully staking a mining claim.

So what was the point?

This is a question Michael and I wrestled with throughout the experience and still do to this day. Our research early on quickly made us aware of just how insignificant our actions would likely be in terms of preserving land. At best, if we executed all procedures to a T (check), paid our fees (check), made a valid and successful discovery of a valuable hard mineral, and maintained and improved our 20 acres, we could potentially prevent someone else from actually mining directly within our plot. Is this a valid way to protect critical areas left out of the new Bears Ears and Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monuments from mining? It certainly is not a very efficient nor an affordable one. Although we plan to maintain and improve the plot at least for the year we are contracted to do so for our claim, it remains to be seen how challenging it will be to hold on to it for that length of time. After all, someone could make a discovery of a valuable mineral and “claim jump” us.

Ultimately, I found that staking your claim isn’t about hammering posts into the ground. It’s about exploring our public lands, learning as much as you can about them and why they need to be protected.

*Author’s note: Although the specific statements about our experience in Bears Ears cannot be directly applied to land no longer protected within Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument—which for instance is being scouted for coal mining versus uranium—we learned that the processes of staking a claim and outcomes as a preservation tactic are very much the same.

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Did you know the public has 60 days to comment on how they feel the lands removed from Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments should be managed? These areas still fall under public lands but will be potentially open to new mining, drilling and ranching contracts unless they fall within Wilderness boundaries (ex Dark Canyon in Bears Ears). Beyond this, there are many other considerations necessary for the BLM to protect and maintain both places—this is not just an issue of preventing damaging uses of the land but also activating the federal government to do right by them and use our tax dollars directly within their jurisdiction in a constructive way. Another thing to consider when writing is whether these actions related to Trump’s decision to shrink the monument are even legal at all…….WRITE NOW!✏️

Comments on the planning process at Grand Staircase can be emailed to or via mail at 669 S. U.S. 89, Kanab, UT 84741.

Comments on the Bears Ears planning process can be emailed to blmem> or via mail at P.O. Box 7 Monticello, UT 84535.

So now what? Since President Trump’s decision to shrink Bears Ears National Monument I have been asked almost daily what people can do to get involved, or even to understand what the heck is going on in south east Utah. Before I dig into some of these ideas, I think that its important to remember that this is about a place that deserves and demands respect, protection and education access to the public regardless of the lines drawn or erased on a map. It is my hope that everyone remembers for just a moment what has not changed before or after the politics of a National Monument–that the sacred places are all still there, the hiking routes are fair game for anyone willing to use their two feet and the areas removed from the Monument are still public lands.

Despite the many positives we can focus on (which is how I choose to live my life—anger does little good) the changes obviously make Bears Ears increasingly vulnerable to the effects of other public land uses like mining, drilling and cattle ranching. These always have and will continue to coexist with conservation and recreation on our public lands (and in fact existed in the original Bears Ears NM boundaries as well). Of course careless and greed driven decisions on how to manage our public lands can and will have devastating effects on the environment, historical and sacred sites and ability for the public to enjoy them.

The future of Bears Ears National Monument will now be tied up in court and heated lawsuits for years to come. Conservation groups, tribal alliances and even outdoor big business corporations will collectively pool their resources to fight against the debatable ability of a President to make such a drastic cut on a Monument which directly pushes back against the Antiquities Act. For the average American, but if you’re reading this I doubt you are anything but average, there is no straightforward answer and its easy to wonder what effect, if any, our actions have on the outcome. This is where we must think collectively, if everyone did something, even small, imagine…..

I’m going to stop rambling. I don’t care what your motives for getting involved are. I do not care if we completely agree or see eye to eye about the issue. Heck, you might even be against the Monument but still wish to get involved in the protection of an incredible wilderness area. Or maybe you still aren’t sure what exactly is going on and want to study up before making a decision. I have sourced the following ideas by some of the most incredible and caring minds working tirelessly on this case. There is truly something for everyone here—whether you choose to make the effort to travel and volunteer, donate money or dig deeper into understanding the issue so you can be a beacon of knowledge for others around you that have questions you will have made a difference.

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  1. Study up and visit.

The best way to make an informed choice about helping out in this arena is to understand what you are “working for”. Whether you plan to go to Bears Ears or not understanding the region in terms of terrain, climate, wildlife, public lands boundaries (BLM, Wilderness, Forest Service), uses (cattle ranching, mining, drilling), history and prehistory is an excellent starting point. Fortunately this can be done from anywhere! Both High Country News and Outside Magazine online frequently post up to date content and articles about the issue and its many facets. Shameless plug—The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes offers all of this information, along with a critical background breakdown of the history of National Monuments in relation to the current events. I chose to write the book in such a way that it can obviously be used as a tool to go physically explore Bears Ears, but it is also a literary tour through the area for those who cannot go. The route descriptions, photographs and maps are intended to detail what it is actually like in the area, get your bearings and understand the significance of the cultural sites and wildlife along the way. Of course, if you are able to make the effort to get out to this corner of South East Utah that above all will give you the greatest understanding of the magnitude and significance of the 1.35 million acres we are discussing.

  1. Donate

Lawsuits are the primary focus of ALL groups and parties looking to return Bears Ears to its original boundaries. No one group or lawsuit will have the power to change this on its own, but a collective stack of cases and lawsuits WILL carry tremendous clout. Consider making a donation to Utah Dine Bikeyah, UTE PAC, Wilderness Society and Access Fund who are all putting forth a tremendous effort to take this to court. It is important to note that the tribes aren’t getting nearly as much established money as conservation groups and you donation will go major lengths to help the Bears Ears Coalition, Utah Diné Bikéyah, UTE PAC, Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Pueblo of Zuni, Ute Tribe and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe.

  1. Voice your opinion

 Write a letter to your representatives. Yes, with pen and paper. Do it. It’s simple, won’t take tons of your time and sends a message to our elected officials that the American public will not sit idly behind a TV screen and watch decisions we are not in favor of go down. An even more direct way to have your stance heard in relation to Bears Ears and public lands is to write a letter to the Forest Service regarding Forest Plans. Periodically the Forest Service sits down to take a look at how the land is being managed and what changes need to be made going forward. Public opinion is a major component of this. Elizabeth Townley, who works for the Utah Forest Service Region 4 (which includes Bears Ears) and hosts the podcast Outlandish about public lands explains, “One of the best ways is to get involved with the agencies that manage them at a local or regional level and develop relationships with the local decision makers.” The Manti La Sal National Forest (which comprises the Abajo Mountains and parts of Elk Ridge in Bears Ears) is up for a revision that will affect the next 20 years of policy and land use. This is a critical opportunity for you to get involved and shape critical public land policy for the next two decades.

  1. Volunteer

 Public lands need public hands more than ever right now. Whether its volunteering for a trail clean up, attending town/public meetings, assisting with outreach and other related activities volunteering your time and/or physical presence will make the biggest and most immediate impact of all. To get some more concrete ideas I suggest subscribing to Utah Dine Bikeyah which according to UTE PAC director Robert Lucero will be, “very active in terms of meetings, outreach and activities for the public to get involved with.” There is also a volunteer section that allows you to propose and offer services. Archaeologist RE Burrillo also suggests that concerned citizens get involved with Wilderness Volunteers inc. or Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding, Utah.

Have another idea of your own? I want to hear it! You can share it in the comments below along with any questions you have about the content in this article or about Bears Ears in general. I’m off the grid most of the time but I will do my best to address questions and comments that can offer the most good for Bears Ears.

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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.




For most of this year, encompassing four seasons, I’ve lived (loosely termed as I am a nomad living out of my Jeep) in Bears Ears working on several stories and a hiking guidebook for the Colorado Mountain Club. This has given me the opportunity to intimately get to know much of the area—although I realize I am just scratching the surface as this place is so large, so vast, so intricate that locals and natives confess that it is impossible to truly know it in one’s lifetime. For many trail runners, this 1.35 million acre National Monument (designated by President Barack Obama in December 2016) rings new to the ears, however the places within it have always existed—Grand Gulch, Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, Dark Canyon, Beef Basin, Indian Creek, Lockhart Basin and the Abajo Mountains have all been recreation destinations in their own right and are now united in their protection under the umbrella of the monument.

While I humbly have infinitely more to learn about Bears Ears, below are some of the most unique, interesting, beautiful and helpful things I have learned from this place as they apply to trail running. My hope is that they enhance your trip, should you find an opportunity to visit this incredible place, and help you wrap your head around the complex area and its ever shifting current events.


What areas are included in Bears Ears? Bears Ears contains the following areas that previously were managed under various other types of public lands designations (ex Forest Service, Wilderness, BLM): Cedar Mesa, Elk Ridge, Dark Canyon, Abajo Mountains, Beef Basin, Indian Creek, Lockhart Basin, Valley of the gods and an unnamed island of land behind the Clay Hills. Currently they are jointly managed by the BLM and Forest Service.

Why is it a Monument?: Obama designated Bears Ears a National Monument in direct relation to the 1906 Antiquities Act (created by President Theodore Roosevelt). National Monuments are designated to protect, at the utmost level, areas that are of historical, cultural and scientific significance to the United States of America and its people. While not the only form of public lands, Monuments do not allow new drilling, mining, grazing or use permits to be granted once they are designated (but allow previous permit holders to continue their work). This explains why you are likely to see cattle during your visit to Bears Ears and even on many trails!


Current Events: This spring President Trump requested a full review of 25 National Monuments (including Bears Ears) by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke, which many feared would lead to massive reductions or even rescinding Bears Ears and other monuments (the perception being that land would be opened up for drilling, mining and other exploitation). The results of his report are not promising and vague at best, most notably—suggesting an amendment to the size of Bears Ears. At the time of this story no official actions have taken place, but a recent bill has been proposed by Congressman Rob Bishop (Utah) that would potentially gut the Antiquities Act further jeopardizing the future of Bears Ears and other National Monuments.

When to go: The typical season recommended for visitors is spring and fall. Bears Ears ranges in elevation from around 3,500 feet and 11,000 feet and its temperatures and weather patterns reflect this. Winter can bring snow and freezing temps even to the canyons and desert areas, and summer (roughly July through September) is typically extremely hot and also monsoon season which brings deadly flash floods.

Trail Running: The trails in Bears Ears are primitive, unmaintained and constantly shifting thanks to flash floods, wildlife and even cattle in some areas. If you are going to Bears Ears to run, I recommend that you view it as an adventure, two-footed sightseeing rather than training. The terrain is rough, dangerous and sometimes impassable forcing you to slow down to a stop, and sometimes even crawl on all fours. There are no trail signs, and cairns are often destroyed or inaccurate. Route finding is an essential tool so have a guidebook and a map with you. While everyone’s standards of what is “runnable” terrain vary greatly, I recommend the following routes for runners:

Lower Indian Creek Trail (13.2 miles, this trail connects the Abajo Mountains in Monticello with Indian Creek—check out the incredible rock art at Newspaper Rock mid-way!)

Tuerto Canyon, Skyline Trail, Shay Ridge (These are in the Abajo Mountains and can be made into a variety of routes and loops that make over 20 mile days possible.)

Woodenshoe Canyon (This tributary of Dark Canyon is just under 15 miles one way.)

Of course Bears Ears has a TON of dirt roads giving runners of all abilities and comfort levels endless possibilities while experiencing the beauty of Bears Ears.

Know before you go!: Bears Ears is a wild and primitive place. This is not a National Park with maps, signage and rangers to assist you. Although, the Kane Gulch BLM Ranger Station can be an asset—just keep in mind that it is located in Cedar Mesa which can be several hours away on rough roads from other areas of the Monument. Make sure you have plenty of water, food and gas before you head out to any routes. Cell service hardly exists at all. If you have an accident, the nearest medical help can be a long ways away in either Monticello or Moab. Keep a close watch on the weather—a forecast for Bluff, Blanding or Monticello can be a good start but you will have to factor in vast differences in elevation and micro-climates. If you see storm clouds in the distance it is highly recommended that you avoid travel into any of the canyons.

Visit with RESPECT!: This is the most important knowledge for any trip to Bears Ears. It is essential to carefully read and practice these tips outlined by Friends Of Cedar Mesa to ensure that the delicate desert terrain and artifacts are preserved out of respect for the environment and the ancestors of the people who came here first. Much of the area is still used by tribes today for ceremonies and rituals, while archeologists continue exciting research.

Why I love Bears Ears: My first visit to Bears Ears was confusing, cold and challenging. It took me several trips to get my bearings, and ultimately I made this place my basecamp as an opportunity to fully immerse myself in its wild spaces. I love the way the light dances off the canyon walls morning and night, turning a corner and spotting a rock art panel high on an alcove, stopping to admire a tiny frog or lizard against the cracked clay earth, running from the alpine woodlands of Elk Ridge to the red sandstone walls of Dark Canyon, and the way the Bears Ears themselves are always somewhere in the distance seemingly watching over and protecting this beloved area.

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