A poet-teacher and his students visit the Bears Ears.
This April, I joined a group of my students from Salt Lake City’s Rowland Hall Upper School on a camping trip to the proposed Bears Ears National Monument, in the area that is now Natural Bridges National Monument, a small, preserved gem in the midst of the larger treasure. After a rainy first night, we woke early and hiked Cedar Mesa. Our guide, Dave Pacheco, from the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, taught us the principles of backcountry travel: preparing; respecting the land with its plants, animals, geology; preserving remnants of ancient cultures, cliff dwellings and pottery shards. We stepped carefully over the mesa, avoiding cryptobiotic soil, the living crust that keeps much of this place alive, in spring, sprouting milkvetch flowers like purple pea blossoms and yellow wallflowers blooming against rich, orange and black crust. We wound our way down, into Road Canyon, sandstone pinnacles, boulders, and oxide-painted walls rising around us into growing thunderheads.
After weaving through canyon undulations, over rain pools of sky and sun, we stepped up to a massive fallen rock turned upward with a dark mineral seep and saw petroglyphs of ancients. A spiral pecked from the dark stone 800 years ago emerged from nothing toward the expanding present. Above, two figures chiseled from the edge of the rock dance the motion of the canyon, legs in curved unison, hands skyward, heads back in ecstasy we have come to understand. These figures speak quiet eloquence most often to no one but the past, but this day, we fortunate travelers observed with wonder.
The landscape here is enough to move the body toward spirit. Crows carved silhouettes into red rock cliffs, jagged cottonwoods groaned with new green shoots, and dark green piñon pines billowed from sandstone above. Rounding a bend, we confronted a massive hoodoo, a 50-foot monument with the head of a camel; we were so mesmerized that we did not notice ruins of an ancient home tucked in the fold of the cliffs to the east. Along lips of slickrock, the students and I followed our guide to the overhang, the ruins, four rounded rooms like turrets with three windows left in masonry. Close, in the mortar that holds stones in place, we saw fingerprints of builders still clinging to the mud, a millennium away. We sat beneath the overhang in front of these ancient rooms; in cool shadow, we drank water. In this place these people lived; they sat, ate meals, drank water from clay bowls, surveyed this canyon, in spring, in winter, in the middle of a night spilling stars and moonlight.
When we began to leave the canyon, we knew we wanted to stay. Instead we drove east, spent the afternoon exploring more. The ruins in Mule Canyon struck our being with awe, and the canyons grew deep in juniper, red rock, slow water. All the students arrived at this zone, the sublime, the immensity of the world that adds majesty to our brief being. We walked the path through incomprehensible beauty, our moment in this vast space, the mystery, stone corridors, secret springs, hidden canyons disappearing to the edge of what we can see, all of it lifting a map of the sky.
That evening, in twilight, in the light of the crescent moon and earthshine, we listened to Jonah Yellowman from the Navahos. He is a medicine man; he has caught three hummingbirds in his hands in his lifetime and let them go, following with his eyes and heart the diminishing spiral at the horizon. He knows these birds as they fluttered in corn pollen inside the sphere he made from the fingers of his two hands. Jonah told us of this land around us, that it is sacred to his ancestors, to him, that it is his home, the place his people emerged, where they disappeared like the hummingbird. Now he believes that they can return to this sacred stretch of land. He thanked us when he left; he hugged each student in firelight, grateful, but we were the ones touched. We felt the gift he gave in the stories of the Navahos, stories of this land that might return to them, a form of healing.
The students with whom I shared this experience are younger than my own children. One day, they will have children of their own. I will have grandchildren. I want these new generations to have the chance to experience what we experienced in the Bears Ears region. In our days there, every step deepened our humanity, sparked in us the sublime that gave indelible grace to our lives.
Anyone can see the paramount importance of preserving this rich gift, this natural and historic heritage for the coming generations for the intrinsic, immeasurable, sacred value of the land itself and the artifacts of ancient cultures that lived there. I look forward to the day when the Bears Ears becomes our next National Monument.
Joel Long teaches English at Rowland Hall-St. Marks. He is also president of the City Art reading series and founder and president of the Lake Effect Writers’ Conference.