The wind carved through the landscape until she reached my hair to caress it in a million different directions, breathing in this moment of myself and Annie atop this slick rock that dipped and curved and lie before us. We each put palms and fingers to face to push back strands of dirty hair, and when our views were unobstructed the wind pushed us to the center of her power. I raced to the crevice that ran down the middle of the expansive rock, laid down on my back, arms outstretched, palms face up to catch the sun. I took a deep breath and felt as if the wind were sitting next to me as she exhaled all the stories of the past alongside me. I closed my eyes and suddenly it was thousands of years ago and I could hear the pitter pattering of bare feet against the rock, ancient Native Americans dodging the cactus that peeked out from slits in stone. A mother calling for her children to come to bed before the coyotes began their howling. Baskets being woven despite the heat. Maybe someone crying, loving or laughing.
I opened my eyes slightly and my neon green Nalgene water bottle in my peripheral vision immediately brought me back to reality. So did my well-worn Tevas, so I kicked them off and hiked up the rest of the rock to an overlook of an oasis. Trees, water and shade were in abundance beneath us, however it was the ruins of the Native Americans who lived in this place so many years ago that caught hold of my attention. If the wind didn’t knock me down, seeing the ruins almost did.
This was what I was looking for when I asked my friend Annie to go with me on a traipse down to Bears Ears National Monument, a highly controversial 1.35 million acres that is currently being considered for partial rescindment by the federal government, per current Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s recommendation. The land encompasses more than just the Butler Wash ruins, the ruins Annie and I found that day among the winds. The monument guarantees protection for the land that houses an estimated 100,000 more ruins, not including the ruins and archaeological artifacts that may still be hidden.
Those on the right side of politics want the land returned to the state’s control so that it can be used for further development and economic benefit, while those on the left want to continue to preserve the land in its pristine condition under the watchful eye of five Native American tribes and federal government agencies.
After a swirl of conversations surrounding the future of this sacred land, I knew I had to figure out a way to get there. Curiosity took over and we left Salt Lake City on a Thursday. We met Don, a cashier at a remote gas station, about four hours down the road. “Where you girls traveling to?” he asked as we heaved up a pack of beer, coffee and firewood onto the counter. Annie responded with, “Bears Ears… have you heard of it?” She said it with an inflection of mischief, as we both knew perfectly well what a controversy the national monument had become. Don heaved a heavy sigh and lowered his glasses to the crook of his nose, eliminating a barrier of eye contact to purvey a heavy seriousness as he peered into our eyes and said, “There’s nothing there.”
My heart dropped. We listened. “I drive past it every day and now it’s only littered by people who have found out about this land over all this nonsense. You know this is all just a political game.” I nodded like the little girl I have been primed to become in these situations - when older men tell me how things are - and thanked Don for sharing his opinion.
Annie and I hopped back in her Jeep and considered rerouting. Don’s words had seeped into our preconceived, positive notions about the place. However, cell service cut out not far down the road, leaving us with the only route we had saved - the directions to Bears Ears.
We set up camp at the base of Glen Canyon, and while there we met two young men from Denmark traveling across America. They said, “When we ask what to do in America all the men tell us where the nearest strip club is… but this is what we really want to see,” and they pointed up at the Milky Way. Stars speckled the sky above spires of red rock, tinted purple by the moon’s rays. The fact that some people would travel so far to see a landscape I had the luxury of arriving at in just a few hours made me smile as we each popped open another beer.
Little did we know we were already on the edges of the monument, as it was stated in the declaration of the monument by former President Barack Obama:
“From earth to sky, the region is unsurpassed in wonders. The star-filled nights and natural quiet of the Bears Ears area transport visitors to an earlier eon. Against an absolutely black night sky, our galaxy and others more distant leap into view. As one of the most intact and least roaded areas in the contiguous United States, Bears Ears has that rare and arresting quality of deafening silence.”
We retired to our cars to sleep, Annie and I grateful for a fresh perspective on America, and fell asleep to the sound of coyotes howling, just as our fellow humans did thousands of years ago.
The next day we broke camp and drove into Bears Ears and found the wind. We also found cactus flowers, lizards and snakes slithering in the dirt - all of which stopped us in our tracks out of fear or wonderment. We found more ruins and clambered awkwardly to sit in what remains of several “kivas,” rooms built into the ground and used for spiritual or political ceremonies. The wind was constantly by our side, rustling the dirt from its resting place and swirling it up to our faces, feeding our skin with the energy this land has held for thousands of years. The Navajo would call this place, “Nahodishgish,” or a place to be left alone.
I think back to the controversy that has left the future of Bears Ears in limbo. I think about how much of this land could be torn up by the mere notion of financial gain. I hear Don’s words resurface, “There’s nothing there,” he told me. The sun beats down and the wind pushes me forward to unveil another story.