Voices from the River: Into Bears Ears

Bears Ears National Monument. BLM photo.

By Scott Willoughby

Sure, I’ve read “Desert Solitaire.” Odds are, so have you. It’s been 51 years now since Edward Abbey’s seminal portrayal of his beloved American Southwest was first published, meaning it has been about one year now since his kindred pundits began reminding us that the threats of “progress” and the assault on public lands in the region have escalated roughly on par with his trepidatious prognostications over the past half century. Maybe just a little more. 

So I’m not going to restate the obvious. 

Yet there are times, ever more times, that I find myself leaning on the learning of, and from, that salty sage who fought so hard to preserve the intrinsic natural values of the wild West. These final weeks of winter are among my most inclined. 

There’s a running joke among the rangers that remain in Abbey’s Utah desert just to my west: How do you know it’s springtime in Moab? The license plates all turn green. 

The reference, of course, is to the verdant-toned tags attached to the bumpers of Colorado Rocky Mountain dwellers such as myself seeking an escape from snow season, solitaire be damned. We drive in droves toward the sun and sand across state lines, somehow hoping to steer clear of the “industrial tourism” Abbey forewarned of before the roads were even paved. 

I’ll be among those crossing the line again this spring, but my own yearnings trend not so much toward the overgrown outpost of Moab and the surrounding landscape of the desert proper. Rather, the attraction lies in getting a jump on spring runoff, riding the freshly recharged rivers that sluice their way through the sol-splashed terrain. It was canyon country, after all, that ultimately spoke to Abbey, and the rivers that sculpted it played an equal part in shaping his soul. 

“The others straggle up, one by one, and join me around the fire,” he recounted from one of his many boating expeditions. “We stare at the shining sky, the shining river, the high canyon walls, mostly in silence, until one among us volunteers to begin breakfast. Yes, indeed, we are a lucky little group. Privileged, no doubt. At ease out here on the edge of nowhere, loafing into the day, enjoying the very best of the luckiest of nations, while around the world billions of other humans are sweating, fighting, striving, procreating, starving. As always, I try hard to feel guilty. Once again I fail.” 

It’s a relatable recollection for those of us fortunate enough to have savored such multi-day river-bound escapades, and just stirring enough to propel me toward the looming vernal equinox with my sights set on new memories in the making. 

No, there won’t be any fishing of the traditional sort when we launch on the San Juan River to explore the southern border of Bears Ears National Monument later this month, but with any luck we’ll tap into a similarly meditative mind space, a place where we’re capable of collecting our thoughts and contemplating our surroundings with equal parts appreciation and inspiration. 

Of course, even Abbey was not immune to the backdrop of society, and he reminds us of the circumstances of our modern reality in another chapter from his less-recognized collection of essays entitled, “Down the River.” 

“Time for the mountain men to return,” he opines. “The American West has not given us, so far, sufficient men to match our mountains. Or not since the death of Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Dull Knife, Red Cloud, Chief Joseph, Little Wolf, Red Shirt, Gall, Geronimo, Cochise, Tenaya (to name but a few), and their comrades. With their defeat died a bold, brave, heroic way of life, one as fine as anything recorded history has to show us. 

“Instead of mountain men we are cursed with a plague of diggers, drillers, borers, grubbers; of asphalt-spreaders, dam-builders, overgrazers, clear-cutters, and strip-miners whose object seems to be to make our mountains match our men — making molehills out of mountains for a race of rodents — for the rat race.” 

It’s doubtful our little tribe — complete with half a dozen kids under 10 and all the accoutrements deemed necessary for their comfort — will emerge from this four-day float as hardened mountain men, women and children in the vein of Geronimo or Crazy Horse. But I can’t think of a better place to pick up some pointers. There, at the intersection of the Navajo Nation and arguably the most controversial piece of public land in America, we’ll pump up our rafts, push off from shore and boldly go with the flow. No matter where we finish, the race already will have been won. 

Scott Willoughby is the Colorado Field Coordinator for Trout Unlimted. He lives and works in Vail. 


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