Of all the strange, backwards, unexpected things that happened last year politically in the U.S., there was one that hit me on a personal level and left me feeling a subtle but deep sort of melancholy that has been hard to shake. That was the seemingly arbitrary act of shrinking one of the last vestiges of the untamed American west by such a dramatic amount. I am referring to the large cuts to the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. This truly humbling stretch of land is seemingly endless and beautiful, mostly untouched and free to explore in a way unlike many of the other National Parks available out west are.
Growing up I was caught up in the romanticized idea of the grand American west, southern Utah in particular, I was lost in the magic of Desert Solitaire, a book by Edward Abbey about living as a ranger at Arches in the late 1950s, and the impossibly beautiful photography of so many great photographers who’s lives work focused on the region such as Michael Fatali, I have always held this region close to my heart throughout my life through not only the stories and photographs of others, but ones from my own father as well. He would talk about his own trips west before there was as much of an impact from tourism in the region. Back when Moab was a smaller, more local town, Arches was a hard to access hidden beauty, and Mount Zion was more lightly visited. The last vestiges of the untamed west would slowly, but of course not entirely, start to fade as time pressed on.
Even within my lifetime I have seen a lot of change as camping and adventuring has become increasingly trendy which has caused more and more comforting amenities to start popping up to make it easier to access some of the most beautiful spots in this constantly evolving land. Amenities that seem nice on the surface but in some ways detract from the experience as a whole.
Among my favorite things about traveling in the region is the infinite quiet of the vast tracks of land and the ability to find yourself standing in a spot where you very well may be the single only person to occupy that land for dozens of miles. It’s a beautiful, unique feeling and part of the reason that the last few times traveling out there by car I would go in the winter to avoid the crowds of the busier vacation months.
Which brings us back to Escalante. This monument was (and yes, still is) an immense tract of land that is largely unsullied and difficult to access. There are not many truly wild, protected lands in the U.S. left and this area was set up as a protected land for a reason. If I’m remembering correctly, it’s protection was always somewhat controversial for locals in the area and of course it would be, I understand how it must feel to some, but some things are worth protecting for future generations to enjoy some of what previous generations were able to cherish and enjoy are they not?
Shrinking this monument by this mind boggling amount was a political maneuver in an endless series of actions which appear to do little more than arbitrarily tear down prior legacies, but I digress. I am not inherently a political person and have gone most of my life with this side of living it drifting along in the periphery of my mental space but even I can see that things are being shaken for little more reason than to take advantage of the chaos that follows. I look at the direction things are headed and hope we can figure out a way to come back together as a whole. This is much more than simply “us vs. them”, surely we are better than this.
But you know what, thats not why I’m here writing today. I will leave the political side of this for those who know and understand more about the politics of it. I’m here to tell my small perspective on the changes at the Grand Staircase by writing about why it means so much to me personally.
This monument is among my favorite places to visit while traveling west because I am able to feel some of the same excitement as generations past. Exploring a land with such minimal human impact is something to be cherished as it leads us to unexpected places and moments of genuine beauty and awe. The joy of driving what felt like forever down a long dirt road into the middle of scarcely occupied canyons and desert made me feel like the world is infinite. It has always made me feel as though there was still so much to explore and I felt the solitude of that place consume me, humble me, and empower my imagination like few places can.
There was one trip there with my brother that I often remember, I think it was my second time visiting. We had driven into the monument late one night, after driving in from Zion. There is an unmistakable high you get when traveling somewhere mostly unknown and this was no exception. We were following mostly paper maps and vague directions at the time as we found our way down unmarked dirt roads in the dead of night with little more than the beams of our headlights to track down an unmanned camp area where we could stay the night for free. (One of the perks of BLM land and part of the reason I so often sought it out while traveling out there, free places to camp, great for budget trips). We set up the tent in the dark several meters away from a cliff edge and called it a night. While we slept we had an unexpected couple of inches of snow fall on us and we woke to a beautiful sight, a canyon covered in the stillness and quiet of a fresh, white coat of snow coupled with the beauty of a cold orange and blue sunrise. Thinking back I can remember the brisk, thin air of winter in my lungs and the quiet beauty and excitement of that moment. Here are a couple of photos of that morning from whichever iPhone was sold in 2009, well before instagram and the like.
This little campground near the town of Escalante in the Grand Staircase is one I had remembered and visited on my own during a different winter outing which I took to get away from the world I knew and venture out on my first solo trip West. A spot that subtly set in motion a chain of events and world travels that changed my life forever. In fact, it was at this camp spot that I took this photograph:
It is an image YoungDoo and I hold dear because it was the catalyst for our meeting each other on Flickr so many years ago (11 years now!?). A photograph, among others, that caused us to discover each others work as artists and still stands today on Flickr as a sort of digital historical marker in our lives as it was the first interaction we had with each other.
I only just remembered this fact while writing this tonight and it really choked me up when I realized this place was partially responsible for everything I now hold dear to me in my life. An arbitrary fact, sure, but one that helps me respect and understand the value of having places like these to explore and share in our collective lives. The Earth is only so big and it gets smaller each and every day as we continue to grow as a global society so protected spaces like these are immensely important to us now, more than ever. They give me hope that one day my daughter Milla and future generations have spaces to explore as we did during our time here on this planet as well. It all connects.
Now that subtle melancholy I mentioned when I started writing tonight is starting to feel a little more like sadness and, well, I’ll drink to that. Heres to the great unexplored places in our past, present, and future, the ability to explore them, and the hope that we don’t
fuck up things too much before future generations have their turn to explore what god has given us to appreciate and care for.
Please don’t read into this post too much, I’m not interested in getting too political here on 50ft. I wrote this to share my perspective and a couple of stories. I have respect for others point of view on the matter as well but this site has always been a place for me to vent and share my experiences with others and thats all this was, one persons point of view among many.