Stopped by the Montrose public library yesterday killing some time before a late afternoon appointment. Grabbed some magazines to fill an hours read, found a comfortable chair and an interesting article on Grand Staircase-Escalante land rip off …. About half way through it I saw it was written by friend Leath Tonino … Cool … give it a read … rŌbert
In 2017, the Trump administration announced that it was shrinking the iconic Utah national monument by nearly 50 percent. Leath Tonino devised a sketchy 200-mile solo desert trek, following the path of the legendary cartographer who literally put these contentious canyons on the map.
Deanna Glover’s voice hits a high note along with her eyebrows, tone and expression conveying the same grandmotherly concern.
She’s not my grandmother—we met for the first time an hour ago—but that hardly seems to matter to the sweet, white-haired 80-year-old. “Tell me you’ll have a friend hiking with you, because it’s a lot of country,” she says. “And, you know, I start to worry.”
The Kanab Heritage Museum, in Kane County, Utah, is cluttered with arrowheads, wedding gowns, antique farm implements, and sepia photographs of the families that founded the town of Kanab in 1870. I phoned Deanna, a descendent of these Mormon pioneers, earlier this April morning, and though the museum, her baby and brainchild, was closed, she insisted on opening it so that the displays could inform my upcoming 200-mile, two-week trek through Grand Staircase–Escalante National Monument.
Hiking with a friend? I shake my head, and a latent anxiety rears up, the prickly fear-thrill of engaging a desert that demands resourcefulness (drinking water found in sculpted potholes), extreme caution (camouflaged rattlesnakes in the middle of the trail), and a tolerance for solitude (my girlfriend, as I hugged her goodbye before leaving for Utah, told me to enjoy peeking into the recesses of my own skull).
Recounting this quip to Deanna, I notice the grip on her walker tighten. “Oh, I’ll be praying for you then,” she says. “I’m not kidding—it’s a whole lot of country.”
Ocher buttes, umber scarps, maroon hoodoos: whole lot of country indeed. Extending north and east from Kanab, the monument encompasses one of the gnarliest stretches of the lower 48. To borrow writer Charles Bowden’s apt phrase, it’s “the heart of stone.”
Ever since President Clinton established the monument in 1996, it has been contentious: old-timers versus newcomers, Republicans versus Democrats, advocates of using the land versus advocates of protecting it (as if these were mutually exclusive agendas). Conservative politicians in pressed blue jeans and blazers tend to see it as an affront to economic growth. Dirtbag adventurers in Chaco sandals deem it one of the epicenters of North American slot canyoneering. In Kanab, mention Edward Abbey, the Southwest’s iconic nature writer, and you’ll receive either a high five or a tirade, depending on your interlocutor.
The latest dispute began on December 4, 2017, when President Trump cut the nearly 1.9-million-acre monument into three units, reducing the overall protected area by almost 50 percent. The White House’s stance, as outlined in the official proclamation, was that the Clinton administration had designated far more terrain than the law allowed. Deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas played no part whatsoever in the decision, obviously. Environmental organizations immediately filed lawsuits, arguing that Trump lacked the authority to shrink an existing monument. Nevertheless, the Bureau of Land Management went ahead and drafted several plans, one of which, if implemented, would open almost 700,000 acres to mining and drilling. With the final decision on those plans tied up in court, nobody can predict whether the original boundaries will be reinstated.
My interest in the place is personal. Working for the Forest Service in my twenties, I resided in a cabin an hour south of the original monument: bought my groceries in Kanab, thrashed myself silly every weekend in the intricate backcountry of arroyos and yuccas and coyotes. It was upsetting to picture the wilderness ransacked for profit, to sense my cherished memories of the region disappearing into the abstraction we call news.
Thankfully, I didn’t forget Almon Harris Thompson.
Nicknamed Prof, Thompson was a school-superintendent-cum-cartographer from New England who wore a bushy mustache, abstained from smoking tobacco, and, according to a colleague, was “always ‘level-headed’ and never went off on a tangent doing wild and unwarranted things.” John Wesley Powell, the Civil War veteran famed for boating the Grand Canyon’s whitewater in 1869, was Prof’s brother-in-law and boss. Together they were employed by the federal government; a congressional appropriation funded their brave, meticulous research into the geography of the Colorado Plateau’s remote canyonlands.
Remote is an understatement. An 1868 map indicated a massive blank space in this area of Utah. In 1872, at the age of 32, Prof led a small party into the unknown country. The final river to be named by the U.S. government (the Escalante) quenched his thirst that spring, and the final range to be named (the Henry Mountains) registered his horse’s hoofprint.
Emotions rarely inflect the spare prose in Prof’s diary, a document devoted to mileages, elevations, the shapes of watersheds, the dips of strata, and, tangentially, cold rain and “a sort of dysentery attack.” What does come through, however, is a seriously badass route that, by chance, flirts with our modern monument’s boundaries, weaving in and out of both the Clinton and the Trump versions.
For the next two weeks, I’ll attempt to retrace Prof’s route (he took roughly 25 days), mostly by walking, occasionally by hitching. The itinerary that earns Deanna’s worry has me heading northeast from Kanab: up Johnson Canyon, past the Paria amphitheater to the Blues badlands, along the headwaters of the Escalante River, through the Waterpocket Fold, and, finally, over the 11,000-plus-foot Henry Mountains. In my pack I’ll carry a sleeping bag and headlamp, two single-liter water bottles and a four-liter reserve dromedary, and not much food besides instant coffee, pita bread, and salami. Hopefully, beer and potato chips will greet me at the few and far between gas stations—in Cannonville (pop. 175), Escalante (pop. 802), and Boulder (pop. 240). I’ll lug no tent, no toilet paper, no GPS, no smartphone.
The goal is to drop below politics—to find, and hear out, the lovers of this unique landscape. Even better, to drop below conversation, below language, and viscerally, with my ache and my thirst, contact the land itself.
April 10 is my departure date, until it’s not.
The visit with Deanna runs long, so I decide to spend the afternoon riding shotgun beside 43-year-old Charley Bulletts, the soft-spoken, quick-to-laugh cultural-resource director of the Kaibab Band of Paiutes.
A local boy, Charley left for a spell—tried his luck in Cedar City, Utah, and Mesquite, Nevada—but now he’s home for good, raising his kids in the same desert where he was raised. His late grandfather was one of the last medicine men of the tribe. If the Kanab Heritage Museum situates the monument within a frontier context, Charley’s perspective, which he shares as we drive the outskirts of town, links it to an even deeper oral history.
“This is so bad it’s comical,” he says early in our tour, parking with the windshield framing a cartoony mural on a supermarket’s cinder-block wall. The painting depicts a procession: covered wagons, livestock, dogs, young men carrying rifles. “I get a kick out of it, I really do—the happy Mormons entering an ‘unpopulated territory,’ following their destiny.”