Ride till you drop! Sierra Club mountain bikers come to the rescue of our newest National Monument.
by Paul Rauber
My friend David, a writer and zealous cyclist, was bitter: I was going on a weeklong mountain-bike trip across southern Utah's remote Kaiparowits Plateau, and he was not. Mutual friends reported that he was putting my chances for survival at 50 percent. My tires were not knobby enough, he declared, and my street-style handlebars inappropriate to the demands of gnarly mountain-biking. In addition, my suspension was nonexistent, my physical condition probably inadequate, and my expertise debatable.
"Received intelligence from a tough-as-nails outdoors contact in Utah," warned a cautionary e-mail, "is that the Kaiparowits/Escalante region is very rough. No problem for a mountain bike, of course -- that is, a real mountain bike and biker with any off-pavement experience. Please don't get the impression that I'm trying to intimidate you. Au contraire: I consider you a perfect choice for this "regular-person Sierra Club mountain bike" story -- assuming that you live to write it."
The occasion was a Sierra Club "activist outing" led by Vicky Hoover and Jim Catlin, veteran Club volunteers who have labored for years on Utah issues. Part of this work involves acquainting activists with the Utah Wilderness Coalition's proposal for 5.7 million acres of wilderness in the state. The 650,000-acre Kaiparowits is a key chunk of that total, representing one of the largest contiguous blocks of potential wilderness area in all of Utah.
The specific focus of this trip, when it was originally planned a year earlier, was to rally opposition to the threat by the Dutch company Andalex Resources to dig a coal mine twice the size of Manhattan in the middle of the plateau. Andalex liked to claim that its lease held 7 billion tons of coal worth a trillion dollars, and would employ 900 local people. Even though far cheaper coal is readily available elsewhere in the West‹enough for the next two centuries, at least‹Andalex had conned a lot of locals and Bureau of Land Management officials into believing their sky-pie hype.
Three weeks before our departure, however, everything changed. On September 18, 1996, standing on the same spot on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon where Teddy Roosevelt had declared the canyon a monument in 1908, President Clinton included the entire Kaiparowits in new 1.7-million-acre Grand StaircaseEscalante National Monument. "Our parents and grandparents saved the Grand Canyon for us," he said. "Today we will save the grand Escalante Canyons and the Kaiparowits Plateau of Utah for our children."
With the point of his pen, the President burst Andalex's multibillion-dollar bubble. Even if the company did succeed in finding a wealthy sucker to buy its overpriced coal, it would never get approval for the requisite infrastructure, like the heavy-duty highway it would take to accommodate a 92-foot tractor-trailer every three-and-a-half minutes. Andalex blustered about fighting the designation, but doesn't stand a chance; the best it can hope for now is to bamboozle the feds into swapping it some land with actual cash value.
The President's announcement also shook up our activist outing, transforming it into a celebratory romp, our focus suddenly changed from Andalex to spandex. All problems were solved for the time being‹or so it seemed.
We were yanked down from giddy exultation to rocky reality the very first day, and it wasn't just because of the long crank. At least I knew what I was getting into, having once tagged along on one of Vicky Hoover's grueling Easter excursions to the Mojave Desert. This trip started out true to form: "So what's the plan?" Jim Catlin asked that first brisk morning, as we finally mounted our miracle-alloy steeds in the town of Escalante. "Ride till we drop!" Vicky replied cheerily. "Isn't that the usual?"
Our pod of 12 cyclists started out riding about 13 miles on a sandy dirt road paralleling the Straight Cliffs, the daunting, nearly unbroken 50-mile wall that rises about 600 feet above the surrounding redrock lowlands to form the eastern rampart of the roughly triangular Kaiparowits Plateau. Its western boundary is defined by another line of cliffs called The Cockscomb, while the southern hypotenuse slopes down to the unnatural waters of Lake Powell. Despite predictions to the contrary, my Bridgestone XO-3 was well up to the job, even if its rider was not; the day's test came at the sand traps in the bottoms of washes, where the simultaneous loss of momentum and equilibrium did not always leave me sufficient time to pull my feet free from the toe clips. I ate sand twice before learning when to declare victory and walk.
We ascended the Plateau via Collett Canyon, the only obvious point of entry through the Straight Cliffs unless we wanted to blast our way in the fashion of the Mormon pioneers, who did just that at Hole in the Rock, 40 miles to the southeast. Suddenly, near a slickrock hill riddled with caves, we encountered a fork in the road where no fork was supposed to be. Branching off to the right was a freshly graded road (evidenced by foot-high berms across streambeds and recently cut vegetation) where before there had only been a "two-track," a trail made solely by the passage of an occasional off-road vehicle.
The old Utah hands were furious. "It looks like revenge," said Susan Sweigert, conservation chair of the Wasatch Mountain Club (a member organization, like the Sierra Club, of the Utah Wilderness Coalition). "They just plowed as hard and deep as they could." She and Catlin immediately (and correctly, as it turned out) identified the road construction as an attempt by Garfield County to prevent new wilderness designations in the area, since land with a constructed road in it is, by definition, not wilderness. (Tracks created by the passage of vehicles alone are not enough to disqualify an area.)
At the same time, we later learned, two other renegade southern Utah counties, Kane and San Juan, were also defiantly plowing ("brightening up," they called it) hundreds of miles of old jeep trails that had been fading quietly back into the brush. Clinton's proclamation of the new national monument, we realized, may have saved the area from industrial development, but left unresolved the question of whether it would receive wilderness status. It was, in fact, only the beginning of a new round in the battle for the Kaiparowits.
After taking careful notes and photos to document the destruction, we continued on, Vicky herding us up Collett Canyon like wayward sheep until almost dusk, when we were allowed to stop. We camped in the narrow bottom, and were made acutely aware of the forces that formed the canyon when a tremendous thunderstorm broke, whole-sky illuminations with thunder bouncing crazily from wall to wall and fat, distinct raindrops. The thunder gradually turned to a peaceful rumble, and I fell asleep to the sagebrush spice of the high desert awakened by water.
The Kaiparowits sounds as though it were named for legendary explorer John Wesley Powell's tailor from Brooklyn, but it is in fact a Paiute word, variously translated as "home of the people" or "mountain home of the people." It is apparently a universal trait of human societies to see themselves as "the people"; most indigenous groups call themselves exactly that. Conversely, names given to others are seldom flattering. (The Hopi word for the Navajo, for instance, means "head-bangers.") This is why the Pueblo Indians are now trying to discourage use of "Anasazi" to refer to their ancestors (whose dwellings and granaries are distributed throughout the Plateau). "Anasazi," previously thought to mean "the ancient ones," turns out to be what the Navajo called the ur-Pueblo peoples: "foreign enemy."
In Utah, every new arrival becomes the foreign enemy to the last people to have arrived. Today, tourists, recreationists, and especially environmentalists have become the Anasazi to the ranchers, miners, and loggers who make up the traditional economy of rural southern Utah. Clinton's establishment of the new national monument exacerbated the tension; even though tourism has now become Utah's largest industry, the old guard of southern Utah remains resolutely hostile to the notion of unexploited land. In Escalante, local officials would not permit a store to open under the name "Wilderness Outfitters," because they don't want to admit to the existence of neighboring wilderness.
"That monument won't have a dime's influence on tourism," said Kane County real estate agent Dale Clarkson in The New York Times. "I don't think anyone wants to see it. It's not even second-class scenery‹it's third or fourth class. It's such marginal ground that part of it was used in the motion picture Planet of the Apes."
And so it was that while Utah wilderness activists celebrated their victory, Clinton and Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt were hanged in effigy in Escalante. A week before we arrived, a visitor who expressed approval for the new monument had a gun drawn on him at the Conoco station there, and was told that if he ever showed his face again he would be killed. Obviously the new tourist economy in southern Utah has some work to do on its public relations.
After pancakes and porridge the next morning, we temporarily abandoned our bikes for a side trip to explore a fabulous but unnamed slot canyon in the area known as Egypt, a popular jumping-off point for hikes in Escalante Canyon. Some initially balked at the steep sandstone spiderwalk down to the canyon floor, but were shamed into it in by Spike, Sierra Club staffer Greg Underwood's 13-year-old beagle, who scampered gamely down. Once in the slot, Spike would careen ahead until he met an obstacle he couldn't squeeze under or clamber over, whereupon he would howl piteously until someone lifted him up to the next level. Since the place was in need of a name, we christened it "Lost Beagle Canyon."
The further in, the narrower the slot became, so much so that I sometimes had to walk sideways for hundreds of yards. (We were better off, at least, than the misfortunate hiker we later heard about who got himself stuck in a nearby canyon and lived for eight days on five ounces of water and three bites of sandwich until a search team stumbled upon him.) In the detritus at the bottom we found an ancient artifact consisting of some twisted bits of metal tubing, instantly named, of course, the "Anasazi bicycle."
Back on our more modern conveyances once again, we were in for some heavy thigh-work to the top of the canyon, grinding past torrent-sculpted amphitheaters and eroded cliffsides exposing open coal seams. No denying that there's a lot of carbon in the neighborhood‹in several locations, underground coal fires have burned for as long as anyone can remember, the smoke pouring from vents in the earth. At Smoky Mountain, the BLM was so offended by the idea of all that coal burning before someone had a chance to mine it that it attempted to put out the fires by bulldozing the vents, but the fissures just opened up again. From Smoky Mountain, we gazed south across Lake Powell to its artificial counterpart, the Navajo Generating Station, fed by coal stripmined from nearby Black Mesa‹the bleak future from which the Kaiparowits is being saved.
From the top, you wouldn't necessarily know it was a plateau if not for your aching calves. Far from the table-top one might imagine from below, its vast expanses of piñon and juniper are cut by canyons and washes and studded with buttes, hoodoos, and precariously balancing rocks, ready to give some cheeky human a lesson in eternity. Its inaccessibility made it the last area in the contiguous United States to be mapped, and a study of those maps leads one to conclude that the whole region was named by sex-starved Satanists‹"the folk poetry of the pioneers," Edward Abbey calls it. Thus on the one hand we have Dirty Devil, Death Ridge, Carcass Canyon, Last Chance Gulch, and Devils Pocket, while on the other there's Cads Crotch, The Bishops Prick, Brighams Unit, Queen Annes Bottom, and Nipple Butte, Nipple Bench, and Nipple Creek. ("It's all nipples here!" exclaimed Peter, our British colleague.)
Our well-established dirt road led off to the south, but one contingent headed east with Jim Catlin to have a look at some disputed "roads" in that direction. The county had a number of claims there under RS-2477, a Civil Warera law that gave counties the right to build "highways over public lands not reserved for public uses." In the 1860s this seemed like a desirable aid to the settling of the West. By 1976 the obsolete statute was finally repealed, but at the price of grandfathering in existing RS-2477 roads. Few records exist to document valid claims, but that hasn't stopped counties in several western states‹principally Utah and Alaska‹from rushing to assert every old hunting path and wagon train road as a "highway." To date, Utah has made more than 5,000 such RS-2477 claims, only ten of which have been found valid. County officials stated that their road grading was intended to provoke the issue and settle it once and for all. On October 18, the federal government finally filed suit against the three counties. The suit, which was subsequently joined by the Sierra Club, demands not only that the counties cease their road work, but that they pay punitive damages and restore the areas damaged by their bulldozers. After having seen the road work's ugly scars, it was pleasant to imagine the Kane, Garfield, and San Juan county commissioners down on their hands and knees replanting sage and juniper.
So while it might have appeared that we were enjoying an idyllic mountain- bike ramble in the mid-October sun, we were actually conducting important conservation research by assessing the state of the monument's many rough dirt roads and tracks: either their degree of naturalness, in case they were later graded, or‹in the worst case‹the damage done by county road crews.
When I joined Catlin's contingent, I imagined a jaunt of a couple miles before we turned around and joined the main party for lunch. But after slogging for five or six miles through thick sand with no sign of stopping, I wheeled up alongside Jim to find out his intentions. "Oh, we'll just continue on for another hour or so," he replied. That was enough for three of us, who left Catlin and the others to save the Kaiparowits while we had lunch and a nap under a shady piñon before turning back.
Activists like Catlin and Hoover are often described as "tireless," but I hadn't realized that it was literally so. Catlin has spent countless hours personally cataloging Utah's wild places, and then using his expertise to lobby agencies and politicians. Hoover is an ace volunteer organizer, and Queen of the Phonebanks. She's also a consummate peak-bagger; while the rest of us were panting and eating lunch after a tough morning's ride, she would suddenly appear waving atop a mountain behind us. At one point a few of us got so far ahead of the pack that we were afraid we had taken a wrong turn. No telltale specks of artificial color moved against the broad desert panorama, so we reluctantly turned back to retrace our tracks. After a couple miles we met Peter, who explained the others' slow progress: "Jim is stopping to investigate every pathway," he reported, "and Vicky is climbing everything higher than herself."
The reason we were so far ahead was that we were having too much fun to stop. The road was an exhilarating roller coaster, by turns rocky, sandy, steep, or sweeping; I found in it the experience I had been looking for when, at age ten, I used to hurtle my Schwinn down the steepest hills I could find outside Albuquerque. I practiced the same Momentum Method I had favored then: take the downhill as fast as you dare, and then pedal like hell as long as you can, stopping to pant and wheeze and admire the scenery at the top until your comrades catch up, whereupon you start over again.
Given the excessive scale of the country, the only finer way to see it would be from horseback. And what is a mountain bike anyway but a mechanical horse? The attention we lavish on them is scarcely less loving; when we first unloaded the bikes in Escalante, the happy owners all but fed them apples. Both require care and feeding, only instead of tightening saddle straps and adjusting stirrups you check your brakes and oil the chain.
We covered a lot of ground, and soon discovered that we didn't have the Plateau to ourselves. Catlin and his crew found and documented more intrusions by county roadbuilders, and Tom Noble, the activist from New Mexico who drove our sag wagon (sparing us the torture of panniers), reported that the Plateau's main road was "survey city." The survey party, however, had refused to tell him what they were up to: "The last time we did," they explained, "somebody pulled up all our stakes." The next morning, with a rare line-of-sight to the cel-phone tower on Navajo Mountain, Tom put in a call to the local BLM office; we listened to his half of the dialogue as we gulped our morning grits: "Yeah, hundreds of survey stakes all up and down the road. What's going on? . . . Geophysical work? What does Œgeophysical work' mean? . . . Oh, so it is oil and gas!"
For decades, the Kaiparowits has been the screen upon which generations of get-rich-quick schemes have been projected: uranium, oil, gas, coal. Our route, in fact, wound about a landscape strewn with the sites of never-realized industrial dreams: the proposed "Blue Mine" coal project at the top of Dry Canyon, its sister "Red Mine" after we rounded the bend at Pilot Rock, a coal-gasification project just south of Nipple Butte, and the Andalex mine site itself just to the west on Smoky Mountain. As for the survey work, Catlin's best guess was that the holder of an existing petrochemical-exploration lease was exercising it prior to trying to sell it to an unwitting investor.
It'll be tough to find one that dumb, because while the area's monument status does not displace any existing commercial uses, it should make it virtually impossible to begin new ones. "Should," because no one yet knows how the BLM plans to manage the monument; that will be the subject of a lengthy planning process and a series of hearings over the next three years. Presumably it will no longer allow "chainings," the clearing of vast swaths of piñon and juniper by means of a chain dragged between two tractors, in the attempt to create more forage for cattle. Considerable institutional pride is at stake, because this is the first national monument the BLM has been given to manage. (All others fall under the National Park Service, with the exception of two in Alaska managed by the Forest Service.) There is, then, a lot of pressure on the agency to get this one right.
Three days out, and we were getting comfortable with one another. "Look, goddamit!" ordered Harry, the honorable retired judge from San Luis Obispo one evening, pointing to the magnificent sunset. "This is what you paid your money for!" Shortly afterwards, the crescent moon sank below Paradise Bench. "It's so beautiful!" said Nancy. "It looks like a banana." Pause. "I guess that's why I'm not a writer."
Every group develops its own dynamic, including the catchphrases guaranteed to send its members into paroxysms of laughter. "Objects in mirror may be smaller than they appear," was one of ours. (Guess you had to be there.) In case we did not have enough of our own, Tom Noble distributed his "Selections from a Utah Hiker's Phrase Book," which read like the punchlines to bad jokes:
"It just looks like applesauce."
"Don't bother looking for the trail; there is no trail."
"This is the best breakfast I've had today."
"Volunteers will be appointed in the morning."
"This is the old Indian trail."
Perhaps it was only the hardening of muscles, but the next day was our best biking yet. The piñon and juniper suddenly vanished as we dropped in elevation, leaving only sage and blackbush, or less. Skimming the top of this forbidding landscape on my traveling machine in my uniform of Lycra and plastic, I felt like a space explorer visiting a strange desert planet. (My handlebars turned out to be perfectly adequate, by the way, and the knobbiness of my tires sufficient. Tank treads wouldn't have made the thick sand any easier.)
The last day we turned south after Nipple Butte down Nipple Creek. This drainage, our passage off the Plateau, was a cautionary tale in Kaiparowits ecology. The head of the creek was graced by stately old cottonwoods and other natives that gradually gave way as we proceeded down the streambed to impenetrable thickets of tamarisks, an invasive exotic that is taking over southern Utah watercourses. As for our final descent from the Plateau, it's a wonder that it was not called Satan's Something-or-Other, because the prospect was starkly hellish. The road fell sharply enough to cause brake-doubt, plunging into a very bad badland indeed, a bleak stretch of oily, vegetationless sand sculpted into perfectly conical hills of greasy yellow and gray. Crossing a tamarisk-choked riverbed, we had to search the far side up and down to find the road. The reason it was so hard to find, it turned out, was that a great deal of it had washed away, leaving an unmarked five-foot drop-off with skidmarks before it. Instead of fixing such obvious hazards, Kane County road crews were out bulldozing roads in the wilderness, vainly trying to forestall the future. From there our rough four-wheel-drive road turned into a broad gravel highway fit for RVs, rental cars, and street bikes, leading to the decaying polygamist community of Big Water and Highway 89 out.
The previous night, before we left the Plateau, I walked out into the chill evening, until the lights and sounds of merriment from our camp faded away and it was only me and the desert. Sitting on a large rock, I listened to the nighttime skitters and alarums, watching clouds sweep the moon. Except for the early torrent, the weather had been fair enough to allow sleeping out, so I had become accustomed to measuring the nights by the march of Orion across the sky.
Solitude so profound is a strangely moving experience, a forced meditation on the world and one's place in it. This land, harsh and beautiful, had experienced salvation, snatched by a president-ex-machina from its heavy-industrial fate. I felt fortunate to be alive in an age when such places still exist, lucky to know it in the way one feels lucky knowing someone who has dodged death. I remembered those I loved who had not, and was sad to think that they had never seen this place. I mouthed their names, which the desert took, and turned back toward the lights of camp.
Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.
As the Bureau of Land Management has yet to decide how to manage the new EscalanteGrand Staircase National Monument, there are no established facilities for visitors. Easiest access is from the neighboring town of Escalante, where you can get maps at Escalante Outfitters, (801) 826-4266, and check in at the BLM office, (801) 826-4291.
The new 1.7-million-acre national monument is only a first step in saving Utah wilderness. Ask your congressional representatives to support all 5.7 million acres in the Utah Wilderness Coalition proposal. In addition, fill out and mail the postcard on page 80 to stop Utah counties from grading new roads in your monument. For further information, contact Sierra Club Utah Representative Lawson LeGate, 2273 S. Highland Dr., Salt Lake City, UT 84106-2832; (801) 467-9294; firstname.lastname@example.org.