Canyon Interludes
by Paul W. Rea

Chapter 11
Grand Gulch: The Scream at Dawn

Seen from the mountain, the country between here and the
San Juan and Colorado and beyond them is as rough and
impenetrable a territory as I have ever seen . … To the
east, great canyons seam the desert, cutting vermilion
gashes through the grey-green of the sage topped mesas.
—Everett Ruess, letter from Navajo Mountain, 1934

[p.209]Despite overuse after its designation as a Primitive Area in the 1970s, Grand Gulch retains both its archaeological interest and a supernatural ambience. Like several other gorges that drain into the San Juan River, Grand Gulch begins as a shallow ravine on Cedar Mesa.

Kane Gulch, an old cow path, has become the main route into this popular wilderness. As the trail enters the broad [p.210] drainage, everything screams of cows: dried splats litter the bare ground where chewed-down willows snag debris from flash floods. Nor is this degradation a new problem, for cattle have grazed these canyons since the 1880s. In 1891, after getting a tip on some abandoned, semi-wild longhorns, young Al Scorup rode well over a hundred miles from his home in Salina, Utah, to the Colorado River. After he and his horse swam across, he headed up White Canyon, the drainage that carved the natural bridges near here. Soon enough, however, well-armed Texans ran Scorup off.  But Al returned for his grubstake, this time accompanied by his brother Jim. The Scorup brothers ran their cows in even wilder terrain while they hunted deer, devoured sourdough and beans, and lived in shanties or caves, less like cowboys than Indians.

Given the remoteness of this area, their hardships inevitably continued. For one thing, wild longhorns were tough to round up. After pursuing an animal at a gallop, roping it, and wrestling it to the ground, they had to hog tie it before it could get up. Then these cow punchers cut off its dangerous horns, tied its nose against a tree for a day or two, and finally led the bleeding, subdued animal to a corral. Rough work though it was, chasing “runnygades” became sport for many young cowboys. When the mythic American Cowboy sat tall in the saddle, however, he never spoke of the sawing and snubbing.

As the Scorups brought their stock across the Colorado, Al’s boat almost sank when a bull tried to climb in. Abandoning the boat, Al rode the bull across the great river. “I wasn’t trusting those huge waves. I couldn’t swim and I knew the bull could.” Once they got their cattle ashore, they encountered more problems. One wolf, “Ol’ Big Foot,” killed one hundred and fifty calves in a killing spree. To make matters [p.211] worse, wild horses gobbled up the forage, ruining the range and forcing the cowboys to shoot hundreds of mustangs.

As herds increased in size and cattle roamed much of San Juan County, eventually the Scorups merged with the Sommerville brothers. The resulting SS Cattle Company grew to ten thousand head that grazed nearly two million acres—mostly on public lands such as Grand Gulch, which the company reserved for its best steers. By 1940 the Scorup/Sommerville operation was one of the largest in the West.

Since these canyons are too hot and dry for livestock in the summer months, each May these cattlemen drive their cows and sheep up to National Forest lands. Though barely profitable in terrain as sparse as this, grazing persists today because federal agencies charge less than ranchers would pay to run livestock on private lands.

As I step over a broken-down fence, mountain bluebirds flash their exquisite azure plumage to lift my spirits from the hoof-pocked mud. Rounded like the backs of elephants, the cap rock here has weathered gray where rainwater has leached its iron. The creamy-tan Cedar Mesa sandstone is veined with thin beds of gray limestone; since its sand is fine-grained and well-cemented, it resists cracking and flaking. All this roundness occasions a sense of release from the straight and perpendicular lines of modern civilization.

After a mile I’m finally beyond the cows: the trail is no longer pitted and the plants are flourishing again. Here, at about six thousand feet, Rocky Mountain species tuck themselves into the upper ends of the canyons. Where the stalks of green gentians reach nearly head high, their flowers host large ants and giant bumblebees. Small aspens rise from crevices, their greenish-tan trunks vivid against the dark-stained rock. [p.212] While a slight breeze animates their upper heart-shaped leaves, their lower foliage droops idly.

Along the trail bees hum on the yellow-blossomed Rocky Mountain beeplant, a roadside clover imported from the steppes of Siberia. Here it grows four feet tall and nearly covers the trail. As I stride through the fragrant beeplant, hundreds of tiny azure butterflies dance to the rhythms of my gait. Moments later, hiking on undulating slickrock fosters the illusion that I’m the first to trod this way.

Another mile down I slip under a cliff beneath red rocks that are graying in the midday glare. Just beyond the shade, an emerald-green hummingbird hangs motionless, its miniature head turning sideways to look me over, and then zooms away with a pulsing, high-pitched squeak. A canyon wren pours out liquid notes that cascade down the steps on the canyon wall. Before long this mottled-brown songster flits down to a boulder, then right into the stream where it flutters before rolling in the fine sand nearby. Apparently this dust bathing activates oil in its feathers and discourages lice. The effort that birds put into their preening suggests that their feathers must be kept in fine fettle.

Across the canyon the two-hundred-foot wall has fractured into rectangular panels, each framing a design fashioned by recent breakage, dark desert varnish, wind pocking, and water streaking. While some breaks in the sandstone often exhibit concentric lines radiating outward, older breaks develop a blue-black patina that builds over many millennia. Composed of manganese and iron oxides cemented with clays—all carried by water percolating through soft rocks—these minerals collect on smooth surfaces where bacteria and evaporation combine to form the dark polish that often reflects the blue of the overarching sky.

[p.213]Anasazi rock artists often bypassed newly exposed panels in favor of ones coated with varnish that they could etch to expose light rock. Near a seep, a squiggly water symbol recedes into the black glare. Such zigzag or snake glyphs may have represented the serpentine flow of water, or they may have served as a visual prayer for rain. The Anasazi may have worshipped water as a sacred substance.

At this point Kane Gulch becomes classic slickrock country. Here its walls tower three hundred feet before curving into the rim, and its floor bursts with desert bloom. Maidenhair ferns and white columbines festoon a cool drip that sparkles as it beads the darkened rock, while golden daisies and lavender penstemons grace the hot sands. Firecracker penstemons and scarlet gilia blaze in the tawny grass. Small cacti burst into waxy pink blooms, each with an insect feasting on its pollen-ladened anthers. An emerald-green fly hovers, its wings beating silently and nearly invisibly. Hover flies actually pollinate more flowers than bees, which don’t range as widely.

As the trail drops into the streambed, my boots crunch the gravel A flash flood has sheared an already-twisted juniper in half, dangling strands of bark like drying seaweed. At the top of the cutbank, blond grasses trim the vivid blue sky. A ranger asks to see my permit. As his horse waters the stream, he reminds me not to pollute the watercourses.

Around the bend Kane enters Grand Gulch, the greatest concentration of pre-Columbian ruins in Utah. Here the Anasazi found optimal conditions for their agriculture. At Junction Ruin, the largest cliff dwelling in this area, an overhang allowed the sun to warm the buildings in winter but prevented it from baking them during the summer. Enhanced by small dams designed to catch both water and soil, a [p.214] semi-permanent stream insured water for irrigation. Since other hikers are inspecting the ruin, I seek nearby Junction Spring. Water striders are floating on the small pool. For these widespread insects, surface tension is all: they break through it as nymphs, and their adult existence depends on it. Though I’d assumed that water striders rely on pontoons, now, up close, it’s apparent that their legs make indentations in the water’s surface. Their back four legs dent the surface while their front legs grab and hold prey, such as the fly that may have pursued me here.

Just beneath my face, on the animated pool, expanding circles slice through each other. Amid the bugs I see my reflected face, brow slightly furrowed, with shafts of sunshine beaming around my bushy hair. In nature, I muse, we’re more free to be ourselves. We don’t see ourselves for days on end, reducing self-consciousness, and when we finally get a glimpse, we’re less likely to care about our appearance and more apt to like the person we see.

As I look up, Junction Ruin is once again deserted, everything having fallen silent except for the whine of insects and the croak of ravens. As I cut through the brush, my boot snags on something. To my amazement, I retrieve a blanched yucca-fiber snare from the sand. In more ways than one I’ve been snagged by a people who departed seven hundred years ago.

The ruin itself offers more connections. Scattered in the loose sand are pot shards, miniature corn cobs, squash stems, and charred sticks from ancient fires. Closer in lie compacted ashes, sticks, yucca fibers, and other refuse alternating with thin layers of sand. Do these alternating layers indicate ancient sandstones, or perhaps temporary abandonment of the site?

Such midden heaps reveal much about how these people [p.215] lived. But as Native American writer Leslie Marmon Silko warns, we should not assume that such close-in refuse heaps suggest sloth: “Corn cobs and husks, the rinds and stalks and animal bones were not regarded by the ancient people as filth or garbage. The remains were merely resting at a mid-point in their journey back to dust.” Since humans make a similar journey, it was surely no sacrilege to bury the dead alongside the garbage. Rather than presuming to stand apart from nature, the Anasazi apparently included themselves within the life-and-death process.

The rooms served three essential purposes: food storage, general residence, and religious ceremony. They were built with carefully-piled, hand-hewn rocks, reinforced with parallel sticks supporting mud masonry and secured by rodent-proof doors. Entering one of these rooms is like crawling into a small cave with bare bedrock for a back wall. From inside it’s not difficult to imagine why the Anasazi spent much of their lives outdoors.

The circular kiva, the subterranean ceremonial chamber, evolved from the pithouse of earlier Basketmaker times. Named by Major John Wesley Powell after its contemporary Hopi counterpart, the kiva featured stone benches for up to eighteen men. Each kiva had a sipapu symbolizing the navel through which humans emerged from the earth. Possibly to evoke a sense of this emergence, this birth of the race, kivas seem designed to feel womb-like.

The Anasazi probably would have found it strange to assume, as our culture does, that heaven is a more sacred place than earth. As Silko observes, “A rock has being or spirit, although we may not understand it.” This is an important cultural assumption, for when we believe that spirits inhabit plants and animals and rocks, we tend to treat them with [p.216] greater reverence and respect. Conversely, when we assume that spirit and matter don’t intermingle, or that only humans have souls, we tend to exploit the physical world. The consequences of such separation and objectification are all around us. Although indigenous people were not environmental saints, we can certainly learn from them.

These ruins involve more than just a backcountry museum without labels and showcases. They abound in signs of human habitation, preserved in place by the dry climate and the overhanging cliffs. This is not Mesa Verde with its artifacts removed and everything restored. Here mounds of refuse often lie right where the Anasazi left them. There are no rangers lecturing, no tourists yakking, nothing to interrupt pure wonder. Beneath these towering walls the spirit of the Anasazi quickens. Visitors often sense an Anasazi presence, which some find unsettling or even sinister.

These ruins also connect our well-fed lives with those of people whose existences depended on the timing of rain and the luck of the hunt. If these glyphs and stones don’t speak, they do spin our minds back through the centuries. On a large boulder are deep grooves where rounded stones once ground com. The foot-long mano and metate stones lying nearby were probably used for the initial crushing and grinding. I can almost see wrinkle-faced women working the maize while they watch the children. The younger women toil down below, cultivating a patch of beans where turkeys nab grasshoppers. A young mother and a grandmother emerge from a doorway to introduce a baby to the sun. What was it like to live here, day after day, year after year, and possibly to die without seeing much beyond these canyon rims?

For full impact, such wondrous touchstones into the past belong on site, where they were left. The yucca-strand neck-[p.217]lace, the squash stems lying about, the small cobs of maize in my palm would not impart much sense of connection if they weren’t here to discover. By leaving artifacts where they are, other visitors have enhanced my experience with the people who once lived here. Hikers who encounter artifacts used to place them on rocks, which seems admirable, but archaeologists deplore such well-intentioned gathering because it removes the items from their original positions.

Worse than that, at some point plundering became a weekend job for many locals in southeast Utah. In recent decades looters have desecrated more than 60 percent of the sites in this area. In reaction, federal agents carried out a heavy-handed raid that even nabbed some San Juan County officials. The state has prosecuted other diggers. Of course these crackdowns have antagonized locals who resent any infringements on their economic options.

Some of the worst damage, however, was done much earlier. After the Anasazi departed around 1300 A.D., these ruins stood largely unvisited for centuries. Once white settlers arrived, they and their livestock did considerable damage. Early explorer/archaeologist (or, as some would say, pothunter and grave robber) Richard Wetherill was chasing cows when he stumbled on Mesa Verde, a masterpiece of Anasazi architecture.

Just after his startling discovery southeast of here, he led the first expedition into Grand Gulch. It must have been thrilling to find the dwellings much as they’d been left, many centuries before. In 1893 Wetherill dashed off an excited letter to announce that the remains of a much earlier Basket-maker culture underlay the ruins and debris of the Cliff Dwellers. Unfortunately Wetherill and others carted off the artifacts, typically selling them to Eastern museums. While [p.218] these diggers slavishly followed the “Western spirit” of exploration and exploitation, they also diminished the scientific potential of many sites. By 1905, when Congress outlawed such practices, they had stripped Grand Gulch of its major treasures.

In the late 1980s the Edge of the Cedars Museum outside Blanding began to restore a lost heritage. Volunteer “reverse anthropologists” scoured these canyon walls for the names of early excavators and also combed their field journals to determine what was found where. The goal is to retrieve the relics, housing them in Blanding, Utah, as close as possible to where they were found. Although these researchers initially encountered difficulties accessing private and public collections, they now have success stories to tell.

In the rock art above me, timeless dancers and ancestral gods play on the mind. The gods become visible in the masks, the dancers invisible behind the masks. One dancer is playing a flute, head tilted and hips bent in the classic position of the celebrant. Like the revelers in Keats’s famous “Ode to a Grecian Urn,” this figure is frozen on a note that echoes over time. He is a Kokopelli, the phallic but hunchbacked flute player associated with cunning, fertility, and hunting.

To Hopi descendants of the Anasazi, he still pipes as a kachina or deified ancestor. Like their notorious snake dances, the Hopi ceremonies that celebrated his presence were baldly sexual—and powerfully primal. These “obscene” rites offended early white observers. Some turned away to smirk, while others, such as early Mormon missionaries, were thoroughly shocked. Such ties to instinct, to the earth, and to nature, sanctify deeply religious connections that Anglo-American culture has found less sacred than profane.

Suddenly the ancient pictures dim like shadows. For no [p.219] apparent reason my throat convulses, leaving me short of breath. More eerie energy creeps in, so I leave.

The trail leaves the stream, cutting through horsetails, willows, and tamarisk. I scramble up the loose sand of the bank, entering a sylvan glade in the desert. Bow-trunked scrub oaks, usually growing in clumps, shoot up about fifteen feet. Leaves on the huge cottonwoods click in the breeze. Beneath them, sunlight and shade dapple the sand, evoking a sense of floating in light like a park scene by Pierre-Auguste Renoir. As a gust wanes here, it soon rattles the cottonwoods downcanyon. These gnarled, venerable Fremont cottonwoods rank among the glories of Grand Gulch.

Cottonwoods are a druid’s delight throughout the year. In early spring sticky, almond- sized buds burgeon into drooping maroon catkins. From dawn to dusk, trees in bloom often host bees audible fully a hundred feet away. In April, as orioles begin to perch and sing, heart-shaped leaves burst forth in a delicate chartreuse/orange. By late May the seeds crack open, filling the canyon air with cotton puffs, while orioles weave their baskets in the gnarled twigs. All summer the dark green leaves contrast vividly with the red rocks, white clouds, and blue skies. In August swollen streams pile debris around exposed roots.

In the fall the cottonwood’s golden foliage, like rocks that hold summer heat, radiates warmth into the cooling air. By November their golden spangles spiral stem-first to the earth, where they fashion a mosaic beneath the spreading branches. In winter bees in the trunk  fan their wings to stay alive. As snowflakes descend, these gray boughs and stubby twigs reach toward the gray-streaked canyon walls, interlacing plant and rock, earth and sky.

Unfortunately old-growth cottonwoods are not faring [p.220] well. With only about twenty or so significant stands left in the Southwest, the cottonwood and willow community has become the rarest forest type in the U.S. Cottonwood seeds germinate quickly on the moist alluvium left by stream runoffs, then send down roots that must reach water in a short time. The tamarisk, their chief competitor, also germinates on moist floodplains but, unlike the cottonwood, sows seeds all summer. Moreover, tamarisk seeds root with less moisture and sink taproots deeper and faster. As drought-resistant tamarisks enlarge their range, cottonwoods are dying out, especially as irrigation removes more water from drainages and dams check spring flooding. This decline is receiving some attention from the Bureau of Land Management, which is starting to protect saplings from cows and off-road vehicles.

After tromping through oak thickets and cottonwood groves, I pass Todie Gulch. Here the canyon wall divides into trapezoidal towers rounded by eons of wind, water, and blowing sand. Farther down Grand Gulch, I camp near bands of gray-green sage, of yellow beeplant, and of lavender-brown cheatgrass. Dwarf forget-me-nots waver just four inches above the sand, their minute blooms like turquoise beads in a Navajo sand painting. In the twenty years that this canyon bottom has not been grazed, the vegetation has made a remarkable comeback.

As the waning light creeps up the canyon wall, it casts a peachy glow on the darker side of the canyon. Two large hawks glide into their nest hundreds of feet above me. Songbirds burst into a final crescendo, perhaps “whistling in the dark” to allay their fear of owls. Grainy dusk begins to fall, yielding those mid-spectrum blues that we primates see better than, say, hummingbirds that are more attuned to reds and yellows. Humans can see the coming of darkness that many [p.221] other animals only feel. Nevertheless, they know. From indecipherable directions birds pipe single notes as they close the soft-dying day.

Tucked into the sandstone wall above us, canyon tree frogs begin a croaking duel that keeps me awake. Never, though, have I felt happier to hear frogs. For many years grazing bottomlands had endangered the relict leopard frog in the Southwest. By the late 1980s, however, amphibians had suffered a sudden, widespread decline that signaled possible ecological breakdowns. No one theory explains the demise of all these frogs, toads, and salamanders, though local drought, habitat loss, global warming, ozone depletion, and acid rain are suspected contributing causes.

Matted by the black canyon walls, a band of stars is shining. The heavens also impressed the Anasazi, for their star motifs appear beneath overhangs or on the roofs of “star chamber” caves. Studies of the “archeo-astronomy” of Indian cultures have established the significance they attributed to massive explosions or supernovas. When the spectacular Crab Nebula first appeared in 1054, it shone five times brighter than any other star in the sky. To most ancient peoples, astronomical displays evoked the mysteries of the universe and indicated the seasonal cycles so crucial to hunting, gathering, and farming. To us, alas, the stars and planets less often inspire a sense of the rhythms of the earth, moon, and sun.

Remarkably, since Grand Gulch has become so popular, I’ve seen no one since Junction Ruin. The sense of isolation is strong, intensified by the barrenness of the canyon walls that evokes a liberating blankness of the rational mind. I’m enjoying the free play of my consciousness even though it’s costing me sleep. The ancient ones, I suspect, slept better beneath their turkey feathers, lice and all, than we do in our fancy [p.222] sleeping bags. Despite the fatigue, however, I sleep fitfully. After a dream about getting buried alive in a kiva when the roof mysteriously falls in, I awake in a cold sweat. In a minute or so I hear a rustling of leaves not far away. A stick cracks. My heart races. “Probably just a deer,” I tell myself as my stomach gurgles. I peer out. A half moon as yellow as a cougar’s squinted eye stares down on my little tent. At dawn I look around but find no tracks other than my own. Strange. Those footfalls seemed so close. Spooky.

I think about other people who have reported strange events in the Grand Gulch area. Writer Rob Schultheis reports disquieting experiences among archaeologists, who are usually unreceptive to psychic or supernatural events. According to one tough-minded woman completing her Ph.D. in paleoecology, she ambled toward the Anasazi graves one evening, looking for her watch. Down in the graves, feeling around for her watch, she heard something:

“I don’t know why, but I suddenly felt afraid,” she told
me. “I ducked and crouched at the bottom of the pit. As the
person, or whatever it was, approached, I heard it singing
and chanting in a woman’s voice, in a language I’d never
heard before. I saw a figure pass in silhouette above me, still
chanting in low tones that didn’t sound human.”

Fearing spirits, even today many Utes and Navajos will not approach Anasazi sites.

The next morning I set off downcanyon. Tangled roots protrude from the sand, still holding pieces of stringy bark they snagged during a flash flood. Tall blond grasses catch the early light while the sandbank below remains in deep shadow. As the bank drops to stream level, a wild prairie rose shoots from a crack in a boulder. Its buds are much redder than its [p.223] deep pink blooms, its aroma more racy than an old-fashioned climber. Around each bend cliff houses sit like mansions on a hill.

Throughout its fifty-six-mile length Grand Gulch hosts varied wildlife and grows luxuriant greenery, but its cliff dwellings impart its special ambience. After passing several impressive structures on the right, I scramble up to Wetherill Ruin. Attracted to this site because it was a storage and burial area, Richard Wetherill inscribed his name and the date when he dug here. Unfortunately, its most important artifacts have since lost any value to science because of inadequate labeling.

In Sheik’s Canyon, named for the turbaned mummy found here, Wetherill also exhumed “The Princess,” a woman covered by baskets and a turkey-feather shroud embellished with bluebird plumage. Her body was painted yellow, her face red. The nearby gallery of petro glyphs and pictographs here casts a spell. Here ancient rock artists created serpents, birds, bighorns, and anthropomorphs, those square-shouldered men with chests like shields. There are also unusual figures such as a woman in the throes of breach birth and, most remarkably, a free-floating yellow head wearing a reddish headdress and a triple-banded Green Mask.

Somehow, possibly by drawing on the inscrutable powers of the rock, the eyes behind Green Mask stare me down. I want to meet the apparition behind the mask, the spirit within the rock, but somehow I can’t retain my stare—or even lift my eyes. Sinister. I stand riveted, open to a primal connection far beyond intellectual speculation. My voice no longer sounds like my own. I seem to be hearing myself from a distance. I’ve never felt so superstitious in broad daylight before. I stumble off, humbled and silent, wanting to believe that I’m woozy from the heat.

[p.224]Sunlight trickles through the scrub oak, puddling into a plunge pool. Though only six inches deep, this pool offers relief I plop down without apology to the tadpoles, my sense of selfhood reaffirmed by the size of my splash. As my head tilts back into the rippling stream, my hair floats like waving weeds. Behind them, the sky pulses like a blue flame. Far above, the rocks wriggle as energy of some sort wavers down the curved canyon walls.

Still unsettled, I slog through the stream oblivious to the sun and heat. Back at camp, I sip wine to quiet mind and body. Pinyon jays squawk from the scrub oaks as rufous-sided towhees rustle the dried leaves, rasping like catbirds. After a spaghetti supper enhanced by a split of chianti, I scrub a saucey pan with local horsetails.

Just above me, mourning doves gather in a scrub oak. Their pale plumage with a lavender wash on the shoulder brightens in the twilight. One bird puffs its throat—probably a male in need of a mate—and wails the plaintive coo that gives these birds their common name. Others drop down, jerking along, heads near the ground in search of seeds. Such flocking offers birds advantages. If we assume that a predator will often strike the nearest prey, staying together helps to reduce the domain of danger for most of the birds. Moreover, as a member of a flock, an individual can reduce the time it spends watching for predators and increase the time it devotes to locating food. These benefits apply especially to ground-feeding birds that frequent habitats where both cover and food are scarce.

Before dark I dig a cathole and squat down to business. Right in my face a purple-and-white-striped penstemon glows in the lavender twilight. Since I’m so close and have plenty of time, I look closely at this desert flower. Its puffed [p.225] blooms balloon into poliwogs with gaping mouths, protruding lips, and fuzzy tongues. Penstemon means five stamens, but a closer look inside reveals only four. The fifth, I recall, has lost its anther and evolved hairs, which explains why many penstemons are called beardtongues. As a genus, penstemons are well adapted to the desert. Over twenty species appear on the rare plant list in Utah alone.

Since excretion is basic to all life, it affirms our kinship to other living creatures. But this requires that we unload some cultural baggage. We Americans are, after all, the great grandchildren of the Puritans who saw bodily functions as evil. Early in the 1700s, for instance, the famous Puritan leader Cotton Mather was “making water at the wall” when a stray dog trotted up and lifted his leg. Mather, the Divine who shunned his own “lower nature,” shuddered in disgust at this link. Little did Mather realize, as Zorba the Greek dearly did, that he may have held a key to sacred kinship right in his hand.

Bats dive just above my head as the Milky Way powders the sky. By candlelight I scribble in my journal about my experiences with the rock art and especially with the Green Mask—not the best subjects to explore before bedtime. If these were surges from my unconscious, they may well suggest that I’ve been doing all too effective a job of living in the modern world and repressing the mysterious, the irrational, in order to maintain my self-image as a good, reasonable person. To grow, I’ll need to own and embrace my darker demons.

Just before dawn the loudest of alarms jolts me into consciousness. Before I can sit up, the unmistakable scream of a mountain lion pierces my tent again. Never have my eyes sprung open so fast, never has my heart beat so much like a drum in my throat. A third metallic scream—something like [p.226] the stripping of gears—comes from just outside. Fumbling in haste I unzip the window. Nose to the mesh, I peer into the dusk. Nothing but brush. Then the falsetto caterwaul comes once again, followed by guttural growls lasting several seconds. With only brief lulls, these screams and growls continue for several minutes.

Finally, just as it’s getting light enough to see, the last scream and growl echo down the canyon. A long tawny tail disappears into the dusky willows. This was probably a mother cougar with cubs who doesn’t want me around. Like beavers, cougars are a keystone species, one whose presence directly or indirectly affects many other organisms. Here, for instance, cougars probably make it too dangerous for deer to forage at certain times or places.

Cougars favor these canyons because mule deer, their main prey, congregate in the lush bottoms rather than up on the exposed mesas. Deer need cover and shade, since they start to overheat above seventy degrees. In the bottomlands, however, they run a risk since there’s more cover for cougars and there’s less space to run. Thus these verdant canyon bottoms provide tight niches for wildlife and it’s natural for cougars to defend turf. On the topic of close encounters with large predators, Ed Abbey quipped that “If people persist in trespassing upon the grizzlies’ territory, we must accept the fact that the grizzlies, from time to time, will harvest a few trespassers.”

It’s important to know that mountain lions prowl these canyons. We become more alert, more alive when we feel stalked or hunted. In a healthy way it’s humbling for us to step down from the top of the food chain. Wild animals also connect us to a different consciousness, joining us to our evolutionary past. As Jungian storyteller Clarissa Pinkola Estés [p.227] observes, “No matter where we are, the shadow that trots behind us is definitely four-footed.”

I pack quickly, hardly eating breakfast, before the sun soars above the canyon rim and streams on the leafy path. The cougar made her point and I got the message.

Along the stream caterpillars feast on ash trees that glow a hot chartreuse in the early morning light. Cool, moist air and dewy willows brace my arms and legs. With each soft footfall, each squeak on the moist grass, the ground resounds with the chants of the Anasazi. My mind’s eye fills in the dogs and turkeys running about as ruddy-brown people emerge from the small doors.

As the water striders watch, I fill my canteens at Junction Spring before starting up Kane Gulch toward the ranger station. This morning I’m seeing more of Kane not only because I’m hiking slower but also because, heading up, my eyes aren’t as busy scanning the terrain underfoot. About halfway the wavy, gently sloping sandstone is particularly alluring with its marbled layers of peach and strawberry on a deep cinnamon background.

This is a splendid day, with flat-bottomed towering cumuli sailing like clipper ships on a vivid blue sea. Except for the weight of my park, no bodily discomforts interfere with total sensation. Wild roses garland the trail, big sage spices the air, and green gentians sway in the breeze. Mountain blue-birds cavort just above the rim, looking for grasshoppers and then soaring toward the clouds. I want to reach out toward everything.

As walls drop down and the canyon widens, I emerge from Grand Gulch feeling as though I’ve surfaced from several days in an underworld of light and dark spirits. Scarcely hesitation long enough to unsaddle myself, I head for the [p.228] water cooler and the air conditioning in the BLM trailer. The ranger, an eco-conscious sort, recalls when several locals pulled his ponytail and offered him a free haircut.

Back in Blanding I talk with some wranglers about mountain lions. One ruddy fellow squints his eyes as he recounts how he trees the beasts with hounds before shooting them and watching his dogs tear them apart. Underlying this man’s resentment of cougars is his realization that in marginal ranches, losses to predators make a significant difference. Nature remains the adversary for most ranchers. To understand rural attitudes, one must consider their struggles against the raw forces of nature. As the Scorup brothers learned, longhorns are ornery and remote canyons make them damn hard to locate. And over decades of eking a livelihood from a high desert, most ranchers have come to view the natural world in very utilitarian terms. Whereas they descend from settlers who sought to tame a wilderness and make a living, we recreationists seek wilderness in order to escape civilization and to learn more about ourselves.

After days and nights of bad vibes, strange sounds, weird stare-downs, and cougar screams, I too understand that wilderness is not necessarily about peace of mind. Grand Gulch remains wild, mysterious, sometimes disquieting. It’s one thing to wonder about the primal, or to yearn for more of it, and quite another to actually experience it. It’s one thing to understand that wilderness can drive us out of our over-civilized heads, into a serpentine dance of the psyche, and another thing to process the experience.

The Battle for the Bureau

[p.229]Somewhere in the Southwest a park ranger mentioned to a rancher that before the arrival of livestock, elk and antelope grazed on grasses that grew stirrup high. Hairs on a leathery neck bristled. When the rancher called her a “radical environmentalist,” she was astounded. After all, she’d never used the “O” word. We don’t talk Overgrazin’ in these parts, pardner.

The inflamed environmental politics of the West are fueled on the one side by the still-smoldering Sagebrush Rebellion (reincarnated as the “Wise Use” movement) against federal agencies perceived as “blocking development,” and on the other by a passionate commitment to preserve some of the most magnificent country on this planet. Since the 1970s government managers have shown increasing concern with the condition of public lands, but the resulting regulations have ignited deep resentments, especially among ranchers. Their rallying cry was simple: Don’t accept restrictions; seize the public lands and bring them under local control.

Fueled by decades of resentment toward “the Feds,” the rebellion targeted the environmental movement, which it associated with “politicians and bureaucrats.” Utah senator Orrin Hatch, who exulted about what he called “the second American Revolution,” regarded everybody concerned about range ecology as “toadstool and dandelion worshippers.” In contrast, ranchers saw themselves as patriotic rebels against Big Government, standing tall as they rode into the sunset of rugged individualism. “Wyoming Is What America Used to Be” claimed a sticker for a state that brands a bronc [p.230] rider on its license plates.

For years rural interests have battled for control of the BLM lands near Moab, Utah. On the 4th of July 1980 the Grand County commissioners hung an American flag on a bulldozer that gouged a new road into a roadless area to disqualify it for official Wilderness designation. The environmental community registered righteous outrage, but the BLM chose to ignore this federal offense.

Nor was this an isolated instance, for the BLM often failed to enforce its own regulations and county commissioners regularly overrode federal law. Around 1970 the BLM recommended protection for Mancos Mesa, a large, isolated area known for its undisturbed flora and fauna. The agency failed to enforce its closure recommendations, however, when it allowed Gulf Minerals to blast roads for uranium exploration. By 1990, when the BLM attempted to restore the area by reclaiming these illegal roads, the San Juan County commissioners tried to block reclamation. Fortunately, the Board of Land Appeals ruled against local attempts to set policy on public lands.

Though the Sagebrush Rebellion lost its initial momentum with the demise of James Watt and other sympathizers in the Reagan administration, disaffected ranchers soon began to find supporters among other land users. Off-road vehicle groups, for example, beefed up their political muscle and joined the “Multiple-Use Coalition.” When environmentalists pointed out that wilderness law already allows for multiple use, the group re-christened itself the “Wise-Use Movement.” The Wise-Use guys found an ally in a BLM district manager who had already clarified his position: “Any time an environmentalist says I’m opposed to it, I’ll always take the opposite point of view.”

[p.231]In the ensuing years, off-road vehicles became a focus in the conflict. The Moab Jeep Safari began in 1966 with a handful of jeepers riding on existing rough roads. By 1990, however, the event attracted fifteen hundred off-road vehicles grinding over twenty-two trails, many of them traversing Wilderness Study Areas. Anyone familiar with off-roaders knows that no route, however exciting, satisfies them for long: they want to make more tracks for new thrills.

When the Moab District managers agreed to allow hundreds of four-wheelers to grind into a Wilderness Study Area, the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance (SUWA) led the fight for a reversal. SUWA’s Michael Heyrend watched them churn up Arch Canyon near Grand Gulch: “It sounded like Patton’s army,” he recalled. BLM officials denied that they had failed to enforce their regulations, but soon afterward the Moab office received a new manager.

Citing many abuses, environmentalists took the BLM to court. Joe Feller, law professor at Arizona State University and author of How Not To Be Cowed, challenged the huge grazing allotment that includes Comb Wash in southeastern Utah. Working with National Wildlife Foundation lawyers, Feller contended that the BLM could not issue a grazing permit for an allotment until it had established exactly what damage is likely to occur. Once cleared of cows, Feller demonstrated, the Grand Gulch Primitive Area had restored itself significantly in just two decades: plants once again held the sand and soil. Government Accounting Office reports showed similar improvement in many other stream-bottom areas throughout the West. In a 1993 decision a federal judge ruled that canyon bottoms fare better without cows and that BLM malpractices have destroyed archaeological treasures and degraded recreational values.

[p.232]While the Comb Wash area will improve and the BLM will have to reform, the battle is hardly over. Corporate funded groups such as People for the West continue to work with county officials to block preservation and promote development on public lands. Citing section 2477 of the archaic Mining Act of 1866, local-control interests claim that over four thousand obscure tracks in five Utah counties qualify as guaranteed rights of way into federal lands. If such claims are allowed to stand, any cow path could not only preclude wilderness designation but could also become a new road into unspoiled country.

Federal land agencies will continue to operate under intense pressures from mining, grazing, lumbering, and off-road groups on one side and from environmental, taxpayer, and consumer groups on the other. But no longer is the Utah bureau the “captive agency” that Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall encountered in the 1960s. Today the “good 0l’ boys” who filed away inconvenient agency guidelines are slowly heading out to pasture.

Though the BLM may no longer be the primary focus, similar clashes continue well into the 1990s. Conflicts between pro-development locals and pro-preservation newcomers have erupted far beyond Moab, in otherwise quiet Utah towns such as Springdale and Boulder.