Making Peace with Bears Ears

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The mind is a crazy thing. You never know what it will wrap itself around. This week my husband, my two children and I all loaded into my husband’s extended cab truck. We were hauling our sheep camp that had a bicycle strapped to the back, and a four wheeler strapped to the front. We were headed for the Abajo Mountains, otherwise known as “the Blues.” These mountains  were part of the Obama’s original designation for the Bears Ears National Monument.

This made me question my relationship to the place.  Say the words “Bear Ears” and immediately I feel a soft spot for the indigenous cultures that were shafted once again by government policy. I also feel this swelling anger for my Senator, who I’ve written several inquiries to about various concerns. I’ve received a few short replies along the lines of…”I am responding to your grievances, but I’m still going to do it this way.” Mostly, it’s been about futile efforts that fall upon deaf ears.

Trump’s scaling down of the original proposal for Bears ears by 85 percent has been met with mixed reviews. To some, this was a cause for celebration. GOP Rep Mike Noel has even proposed that a portion of a scenic byway be named the “Donald J. Trump Utah National Parks Highway.” Please no.

So here is a spec of good news on the matter. Some of the faint Silver on the small lining.  Kenneth Maryboy, Navajo, defeated Rebecca M. Benally in the Democratic primary for San Juan County Commissioner.  She was an outspoken supporter of Trump’s decision. He is not. At the heart of Bears Ears there  is also a  pending Lawsuit. The Los Angeles Times ran a story on this yesterday. Many people are triggered that Trump’ s decision lied with upcoming uranium, oil, and gas drilling leases.

My husband and I had a conversation about this as we were driving through Price Canyon on Highway 6. Actually, this led to a debate that caused a little marital discourse that flew between us in the cab of the truck. My husband is an avid hunter, and he wanted Bears Ears left as it was.

Our visions for our trip were as different as our views on politics. In my husband’s mind, he was going to scout animals, and Trump’s decision benefited the hunter.  In my mind, there was no “leaving Bears Ears as it was.” Not if the oil, gas, and uranium companies had their way with it. Overall, my viewpoint was that cutting the original proposal for Bears Ears by Eighty five Percent was excessive. It was also another blatant slap in the face for indigenous people.

I will say this, I’m not so far gone to see that the acreage amount on the land that was originally designated by Obama was huge. In my mind, Trump’s scaling down of this chunk of designated land was also massive. It did not feel like a bridge to compromise, it felt like an all out mutiny to punish or make a statement. (Some people may say the same of Obama when he initially set the boundaries). The problem with Bears Ears really is a lack of consolidation among two extremes. Just like everything else, there really is a serious lack of thoughtful discussion from opposing sides.

This controversy surrounding Bears Ears is far from Dead. So what did I take away from my trip to Bears Ears? To be honest, when I went to Bears Ears I felt BETTER. It was as if the land itself were reassuring me. Sure there were cattle guards and cattle grazing, and there were signs of overgrazing. This will eventually bite these people in the end.

The cattle looked a little thin, and almost over groomed,  with big red tags sticking out of their ears. Not like the fat dirty cows I’m accustomed to. There were a few areas of land that were closed to off-road vehicles and grazing to encourage regrowth of torn up areas. I had a few run ins with fish and game.

One guy approached us as we were cooking on our camp stove to ensure that we were not barbecuing on coals. He said they had averted a massive wildfire from a lightening strike before it got out of control. Which was a feat. There are five wildfires happening in my state right now. The other guy from fish and game asked what animals we had seen, where we were camping, and if we were keeping our fish. The guy who did approach us about the stove did let us know he is one guy who covers six areas. I sensed that understaffing was a problem, and these men are dependent on fellow campers being their eyes and ears. They got lucky on that lightening strike.

At night the wind howled. On our last day, we got caught in a massive hail storm. The day before, We took a sketchy road up the mountain that seemed rather treacherous for an extended oversize truck. I saw my life flash before my eyes as we rounded the last turn at the mountain’s summit on a narrow road. It had an extreme drop off that led into an abyss of pine trees, quaking aspens, scrub oak, and red rock desert that spanned as far as the eye could see.

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I was enthralled that this land could  consist of a whole lot of nothing and everything at the same time. I got out at the top, and the magnitude of the height and splendor almost overwhelmed my senses. I had been white knuckling it all the way to the top. The altitude and fear had a dizzying effect on me. Part of me was a little put out by my husband’s “macho-ism,” and part of me wanted to praise him for it. I felt alive in a way that only fear can ignite. I conquered the up but feared the down. My children and I walked in a few places.

We saw a sign that had obviously been scratched up by a bear claw. As if the Bear were saying, your signs mean nothing to me. We saw elk off in the distance, and many deer with young fawns, the smallest fawns I had ever seen, as if they were born yesterday. They would flounce into the bushes with an appeal that reminded me of tiny baby goats. Only they were more spotty, and graceful like grasshoppers.

Towards dusk, there was a doe that would eat grass around us with no fear of who or what we were. I could have hand fed a squirrel but chose not to. The bushes would rustle with the activity of wild Turkeys and their entire brood, as they would scurry into hiding making you believe they were never there.

I read two novels at camp,  Beloved by Toni Morrison, and The Lightkeepers by Abby Geni.  (I pride myself on being a fast reader). The only political thought I had was that separating families was an unfathomable abomination, and so was slavery.  I realized that absolutely NO PART of this should be given a platform. Not one that I support.  I felt even more strongly that those who are rather complacent and cozy with such things should not be in positions of power to determine the fate of of our wild spaces.

At night, my children wanted to be brave and sleep in their own tents outside. It was as if it were a right of passage. I was concerned about bears, and made every effort to make sure all food sources and garbage were securely locked away. My mothering instincts were torn between being overprotective and granting them their wish.

I slept with the trailer door opened as the wind howled, and heard my daughter’s voice on the wind. Her tent had blown over in the night. She was sleep disoriented and could not find the door. I ran out into the night with a head lamp to rescue her. As we were walking towards the trailer, her sleeping bag blew off into the trees, and I had to retrieve it. My son slept through everything. He is normally a wild restless sleeper. In the daytime his autistic mind goes a mile a minute, but for some reason quiets and sleeps like a rock in the outdoors.

I watched every sunset, and at night I observed the sky. On the last night, I refused to allow my children to sleep in their tents do to an incoming lightening storm. I dreamed about coyotes but then realized they were not coyotes but they were hounds. Rain hammered our metal roof. We were confined to camp on the last day, and found creative ways to supplement dutch oven cooking due to fire restrictions.

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We discovered a way to make empanadas and apple flautas in a camp cooker. I’ve got ideas brewing that involve raspberries, cherries, and other variations. I discovered you can bake biscuits over a burner if you do it just right. I contemplated many ideas for camp cooking since fire restrictions are now the new norm.

It turns out the hounds belonged to a bear tracker. He had tracked one close to us in the night but also lost one of his hounds in the process. We tried to help him look for it. My daughter jumped to action calling for the dog on her bike. At night we could hear this man’s vehicle driving back and forth looking for his lost hound. By daylight, he still had not found it, we inquired about it the next day when we ran across his family on a trail resting near a hammock. He gave us a speech about how he did this for fun and there was nothing lucrative in tracking bears beyond paying for the dog food and the gas money.

He gave my husband his card in case we saw his hound. My husband had other ideas for taking his card. In my mind I was saying…PLEASE DON’T.

We ran into an old timer who was missing teeth but wearing the cleanest pressed shirt I had ever seen for a man who was missing teeth. His wife wore rose quartz rocks in her ears, and her skin was milky white and plump with collagen. She had dark burgundy hair and the appearance of small lines like cracks in the mud around the creases of her eyes.  She gave me the impression of what snow white would have looked like as an elderly woman. She had the delicate features of a columbine, but I could also see the hardiness of a thistle thorn.

She patiently sat on her side of their vehicle trying to look comfortable in the sweltering heat that was beating down on her, while her husband talked my husband’s ear off. He told us how many miles he put on himself as a truck driver, and that he was too old to drag a Deer up the Mountain. His wife continued to be uncomfortably polite like she had heard it all before. He gave my husband his phone number and said he ran an outfitting business in the Henry Mountains. He told my husband to give him a call. I’m familiar with the Henries. One of the few places in Utah, where you can find wild buffalo.

So what did I take away from my trip to Bears Ears?  It is still a VAST wild place. It is primarily a hunter’s paradise. There were a few grassroots types roaming around and they harmoniously did not have any conflicts with the other sort. They may have had their opinions but every one kept their peace. It was as if everyone stepped into a church, and they knew it was not the time or place to rattle someone’s cage. It was obvious Cattle ranchers and hunters still had free reign and a strong voice in the area. There were no signs of the oil and gas industry laying their paws on the land just yet. The land also does not pay attention to politics. The land is its own thing. The land made me forget about politics. The land made me feel that it was more powerful than all of it in the most humbling way.

I felt this when I walked into an “enchanted” spot that lied in the thicket of the woods near a small creek. Butterflies fluttered all around me, making a soft landing on plants that resembled queen Anne’s lace.  I have seen so seldom of them in recent years. It felt like a reunion with old friends who carried on their wings a mission of hope.

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I was humbled by the call of ravens as they conspired to steal my food. Their intellect was amazing and calculating. I had a moment where the Canyon Lands seemed to collide with something that carried the ambience of a little Edgar Allan Poe. I thought about biblical Isaiah feeding crows from the sky. How odd. How Beautiful. I stood at the base of petroglyphs trying to interpret their stories sketched in stone. Stories of four legged animals, hunting, magic, and circular wheels. I was in awe, and my rage was beside the point. I was reminded of a line from Beloved. “Lay it down, sword and shield, lay it down.” It is not a matter of defeatism, but a submission to a peaceful force that goes beyond myself, and also goes beyond the opposing forces that want to crush the sacred. There lies the beauty. The sacred can not be crushed. I did not leave Bears Ears with a sense of defeatism but a renewed sense of hope.

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