Born a century too late for wild desert exploration

A mural featuring a white buffalo and the Colorado River adorned the front of a building in Cisco in the 1980s and early 1990s. The brick structure has collapsed.
Steve Condon/courtesy photo

The saying, “The older I get, the less I know” is ringing true for me with increasing frequency as I gallop through middle age.

For example, I used to fancy myself as a desert rat in training. I was smitten by the desert since my first boss after college took me to Moab on Memorial Day Weekend 1986. I vividly recall the white buffalo mural on the old gas station at Cisco and crossing the one-lane, suspension-style Dewey Bridge. The brick wall of the gas station collapsed decades ago. The bridge was taken out of use for vehicles several years ago, then the pedestrian bridge was destroyed by fire.

In the 33 years since that initial trip, I have crammed in as many spring and fall trips to the desert as allowed by changing life circumstances. I got to know the Moab area fairly well before its popularity soared. I spent many trial-and-error forays seeking interesting places in the San Rafael Swell. I immersed myself in Grand Gulch and parts of Cedar Mesa and dabbled in the vast expanses of Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. More recently I have wandered the high ground of the Bears Ears. I love them all.

Reading the book “Finding Everett Ruess: The Life and Unsolved Disappearance of a Legendary Wilderness Explorer” by David Roberts has made me realize how little of the beloved canyon country I have visited and how I missed — by several decades — experiencing it when it was truly wild. Ruess was a young explorer who fled city life in Los Angeles to explore the Four Corners area in 1930-34. He often traveled with a couple of burros. He is celebrated for his writing, wandering and watercolors. He’s admired for his adventurous spirit, starting when he was just 16 years of age. He disappeared in the canyons at age 20.

Reading about his three big treks across the Southwest have given me numerous fresh ideas of places to go and things to see, for which I am grateful. I will bring a fresh eye to areas I thought I knew.

The slightly depressing realization from the book is that Anglos have visited the places I figured as remote for more than a century. I previously knew the history of John Wetherill, a cowboy and explorer who “found” many Pueblo ruins in the late 1800s. After raiding many sites, he started leading tourists to them on sightseeing tours by horseback.

Despite being aware of that early exploration, it’s easy to convince yourself when you find an extremely remote Anasazi ruin or concealed granary that only a few people have ever laid eyes on since the residents departed. But Ruess was disappointed even in the early 1930s that he could find so few ruins that hadn’t been picked over. If they were well-visited then, think of how many people have seen them by now.

I guess I was born a century late.