Andersen: The Bears Ears is sacred ground
They stood out for days, twin signposts marking our destination as we pushed and pedaled our loaded mountain bikes up the Mormon Trail from Comb Wash. The Bears Ears, a new National Monument, thanks to President Barack Obama, are prominent landmarks on a wild desert horizon.
The old Mormon Trail was sandy and uphill as it climbed Cedar Mesa. We had been on the road four days, and our supplies were running low. We pitched camp near a spring, a mere seep in a canyon alcove — just enough to fill a pot every hour.
Four of us were biking from Telluride to the Needles at Canyonlands. The Bears Ears loomed like a distant goalpost for us to punt through on this, my bachelor party bike tour, 25 years ago.
At Natural Bridges, near the base of the high mesa where these twin sandstone knobs protruded into the deep-blue desert sky, we picked up our resupply in cardboard boxes we had shipped there a week prior.
Inside were the bare necessities: ramen noodles, instant oatmeal, peanut butter, jelly, bread, cookies, cheese, sardines, chocolate and a savory bottle of Laphroaig scotch whiskey — all packed in several pounds of unshelled peanuts.
We gorged on the peanuts and toasted with the whiskey as we packed our panniers for the grind up the steep grade through the Bears Ears. Once over the top, however, we were stopped dead by tire-sucking muck on a snowy road traversing Elk Ridge toward Kigalia and Gooseberry.
We were forlorn as we realized that our route was hopelessly blocked, so we set up camp and gathered firewood in silence. At dark, a cold wind drove curtains of hail and snow. We heaped the wood high on the fire and, passing the whiskey, withstood the bitter sting of a spring storm in relatively good humor as we pondered alternative routes.
That night the wind rattled our tents. I awoke in the blackness, parched and dry. Pulling with my teeth on the nipple of my ice-cold water bottle, the plastic lid shattered and came off in my mouth. I spit it aside and gulped slush from the ragged opening.
A few hours later, I woke to the first light of dawn. All was quiet. The air was bitter cold. I unzipped the tent and peered out at a clear, blue sky. Stepping out onto frozen ground, I knew this was our chance and quickly mustered the others out of their warm bags.
Without taking time for breakfast, we rode across the frozen mud, covering most of the ridge before the warming sun had thawed the ground. We stopped for brunch at a spring that issued, cold and clear, into a hand-hewn log trough. Rested and full, we saddled up and dropped into Beef Basin on our way to Elephant Hill and the Needles. The setting described wildness in every direction.
That gushing spring on Elk Ridge stands out as a landmark in my life, a refuge on the road to marriage, family and home, enhanced by good friends, wild country and an errant storm.
Several years ago I made another Bears Ears trip, this one with my son, Tait. We started in the tall ponderosas and backpacked down Woodenshoe Canyon through the wild gorge of Dark Canyon.
Five days later, at the top of the Sundance Trail, we uncovered our hidden bicycles and toured two days back to the car. The final morning I awoke early and watched a herd of elk saunter past, led by a huge, white bull.
The sum of those trips is beyond words. It is stored in rich imagery that forms a deep, personal attachment to the Bears Ears, symbols of physical challenge, warm companionship and wild nature. For me, this makes Bears Ears a sacred place.
Thanks to hardworking advocates for native lands and wilderness, Bears Ears is a National Monument. It is protected for future generations to wander its ridgelines and plumb its canyons, to discovery adventure and to drink from an idyllic desert spring gushing into a hollowed log with holy water for all who thirst for such blessed landscapes.
Paul Andersen’s column appear on Mondays. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.