As I used to read each new batch of essays that Ed Abbey published during the last decade of his life, I remember feeling grumpy. Why did he keep repeating himself? He always included a nod to his favorite bird, the turkey vulture. The same adjectives turned up over and over again to describe the same familiar rock formations. Was he just lazy?
As I keep recycling bits and pieces of my own writing for new purposes, I’ve grown much more tolerant over time. I’ve written about the Colorado Plateau for more than thirty years, so I am often asked to speak about the Canyon Country. To make my points most powerfully, I go back to tried-and-true images and ideas. I’m sure Abbey was doing the same thing.
I now believe that I’m mining my past work the way politicians create a political stump speech. We naturalist writers are framing our favorite landscapes and conservationist manifestos with the most powerful words we can muster. Once we’ve settled on that framing language, we are simply being good communicators when we repeat those carefully chosen frames.
We’ll never be as relentlessly successful in repeating our talking points as the conservative Republicans in Congress, who are implacably and terrifyingly skilled at staying on point. But Abbey’s turkey vulture and my canyon wren deserve to turn up repeatedly. And I now believe that’s okay—and effective.
So when Janet Ross at the Four Corners School of Outdoor Education asked me to speak in Monticello at the groundbreaking ceremony for their new Canyon Country Discovery Center on August 12, I was honored. I pulled out my favorite storyteller images and my well-honed Colorado Plateau talking points to create a new version of my stump speech for the occasion. And that’s okay.
Telluride to Tuba City: Making a Home on the Colorado Plateau
I wanted to learn a little more than I knew about my fellow speakers, so I poked around on the Internet a bit. I learned that…
Doug Allen, Monticello’s Mayor was raised in Salt Lake, but, he says, “San Juan County is home.” In the Canyon Country Discovery Center video on the Four Corners School website, he says, “We all love this land.”
I learned that…
Bruce Adams, the San Juan County Commission Chair used to be a science teacher. Now he applies himself to the science of raising hay. One of his students wrote, “You were my 5th grade teacher in Snowflake, Arizona in 1972. You were a difference-maker in my life! You treated me like the person I wanted to become. Though its unlikely you remember me, I will always remember and appreciate you. Thanks for being a positive influence on my life.” Scott Flake, Snowflake AZ
Bruce is still a teacher at heart. In that same introductory video he concludes his pitch to support the Discovery Center by saying passionately, “The story of the treasure that is San Juan County needs to be told.”
In October 2008 Bill Boyle generously spent some time talking with my class from the University of Utah, when we came to town to try to understand how San Juan County folks feel about their home territory. One of our students was particularly moved by his love for this land. She heard that affection and loyalty in Bill’s description of his home here—and she heard that love from others as well, from federal agency land managers like Kate Cannon, superintendent of Canyonlands National Park, to river runners, to ranchers like Heidi Redd out at Dugout Ranch. Bill convinced that student, Cynthia Pettigrew, that “Community conversations are essential; they serve as a reminder that every interest has a rightful stake in public lands and they give people the opportunity to build relationships based on interactions rather than speculation about opposing interests. We all have to learn how to give a little.” Wise words.
State Senator David Hinkins stated his guiding philosophy to a news reporter not long ago “sometimes an adversity can also be a time of opportunity.”
That astute observation says a lot about the possibilities presented to us by the Canyon Country Discovery Center. We still face the adversity of raising the funds to complete this dream. But it’s an incredible opportunity to expand the programs of the Four Corners School.
The Four Corners School states its Mission in this way:
to create lifelong learning experiences about the Colorado Plateau bioregion for people of all ages and backgrounds through education, service, adventure, and conservation programs.
And its Vision:
to build a diverse community committed to conserving the natural and cultural treasures of the Colorado Plateau.
We need some Definitions:
Conservation is a tricky word. Here is what Merriam Webster has to say about defining conservation:
a careful preservation and protection of something,
especially: planned management of a natural resource
to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.
Lastly, we need a definition for the Colorado Plateau…
It’s not an isolated landform in the state of Colorado. It’s the vast network of canyons carved by the Colorado River, named by John Wesley Powell when he was the first to row those canyons back in 1869.
The Plateau is shaped like a heart. Picture that heart turned on its side—its two lobes wrapped around the Rockies, with the cleft somewhere around Telluride. Rivers form those lobes—the drainages of the Green and Colorado in the upper lobe. In the lower lobe, the San Juan River watershed reaches almost to Albuquerque, New Mexico, and the Little Colorado reaches deep into Arizona.
The Colorado River cuts across this heart, the deepest artery, the deepest vein, headed for the point of the heart, where the Colorado emerges from the Grand Canyon to flow out into the Southwest Deserts.
Monticello lies at the heart of the Colorado Plateau, on the rise between the Colorado and San Juan. What a fine place for an introduction to this Canyon Country.
From the mouth of the Colorado River at the sea, the Southwest rises northward in steps—concentric semi-circles from desert basin, to desert mountain, to the Colorado Plateau, and finally, to the Rockies themselves. Keystone to this circular Southwest, ringed by dry mountains, standing like a huge island above the deserts, the Colorado Plateau seems timeless. Its dramatic landscapes are icons. Its rocks are old, its canyons still new, its geology laid bare to even the least observant eye. Aridity and isolation have preserved Native ways here as much as anywhere in the West.
The archaeologists tell us that San Juan County was more densely populated in prehistoric times than it is today. And then the People (as the members of nearly every tribe call themselves) moved on, leaving much of the plateau to the light and the silence, choosing new homes, evolving into modern Pueblo people.
The Ancestral Pueblo people who once lived on Cedar Mesa—and at Mesa Verde and Hovenweep and Chaco Canyon—now live in modern Pueblo villages that span a 350-mile crescent from the Hopi mesas of northeast Arizona to the Rio Grande pueblos near Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Over centuries, these Pueblo people have become environmental wizards, the best dry farmers in the world.
Change keeps coming. Anthropologists say that the Navajo people arrived about 1400, reaching the Southwest with their Apache relations long after other tribes. The Navajo have incorporated the land into their creation stories, into their souls. They believe they have been here from the beginning—sheepherding, farming, and adapting. You can see this land in their elders’s faces.
Today, the Diné, the Navajo people, flourish in today’s Navajo Nation, the most populous Indian reservation in the United States. They are neighbors here in San Juan County, where they face both their traditional hogans and modern cinderblock homes east toward the rising sun below chiseled sandstone buttes and spires.
Ute and Paiute people continue to live on the plateau, as well—and one of those tribes retains their ancestral homeland just a few canyons away from where we stand, the White Mesa Ute people. Remember that the state of Utah is named for those Ute people.
Great spaces and high elevations make for stark clarity of vision, both literally and spiritually. The rock, time, space, and color of the Colorado Plateau forge a bond between people and land.
That bond extends to all the rest of us who have come here to make a home—whether we came with the San Juan Mission on the Hole In the Rock expedition in 1880, as pinto-bean-farming homesteaders in 1910, as uranium miners in the 1950s, or as National Park Service rangers in 2010.
The land turns us inward. The Colorado Plateau is a prayer turned to stone. We walk down secret slots into the Earth as we walk down the aisles of houses of worship, as we pass into sacred space in any tradition. We reach out to touch cross-bedded and sculpted walls, created by water as we are created by water. Music comes to us, the chords of rapids downcanyon, the singing of canyon wrens—the lilting paired notes of a musical waterfall. Light comes in rich and intense colors, the hues of royalty and holiness and fundamental emotion—monkish saffron and stately gold and the reds of damask and blood.
Each canyon shelters secrets. But to share them you often start in desert flats. An arroyo leads on, the dry streambed winding through clay hills baked to crumbles by sunlight. Aridity rules.
In parallel with the arcs of our lives, erosion reduces the cliffs of the redrock canyons of the Colorado Plateau to rubble. Frost pries away slabs of stone in the winter. Rocks crash downhill and roll to a stop. They sit, waiting, and then a flash flood moves them downstream, rounding their edges. Each boulder rides the chaotic churn of floodwaters, comes to rest for a time, and again pulses downcanyon, headed for the sea.
And so we live—tumbling, careening and ricocheting off events and people, then slowing to a stop, stagnant and still. Our journey shifts, and we lift once more into action. We rush into a new chapter of life and suddenly hit unforeseen barriers. We change direction. Eventually, we all come to rest in the great ocean.
Maybe this metaphor appeals to me because I love these slickrock canyons more than any place on earth. I’m equally sustained by the peaceful times—leaning against a sun-warmed alcove, basking like a lizard—and the lively times, when something extraordinary happens, when stormlight creates a moment unlike any other, when a new person comes walking around the bend and life changes, subtly or forever.
I turned sixty last year, and, inevitably, I’ve been reflecting on all of this change. I don’t feel old, but I realize that my childhood in the 1950s was nearly as close to the 19th century as it was to the 21st.
In that childhood, on family vacations to the Colorado Plateau, I tallied the national parks and monuments I visited. I made lists of parks I yearned to visit. My photo album from my teens consists of row after row of snapshots from the viewpoints at national parks, all carefully labeled.
What can I say? Once a nerd, always a nerd.
In 1964, when I read in National Geographic about a new national park in Utah called Canyonlands, I was fascinated. The writer told of discovering never-before-photographed arches hidden away in the sandstone maze of The Needles. I reveled in the fact that—just a few hours from our home in Denver—someone could still be an explorer, like Lewis and Clark or John Wesley Powell.
My geologist father made sure we visited that new park the very next year. He new this country. My father, Don Trimble, had mapped the Oljeto quadrangle here in San Juan County for the United States Geological Survey in 1952. He even discovered a uranium deposit in the course of that fieldwork. He was as eager as I was to come see a little of this new national park.
And so we dared the crossing to the Island in the Sky across the one-lane width of The Neck and bounced out to Grand View Point to unfold ourselves from our 1962 Dodge Dart stunned by the view. I still stop to photograph at those viewpoints—and I still define myself as a southwesterner, right down to my yearly visit to the dermatologist to burn off the skin damage from a lifetime of walking through the dazzle of the western sun.
And as a writer, I keep trying to organize my understanding of this changing West. Everything—all that change—rests on the Bedrock West, the land itself, an extravagance of mountains and deserts and two hundred Native cultures still intertwined with the holy Earth.
In our part of the West, these redrock canyons insist that you acknowledge geologic time. Plains and deserts, and the sky above them, create spaces so expansive that they can fill you with exhilaration and dread. Mountains rise precipitously to bar you from neighboring valleys that a raven could reach in a ten-minute flight on a good updraft.
We westerners must measure ourselves against this land. Drought, cliffs, distances. Alkali, arsenic, cheatgrass. Citizens of the Colorado Plateau spend a lot of time arguing about the highest and best use of this Bedrock West, of these millions of acres of public lands—drylands that remain public because they were too challenging and difficult for very many people to actually live in and try to homestead, to make a living.
We do well to take the long view. The Colorado Plateau, the Desert West, is a shape-shifter, as Native storytellers understand. Living in a landscape where the bones show, where the Earth itself reminds us daily of its history, we must look to each other for guidance, for a clear path into the future, trading stories, trading knowledge.
I imagine a Next West, a People’s West, where with a new awareness of the true nature of our home, we finally acknowledge that we will always live enmeshed in Place—and that to find our way we must collaborate in creating communities, from Telluride to Tuba City, rooted in healthy relationship, with each other, with the land.
That is more or less the mission of this building.
The Colorado Plateau is so big, so diverse, so dry, so fragile, and—still—so wild, that we need to understand what this Discovery Center can teach us to distinguish between the old dualities and ironies: lie from truth, boom from self-reliance, dream from desert, reality from romance.
We have the chance to move beyond the paralysis of old antagonists. Doug Allen is right: We all love this land. Newcomers value the same open space honored by generations of families tied to the land. If we all can keep talking, if we can cooperate, New Westerners can absorb the best of the Old. The Old can evolve with the New.
If old-timers can resist embitterment while they give up so much, they can teach the newcomers something about roots. There’s a positive spin on the change coming to us all. We have a brand-new chance here.
We can create a mix of rural and urban cultures that recognizes the distinctive landscape, fusing all the cultures and communities of the Colorado Plateau into a single image of the future—a Next West, the People’s West, where sixty million people will live in the once lightly settled interior West. Here, we can find a new geography of conservation in a post-mythic and wise West at peace with the great land, as it changes and copes and evolves.
When our great writer of the western landscape, Wallace Stegner, asked for the West to create “a society to match its scenery,” he didn’t imagine that shifting global patterns in climate would mean that both society and scenery would turn out to be in flux. In the canyons of this dynamic home place, in the tricky cultural currents we must navigate, my aging generation is running out of time to make a difference. Sixty isn’t old, but we clearly can’t dawdle. You younger people have the chance to do better.
Our edges are rounder, our destination closer. Gravity and time turn out to be equally unavoidable. This arc through time deepens our relationships with the places we love. The Canyon Country Discovery Center—first dreamed up by Bill Boyle and Doug Allen and brought to brick-and-mortar reality here on this lovely site by Four Corners School director Janet Ross, with a lot of help from a lot of people—will continue to grow those relationships for many generations to come.
Along the way, the Four Corners School will accomplish its mission. The people who will make their lifelong homes here and the visitors who are newly discovering the canyon country both will learn from this center’s educators the value of service, the joy of adventure, the sweet sense of refuge that comes with belonging to a community, and the gratifying responsibility to conserve the natural and cultural heritage of the Colorado Plateau.