The Mormons gave their best efforts to transect this part of the country with road grades, but they, too, retreated to the established towns of Green River and Moab. Today most of those Mormon trails have been abandoned and replaced by still barely passable roads whose access by vehicle is, ironically, more sparse than it was by horse or wagon a hundred years ago. Last night I drove fifty-seven miles down the only dirt road in the eastern half of two counties to arrive at my embarkation point -- it was two and a half hours of washboard driving during which I didn't pass a single light or a house. Frontier ranchers, rustlers, uranium miners, and oil drillers each left a mark on this land but have folded their hands in deference to the stacked deck of desert livelihood.
Those seekers of prosperity weren't the first to cross the threshold into this country, only to abandon the region as a barren wasteland: Progressive waves of ancient communities came into being and vanished over the ages in the area's canyon bottoms. Usually, it would be a significant drought or an incursion by hostile bands that made life in the high country and the deserts farther south seem more hospitable. But sometimes there are no defensible answers to explain the sudden evacuation of an entire culture from a particular place. Five thousand years ago, the people of Barrier Creek left their pictographs and petroglyphs at the Great Gallery and Alcove Gallery; then they disappeared. Since they left no written record, why they departed is both a mystery and a springboard for the imagination. Looking at their paintings and standing in their homes, gardens, and trash heaps, I feel connected to the aboriginal pioneers who inhabited these canyons so long ago.
As I grind my way out onto the open mesa, the wind slaps at my face, and I find myself already looking forward to the final hike through Horseshoe Canyon, where I will finish my tour. I can't wait to get out of this demeaning wind.
To judge from what I've seen on my ride, there are few significant differences in this area between Blue John Griffith's day and the present. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has graded the century-old horse trail and added scattered signposts, but even the ubiquitous fences that partition the rest of the West are noticeably absent. Perhaps it's the lack of barbed wire that makes this place feel so terrifically remote. I spend a lot of time in out-of-the-way areas -- two or three days a week in designated wildernesses, even through the winter -- but most of them don't feel half as isolated as this back road. As I consider this, abruptly, my solitude changes to loneliness and seems somehow more tenacious. While the region's towns may have simmered since those raucous days when the Robbers Roost was earning its name, the outlying desert is still just as wild.
A mile past Burr Pass, my torturous ride into the thirty-mile-an-hour headwind finally comes to an end. I dismount and walk my bike over to a juniper tree and fasten a U-lock through the rear tire. I have little worry that anyone will tamper with my ride out here, but as my dad says, "There's no sense in tempting honest people." I drop the U-lock's keys into my left pocket and turn toward the main attraction, Blue John Canyon. I follow a deer path on an overland shortcut, listening to some of my favorite music on my CD player now that the wind isn't blowing so obnoxiously in my ears. After I've hiked through some dunes of pulverized red sandstone, I come to a sandy gully and see that I've found my way to the nascent canyon. "Good, I'm on the right route," I think, and then I notice two people walking out of view thirty yards downcanyon. I leap down the dune into the shallow wash, and once I'm around the dune's far corner, I spot the hikers, who look from this distance to be two young women.
From Between A Rock and a Hard Place by Aron Ralston, pages 1-30. Copyright © 2004 by Aron Ralston. All rights reserved, no part of this excerpt maybe reproduced without specific permission from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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