American Journeys

Heart of Rock

By Alex Kotlowitz
Sunday, September 22, 2002

The only way to reach Boulder, Utah, from the north is to climb and then descend the coiling, slender road over Boulder Mountain. In inclement weather, it can be a treacherous drive, and in fact if there's much ice or snow the state closes gates at both ends of the 32-mile-long byway. Under sunny skies, though, it's a magnificent journey--through a forest of aspens, pines and small herds of mule deer. And the views are beguiling: an endless sea of steep, serpentine canyons, and mammoth mesas and buttes rising like rogue waves. All of it is in red, of all assorted hues. In places, the land appears to be blushing, in others it looks to be on fire. This is Utah's expansive high desert, which is where I, my wife and our two children were headed.

Boulder is a molecule of a town. Indeed, when I asked for directions at the car rental counter in Salt Lake City the woman there replied, "Oh, that's in Colorado." Boulder, which sits midway between two popular national parks--Zion and Canyonlands--is rarely a destination. Until 1939, the town received its mail by mule; it was the last community in the United States to get its correspondence delivered by car. It didn't receive electricity or phone service until the 1940s. Today, you can sip coffee outside the Burr Trail restaurant, one of three eating establishments, and watch ranchers herd their cattle through town. Boulder's population is 180, but even that's deceptive, since people are spread out over roughly 20 square miles.

Until 1985, Boulder was virtually at the end of the road, and it has the idiosyncratic nature of a place where people came to be left alone. Four years ago, two women ranchers were charged with trying to intimidate a new neighbor with whom they had had a land dispute; they allegedly shot a .22-caliber handgun into the night and left a dead cow near his home. Charges were eventually dropped after the women agreed to leave the neighbor alone. More recently, two nearby ranchers refused to remove their cattle from drought-stricken federal land, and so the Bureau of Land Management impounded their herd. A few weeks later, a band of ranchers, angered by the BLM's interference, forced the local sheriff to release the cattle back to their original owners.

In some ways, we had come here to be left alone as well. A few months earlier, at a literary awards event in New York, I had met Brooke Williams, who is married to an author friend of mine, Terry Tempest Williams. Terry's most recent book, Red--a love letter, really--pays homage to the red-rock desert of southern Utah. Brooke and I got to talking, and at one point I told him that I was looking for a place to retreat with my family, and he suggested the Utah desert, which he believes, as essayist and novelist Edward Abbey once wrote, "is the most beautiful place on earth." It is, as I would learn, so seductive that one can easily get lost in its folds.

Brooke offered to meet us in Boulder. The town sits at the northern rim of the Grand Staircase-Escalante, which President Bill Clinton declared a national monument in 1996. Though many tourists passing through ask to see the staircase, there is no such thing. Rather, its name derives from the fact that the terraced cliffs rise gradually from the south, stairstep fashion. Its monument status awards it a measure of protection, and it contains some of the most inaccessible land in the lower 48 states; it was the last place in the continental United States to be mapped. Unlike the national parks immediately to the west and to the east, these 1.9 million acres--the size of Delaware and Rhode Island combined--contain no paved roads and no information booths. There's only one marked trail, and two campgrounds (both quite small). The rugged terrain hasn't changed much in thousands of years, though on a road map of the state, a brief description of the monument reads: "No facilities have yet been developed." The italics are mine. Finding your way around here requires a bit of navigational skill--or, better yet, if you're fortunate, someone who knows and loves the land, as Brooke does.

Brooke, who is originally from Salt Lake City, is a ruddy-faced, handsome 50-year-old with a preternaturally calm temperament. He became smitten with Utah's canyon land at the age of 19, when, in lieu of the expected Mormon mission, he hooked up with a friend who took refuge in the outdoors. On one sojourn, they camped in a desert cave near Boulder for a few nights. "Here everything's gone but the bedrock. The earth's structure is exposed," Brooke told me. "Metaphorically, it does that to people. It's hard to hide. You spend time here and you get to know who you are."

Years later, Brooke had an experience where, he told me, "I felt connected to something bigger." While camping, he was looking for a place to spend the night and found an alcove, the perfect shelter, with a two-foot-long flat rock in the center, which he moved to the side so he could spread out his sleeping bag. When he turned it over, he realized that it was a metate, a stone used by the nomadic Desert Archaic people to grind grain. They would turn a metate upside down when they were finished with it, knowing that they would return to use it again. "I just had this rush that the last person in this alcove was maybe 2,000 years ago," Brooke said. "They had turned over this metate expecting to come back, but they didn't. And we did. Religion felt important but not in the way it was supposed to. I felt there was some other real force guiding my life, our deep connection to all life."

Brooke and Terry now live outside Moab, about five hours northeast of Boulder. Brooke, who now considers himself a non-practicing Mormon and who left his family's plumbing supply business to spend time in the outdoors, wants to introduce eco-tourism to this area. If tourism became a viable economic option for communities like Boulder, he hopes, it could nix any inclination to mine or drill in or around the Grand Staircase-Escalante. He has recently begun taking paying customers out on trips like ours, but since we were friends, and since he wanted to figure out how he might gear the experience to families with children, he didn't charge us for his services as a guide. Consider this trip, he said, a kind of experiment.

On our first day, Brooke took me, my daughter, Mattie, who's 7, and my son, Lucas, who's 4, for a hike along the Escalante River, a slim waterway that, if we were to follow it for 60 miles, would eventually lead to the massive, man-made Lake Powell, down on the Arizona border. My wife, Maria, chose to relax at the Boulder Mountain Lodge, where we were staying. The lodge's spacious, high-ceilinged rooms were built in 1994, constructed of rust-colored stone and spruce logs; most of the 20 rooms overlook a 13-acre lake, which serves as a bird sanctuary. In our five days there, we spotted great blue herons, yellow-headed blackbirds, rufous and black-chinned hummingbirds, as well as pintails and mallards.

We followed the Escalante, a river so clear we could spot rainbow trout and so cold not even Mattie or Lucas dared wade it. (In the spring, people run the river in inflated kayaks.) Brooke had given each of my children a small nylon sack to collect small rocks, feathers and various flowers; they filled them instead with sand that was such a deep red it looked as if it had been dipped in blood. Along the high canyon walls, Brooke pointed out a semi-circular stone structure that had been built by the Anasazi, a mysterious people who lived here roughly 800 years ago. No one knows for certain what happened to the Anasazi, who were farmers, though it seems clear from the placement of the dwellings that they had much to fear--or were simply paranoid. They built their homes and granaries sometimes as high as 200 feet off the ground, in the shallow coves of cliffs, their only access often a narrow ledge. (In town, there's a small museum honoring the Anasazi; the displays mesmerized Mattie and Lucas, especially the reconstructed dwellings, which they could explore.) Brooke also took us to see "A Hundred Hands"; 50 feet up the side of a large, rounded rock formation, the Anasazi left neat rows of 120 painted handprints on the sandstone. The speculation, Brooke said, is that they did it to give a sense of perspective--though, to be honest, all one needs to do is stand at the base of just about any canyon here and humility sets in. It's why I suspect the homes around here tend to be like matchboxes. There's no way one could compete with the spectacular scale of the landscape, the grandiosity of the mesas and the canyons that can run on for miles.

Mattie and Lucas were less interested in the pictographs than they were in honing their climbing skills, though, as they quickly discovered, it was much easier to scoot up the boulders and honeycombed canyon walls than it was to get down. So they learned how to descend on their butts, and Brooke and I spent much of the afternoon--and days to come--chasing after them.

Back at the lodge, Lucas unloaded the red sand he'd collected onto our room's red carpet, and Mattie proudly showed off to her mother the mouse skull and part of a deer leg she had found among the cacti. Maria promptly whisked her and her zoological cache to the balcony, where she could display her treasures, outside. The red sand, through no fault of our children, stayed with us, turning up in socks and pants pockets weeks after we got home.

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