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A Long Day on the Road: Taking Bearings (The Field Trip) by Adam M. Sowards - Issue #15
Traveling across the land, triggering the mind.
A few prefatory words
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This week I'm traveling, so it is appropriate that the newsletter has cycled back to The Field Trip—and I'm reporting on a road trip. Read on!
A Long Day on the Road
A Road Trip for History
The “road trip” is a classic trope in American literature. I’ve been interested in the last few years in the way nature fits in books of the road (e.g., Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley), or the ways some nature writers take to the road to connect more closely to the non-human world (e.g., Edwin Way Teale’s The American Seasons series). There are paradoxes there to plumb. Someday, I’ll write about it deeply. Today is not that day.
I rarely take big road trips, but when I do, they typically connect with my work in some way. And, without a doubt, my training as a historian, informs how I see the land I move through. During 2019-20, I took a sabbatical during which I traveled through wide sections of the American West researching in archives and activating my senses while moving through landscapes almost all of which were new to me. I did this twice with a third planned before COVID-19 froze time.
One long haul of a day—about 400 miles—stuck with me, despite the blur of road.
A reason it stuck with me was the collection of places I visited, even briefly, that linked to things I had studied, taught, or written about.
I started in Flagstaff, on the edge of the world’s greatest ponderosa pine forest, and headed north. I took a quick pitstop at Cameron, Arizona, barely a wide spot in the road and not worth mentioning other than I had recently published an essay about its namesake. Ralph Cameron.
This man’s claim to fame were his literal claims. Using the General Mining Act of 1872, Cameron took out claims in Grand Canyon and quickly moved beyond minerals to use the law to monopolize recreation routes and potential sites for dams—always aiming to cash in, squeeze competitors, and oppose government interference. (Incidentally, he became a moderately successful, if corrupt, Republican politician.) His story is fascinating, and I’ve told it before. But I can’t linger on Cameron—the man or the town. Down the road, I went further.
Cameron sits in Navajo Nation, and I pressed northeast through a stunning cross-section of Diné Bikéyah, the Navajo homeland. On this sacred landscape, scattered churches—Jehovah’s Witness, Seventh-Day Adventist, Middle Butte Baptist Church—frequently stood out at crossroads. And so many basketball hoops were raised in dusty yards.
I took a short detour to spend a few minutes at Navajo National Monument. Pausing before the visitor center, I looked across the draw before me, red rock at my feet and sage growing in cracks. The main “feature” at the monument, established in 1909 under the Antiquities Act to prevent what seemed like imminent exploitation of archaeological artifacts, was the Betatakin village.
I took a short hike across rocks and through surprisingly diverse and fragrant flora to obtain a view from an overlook. The amphitheater set below in a comparatively lush canyon suggested the richness of life there. One cannot help but have their minds drawn back centuries and think about food and ceremony and life and laughter. Of course, minds can also wander to losses—lands and lives—that weave through the history of Indigenous peoples in the United States. But it is a mistake to only think of those losses.
One of my professors in graduate school, Peter Iverson, taught in Navajo Nation and wrote several books centered there. One of them carries a title that echoes an important refrain you hear often in these circles: “We Are Still Here.” I was relieved a young Diné woman staffed the visitor center, something I was certain has not always been the case.
As I hustled onwards, hundreds of miles still to cross, I paused as horses crossed, unhurriedly, the road before me. The moment forced a pause, another one, to consider how change is incorporated in history.
Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii (Monument Valley)
My next stop, after navigating the busy urban center of Kayenta, population just cracking 5,000, was Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park. For those of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation, Monument Valley, or Tse’Bii’Ndzisgaii, was the backdrop in countless westerns, making it one of the most emblematic western landscapes. Sandstone towers rise out of the desert floor and grab your breath.
But it’s no secret. I circled the parking lot around and around before squeezing into a spot. The views take you back to those Hollywood movies, but being there felt like being in a crowded theater. A place that represents wide open spaces was cramped. Navigating the gift shop put us all shoulder to shoulder, backpack to fannypack, cowboy hat to sun visor.
Outside, at least, I could breathe easier. But knowing this place helped make movie stars and directors rich and left too little for the Diné helped send me on my way.
I fueled up in Mexican Hat, Utah, after crossing the San Juan River, and quickly left the US highway for a state route. To get from where I was to where I was heading, I had to climb Moki Dugway, a three-mile narrow gravel road with steep grades and sharp switchbacks and no guardrails that spits you out atop Cedar Mesa after climbing more than a thousand feet at five miles per hour. It is reputed to be Utah’s scariest road. Naturally cautious, I was prepared to be anxious, but the hype oversold the road. And the views made up for it—not that I could see much over my blindingly white knuckles.
At the top, a road flagger stopped us. When they allowed us through after a lengthy wait, the road curved and before me, at a distance, I could see Bears Ears!
The story of Bears Ears deserves more space than I can give it here. The Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition brought together five sovereign nations who asked the federal government to protect this sacred area from further extraction and theft of resources and cultural artifacts. After Congress dallied and created a weak proposal, the coalition asked President Obama to create a national monument, which he did as one of his last acts as president—something presidents are empowered to do through the 1906 Antiquities Act. Obama’s successor asked the Secretary of the Interior to review the use of the Antiquities Act since President Clinton and subsequently shrank Bears Ears and others. Later, President Biden asked Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo) to re-review the changes and eventually restored Bears Ears. The issue galvanized conservationists and provoked me to write several columns and my most fiery op-ed to date. Having Bears Ears perk in my view for 20 miles excited me, even though the road took me west, away from it.
For 100 miles I drove on, through a beautiful, seared landscape. At one point, a sign informed me “Scenic View Next 12 Miles,” an underestimation of 90 percent.
After many twists and turns, I crossed the Colorado River, a languid pool behind Glen Canyon Dam. I stopped at the Hite Overlook to gaze at it, thinking about the activism this permanent flood inspired and imagining living at this ferry spot with no trees or canyon walls for shade. It was 105 degrees.
The sun sank and the temperatures dropped a little, while I raced to hit my campground before dusk. I followed the Fremont River and considered its namesake, a historical figure of great import but who was what academics like to say “problematic.”
Suddenly a monument rose up from the desert floor unlike anything I’d ever seen. Huge and spectacular. To call it monumental is to engage in redundancy.
For the next thirty miles, every twist and turn brought stunning views as the vistas shrank amid a tightening river canyon.
I arrived at Fruita Campground in Capitol Reef National Park. I’d been in a tribal park, walked in a national monument, overlooked a national recreation area, zipped through Bureau of Land Management rangelands, and ended in a national park (formerly a national monument). This was the West I was writing about.
Hot, tired, inspired, full of ideas—not bad for a day mainly confined to a vehicle. Although you see more on foot, road trips can trigger the mind.
This road trip expanded the West of my experience, and the research conducted on it inspired projects that no doubt will find their way into these newsletters.
Because the Antiquities Act played a role in several of these landscapes, I'm referring you to an article I wrote about it and how the legislation clipped presidential powers in various instances. Enjoy!
Reckoning with History: The Antiquities Act quandary — High Country News – Know the West — www.hcn.org The law has created constant tension between the executive and legislative branches.
On Thursday, November 3, at 11:00 am Mountain Time, I'm presenting on my latest book. You can stream it, or watch the recording afterward, through this link. More info below:
Taking Bearings Next Week
We move to The Library next week, and I will share some thoughts about Henry David Thoreau's first book.
As always, thank you for reading and please share.