Biking Bears Ears: Getting Dirty in a Contested National Monument

By Maureen Gaffney 

Clouds indistinguishable from 50’s-style UFOs marched past, a sleek and silent armada against a blue background. Red, pink and sand-hued rock formations towered, bulgy and swirling in the wavy heat. Any vegetation in this stern expanse looked ready for a fight, scrappy little dukes raised skyward, each fist or finger equipped with a blade, a lance. The whole landscape was vaguely comical, as if we were trapped in a Road Runner v. Wile E. Coyote cartoon, the animators gone wild—“More blue! Make those cliffs look like a giant-ass submarine made of taffy!”

The actual formation for which the 1.3 million acre Bears Ears National Monument is named came into view halfway through the drive from the Rim Tours office in Moab, Utah. Thirteen guests, three guides, one photographer and one writer were heading out to ride, hike, and camp in the most contested of the National Monuments designated by President Obama on his way out the door. With Interior Secretary Zinke’s recommendation to potentially rescind monument status due on President Trump’s desk the very next day, it was not surprising to see a large sign in Comb Wash—“Utah Stands With Bears Ears”—marking the entrance to a Native American gathering in support of Monument status.

Photo: Franklin Seal of Rim Tours

But if the Bears Ears picked up this bureaucratic chatter, they didn’t let on. Nary a twitch as we climbed the red dirt road and passed through the notch between the two towering buttes—east ear and west—right down the sleeping giant’s ursine forehead. The wind forecasted for the three-day, two-night camping trip had me vaguely queasy. The iPhone icons for the days bookending the trip showed a happy (if hot) yellow sun. The Friday-Saturday-Sunday of the trip left out any reference to sun or lack thereof and simply showed horizontal lines ending in little curls—a pictograph of a sustained howler. As we rolled to a stop somewhere near the Bears nose, mini red tornadoes spun up and sandblasted the sides of the van. I clung like a cub to the gray bench seat and was lured out only by threat of abandonment by the pack.

Along with my trip comrades hailing from San Jose, Santa Barbara, Aspen, and Connecticut, we consulted the map pasted to side of the van by wind alone. These first few moments would be the only ones directly overseen by the bear, as our route would lead away from the namesake formation and into the deep red heart of the Southwest. We rolled down the rose-colored ribbon of road, the silvery aspens cheering us on with their little fluttering pale green hands. And I wanted to clap for them too, but the last time I let go of my bars—flapping like a chicken for some now mysterious reason—I met the ground quickly and was turned into a quivering pile of trailside rubble. So I kept my hands firmly in place. As is often the case, despite poor weather or everyday stressors, the simple act of getting on the bike and turning the cranks triggered a little flood of happiness that improved my outlook substantially.

Photo: Franklin Seal of Rim Tours

One of the compelling reasons for National Monument designation was the high concentration of Native American ruins spread thick throughout these buttes, bluffs, canyons and washes. Discernable kitchens lodged into rock contained cups, jugs, tools and cave paintings. The Navajo, Hopi, Ute and the Pueblo of Zuni all have roots here, and the 100,000+ archeological sites in the area were instrumental in Obama’s decision. Some people say that America, a country in its youth, lacks history one can touch, no stately European castles reminding us from whence we came. But I’ll take your crumbling Italian castles and raise you Indian ruins, the strange, story-telling petroglyphs of Newspaper Rock, ancient cliff dwellings tucked under ochre-colored overhangs. Secretary Zinke has recommended a reduction in the area under designation, preferring a puzzle-like structure that aims to protect Native American treasures while allowing mining, oil and gas exploration to continue apace in the intervening swaths. Opponents of a reduction in protection fear a patchwork of new roads and structures in these fragile and sometimes sacred places.

After riding for an hour to camp, then tearing through a sandwich and a coke, we saddled up again and headed out on a hunt for some of those ruins. A screaming downhill made of loose baby heads floating atop a foot of puffy dust was the only technical riding we’d see during our three-day, 55-mile adventure. It was like trying to ski an avalanche in progress. Trading Sidi’s for Hoka’s, we headed into one of many canyons on foot, led by veteran guide Mike Smith. At 71, guiding for Rim Tours for 25 years, Smith sets a mean pace and is the king of underestimation. With a white pony tail, roundish wire-rimmed glasses and a tall but not imposing presence, there is a hint of the Hogwarts about him.

Photo: Franklin Seal of Rim Tours

“If Mike says it’s 2,000 feet of climbing, it’s at least 3,500. Hike’s an hour? It’s two. You’re pretty safe if you add 50% to anything he tells you.” And Helen Obermeyer should know. She and her husband Wally have done multiple trips with Smith, both here in the Southwest and also in Southeast Asia. There’s a reverence in her ribbing, a sheen of respect for his craft, knowledge and grit. And Smith was not the only silver-haired hard-ass on staff. Franklin Seal, marketing manager, has 60 years in the bag and as the trip photographer, spent his days sprinting off in a halo of dust—our very own Road Runner—in order to stop, drop, and shoot as we pedaled merrily through.

Billed as one of Rim Tours easier, family-friendly trips (and indeed there were four boys aged 12-16 who’d never really ridden a mountain bike), I was surprised to be rolling into camp at the relatively late hour of 7:15. Nobody minded, and Smith was not about to coddle this crew at the risk missing an adventure. The three guides hustled, washed, and chopped while we guests enjoyed beer, soda, or sips of high-end Tequila whilst perched at the lip of an ethereal canyon, radiating in the setting sun.

Photo: Franklin Seal of Rim Tours

Everyone knows that a meal had while camping or backpacking can elevate Chef Boyardee or Kraft Mac and Cheese to Michelin-star status, and I am happy to report that this does not change when someone else cooks it for you. To be clear, this outfit does no slumming on the food front. Dinners included salmon with a zippy green sauce, quinoa salad, steak fajitas with all the right fixings’, Dutch-oven brownies for desert, and fresh fruit salad with yogurt, pancakes, sausage, eggs and bacon for breakfast. As night gathered and the full moon climbed steadily through the trees before casting its full beam onto the adjacent canyon, stories were shared around the campfire. As ever, mountain biking brought together a varied cast of characters from across the States. A public school cafeteria manager, a lawyer, some hedge fund folks, a non-profit leader, and a bio-medical investor, all became giddy and animated when talking about their bikes, favorite trails, and best dirt-smeared stories.

The topic of designation was raised, albeit carefully. A bond had begun to form among us, one sprung from shared contemplation of those vast and epic red wilds, and the (literal) heartache of 160 bpm in the blazing sun, pushing up the avalanche to return to camp. Designation, or its repeal, is inherently political, and all were mindful of the age-old axiom regarding politics, religion, and dinner. Just don’t.

The tenuously worded consensus around the fire was that this sleeping bear should be left to lie. This is perhaps unsurprising given that any group with the means and desire for a supported bike trip in the hinterlands of Utah perfectly fits the description of who’s in support on a larger, nationwide scale. Educated, middle to upper-income, mostly non-rural folks who identify with some form of environmentalism. Those in opposition despise the broad power of the Federal government that Obama’s designation represented. They believe the action is a job-killer in an already harsh and depressed local economy, and that more mining, drilling and fracking are the antidotes.

The pros and cons of the thing still floating just above the ebbing flames, everyone seemed to expire at once. Folks filtered out to their respective tents, the lights from within transforming them into softly glowing green, orange and yellow orbs dotting the forest floor. I zipped into my tent, into my bag, and arranged around me all of the things I’d potentially need for the night: Kleenex, water, and Advil on one side, Petzl and flip-flops near the door for the inevitable-and-deeply-annoying midnight (and 3:15, and 5:25) pee. I burrowed down with a sigh and a smile, and drifted off. I awoke shortly thereafter, the wind having moved from a comforting swish and swoosh—a piney lullaby—to a menacing, ogre-like thing with nefarious intent. It was both unsettling and thrilling.

Having survived the windstorm, stocked up on French toast, bacon and coffee, we rolled out ahead of the rig that teetered under the weight of our collective goods—bags, tents, backpacks, food, beer, spare bike and more. Great sweeping views to the Needles and the distant Abajo range, folded canyons and valleys in the foreground with names that epitomized the west: Beef Basin, Dugout Ranch, Dark Canyon, etc. While the new gravel-grinding craze somewhat mystifies me (in my day we called this “the shitty fire road part” and strove to avoid it at all costs), out here in a place so different from my California homeland, or the awesome-but-intense trails of Moab, I welcomed the chance to look up and out for sustained periods of time, taking in the immensity of this place.

Photo: Franklin Seal of Rim Tours

Still following Elk Ridge between the Abajo’s and the Colorado River, our third and final day of riding started at 8,000 feet and ended back in town at 4,000. Winding down out of the cool, green mountains, the temperature rising as we descended, the return to desert happened in a flash. One moment I was drinking in cool, crisp and sparkling air, the next I was inhaling powdered geology. My front and rear wheels began doing very different things as I surfed through sand desperately trying to remember the rules for this—is it weight off the front or the back wheel? Grip-of-death or hold on loosely? Much like I can never remember which rule applies to the mountain lion encounter and which to bear—play dead or punch it in the snout—my brain seized, overrun with options. So I augured into a sand pit while smarty-pants kids on their first mountain bike ride sailed past me as if on the bike path.

I righted myself and pedaled out of the clutches of that greedy, pseudo ground, back onto hard pack and coasted easily down the dirt road. I knew at any moment the white Rim Tours van would appear, signaling an abrupt end to our adventure. But I still had a few more minutes to revel in this shimmering desert tableau, soaring red buttes stretching ahead, behind, and alongside me as I pedaled that arrow-straight road through the scrub. And I always treasure those last moments of a great adventure. Yes, I’m leaving a place of profound beauty, leaving new friends who sprouted up around a fire, a canyon sunset. But these last minutes alone allow me to commit this stark and beautiful scene to memory.

Inserting our current crude and fractious politics into this tale of camaraderie and love for nature is bit of a slap in the face, a big ‘ol dog poop in the middle of a garden party. Alas, the designation kerfuffle is real, and may have bearing on why this trip was sold-out months in advance. But what does designation, its repeal, or gerrymandering mean for mountain biking? For recreation? What does it mean on the ground, in practice?

In general, things one could do within the confines of the monument before it was designated, one can still do post designation. While different monuments have vastly different characteristics—the Statue of Liberty being an entirely different animal than Katahdin, Maine or Bears Ears here in Utah—designations do tend to recognize private inholdings, existing leases for grazing and mining, and recreation. So even if changes to the borders or a reduction in size comes to Bears Ears National Monument, you will probably still get to sign on with an outfitter like Rim Tours who holds a permit for such commercial activity, and you will probably still be able to ride, hike, hunt, camp, and jeep it on your own. But will your view now include a pumpjack, hunched and bobbing as it sips the subsurface? Will the bright lights of a mining operation, the sweep of high-beams on a newly etched road dim the desert stars? The only sure thing at the moment is that nothing will happen fast. And that is a blessing, of sorts.