I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the idea of old-timers vs. newcomers in southern Utah.
My impression has long been that some of the misgivings against new, rec-focused transplants and visitors are needlessly uncharitable. When people come to enjoy the natural beauty and recreation in southern Utah, they aren’t doing it at anyone. Sometimes I get the feeling that certain folks in this part of the world imagine a bunch of climbers and bikers and hikers deriving some kind of evil glee in disrespecting the locals when they settle into a new place. I don’t think there’s any reason to assume they’ll be disrespectful.
Aaaaand then Men’s Journal comes along and confirms people’s worst suspicions.
In an article last week, writer Jon Gugala interviewed Morgan Sjogren, a competitive trail-runner and outdoors writer based in San Juan County.
Well, “based in” is putting it generously. She says she began running in Bears Ears National Monument in February, training and preparing material for a guidebook to be released next year. Then she was gone in summer for races and travel writing. So she was there for … like, a few months.
And yet, Men’s Journal proclaims Sjogren to be “the woman who knows Bears Ears best.”
Writes Gugala: “At this point, it’s possible that she might know the area better than anyone living or dead.”
Bears Ears National Monument encompasses lands that have been lived in for ages, with ruins thoughtfully sited and tucked away in remote canyon corners, high on cliffs and peppered over vast distances. How do we think those got there?
And we needn’t go back to ancient times to identify those who knew this land intimately as a matter of everyday survival and spiritual belief. In January I met with Mary Benally, a Navajo woman who has lived almost all of her 70 years in the Bluff area and spent part of her childhood living off the grid on Butler Wash. She taught me a lot about mindfulness in Bears Ears, about acknowledging every plant and rock as a crucial part of the whole.
I’m skeptical that Benally’s standard for awareness transfers easily when the agenda is to collect “routes” at a pace of 17 miles a day.
It should boggle the mind that anyone who knows of the many vested interests in Bears Ears could overlook the tribes’ intimate history with this place when dubbing a white resident of less than a year “the woman who knows Bears Ears best.”
But it doesn’t. Erasing indigenous people’s expertise and accomplishment in the superlatives of outdoor exploration is a grand white tradition, whether minimizing Tenzing Norgay in history or renaming our tallest peaks for no good reason.
And what of all the other locals? The lifers who grew up retracing pioneer steps on Comb Ridge and camping in crevices and alcoves hardly anyone else knew about?
Yes, there are elements in this conversation that put me on edge about a potential sense of promised-land entitlement. But when it comes to sheer knowledge of place, few claims here are unearned. Talk to an old-timer in Blanding or Bluff, and try to suppress the sense of awe in how much they have seen and done (and how athletic they must have been to do it).
If you haven’t talked to these people, you might not understand the emotional tie between this place and the accumulation of minutes in their lives that have been spent there. You might not understand how that tie affects their reaction to johnnies-come-lately wanting to weigh in on what happens to Bears Ears.
You also might not understand the kind of caricatures being drawn of the people who support the monument — that they are know-it-all outsiders with no respect for locals, who don’t sincerely care about the tribes but are using them to secure San Juan County as a playground only for privileged athletes and those who make money off them.
It doesn’t take very much evidence at all for people who feel threatened to form a death grip on a preconception — and suddenly all the careful work that so many people have done in defiance of that preconception flies out the window. I have met many, many monument supporters, tribal members and others, who have spent lifetimes listening and learning. Learning Bears Ears, learning San Juan County, learning Bluff, learning Blanding. Learning the many types of passion so many people feel on this land.
Sjogren appears to be finding her bliss (while capitalizing off it, yes), and I don’t fault her for that. If I could keep up, I’d want to run around with her. But this characterization of her time in Bears Ears unwittingly plays into the worst us vs. them stereotypes around the monument issue.
We in the rec universe have to be careful about seeing everyone around a place that we love. So much outdoor media attention is on certain faces — mostly young, white, attractive faces — that the others aren't noticed.
Let’s not give them a reason to turn away from us.