Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is launching a new outdoor column today. Read Erin Alberty’s take on the state’s vast outdoor recreation opportunities each Thursday and when news breaks throughout the week.
Below Comb Ridge, where mounds and slopes of pink and beige hide a thousand ancient treasures, Mary Benally lingers over a dying shrub at her feet.
She explains in just three words what I have failed to see at Bears Ears National Monument.
"This," she says, gliding her hand over the limp gray twigs, "is beauty."
This is beauty. This wilting bush next to a cow flop. I wait for Mary to rhapsodize about the redrock cliffs that glow against a heavy winter sky, to recite a list of flora and fauna that depend on this land. I expect her to point into the narrow draws that spider out from Butler Wash, toward the homes and graineries and sacred places of her own ancestors.
Instead, the 70-year-old woman closes her eyes and inhales deeply as she gives the moment over to the shrub. In a place that has been the subject of breathless inventory — of acres, of assets, of uses, of users, of rules and regulations that may or may not materialize at the newly designated monument — Mary would rather just breathe.
That's not to say she is ambivalent about Bears Ears; Mary, a Navajo member who also claims Hopi descent, is on the board of Utah Diné Bikéyah, the tribal group that led the push to protect Bears Ears. She has watched as the pottery, jewelry, grinding stones and hatchets that during her childhood studded the landscape of Cedar Mesa gradually vanished. She saw familiar petroglyphs marred with pot shots — and some of them chiseled off rock walls altogether. She heard the decrescendo of once-robust birdsong through decades of habitat degradation.
Mary fought for the monument, and she sees it as a major victory of native voices.
"The indigenous people [have] been heard by a president of the United States," she says. "And his administration listened — actually listened — to us."
Here in Butler Wash, Mary's voice is more hushed. She is one of the only surviving Navajo who has actually lived on this land. She was about five years old when they left the reservation for a year in the 1950s. Families brought their sheep north of the San Juan River, to the low ground east of Comb Ridge. In the warm months, they camped under arbors. In winter, they built a hogan. The men hunted deer, which the women filleted into jerky. Families foraged plants with edible berries, leaves and roots. In the spring, they dug up native lilies and wild garlic. Mary remembers awaking to the sound of birds and sometimes rain. She recalls walking outside of the hogan into deep snow and listening as it melted into riverlets.
The children, Mary says, "had the run of the place."
"You wake up, you have all the freedom out there," she says. "Just, a big playground. That's how I saw it. I could just go anywhere and stay there and play all day."
But the freedom came with strict instruction. Avoid cliffs; look for animal tracks and walk away from the big ones; watch the sky for rain on higher ground and stay to the right of the wash; touch nothing left by the people who came before; and stay out of the ruins.
Most of these rules were taught for safety, but practiced over time, they developed into something more. First, awareness — "always be observant. Use all of your five senses," Mary says — and finally, respect.
"The rain, the snow, the wind — all those have beauty," Mary says. "That was the teaching I heard my elders say. … If you're aware of those, and if you can observe nature very closely, there is so much beauty in everything on earth that has been created for us. If you can create that beauty, that gives you health — mentally, physically, emotionally and in every way.
"The elders were very harsh disciplinarians, very harsh in their teachings," she recalls. "But I'm glad I got that because it made me who I am."
Those teachings followed Mary through her childhood, even after federal officers chased her family off Butler Wash and she was sent to boarding schools. When she returned to Bluff as an adult, she hiked back onto the wash.
"I could almost hear the elders who were alive at the time. I could almost hear them talking, and I could almost hear the sheep going down the wash," Mary says. "It makes you [think], 'Wow, did I actually live here at one time?' It's a very good feeling."
She watched as the town of Bluff grew into a tourist center, and Butler Wash filled with campers and other visitors. She kept returning throughout her life, whenever she faced hardship — "to meditate, pray, sing, run, cry, scream, sit," she says. "It's a healing place for me. I always feel like this is my home."
When I ask if she has any favorite places in Butler Wash — the road through it is more than 20 miles long — she breathes again and says: "All of it."
I realize how differently Mary and I see this place. How do you choose a favorite spot when all of it, even a dreary little bush, deserves to be reverently observed and appreciated?
I like to think I'm an observant and appreciative outdoorswoman. The Tribune has asked me to share Utah adventures in recreation and travel with you, and that only works if I'm paying attention. But when it comes to mindfulness and respect, I am nowhere near Mary's level.
Before our interviews, I had brought my family and friends to Butler Wash for a hike to the Monarch Cave Ruins — a spot I had chosen after meticulously reviewing hike notes and maps and photos online. While the children explored and played, I jotted down distances and elevations. I scanned the walls for rock art I could point out in a trail description. Around every bend, I looked anxiously for the destination: castle-like towers in an alcove that hangs high above a pool of water at the end of the red rock canyon.
I was cataloging an experience, rather than experiencing it.
After speaking with Mary, I did the same hike again — this time with the intention to make every step as important as the final one. There was so much I hadn't seen the first time. A decaying, tissue-thin leaf, caught in cactus spines that were designed by nature to collect any detritus that might provide nutrients in the high desert. The perfect symmetry of a horseshoe bend in the canyon floor. A rainbow of lichens collecting on cold rocks. The streaks of desert varnish lapping upward on the alcove walls above the ruin. The walk did not feel like a mile.
The cultural treasures of Bears Ears may have earned the site its designation as a national monument — and with it, a lot of tourists who probably will check these historic sites off their maps, one by one. But a deeper cultural experience awaits those who will take the time to see this place the way Mary sees it.
"Everything on this earth that God created has so much beauty in it if you learn to observe it. Take a good, closer look to it. If you learn to observe those values and those beauties, that's healing in itself. I believe that's how it was supposed to be," she says. "That was some of the teaching our elders taught us, to appreciate everything around you. ... All we're asking is, respect our culture, respect nature, and be sensitive to it. That's all we ask. It's all for all walks of life, it's not just for the Native Americans, it's not just for the Navajo, it's for everybody to enjoy the beauty that's there."
Hike: Monarch Cave
Lower Butler Wash Road is a dirt road about 5 miles west of Bluff, on U.S. Highway 163. The turnoff is near an airport sign, just 0.9 mile west of the junction with U.S. Highway 191. Take Lower Butler Wash Road 7.25 miles north to a spur road that goes just a couple hundred feet to a circular parking area and a trail marker.
Trail description: The trail descends south into the wash and goes west across it. Cows graze here; mind your step. After about a tenth of a mile, a sign describes the archeological significance of the site, and cairns mark the trail over a short slickrock section before it drops into the canyon to Monarch Cave. From here the trail is easy to find, though some footpaths branch off and rejoin the main trail. The ruin appears after about 0.9 mile.