By Zoë Rom
I arrived at three in the morning, under a blanket of stars.
It was dark but for the thousands of backlit pin-pricks that filled the desert sky with meager light. My friends and I set up camp in what felt like the bottom of a deep, black hole. I opted to sleep under the stars as a tent seemed redundant under a sky that not only appeared serene, but seemed soft and solid like a thick quilt rolled out over the desert expanse. The land was flat, quiet, and still.
Typically a mountain-dweller, I see a lot of myself in the landscape that I inhabit. Much like my mountains, I can be tempestuous and unpredictable, with a flair for the dramatic. Perhaps it is these qualities that made me all the more prone to fall in love with the desert.
Steady, predictable, but enigmatic in its own right.
Unlike in the mountains where morning comes slowly as light drips slowly over ridges and peaks, daytime explodes as brilliant sun fills the canyons of Bears Ears in what feels like an instant. Despite lack of sleep, the warming rays woke me in my sleeping bag and I pulled on my shoes for a morning run through the sage and scrub.
The daylight revealed a landscape that had been obscured by darkness the night before. I took off down a long dirt road that skirted the boulder fields just below the towering, red sandstone cliffs that I hadn’t seen in the dark. The day’s first rays warmed the fragrant sage, filling the cooler morning air with an subtle, herbal smell.
I followed the road around a bend in the wide canyon, and soon found myself far away from camp. The desert has a way with messing with your sense of scale - it’s gigantic rocky features dwarf you and can trick you into thinking they’re closer than they really are. I thought I was halfway to one of Indian Creek’s distinctive features, the South Six Shooter, a redrock monolith that rises thousands of feet above the desert floor, but the striking desert tower never felt any closer. I felt humbled and small as I ran through the desert.
Infamous desert rat Ed Abbey penned a similar sentiment in his classic memoir of life in the desert, noticing “the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the sense and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful - that which is full of wonder.”
Bears Ears did just that, not just for my running, which it reinvigorated with spectacular desert views and seemingly endless red sand roads to explore on foot, but it made me see the world around me as if new. Much like falling in love with a person, the desert renewed my interest in passion for everything around me. The world appeared brighter, fuller, more passionate. It shook me up inside with it’s seductive and enigmatic vistas. The desert is never what you expect. It revels in contrast, juxtaposition, and the alien. It delights in all that is strange, hostile, and inhuman. It defies perception, expectation, and personification.
And just like the way we will sometimes come to resemble our lovers, the desert painted my skin a darker patina that almost matched the brownish-red of the sand. The dry air and wind crinkled my eyes and gave me laugh lines. I was head over heels.
Our love, however, is threatened. Hopeless romantic that I am, I am unwilling to give this up. This landscape, which has been the object of so many affections, is misunderstood by many who haven’t been lucky enough to wake up with their hair full of sand and eyes full of stars. Who haven’t had the privilege of waking with the sun to run down rocky paths and explore sandy and verdant basins to observe the small scurrying of the desert’s original dwellers.
This is a love worth fighting for. This landscape has existed in it’s own perfection for eons before my arrival, and I’ll do anything to preserve it so that others might also have the chance to experience the same love I’ve felt for the desert.
Everyone deserves the opportunity to race across slickrock and through scrub to find themselves at the foot of a sandstone tower. To sink their toes in the soft sand, the same sand that helped carve the dramatic towers that emerge from the desert floor. To collapse exhausted on a bed of scrub and revel in the Milky Way’s glow, watching the distant spin of planets and stars. To feel the soft stroke of the sun on your cheek as it wakes you gently in the morning. To feel the forceful heat of the afternoon sun as it beams down what feels like a passionate embrace.
This is the land I’m in love with, and I’ll fight to keep it - for myself, and you too.
Photos: Nick Mott
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