On a crowded flight from Boise to Salt Lake City I read an essay, The Last Canyon: Notes from the Underground, which tells the story of "discovering" a canyon, a remote tributary to the San Juan River. It's from a 1978 collection of essays, The Hidden West, by Rob Schultheis, an earnest guy from back East.
A woman from El Paso had given him a map
of how to get to this canyon, swearing him to secrecy. In return,
he had given her directions to a secret hot springs in the
Schultheis collects sacred
places. He invites a beautiful woman, with whom he is "not a little
in love" and they go in search of this canyon. They descend into
it, have adventures over many days, and ultimately get very
Who had walked
this canyon before us, other than that stranger from El Paso?
Perhaps a lone Anasazi hunter, trailing a wounded bighorn; a band
of wandering Utes; a Mormon cowboy, searching for stray range
cattle; a greed-mad uranium prospector, looking for the mother lode
to birth a million Hiroshimas ... perhaps nobody. There was not a
bootprint, not a scrap of paper, not a rusted can anywhere ... We
had slipped through the sipapu, the hole in the kiva's floor, the
place of Emergence.
writer thoughtfully did not name his sacred canyon. It doesn't
matter. It is discovered now, or trashed now, or will be trashed
Actually, it had undoubtedly been
discovered then. When my father-in-law, Owen Burnham, was a
teenager in the "30s, he helped outfit for a Harvard archaeology
expedition that combed southeastern Utah putting the Anasazi story
together and carting off artifacts to the Peabody Museum. Add
Harvard archaeologists to Mr. Schultheis' list of people who might
have preceded him.
In addition to the people
Schultheis mentions in his story, and my father-in-law, and
Harvard, we might add hippies, desert rats, local kids, Navajos,
and yuppies from Salt Lake City down for long weekends in their
4-Runners. He just felt as if he had discovered it. The essay was
about the spiritual power one comes across in a strange and silent
place. It's about how much fun it is to pretend that you have
discovered a wonderful place.
Finally, and this,
I realize, is what rubbed me wrong; it's about how much fun it is
to brag about the last, best place that you have found before the
Now, fast forward to today. Moab, Utah,
in the same general area as the canyon in Schultheis' essay, has
become an outdoor recreation mecca. River running, climbing, hiking
and mountain-bike riding, draw the world. Moab now boasts a brew
pub, gourmet coffee store, and pasta bar. The old-hippie artists
and river rats who used to live uneasily with the original Mormon
uranium miners now complain about the new scourge of mountain-bike
tourists and real-estate developers. They count the cars camped on
Sand Flats Road above the Slick Rock Trail.
they say that the area is trashed, they mean it literally. They
worry about dysentery. The government-run camping facilities, both
Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, are swamped.
People camp and shit and ride and climb everywhere. Ten years ago,
Canyonlands National Park was a place to experience solitude and
vast space. It's still vast, but you'll need reservations six
months in advance to camp on the famous White Rim
What is happening to our sacred land? Ask
We need to think about the very concept of
the sacredness of place. Making a place sacred once meant
protecting it, to preserve it. For us, making a place sacred
assures its profanity. We make it a national park. We write a
glowing natural history. We put it on a magazine cover or mention
it as a hot place in Outside. The next thing you know, the state
travel council people have moved in and are doing inserts for The
Brew pubs and traffic jams are only
a yuppie away.
In the West these days, people
are feeling a little had, a little took by all this "quality of
life." Recent articles allude to "industrial tourism," a term
coined by Edward Abbey to describe the deliberate popularization of
any piece of land beyond all reasonable bounds.
William Kittredge, a Montana writer who with Annick Smith edited
The Last Best Place, uses the term "The Virtual West" to describe
the practice of turning simple land into safe, watered, walled,
stuccoed interpretations of the West.
article in Catalyst, an alternative monthly in Salt Lake City,
attacks a writer whose guidebook revealed one of the few remaining
secret places in Canyonlands, a place the Park Service left off
their tourist maps and used a "don't tell unless asked" policy with
It isn't just one author. Our very
culture - environmentally aware, travel crazy - is on the make for
great places. And it's wrong. It's wrong spiritually and it's wrong
Our generation made a great
collective discovery: the earth is sacred, wilderness is wonderful,
urban life is destructive. Much of the natural history written in
the last 20 years points this out, with a typical essay sounding
I was in the
city. I couldn't think clearly, so I went to the wilderness. It was
beautiful. I was physically active all day long and slept under the
stars. All of my senses sharpened.
small, beautiful, natural things, and sunsets. I could listen to
the river. Simple food tasted great. I could think clearly for the
first time in ages. I perceived the world differently. I saw my
urban concerns in a new light.
zen. I regained a sense of childlike wonder. I saw again how vast
it all is, how little we know, how trapped we are by the city, how
conceited our adult cares, how selfish our
spiritual writing cross-dressing as nature writing. It isn't really
about place. It's about response. The place is just a setting, a
trigger that helps begin an inner process.
generation, the boomers, never caught this subtlety. We set out to
find all the great places, requiring of them that they improve our
inner lives. We talked them up, showed our friends, and they showed
theirs. Outside wrote them up, and the next thing you know there's
a fat-tire festival in Moab.
We did it.
Rob White lives in Salt
Lake City, Utah.