Secret getaways of the National Landscape Conservation System

  • The sun sets under stormy skies in Gold Butte, Nevada. "Three hours from Vegas and I feel like I'm on the moon."

    Craig Childs
  • Agua Fria National Monument in Arizona is 70,900 acres of protected high mesa semi-desert grasslands and riparian forests, a forgotten land sandwiched between high-tension power lines and an interstate.

    © Cheyenne L Rouse
  • A lizard suns on a cairn near Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument.

    Nate Clark
  • Gold Butte, Nevada.

    Craig Childs

Page 4

Now, anytime I drive I-17 north of Phoenix, my mind wanders into the monument. That stretch of freeway no longer seems just a quick way to get from here to there. Instead, it's the edge of a much larger landscape, one not dominated by us.

Rountree has remained my enabler, sending me notes with new locations, places I just had to visit. He mentioned Sonoran Desert National Monument south of Phoenix and I found myself sitting on one of its high, craggy ridges at sunrise, first light streaming across the desert with not a trail or road in sight.

One place he spoke about, often with a longing sigh, was Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah. Starting in high alpine elk-and-spruce, the 1.9 million acre monument -- the largest in the system -- takes a dazzling plunge through canyons and cliffs into the desert. Containing a thousand miles of dirt roads in various conditions, the monument is seven times the size of nearby Zion National Park.

On a warm week in early March, I hooked up with a friend to backpack 20 miles cross-wise, in and out of canyons on the northeastern lobe of the monument. He was a fishing guide from the nearby town of Escalante. We didn't follow trails. Instead, we let our bodies carry us, scanning ahead for gaps, feeling routes with our hands and through our bootsoles. We also didn't bring enough rope, so we did a lot of sliding on our asses with full packs.

Wherever we saw cairns, we destroyed them. The most gaudy stackjobs we pushed over, redistributing their rocks to wipe them from memory. Others we just kicked down, leaving a rock or two as a more subtle route-marker.

My friend told me that if you don't control them this way, cairns swiftly overpopulate, establishing new colonies hither and yon, until you can't go anywhere without seeing them. His way of keeping the land wild was to take them down.

This wasn't so much an act of sabotage, as compliance with NLCS strategy. Ace Kvale, a global mountaineer-adventurer turned volunteer backcountry ranger for Grand Staircase-Escalante, actually thanked me for removing cairns in his monument. I told him I had been a little hesitant at first, just following my buddy's lead, but it felt good. Even Rountree told me he'd kicked down cairns.

"It's in the mission statement of the monument to preserve wilderness characteristics," Kvale said. "Places tend to get over-cairned and eventually people are just following the dotted lines. They need to keep their eyes open, not just follow breadcrumbs. We want them to experience the wilderness on its terms."

Kvale, like many NLCS backcountry rangers, goes by specific guidelines for cairns in little-visited country. On major routes and trails, you should be able to see only one at a time. He tends to knock over every other cairn in places like this, leaving the rest as reliable but not ostentatious trail-markers. Out in deeper country, however, in untrailed wilderness, he takes down almost every one he sees.

"I think of true, untouched wild nature," Kvale said. "We have that here in the canyon country. If you're out that far, you shouldn't need cairns to find your way. I don't mind seeing a subtly placed one or two rocks tastefully done at an important juncture on a route, that's OK. Just a signal to let you know you're on the right track.

"We're not trying to get anybody killed," he added. "You just have to know a little about what you're doing out here."

But there was one cairn that really caught the attention of my buddy and me. It was made of two softball-sized rocks leaning against each other, the sandstone of one weathering into the sandstone of the other. No telling the exact age, since any lichen had been blasted off by wind. This subtle cairn was on an exposed rock-dome leading into the dim hole of a canyon. It was exactly the kind of thing Kvale would let alone, probably using it, like us, as a marker for a way down through perilous country. Maybe it was put here by hunters 50 years ago, or early canyoneers in the 1960s. I like to imagine it was much older than that, left by Paiute travelers who stitched their way across these canyons much as we were doing today, traveling across this far, wild land with their senses heightened, eyes constantly scanning for the next step.

That cairn, we left.

Craig Childs is a High Country News contributing editor and author of more than a dozen books, most recently Apocalyptic Planet. He was born in Arizona, teaches an MFA program at the University of Alaska and lives with his family in western Colorado.

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