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for people who care about the West

Motorheads gone wild

An off-roading conservationist navigates some gnarly landscape on the road to more protection for the Utah desert.


On a windy, sun-shot desert day in the dust-spinning circus that is southeast Utah's four-wheeling season, we pull up to the Blanding Subway, driving a 15-year-old, classic-white Land Rover with quarter-inch-steel rock sliders in place of running boards, a 9,000-pound winch on a hand-built steel bumper, and auxiliary lights for late-night missions. In a couple of days, this town will become a media stock show, with protesters and patriots with side-arms and scopes here for an illegal off-road rally. Already, the highway is filling with big-tired Fords, dust-covered Toyotas and trailer-caged ATVs. Sinuhe Xavier (whose first name is pronounced "sin-way"), the Land Rover's owner, walks through the double-glass doors and promptly orders a meat-heavy sub.

The kid behind the counter eyes our vehicle, which is loaded with gear and shovels. "You here for the rally?"

"Yes!" Sinuhe says.

He is lying; we're just having lunch on our way through. But Sinuhe wanted to stop in town, to get a sense of the West's latest Off-Highway War. He's keenly interested in land-use conflicts.

"Where are you from?" the kid asks.

"Bozeman," says Sinuhe, who is not from Bozeman. He grew up in Montana, but was born in Colombia and now lives in L.A.

One truth about Sinuhe would impress the kid, though, if he knew: He's as bad-ass an off-roader as there is. He sees getting off the highway and into rougher territory as an intricate puzzle, dropping one wheel into a hole and pushing it up the other side before the next wheel falls in. I've never seen him spin a tire against rock, no matter how steep. He knows how to baby and strong-arm his clutch. He doesn't worry much about rolling – his vehicle is sound and he trusts his winch to safely right us again.

In fact, Sinuhe is a professional, paid to drive on treks across Saharan sands and roiling Icelandic glacier-blue rivers. Back in L.A., he works as a car commercial director/photographer and is the creative director of Overland Journal, a glossy magazine about international back-road expeditions. On his first assignment in southern Utah more than a decade ago, he drove 3,000 miles in a week, almost all of it on dirt back roads.

Looking somewhere between well-groomed and totally rough, Sinuhe is wearing a sturdy white button-down and canvas pants, with a good knife on his hip. The kid isn't sure what to make of his shocked black hair, swarthy skin and razor-killing three-day stubble. It's a confusing ethnicity for a town like Blanding. The kid spreads peppers and mustard across Sinuhe's sub, then wags his tongs between the two of us: "Mind if I ask: Are you for or against?"

He is talking about the rally, in which a local county commissioner and a rogue band of quad riders and gun freaks – fresh from eastern Nevada's Cliven Bundy debacle – intend to drive down a route that was closed by the Bureau of Land Management to protect an oft-raided trove of archaeological ruins.

"For," Sinuhe says. Another lie.

The kid beams, a little embarrassed, relaxing. "It's hard to tell sometimes. Protesters are in town." He says his father is one of the organizers.

"Good for him," Sinuhe says. "Tell me, you think I should take that thing down the route?" He thumbs toward the Land Rover outside. The rally is expecting ATVs only, not big vehicles.

The kid laughs, suddenly uncomfortable. "Oh, I don't know, sir."

"I think we could. You think we should try it? Or should we not?" Sinuhe looks right at the kid, waiting for his answer. The underlying question is clear: You're going to tell me the government can't tell us what to do, but I can't take my Land Rover down there?

"I suppose you could, if you really wanted to," the kid says.

A comical picture forms in my head: Sinuhe driving like a pro, two hands lightly on the wheel, surrounded by a choke of ATVers, fists waving.

Later, into his first bite, Sinuhe says to me, "We don't have time for this crap. We need to get as far away from this place as we can."

Backed up to a cliff edge, Ace Kvale stands barefoot on slickrock. Beer in hand, he contemplates a cliff dwelling across the way.

"How would you get down there?" he asks.

It is an eagle's nest of a dwelling, a row of masonry rooms crumbling around each other.

Ace is a healthy, sun-cooked guy in his 50s. His four-by-four Tacoma with its over-the-cab camper is parked askew from Sinuhe's Land Rover at the end of an unmarked turnoff between Highway 191 and Hanksville.

Ace has wondered at this ruin before, this being one of his favorite places to stop on cross-country drives. Once a world-class rock climber, Ace used to live in Telluride, Colorado, and now lives with his dog and anyone who comes by his house outside Boulder, Utah, just off the Burr Trail. He's not a four-wheeler, he says; he just uses the truck to get places. He likes to park and head off with his dog on foot, sometimes for a month, avoiding roads wherever possible. He calls these his walkabouts.

Sinuhe had gotten us together to make a film, a low-budget piece about us running around in the desert, funded by anyone who will give us enough money for sandwiches and, later, some time in the editing room. We've been working on the film for two years now. Its purpose is to promote a future Greater Canyonlands National Monument, 1.4 million acres of BLM land awaiting a surprise penstroke of protection from Obama. If created, the monument would protect an extended radius around Canyonlands National Park, a relative postage stamp at 337,598 acres.

Ace and I would have rather walked for the film, backpacking over months from cache to cache, Hayduke-style. Sinuhe lacks the time. He made sure vehicles were involved.

We follow a winding dirt road through fish-shaped rises to the top of Comb Ridge, where we camp. Now we are three trucks, having caught up with our film's camera assistant, a four-wheeling yoga practitioner from Vail, Colorado, named Jay Rush. His Tacoma is slightly older than Ace's, and he has a pop-up tent on his camper shell and a foldout awning. Each truck takes a different position on the slickrock, behind stout, wind-sheltering junipers.

Comb Ridge doesn't have many roads; most of it is too rough and steep for vehicles, even mountain bikes. This is one of the few roads that actually reaches the top of the 70-mile-long ridge. From this cliff top, you can see Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona.

If the region became a national monument, some dirt roads would remain open and others would be closed. That happened when former President Clinton created Utah's Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in 1996. While the BLM kept a thousand miles of dirt roads open in the monument, its decision to close others swiftly brought turmoil. That same year, Kane County sent bulldozers out onto the federal lands to re-establish former roads, including some built in 1886 by Western settlers that have since dwindled into faded two-tracks and routes virtually impossible to find. The county began tearing down some of the BLM's "road-closed" signs, and in 2005 put up its own, saying the closed monument roads were actually open. Lawsuits fired back and forth – conservation groups suing the Department of the Interior, Kane County suing the BLM – a battle that continues ad nauseam.

I ask Sinuhe if he'd be willing to close the road coming up here. No, he says, he'd leave it open, its traditional use still apparent. Maybe too apparent. At our campsite, we find a fire ring. Ash and charcoal pour over the many rocks that have been stacked up, fire after fire, forming a trashy throne so tall you'd only be able to warm yourself from the knees up. Ace can't stand it. He's a volunteer ranger in Grand Staircase-Escalante who frequently takes out crews for just this purpose – finding obscene campfire sites and rubbing them back down to reasonable levels, as if he's erasing mistakes. He says that if you leave them trashy, people keep trashing them.

Even before grabbing a beer from the cooler, Ace pulls out a rake and starts cleaning. We uncover ashen wads of aluminum foil and a couple of half-melted beer bottles, just like my Dad and I used to make when I grew up four-wheeling in central Arizona. (His recipe: Poke the glass into a good, long blaze, watch the bottles glow and melt all over themselves. Good redneck fun.) We used to have big fires, beacons in the desert, and I still have an appetite for them, though some of those places have since become dirt-road shitholes, where people piss and throw their junk and maybe shoot up beer bottles. That's what Ace wants to stop here. He says you should always leave these camps better than when you arrived.

We help Ace sweep charcoal and ash onto an old blue tarp that has obviously been used for this purpose many times, and he carries it off, dispersing it down in a wash. He stuffs a separate bag of trash behind a seat in his truck. We topple some of the rocks and toss out others, listening as they wing down the cliff below, shattering into a million dusty pieces. When we're done, the campsite doesn't look like a trash heap anymore.

Then we drink beer.

Leaving behind the other vehicles and piling into the Land Rover, we grade up and around 400-foot rock towers inside the potential monument's invisible boundaries. Spines, buttes and sheer mesa edges of ruddy Wingate sandstone rise all around us. We follow a route cut by uranium prospectors back in the atomic heyday. Arm out the window, navigating around fallen boulders and gully-washed ruts, I can't help wondering what it was like for those prospectors, blasting and D-9-ing their way up nearly impossible climbs.

Between 1946 and 1965, miners extracted 10 million pounds of uranium from the White Canyon District in southeast Utah. Lone prospectors came out in whatever vehicles they could cobble together, hauling boxes of dynamite and battered steel shields of tractors to the most astonishing places. They left behind a network of roads and routes in a place where tar sands development is now on the table. The modern tar sands industry is a whole different animal than a bunch of lone uranium prospectors, and its interest in the area is one of the reasons Sinuhe hopes for a monument here.

Uranium roads are Sinuhe's specialty. In some parts of Utah, you can get just about anywhere on them, including where we are now: one of the many tributaries and mesas around White Canyon. The uranium deposits lie below the towering walls of Wingate sandstone in rubble-covered slopes where boulders hang barely at their angle of repose.

The Land Rover steadily crawls up a "road" that I would never consider tackling on wheels. "Would Abbey do this?" Sinuhe calls back to Ace, who is relaxed, stretched out in the back seat, shovels and gear boxes sticking out around him. "This is what Abbey did," Ace says.

They are talking about Edward Abbey, the late cultural wilderness hero and writer, who demanded in Desert Solitaire that people get out of their cars and experience the land with their own bodies. Abbey knew, of course, that to get anywhere in the West, you just about have to drive, and often on dirt and rock. The automobile is built into the equation, our industrial disease.

But in Sinuhe's hands, the motorized vehicle becomes an extension of the human body. When a boulder in the way cannot be winched clear, Sinuhe drives over it, sometimes with Ace standing outside eyeballing one wheel or another, calling out quarter inches. The Land Rover looks like a crab, all distortions of angles and axles. And all the while, Sinuhe dispenses advice: Don't fist the steering wheel, but keep your thumbs pressed on the front. Otherwise, "If your wheel drops into a hole," he says, "pop, your thumbs break."

Some of these roads are no longer roads, but routes on their way to becoming ruts. I ask him how a monument – a place where human traces must be less than the mark of nature – could ever be justified when we keep roads like this open by continuing to drive on them.

"You go a hundred feet off most the roads we drive on, and chances are it's going to be as wild as the day those roads were built."

Ace disagrees: "Close them all, we've got enough."

"The roads that aren't through-roads, ones you could just walk or bike, roads like this one, sure, they don't need to be open," Sinuhe responds. "But I get frustrated when we close through-roads. I used to drive the road through the Paria Canyon to Kodachrome Basin, and it's closed now. I understand, I do."

What he understands is that he is walking a tightrope as a motorhead conservationist. One side of the argument grates against the other in his head. He is a driver, after all, his life's work inspired by the internal combustion engine and where it can get him, his profession dependent on the billions of barrels of oil that energy companies hope to yank from places like this. He sees his Land Rover as a tool, though, not the final product.

The final product is the land itself, and as rainclouds and damp breezes blow over the shallow, bulbous tributaries of White Canyon, we park and get out backpacks to see it from a different angle. Though most of our week together is spent car camping (knocking off vistas and uranium roads, getting B-roll with time lapses of the moon sweeping over canyons and rainstorms gliding in and out of thirsty desert drainages), part still needs to be done on foot.

Sinuhe didn't used to be a backpacker, but Ace has worn on him, pushing the feeling of moving through space with just the gear on your back – no road, no trail, only the shape of the land moving under your feet. Finding a way into a snake of a canyon, we hop down sandstone ledges and benches, in places using rope to get gear over one level and to the next. Our pace changes. With no engine noise, no creaking of suspension, we hear the hush of winds and the descending trill of canyon wrens.

On the canyon floor, we find some shade between two dump truck-sized boulders that have fallen against each other. A bit of flash flood debris is caught in the seam between the boulders, and on the slender tail of a root hanging down is a tiny teacup of a nest sporting the head and tail of a hummingbird. The four of us stand at the entrance to the shelter, faces peering in at this nest. It's one of the finest things we've ever seen.

Later, Sinuhe admits, "You don't see that kind of thing when you're driving."

The storm rolls in on us with sheets of cold rain verging on snow. The weekend rally near Blanding is over and the people are heading home, the spectacle having been more or less a wash, as we find out later.

That night, several miles into rounded, bread-colored cliffs, we move into overhangs to get out of the weather. Ace and I take an upper level, our sleeping bags rolled out in a dusty crease sprinkled with dry nuts of bighorn sheep droppings. Sinuhe and Jay take a spot a hundred feet below us. We sleep through the roar of fresh waterfalls and the cracking brilliance of lightning, fitting ourselves without machines into the puzzle of the land. We have simply cut out the middleman.

Motorheads will tell you they are in touch with the earth, too. They drive off-road to leave the contrivance of pavement and get into real terrain, to escape the constraints of civilization and connect with the elemental world of dust, rock and mud. But the world experienced on foot will never be the world encountered in a machine. The ability to pause, listen, pick up a stone and feel it, or to notice a hummingbird's tiny nest in the shadows, means you are operating on a truly human scale. With an engine under your control, you become bigger than you actually are, all scales of observation thrown out of whack.

Days later, driving back, we find a circle of mid-20th century cars and trucks junked in the desert. Riddled with bullet holes, windshields busted out, they are a monument to the uranium days. Sinuhe lifts the hood of a faded green mid-1940s Ford pickup, its headlights staring blindly out of empty sockets. Peering into its rusted engine block, a narrow V-8, he says that we've seen monumental changes in technology since this truck was built – phones, jet airplanes, microwave ovens – yet if you lift the hood on his Land Rover, you'll see the same basic machine inside. It is the one piece of significant technology that has not changed.

Sinuhe admires that old Ford engine, but he is disappointed by the stagnant pace of motorhead evolution. He believes automobiles and their drivers have not kept pace with the rest of the world. We behave as if we were still in the uranium boom, each of us lone prospectors, when in fact we live in an ever-more crowded world, where four-wheelers number in the millions. He is stalled somewhere between the past and the future, still in love with the road, but all too aware that if we drive everywhere we want, there will one day be nowhere worth driving to.

Craig Childs, a High Country News contributing editor, was born in Arizona and now lives in western Colorado. He is the author of several books on both the Southwest and the rest of the planet, and is a commentator for NPR's Morning Edition.