Motorheads gone wild

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

  • Sinuhe Xavier navigates his Land Rover along the Flint Trail, a perilous old uranium mine road in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area in southeast Utah.

    Justin Clifton
  • Sinuhe Xavier inches his Land Rover over a boulder in what he hopes will be the Greater Canyonlands National Monument, about a million acres around the edges of the current Canyonlands National Park.

    Ace Kvale
  • Sinuhe Xavier and author Craig Childs park the vehicles for a trek down a perilous redrock trail to some cliff dwellings.

    Ace Kvale
  • Car camping on a rocky ledge at Panorama Point, Canyonlands National Park.

    Sinuhe Xavier
  • Car camping at Cedar Mesa.

    Sinuhe Xavier
  • Car camping at Cedar Mesa.

    Sinuhe Xavier

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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.

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