Sacred places: The West's new, booming extractive industry

  • A hiker near Silver Falls Creek in Utah's Escalante Wilderness

    Jack McLellan

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 California desert.

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 spiritual.

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.

The writer thoughtfully did not name his sacred canyon. It doesn't matter. It is discovered now, or trashed now, or will be trashed soon.

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 herd.

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.

When 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 Trail.

What is happening to our sacred land? Ask Pogo.

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 New Yorker.

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.

A recent 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 the public.

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 environmentally.

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 like this:

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.

I noticed 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.

I understood 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 wastefulness.

This is 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.

My 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.

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