Our Community - Reflections on Adventure

Bikepacking Bears Ears: Images and Lessons from the Desert

In late April 2018, Ambassador Ashley Carruth set out on a monthlong bikepacking and packrafting expedition that took her from her hometown of Durango to Bears Ears National Monument and back again. We caught up with Ashley to hear a little more about the ups and downs of the trip and the imprint it’s left on her since she’s been home.

What an adventure! Can you share a highlight, lowlight, and unforgettable moment from your monthlong trip through Bears Ears?

Highlight: There really were too many to choose from, but one super special moment was the last night of my trip. I met up with DEVO Explorers, the youth bikepacking program I coach for in Durango. They were on their spring trip, biking near the Colorado Trail between Durango and Rico. I rode up from Rico while they rode up from the Durango side of Bolam Pass, and we met at Celebration Lake. The next day, we descended down the rocky road, stopping off for a quick fly fishing and lunch break. After dropping the kids off at the van with Coach Bailey, my fellow coach and good friend, Sarah, and I ended up riding back to Durango via the Hermosa Creek Trail, not knowing how significant that ride would be given that in 11 days time, the entire creek drainage would engulfed by the 416 Fire’s flames.

It was super special to be able to bring it on home with the group that was one of many sources of inspiration of my bike trip. These kids and coaches have taught me what the true essence of bikepacking is: Sharing salami and goat cheese wraps by a river, water coloring dark and stormy mountain vistas, birthday pudding around a campfire, and the joy of riding through a spring hail storm with your friends. What better way to end a month-long Explorer’s trip than with the OG Explorers themselves?

Lowlight: There honestly weren’t any lowlights because even in a moment of seeming doom and gloom, there was always a silver lining or learning moment. But if I had to pick one, I would say rolling into Moab, three weeks into my trip. I struggled with the contrast between the solitude I experienced during the first three weeks spent traveling through remote desert canyons and mesas and the sudden and frenetic energy of a tourist town during its high season. Some might call it culture shock. My brother chalked it up to my feral state. Either way, I wanted out.

Memorable Moment: It’s a toss up! One vivid memory that comes to mind is that of my boyfriend’s gray Tacoma careening across over twenty miles of remote dirt road, somewhere between Hite, Utah and the Sundance Trailhead of the Dark Canyon, a plume of dust trailing behind as I sit on a ridgeline calmly watching the sunset, at ease now that I know he is in sight and with ice cream in tow. Graham, on the other hand, is clearly not at ease as evidence by his “drive it like you stole it” technique. He must not be able to see me in my current perch and the last contact we had was via a “Need Help” alert I had triggered on my SPOT some three hours earlier.

Another memory is that of me, head down due to the not one, but two, sets of handlebars digging into the back of my neck, as I try to power-lunge 100 pounds of gear up an old sheep trail somewhere in Cedar Mesa. I sidestep a cactus and try to avoid snagging my derailer on the twisted branches of a nearby Juniper tree. Meanwhile, my partner in crime, Sarah, is below me, pushing the not one, but two, bikes strapped to my backpack, so that I can clear the boulder before me, the boulder I can’t even see because of the two handlebars digging into the back of my neck.

After 3 hours and likely less than ¾ of a mile, we get to the rim, unload the two bikes from my pack and the three wheels from her too-small-to-carry-a-bike daypack, and I realize we have to descend 1,200 vertical feet and 3 miles of switchbacks known as the Moki Dugway before riding 20 miles out to where we had cached our food the day before, only to turn around and climb back up the Moki Dugway for the next leg. It was 4pm, hot as a ham sandwich in Houston, and well-past lunch. As I inhaled a tuna wrap I innocently asked “Why did we do this again?” To which my older, wiser, and more experienced friend replied, without a hint of accusation or bitterness in her voice, “because you wanted to.” She paused to watch my mouth drop open in protest before adding “and I wanted to teach you a lesson. Shorter distances don’t always equal shorter time. Hopefully you won’t try to hike your bike on your solo stretch.”

Part of your motivation in planning this adventure was to connect more to the cultural landscape of the southwest, and to learn more about the current cultural dynamics of sustainability efforts. We’re sure you could write a book on all you’ve learned, but if you had to boil it down to three key takeaways, what would they be?

Environmental activist and author, Craig Childs writes in Finders Keepers: “There are so many of us now that we threaten to devour the world with our touching, starting with the things we adore most. At the same time, we obviously yearn for contact, and I fear what would happen if we were cut off from a distinctive, on-the-ground relationship with the past.”

There are over 100,000 archaeological sites in the originally-designated Bears Ears Monument, and while I experienced a mere fraction of those sites, I have come to learn how important that connection to the past is. How it grounds us, restores us to our true nature, reminds us of our connection to ourselves, the land and our community. Heritage: something handed down from the past. There are many claims to a significant heritage within the Bears Ears Monument controversy. Some claims (rooted in various tribes’ creation myths) date back to time immemorial, and some to the late 1800’s with the arrival of Mormons in Bluff.

While I think it’s important we value each individual’s connection to place and ancestry, the recent evisceration of the Monument reflects a blatant disregard of Native Americans’ heritage. In The Edge of Morning, a compilation of Native American perspectives on the Bears Ears, Klee Benally, a Dine traditional dancer, anarchist, musician and filmmaker, writes “What part of sacred don’t you understand? Essentially, we’re saying why isn’t it enough for us to say a site is sacred and should be set aside and protected and respected because it’s integral for our spiritual practice to be continued.”

The fact that the Trump administration has ignored the unprecedented collaboration between five Native American tribes in designating the original monument, especially given our government’s legacy of oppression toward these tribes, and the fact that the claim to the sacredness of land seems to hold very little water in western society is something we should all find disturbing.

What impressions upon the rock will our hands make? What will we leave behind to those who follow? I hope as much wilderness as possible.

Another way of thinking about heritage is not what we has been handed on by past generations, but what we will pass onto future. How many wild places will we protect to allow a place in which our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren can lose themselves and find themselves again? Change is inevitable. Wildfires will continue to ravage our forests, water and wind carves away desert canyons, carrying specks of sandstone away. However, the mountains and canyons will endure. We, on the other hand, our fleeting. Our lives here are short and we’re reminded of that each time we pick up a piece of pottery shard or run our hands along the eroded walls of an Ancestral Puebloan ruin. They were here some 700-2,500 years ago, left their mark, and then moved on.

Through my teaching, coaching and work with SOLES, I am striving to pass on an ethic of sustainability, an appreciation for and connection to a sense of place, and the ways in which that connection to place lends itself to a deeper connection to self and community. In Red: Passion and Patience in the Desert, my literary crush, Terry Tempest Williams, wrote “We, too, can humbly raise our hands with those who have gone before and those who will follow. Hand on rock. We remember what we have forgotten, what we can reclaim in wilderness.” What impressions upon the rock will our hands make? What will we leave behind to those who follow? I hope as much wilderness as possible.

Reentry is always a process. How are you integrating this experience into your life in Durango? Did the trip inspire any new practices, goals, or aspirations?

It took me coming back to my hometown to realize how at home I actually felt out there and what I had been lacking in my day-to-day life. However, I don’t think I fully realized how significant this trip was to me until nearly one month after I had been home, on a weekend trip back to Utah — an attempt to escape the fire and smoke wreaking havoc on my hometown of Durango, Colorado. My boyfriend and close friend and I headed to the La Sals and Moab for a weekend of camping and mountain biking. We rode a classic Moab trail called “The Whole Enchilada” that descends 7,000 vertical feet in 35 miles. It was raining and June and it seemed we had the La Sals to ourselves.

What I felt upon returning home and being immersed in this state of paralysis was the contrast between the scattered, frenetic, fractal nature of my day-to-day routine back in “society” on the one hand, and the clarity that came from a singular focus and sense of purpose that characterized my Bears Ears tour.

Since returning from my tour, I have had a hard time focusing. I’ve been distracted and scattered. This is definitely a new sensation for me– someone who is often described by colleagues, students and even friends as “intense, disciplined and a bit of a steamroller.” I am a driver. I get shit done. I define success as achieving objectives. Time is well-used if I’ve accomplished an item on my to-do list. So, I returned home after my Bears Ears tours and promptly made my summer to-do list and attempted to begin checking things off the list. Except, I didn’t know where to start, and perhaps more to the point, couldn’t get much traction on any one item I chose to tackle in any given day. What I felt upon returning home and being immersed in this state of paralysis was the contrast between the scattered, frenetic, fractal nature of my day-to-day routine back in “society” on the one hand, and the clarity that came from a singular focus and sense of purpose that characterized my Bears Ears tour.

The Armageddon-esque plume of smoke rising above Animas Mountain didn’t help as I was overcome by sadness at the destruction of forests and wilderness lands I hold so dearly. Even deeper lurked a primal sense of fear and instinct to flee, migrate, escape the acrid smell of smoke that wafted through my dreams all night and woke me at 3am each morning, that hung in the air and singed my lungs until the winds shifted mid-day and cleared the smoke out of town for the afternoon and evening, leaving us with a semblance of normalcy until we looked North toward Animas Mountain. And so, my boyfriend and good friend and I headed to the La Sals for the weekend to try to pretend the fire didn’t exist and that we weren’t in a severe drought; that our Aspen trees groves were healthy; and that our old-growth Ponderosa trees would live for generations to come; to drink whiskey in the rain at 10,500 feet and ride our bikes without the fear that a pedal strike against a granite rock might spark a brush fire.

Why protect the Bears Ears? Why protect wilderness and public lands? Because we depend on it for our own well-being.

And it mostly worked. Until I began my drive back home and was stopped in my tracks when I came around a corner and into a clearing in the Aspens. Some 4,000 feet below me stretched the expansive red rock country through which I had ridden a month prior. I turned off the dirt road into a pull-out and cried as I looked out across the desert and realized just how much I love wild places. It felt so good to be in a forest that wasn’t ablaze with a light drizzle of rain falling against my windshield and the glittering sun’s rays cascading across the desert spanning the horizon line. I felt a strange longing looking out over the desert. I wanted to be somewhere deep in one of those canyons, pushing my bike through a wash and beginning to look for a campsite for the evening. I wanted to be fully in it again.

Why protect the Bears Ears? Why protect wilderness and public lands? Because we depend on it for our own well-being.

You spent sections of this trip solo, and other times you were adventuring with friends. How did these two experiences compare for you?

In some ways, my solo time and my time with my adventure buddies were like night and day. However, before my trip began, I thought I’d be afraid of other people, but really I was afraid of my own aloneness within the vastness of the desert — it was a sort of existential dread. People, it turned out, were not only a sight for a lonely extrovert’s eyes, but also amazingly generous and kind. For instance, when I returned to my bike on the last evening of my solo stretch, I found a cd case tucked into my frame bag and three plastic bottles of water. Gifts from the strangers with whom I had briefly crossed paths. “Trail fairies”, my boyfriend, Graham would later call them. I smiled as I unscrewed the cap of one of the bottles, letting the tepid water slide down my throat. I was never alone out there.

We saved the most important question for last: what food did you crave most in the backcountry?

Fresh vegetables and fruit. Homemade bread. Milkshakes and ice cold beverages.

Tcp Team Ashley Carruth
Ashley Carruth

In November 2019, we convened our first inaugural Adventure Learning Summit, a peer-learning retreat that brought together representatives of a handful of our local partner organizations. Among them was Ashley Carruth, co-director of San Juan Mountain SOLES and one of our first Ambassadors! See her ambassador page.