Long-read: An excerpt from Sagebrush Empire
The following is from Sagebrush Empire: How a Remote Utah County Became the Battlefront of American Public Lands, by Jonathan P. Thompson. Torrey House Press, 2021.
I am walking across the southeastern Utah desert, looking for the Colorado state line on an overcast day in early March. I think that maybe if I could just see the state line, experience it, walk along it, I could understand its power.
I lace up my shoes, put on a little pack with water, snacks, my camera, and my lenses, and head out in search of the prey. It will not be difficult to find. After all, it’s a straight line, running due north, that’s nearly three hundred miles long.
I slither through a narrow, tumbleweed-clogged sliver of space between two huge blocks of rock, rubbing my hand along its cold and grainy surface. The geology around here is the story of ancient transport, fossilized, of vast rivers carrying sand and silt and soil from faraway mountains and depositing it here, where the current slowed as the rivers met up with a shallow, salty inland sea. I drop through the Dakota Sandstone, across a layer of ash, and then encounter a more unusual sedimentary strata, conglomerate. It is gravel filled with colorful and exotic stones—granite, schist, quartz—that were worn smooth during their long trip from another country. They are lithic nomads that made their way slowly from distant mountains before finding a resting place here, in the mud at the edge of this sea. The color of the stones and their hard surfaces, smooth like skin, beg to be touched. I abide. Then I move onward, wondering whether the sagebrush will smell any different on the other side of the line.
The Colorado–Utah state line exists because back in 1859 a bunch of folks in the budding city of Denver didn’t want to be in Kansas anymore. At the time, the Kansas Territory stretched all the way to the Continental Divide, encompassing most of the eastern half of what is now Colorado. The Utah Territory sprawled from the Continental Divide all the way to the California border, roughly following the boundaries of what Brigham Young had hoped would be the State of Deseret.
The Denver contingent wanted to carve chunks out of Utah and Kansas and cobble them together as the massive State of Jefferson. Congress shot the idea down. So, in 1861, lawmakers proposed a smaller, square-shaped territory. The House of Representatives recognized the territory and called it Idaho; the Senate changed the name to Colorado, then passed the bill. Statehood would prove elusive, however, as President Andrew Johnson vetoed enabling bills in 1866 and again in 1867, in part because the population—of white people—was deemed too scant for an entire state. Finally, in 1876, after the federal government took the San Juan Mountains from the Ute people to clear the way for mining and industrialization, Colorado was granted statehood.
Lawmakers determined, for reasons that have been lost to history, that the western boundary of the new state would follow the thirty-second meridian, the line of longitude that lies thirty-two degrees west of the center of the Naval Observatory in Washington, DC. They drew the line on a map, paying no heed to the landscape, the sky, the watersheds, the culture, or anything else that has substance or consequence in this world.
In 1878 the federal government hired surveyor and astronomer Rollin Reeves to assemble a team and to mark the state line on the ground, to make the abstract concrete, to manifest the imaginary grid in the world of rock and sky and stone. He set out in August from Fort Garland, Colorado, located on land stolen from the Utes at the western foot of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, took the brand-new railroad to its terminus at Alamosa, then continued on horseback into New Mexico in order to skirt around the rugged South San Juan Mountains. He stopped at Tierra Amarilla to resupply before following the Spanish Trail through Ute territory to Animas City, now the north end of Durango, Colorado. There he may have encountered my ancestors, perhaps even purchased some butter or apples from them. My great-great-grandmother came to the Animas Valley from Kansas in the 1870s, part of the white wave of settler-colonists who had crashed down on the region at the time, violently displacing the Indigenous peoples there.
The outsiders came with the delusion that the entire region was an empty canvas on which they could start anew and build a society from scratch. “The very fact of the wilderness appealed to men as a fair, blank page on which to write a new chapter in the story of man’s struggle for his type of society,” wrote Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893. This illusory sense of possibility was fed by the maps of the day, which tended to depict southeastern Utah inaccurately or, more often, as a big blank spot. On an 1856 map, the San Juan River never crosses into Utah, and the Green and Grand (Colorado) Rivers meet up in the Grand Canyon, below the confluence of the San Juan and the Little Colorado. A year later maps show the rivers more or less in the right places, but the label “UNEXPLORED” is emblazoned across the otherwise featureless San Juan County. Shortly after Reeves made his trip, a group of cartographers under the leadership of Clarence E. Dutton drew a meticulously detailed topographical map of the entire Utah Territory. The remote and isolated Henry Mountains show up on it, portrayed fairly accurately, along with the Waterpocket Fold, the Escalante River and its tributaries, and the Colorado River. But everything east and south of the Colorado River, meaning all of what is now San Juan County, is empty. On his 1885 sectional and topographical map of Utah, Joseph West places the legend on San Juan County since, apparently, there’s nothing else there to see.
I suspect that the cartographical omissions come mostly from the fact that very few white people had ventured into this country because at the time they saw nothing worth mining or farming or otherwise exploiting. Mapping something is a way to lay claim to it, and there was nothing here worth claiming: it was a wasteland, a “badlands of grotesquely eroded rock,” as the author Frank Waters would describe it in 1946 and, in the reckoning of Capt. John Macomb, who came through the area in 1859, “a worthless and impracticable region.” Besides, attempting to depict the landscape here, with its ups and downs and nooks and crannies, with any accuracy would be a difficult task, indeed.
Reeves and his party wandered into the blank spot in early September, setting up camp on the banks of the San Juan River somewhere near current-day Aneth. Thanks to a tropical storm dumping its load on the San Juan Mountains, the river was in one of its moods, “on a rampage, booming high,” according to Reeves. The water was so thick with turbidity that it didn’t look like water at all and formed an intimidating barrier standing between the surveyors and the corner marker from which they needed to begin their task.
Undaunted, the team crudely lashed together pieces of driftwood to construct a raft, but when Reeves and three others tried to “pole and paddle” it across the river, the current had other plans, carrying them two miles downstream only to land on the same bank from which they began. They tried to borrow a boat, but the owner wasn’t willing to risk it, so they constructed another, larger raft, which they were able to pilot to the opposite bank. While all of this was unfolding, “several Navajo Indians, who had come from their Reservation on the South Side of the river, to trade with the Ute Indians on the North Side of the river, forded the river on their horses,” according to Reeves’s field notes. Reeves did not mention whether he felt just a tiny bit of chagrin for not thinking of that crossing method himself.
The surveying party enlisted a Navajo man to take them to the corner monument, placed three years earlier by a surveyor named Chandler Robbins, who had been there to survey the Arizona–New Mexico line. This corner is now the Four Corners Monument, which, bizarrely, has become a destination for people from all over the world, a place where one can entertain the illusion of being in four different places at once. They could begin their work at last.
That first night, two of Reeves’s team members, Captain Tuttle and Mr. Gorringe, zeroed in on Polaris, the North Star, at its eastern elongation. The next morning the surveyors, equipped with sextant, chain, aneroid barometer, and theodolite, set out in the direction of true north, marking their path as they went. While they were guided by the stars, their master was the grid that had been imposed upon the public domain west of the Appalachians with the 1785 creation of the Public Land Survey System. The land was cordoned off into thirty-six-square-mile square townships, which were then sliced into 640-acre sections. The idea was to create a system that allowed for the orderly sale of public land to settlers; call it Cartesian colonialism, the futile attempt to bound sinuous earth and boundless sky. I believe that it was also a way for the strangers to this country to make sense of it. Without the grid to restrain it, the land overwhelms. The grid is artifice, something seen only on maps, based on nothing real. Yet it has profoundly influenced the way Americans relate to the landscape and to one another, and is manifested physically on the American landscape in its state and county lines, its streets and avenues, its county roads and property lines, and in GPS coordinates. “The grid, not the eagle or the Stars and Stripes, is our national symbol,” wrote John Brinckerhoff Jackson in his seminal A Sense of Place, A Sense of Time, “It is imprinted in every child before birth.”
As the surveyors progressed, Reeves painstakingly recorded his observations. Of the first segment, Reeves wrote: “The line traverses a rolling elevated, grass-covered table land, mainly free from brush and timber for about thirty miles, ascending Northward and crossing numerous, rocky ridges, hills, valleys and canyons … The surface is badly broken, the walls and bluffs rocky and steep, and the timber, which we gradually enter about the twenty-fifth mile, is mainly piñon, very tough and stunted, and having its bark full of sand grit, dulling the axes and making our progress slow and difficult.”
A century and a half later, I walk purposefully through the same country as Reeves did. The country remains broken, albeit less grassy, and the trees are still tough and stunted, just the way the desert made them. I pass through an opening in a fence letting me know that I’m leaving Hovenweep National Monument, where grazing is prohibited, and crossing onto Bureau of Land Management land. The differences are subtle but immediately palpable. The vegetation is not as thick on the BLM side, the soil is lighter in color and smoother in texture, and desiccated cow dung is evident in the dry-wash bottom. In satellite images the differences between the two sides of the line are even more distinct.
I decide to follow the wash rather than the trail, and beneath a steep cut bank a smattering of bleached cow bones lies among the smooth stones. Probably the animal fell into the gully, broke a leg, and died of exposure, hunger, or thirst years ago. Or maybe a predator stalked it up the wash, then pounced from atop the bank, ripping out its throat before the slow beast even knew what had hit it. The hair stands up on my neck. Not to brag, but I think I’d make a pretty good breakfast-time snack for a cougar, what with my fat-marbled flesh marinated in a lifetime of ice cream, wine, and olive oil. I skitter away from the bank and scan the surroundings, half expecting to lock eyes with a sleek and hungry mountain lion as it crouches for the attack. But there is nothing save for a pinyon jay in a nearby bush, begging for a crumb.
I grew up on the Colorado side of the line, but I was brought up as a resident of the entire region, state lines be damned. If I could see the Bears Ears, or Hesperus Mountain, or the Sleeping Ute, or the sharp teeth of the Grenadier Range, or Shiprock, or Huerfano Mountain, then I was home. When my father was a teenager living in Dolores, Colorado, his cousin-in-law Don Ripley—the first National Park Service ranger at Hovenweep National Monument—introduced him to this corner of Utah, and he’d been coming here ever since. I was just a toddler when my parents first brought me to the Utah side of the line and into what C. Crampton coined “Standing Up Country” in his 1964 book of the same name. I was too young to have specific memories of that trip, but I’m certain that we camped in Comb Wash at the mouth of Arch Canyon, which was one of our go-to places.
We must have camped there a million times and in other places up and down Comb Wash another thousand times. Or maybe it was a few dozen, but keeping track is difficult. One camping trip runs into another, time gets jumbled, and yet the memories are clear: fire-blackened coffee pot, the heat of the hot cocoa mug through my mittens on a cold morning; the clear waters of Arch Creek, teeming with what my parents called killifish; the cloyingly sweet and cold first drink of an orange pop, a luxury confined to camping trips. I remember waking up in my pathetic little sleeping bag to the smell of breakfast cooking. I remember plopping down on my belly to slurp up cool water from a tadpole-teeming pothole. I remember the distinctive taste of desert water, like liquid stone on the tongue, and the frisson of tapping at the sticky, chaotic web of a black widow in order to coax her, shiny and venomous, from her lair. I remember evening sunlight on the smooth face of Comb Ridge and the tangled branches of cottonwoods against the cobalt blue of dawn.
I have continued my pilgrimages behind the Slickrock Curtain—a moniker devised by my college friends and I for a state of mind as much as a defined place—with family, friends, and lovers ever since. My wife Wendy and I were married in an alfalfa field along the San Juan River in Bluff, and spent our honeymoon on Muley Point, gazing in awe at the prehistoric-looking creatures plying the cool waters of deep potholes. In my teens and twenties I was drawn to the narrow, deep canyons, to the cliff dwellings tucked beneath hanging ledges, to the illusion of discovery and the thrill of clinging to a high cliff and hanging my ass perilously over the void. As I’ve grown older, however, I’ve gradually become more drawn to this side of the county, the eastern side, the broken side, the Great Sage Plain, a land often abused but more often ignored. Usually I come alone, not because I don’t like companionship, but because it allows me to move at my own pace, to meander aimlessly, to slow down and gaze at the intricate seedpod of a mariposa lily or lean up against the fuzzy bark of a five-hundred-year-old juniper tree and try to absorb its memories via osmosis.
I veer to the right, off of the path, and up to the canyon rim where I can orient myself. It’s not difficult—orientation, that is. The ominously dark form of Ute Mountain, aka the Sleeping Ute, its folded arms frosted white from a recent night’s storm, serves as my omnipresent beacon and companion. I’m reminded of that time my friend Ed and I picked up a couple of hitchhikers down toward Bluff. Two big Navajo guys, about our age—early twenties, that is. They had just crossed the San Juan River on the footbridge near the St. Christopher’s Episcopal Mission and needed a lift to Cortez. We were returning from a camping trip somewhere, maybe on Comb Ridge, or Muley Point, and were going that direction and had plenty of room in my old Rambler American station wagon, so we pulled over and they scooted into the back seat.
After a few minutes of silence, one of the guys piped up. “Hey, you know what we Navajo call that mountain up there?”
The only mountain around was the Sleeping Ute, and only then did it occur to me that white people probably gave it that name, and that the Indigenous peoples from here probably had entirely different monikers. “What?” I asked, with genuine, anthropological curiosity.
“Dolly Parton laying down!”
Now I can’t get the image out of my head.
A slight breeze tousles my hair. I follow the pale sandstone that lines the edge of the canyon until I arrive at a sturdy but rusty barbed-wire fence. The wire is tautly strung between perfectly vertical steel posts. Where it crosses the rimrock of the canyon, the posts are sunk into the stone, which is covered with a thick layer of oxidation, desert varnish.
This is the state line, which means I must be standing just inches inside of Utah, approximately twenty-nine miles north of the Four Corners Monument. This piece of earth is under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management, the branch of the Interior Department that oversees federal land that was once destined to be mined, or drilled, or grazed, and that is now quite often destined to be mined, drilled, or grazed, still, albeit with a few more rules in place. I am standing on a slab of what I believe is Dakota Sandstone, capped with a thick veneer of desert varnish. If I manage to squeeze through the fence to the other side, I’ll still be on Dakota Sandstone, still on land managed by the BLM. On the Colorado side, however, I’ll be in Canyon of the Ancients National Monument, which has another layer of protection on it, and I’ll be in Montezuma County. On one side of the fence I can legally smoke marijuana, on the other side, not so much. County leaders from the west side of the fence once begged a company to dump its nuclear waste within their borders; on the other side, even the right-wing commissioners have grudgingly accepted that the old, extraction-economy model is broken, and they need to try new things, like building and marketing mountain biking trails. On one side of the fence a county commissioner once led an ATV protest down a canyon rife with antiquities that was closed to motorized vehicles. On one side of the fence Mark Franklin and Rose Chilcoat were dragged through a grueling court battle for simply closing a rancher’s gate. I don’t think that would happen on the other side of the fence.
Far too many barbed-wire fences crisscross the western United States, but most of them, at least the ones put up by ranchers years ago, are typically made with juniper posts and they sag and break and you can bend the top wire down enough to step over the top of the fence without getting testicular tetanus. Not with this fence. The posts are rigid, the wire pulled tight. I take off my pack and squeeze through the third and fourth wires, cringing as I do. Halfway through I notice the imprint in the varnish of a millipede-like creature that must have died here some seventy-six-million years ago. Half of it is in Colorado, half in Utah.
Sometimes when I’m agonizing at my computer keyboard, staring into the electronic screen and struggling to come up with the words, I envy Reeves and those like him, the surveyor-astronomers of the world. Oh to walk a straight line for 276 miles observing, marking, and recording my progress as I go and get paid for it. No pressure to be witty or brilliant, to be creative or smart or even to get the words in just the right order. As long as one doesn’t deviate from the grid they’ll do just fine.
And yet, it apparently isn’t all that easy to walk in a straight line, even with all those instruments of precision. When the surveyors veered from the grid-line, even by a small amount, it could throw everything off. In 1868, for example, a surveyor named E. N. Darling plotted the path of Colorado’s southern border, which follows the thirty-seventh parallel. But his star-readings must have been just slightly askew at the start, something he didn’t realize until he reached the Kansas border and found himself far from where he should have been. Rather than start over he just let it ride, but a later survey found that between “the sixth and eighth astronomical monuments gross errors in alinement and measurement existed.” For the next several decades New Mexico and Colorado battled over the exact location of the line, going all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Colorado’s favor. In order to fix the original error, the line had to be redrawn so that it jogs diagonally for about a half-mile near Edith, Colorado. The “square state” isn’t really square at all.
Reeves had his own problems with hewing to the straight and narrow. Just after dropping off of the Great Sage Plain and into the Dolores River drainage, the team encountered “one long range of cañon after cañon, and as general rough and wild a view as we have seen since we left the San Juan River.” It was, Reeves noted, a “wretched surface to chain accurately.” They did not—chain it accurately, that is—and instead veered slightly to the west for a ten-mile stretch that was so rugged Reeves referred to it as Hades. It wasn’t until the following year, when the Reeves team reached the Wyoming line, that they realized they had gone off course by about three-fourths of a mile before resuming their true northward path. Reeves effectively gave Colorado a nearly two-hundred-mile strip of land that should have been in Utah. So much for straight lines.
The location of the boundaries matters because of how powerful they have become, particularly here in San Juan County, where a certain sect of the population has weaponized state and county lines. This sect, call them Sagebrush Rebels for lack of a better term, embraces the ideology of local control, believing that people who live within the lines that define San Juan County should have the loudest voice—the only voice, even—in making decisions about what happens in “their” county, particularly when it comes to land managed by the federal government. The county and state lines thus become instruments of exclusion and disenfranchisement.
An example: during the debate over designating a huge swath of federally managed land as the Bears Ears National Monument, so-called locals, including right-wing Utah politicians who live nowhere near San Juan County, insisted that leaders from Hopi and Zuni and the other Pueblos should have no say in the matter because they are currently based outside of the county. The county lines, in this case, were used to negate the voices of the people whose ancestors had lived on the land in question for dozens of generations before any white people showed up, before any lines were drawn. And the lines were used to try to obscure the fact that the land now is managed by the federal government on behalf of all American people, equally, regardless of where they live. Later, the same group of people attempted to invalidate the election of a Navajo man, Willie Grayeyes, to the San Juan County Board of Commissioners by alleging that he resided outside of the county. The effort failed. The local-control fanatics responded by trying to draw even more lines and divide San Juan County into two or even three new counties. Thus far the effort has gone nowhere.
I walk on a low mesa, just inside Colorado. This side of the line is no different from the Utah side, except that the tumbleweed is cozied up against the barbed wire more thickly over here. The sky is overcast and dull, the light flat, the scent of the sagebrush among which I walk redolent and, yes, the same as on the Utah side. Off to my left I see a small rise, a deviation. As I get closer, the contours of the ancient walls reveal themselves like a body under a thick blanket. It appears as if the structure, probably built some nine hundred years ago, is circular. It must have been a tower, like the ones at Hovenweep just a few miles west of here. But it seems too large for that, so large that later I will be able to pick it out on a Google Earth satellite photo and measure its diameter: thirty-six feet. It may have been a great kiva, perhaps a place for ceremonies, political meetings, dances, singing. In his notes on this particular stretch of the state line, Reeves noted: “Numerous ruins of ancient buildings, in various stages of preservation, were seen and examined.”
As is often the case when I stumble upon a site like this, I step back and take my bearings and ask: Why here? Why did the Pueblo people—and the Ute and Navajo and even the Euro-Americans, for that matter—choose this region as the place to root their communities? There are no simple answers. Sure, climate, potential crop yields, availability of building materials, fuel, and the presence of game such as deer, elk, bighorn sheep, and rabbits all played a role, but there has to be more than that. After all, one of the largest and most architecturally elaborate Puebloan communities in the region was built in Chaco Canyon, which isn’t, and wasn’t, any more amenable to human habitation than, say, Las Vegas is today. Meanwhile, after being fairly densely populated for centuries, the Durango, Colorado, area, which has rivers and creeks and fertile soil, was emptied of people in the ninth century and remained that way even as areas just dozens of miles away were thriving. There was more to the decision of where to live than mere pragmatism.
“Here, the human landscape is meaningless outside the natural context—human constructions are not considered out of their relationship to the hills, valleys, and mountains,” noted the late Rina Swentzell, a scholar from Santa Clara Pueblo whose ancestors lived in the northern San Juan region, in a 1991 paper she cowrote with my father and a group of archaeologists. “The material village is one of the concentric rings about the symbolic center of the world. It is not given more weight or focus than the area of the fields, hills, or mountains. It constitutes one place within the whole. The web of human existence is interlaced with what happens in the larger natural context and therefore flows into the adjacent spaces, hills, and mountains.”
A few years ago Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, a Hopi elder who was the tribe’s cultural preservation officer for three decades, explained it like this: after emerging into this world, his ancestors were guided to place their footprints on the earth, with each clan taking its own path, before finally ending up on the mesas where the tribe is based today. “When you look at history and learn about Hopi history and clan migration, you see how vibrant that area was with Hopi clans. It’s part of a huge migration tradition—a covenant [with the Holy Ones],” he said. “They were instructed by spiritual leaders: if in fact they’d be earth stewards, they’d have to endure hardships as they placed their footprints.”
Perhaps the people who decided to build here were, like Reeves, following a grid. Only rather than a grid that was forced upon the earth, it came from the earth, or perhaps the Holy Ones, or both, and inhabits all of us. For some, the grid is rectilinear, for others it resides in the stars, and still others follow lines that are serpentine, spirals, concentric circles, an undulating web of existence. The ways in which we harmonize with the grid are what we refer to when we talk of Sense of Place. I think of the Hovenweep towers, gathered as they are at the heads of canyons, near the hackberries and the springs. Pragmatic these towers and locations may be, but they are also architecturally audacious, placed in harmony with one another and the landscape near and far. One twin-structure at Hovenweep is perched upon a free-standing stone pedestal that is split down its center. The structures stand back-to-back on the edge of each half of the stone like mirror images, yin and yang, earth and sky, male and female.
Captain John Macomb once stood atop Mesa Verde, looked west, and described the landscape unfurling below him—the same landscape on which I walk on this spring day—as a “region whose dreary monotony is only broken by frightful chasms, where alone the weary traveler finds shelter from the burning heat of a cloudless sun, and where he seeks, too often in vain, a cooling draught that shall slake his thirst.”
I am the weary traveler of whom he speaks. I seek shelter but from what I do not know. If “dreary monotony” is a field of mariposa lilies blooming in springtime, fractals of lime-green and neon-orange lichens clinging to ancient stone walls, elderly juniper trees with roots reaching deep into the Underworld, a place where wind, water, and geology tangle in prurient embrace, where the landscape vividly remembers millennia of human history, and where deep time bares itself for all to see in road cuts and arroyos, then yes, he is correct.
I slip back through the fence and continue my meander, doing all I can to deviate from the grid. The maps of San Juan County are no longer blank. Today, they are digitally rendered, high-definition satellite images showing every detail, every broken rock, every tree, even the piles of rubble from ancient structures. I often get lost in these images, traveling across the landscape like some space-age Rollin Reeves, marveling at how wherever my cursor may alight, the landscape is chock-full of something. As I virtually hover over the area a dozen miles north of here, where public land gives way to private, and forested mesas become cultivated bean, wheat, and sunflower fields, I’m baffled by how apparent the grid is from above, and marvel at the subtle kinks that appear in that grid along the state line. But I am also heartened by the way that the grid collapses when faced with the canyons and “frightful chasms” that are so plentiful around here.
I meander back to the fence, find a place to squeeze through, and gladly step back into the blankness, letting the primal grid guide me home.
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