The winter sun sits low in the sky. We know it’s there, we just can’t see it. The sky in the Creek is big, curved and dipped; sure thing, anyone who’s been here could tell you—but not here: A low wash, cliffs looming, shadows spread thick as blood. Here the sky is more refined, cut and sliced by the ridges.
The first sting of winter seeps out beneath a grey veil of clouds. We’re alone, the two of us, with nothing but rock and sand and sagebrush, the echoes of the coyotes and the spiraling crows.
We camp beneath a sentinel tower somewhere along Beef Basin Road. The jutting monolith guards the small group of trees we call home. We build a fire one night, drinking and joking like a normal climbing trip, but most nights we submit to the cold. The moon rises early, casting the wide open meadow a muted emerald, the tower above a deep purple. The sentinel fades to a shapeless black painting as the moon sets, a void before the starlight. Depth perception vanishes. I feel like I can touch it.
I left my life in Denver; I’m on my way home. Nate packed up his car for a life on the road. This is where we live, at least for a few days. Maybe a week. It’s cold and the sun is scarce. Warming up is difficult; the climbing style is hard. The rock quality varies: we have to walk to find the good stuff. When we find it, we wonder why it hasn’t been found before. But, then again, it has.
Before us were the trad climbers. Before the trad climbers were the ranchers. Before the ranchers were the settlers, before them the explorers. Before the explorers were the natives. Ten thousand years before them were the first of us. One day, while Nate works Chris Schulte’s compression masterpiece Native Element, I follow a faint trail up and over a hill toward a pair of sizeable boulders. I kneel down in front of the bigger of the two, looking for start holds. I find petroglyphs instead, people and animals side by side, scratched into the rock hundreds—perhaps thousands of years ago.
This place is like a breathing museum. You move through it and explore the slopes and washes on the inhale. On the exhale you lose yourself in time and, off-balance, erode the hillsides. The displays are curated by time itself. We can only gaze at the works in awe, cling to them in desperation, slide, slap, squeeze them, collapse at their feet.
I wonder what all this blood-orange rock meant to those people. If I had to guess, based on years of lobbying by the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition for the designation of a National Monument to protect this place, I would say it meant a lot. I would say it still does. I would say it means a lot to me too. I like to think I would fight for it.
The wind picks up and slaps me back into the moment. I stand up with a strange feeling in my gut, like anxiety. I won’t touch the art, it’s priceless. And I’m afraid of it, in a way. So I leave it behind, jogging back up and over the hill, just in time to witness Nate send. The rock looks like flesh in the dying light.
Writer and climber. Based in Boulder, Colorado