Bicycling from Blanding to Bluff in the early evening, or Bluff to Blanding in the early morning, has for many years been one of my passions. Lately, I most often take the southerly route, probably because it is down hill and helps me forget how slow I have become over the past decade or two. To do so, I hitch a ride with Barry when he is heading home after a day at the trading post. He and I own a building at the southwest corner of Center and Main, so that is where I generally suit up, check the tires, and begin my journey. Late in the day, light moves quickly across the land and under the right conditions the ground ignites with the color and intensity of an inferno. Shadows expand and contract, momentarily illuminating or highlighting certain geologic features, then move on. That visual explosion lights me up, too, and reminds me just how extraordinary the Colorado Plateau is, both visually and geographically.
Once I break free of the city limits, off to my right is a clear view of the Bears Ears buttes, two prominent monuments that rise above the surrounding canyons. They are aptly named because they resemble the ears of a bear rising just above the horizon. This is the birthplace of Chief Manuelito, a prominent Navajo headman, born in 1818. Manuelito led a small group of courageous warriors who resisted the federal government and Kit Carson’s efforts to relocate them to Fort Sumner, New Mexico. This forced removal is known as the “Long Walk” of 1864 and Navajo people refer to it as the dark times. These buttes anchored Bears Ears National Monument, which was established December 28, 2016, by President Barack Obama and dramatically reduced in size by President Donald Trump approximately one year later. Several Native American tribes claim ancestral connections to Bears Ears, and stories abound about is historic and prehistoric use. The fate of this land is now in the hands of the courts, or Congress, and supporters and detractors of the monument are all holding their collective breath until a final resolution is reached.
About half way to half way, what some who are better at fractions than I might refer to as a quarter of the way home, I can look southwest and see the sheer desert-varnished cliffs west of Bluff. Between me and the rosy sandstone escarpment are canyons and mesas arrayed in what one Bluff settler described as a “slantindicular” arrangement. The phrase comes from Jens Nielson, the first Mormon bishop of Bluff. A native Danish speaker, Jens had a curious accent and was known for encouraging the 1879 Hole-in-the-Rock Expedition members to continue when they thought they couldn’t by saying, “We must go through even if we can’t.” As a result of his “sticky-ta-tudy” or “stick-to-it-iveness,” we modern day pioneers enjoy the natural beauty of this riverside sanctuary.
As I approach the small Ute village of White Mesa, inhabited by members of the Weminuche or Ute Mountain band, the Sleeping Ute lies resting in the east. Tribal legend describes the Sleeping Ute Mountain as the Great Warrior God who fell asleep while recuperating from severe wounds received in a fierce battle against the Evil Ones. In the early days, these evil doers caused much chaos and hardship, and the Great Warrior God was summoned to defeat them. The cluster of peaks resembles a Ute chief lying on his back with arms folded across his chest.
The Evil Ones were formidable, and the battle that ensued was angry and long-running. The chief’s power, however, proved too much for the Evil Ones, and they were eventually overcome. By the time the conflict closed, the earth had been gashed, folded, bent, pushed up, and pressed down into valleys, mountains, and rivers. Afterwards, the successful warrior lay down to recover from his battle wounds. He lies there still. Ute people believe he changes his blankets throughout the year. During spring, he rests under a light green covering, dark green indicates summer, his fall cloak is yellow and red, and a white blanket warms him during winter. When he is happy, he allows rain clouds to slip from his pockets, refreshing his people and nourishing their land.
Exiting the White Mesa community, I pass by the slumbering Siberian Huskie. In earlier days, he jumped up and ran to the fence encircling him to challenge my passage. That typically set off a chorus of canines that escorted me out of town. As the months have gone by, however, he has become more serene and rarely even raises his head to cast an acknowledging bark my way. What is it they say, “Familiarity breeds complacency?” I fear our relationship has gone south.
Approaching the crest of White Mesa Hill, I have a clear view of the Chuska Mountains and the Navajo Nation badlands extending up to their slopes. Broken, slanted, crooked, and barren, this expanse is so starkly, stunningly beautiful that it always causes me to catch my breath. When the winter gods have been generous, there is a carpet of purple and white flowers that bloom and quickly fade, leaving the soil to return to its native color, red.
Then I cascade down the hill and struggle past giant rocks my grandmother Fern Simpson always called the “Pinchers.” These large stones resemble an enormous lobster claw. At that time of day, the sun is beginning to sink close to the horizon and Comb Ridge ignites with late evening hues: orange, yellow, deep purple, and eventually black. Technically, Comb Ridge is a linear north-to-south trending monocline, proceeding almost 80 miles through Utah and Arizona. To Navajo people, however, it is sacred. In their language, it is referred to as, “Rock Extends in the Form of a Narrow Edge.” The formation erupted nearly 65 million years ago when tectonic plates deep in the earth slipped, leaving the jagged ridge protruding above the surface. Traditional Navajos refer to it as the backbone of the Great Snake. Hidden within its recesses are evidence of the Ancient Pueblo culture: prehistoric homes, ceremonial chambers, and extraordinary rock art.
At the 24-mile point, Comb Ridge recedes and I begin the quick descent through Cow Canyon and into Bluff, the payoff. To my left are white sandstone cliffs etched with the wagon wheel marks of early travelers entering and leaving the community. The dark pavement winds down into the green alfalfa fields of the Jones Hay Farm and on to the final destination, the Twin Rocks. These standing monuments are known as the Hero Twins, Monsterslayer and Born-for-Water, redeemers of the Navajo people. Like the Great Ute Warrior, the Hero Twins slew the monsters terrorizing their tribe. And there, at the foot of this formation, where Barry and I have carved out our lives, the journey ends. At least for that evening.