Seventy Miles in Nine Mile Canyon

Seventy Miles in Nine Mile Canyon

On day three of my bike tour across the Colorado Plateau, I learned that a route created on a computer won’t always make sense on the ground. I thought I found a way to go from Price to Helper to Nine Mile Canyon without retracing our path through Price. However, person after person in Helper made it clear that unless my friend Kailey and I wanted to climb a steep, sketchy road, we needed to retrace our pedals. As I fretted over this realization, Kailey said, “Sometimes to go forwards you have to go back.”

As we biked our path between Price and Helper in reverse, I passed buildings with a new understanding. On our way into Helper, I took a photo of Kailey jokingly filling her bike from an old gas tank. During our time in the old coal town we learned that someone recently restored the building. The fresh paint on old machinery brought us back to the 1940s. In some ways it felt a bit like Disneyland, but the restoration of the past also created the town’s charm. Maybe Helper understands that to go forwards, sometimes you have to go back.

 

To reach the Nine Mile Canyon Scenic Byway, we biked along US 6 from Price to Wellington. I noticed myself pedaling faster as I passed speeding cars and breathed the fumes from semis. But then the wind blew a whiff of sage and I slowed down. From a bike, I smell scents and hear sounds that a car shields.  

Before turning up the scenic byway, we stopped in the newly renovated gas station in Wellington. Well it once was a gas station. The old convenient store now appears as a mixture of a food court and grocery store. The scale of it all felt overwhelming as I stepped off of my bike next to giant trucks. But then people greeted me. Stranger after stranger asked about my bike trip and responded with shock and admiration when I shared this was just day three of a 54 day, 1,500-mile journey.

After refueling we began our journey into Nine Mile Canyon. Full of over 1,000 rock art sites, Nine Mile is known as the world’s longest art gallery. It is also a contested place. Dennis Willis, the president of the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition, said, “Nine Mile is a way complicated place. Every resource conflict you could imagine is there. Archaeology, critical wildlife range, endangered species, wild horses, you name a conflict and it’s up there.”

Despite the canyon’s name, our route would take us two days to complete. The road started with a steady ascent, the kind of slight incline that is even more draining mentally than a steep climb. The road appears flat but I have to work twice as hard. We reach mile nine, and Kailey frustratingly shines her GoPro on the mile marker and then pans across the open landscape. We are still not in the canyon.

A few miles later though we reach a climb. Cliffs rise and I hear the trickle of a creek. I pull out my first GU of the trip, an unfortunate substance that I can only describe as goo. Since my days running track as a teenager, my dad has shoved these in my hands. Before I left on my trip, he gave me more GUs than I thought I'd ever have to consume in a lifetime. As a triathlete, he swears by these quick energy pouches. Even though slime in the flavor of strawberry kiwi will never win my praise, GUs are light weight and fast acting, two desirable characteristics for a bike tour in the desert. 

When I summited the hill, the wind blew the scent of sage again and I saw water flowing over burnt orange rocks. The elements fueled me in a way a shot of slime never will.

The climbs continue for another fifteen miles. As I pass oil rigs and no trespassing signs I feel confused about the Bureau of Land Management sign at the beginning of our journey. None of this land feels public. 

Some of the no trespassing signs are remnant from homesteading years. However, some also protect the oil and gas corporations drilling in the canyon. Dennis has battled with the industry on multiple occasions, continuously fighting to protect the rock art and wildlife in the canyon.

He said, “There’s all kinds of proposals going on. It’s too much of a job to keep up with all of them. There’s multiple proposals to bring pipelines through the canyon. There’s a proposal to upgrade Gate Canyon Road, not just pave it but build an interstate. You wouldn’t even recognize it as a canyon. It’s a crazy degree of construction and there’s no justification.”

Dennis also highlighted an additional complicating factor: jurisdictional boundaries. Nine Mile is split between four counties and two BLM districts. He said, “Jurisdictionally it is a nightmare.”

We try to constrain ecosystems to our politics, and we value land as property rather than life. As I bike up the canyon, prairie dogs greet the setting sun and a creek winds past straight fences.

In Finding Beauty in a Broken World, Terry Tempest Williams shares her observations of the endangered prairie dogs in Bryce Canyon National Park. Among the field notes she includes poetry:

Clay-colored monks
dressed in discreet robes of fur
stand as sentinels
outside their burrows, watching,
watching as their communities disappear, one by one,
their hands raised up
in prayer.

The fight for community resists imposed boundaries.  

 

The prairie dogs and wandering thoughts distracted me from my burning thighs and sore wrists for a while, but eventually my speed slowed and I began counting down the miles to our campsite at Nine Mile Ranch. As the exhaustion weighed heavier all of a sudden the road reached a summit and a descent lay before me. My speed went from three miles per hour to thirty.

After twenty miles on Nine Mile Canyon Road, I finally approached a sign that said Nine Mile Canyon. The irony would have irritated me more if it weren’t for the descent.

A couple miles later I reached Nine Mile Ranch. Cowboy hats lined the walls of the check-in office and outside men donned their own wild west flare. The canyon was recognized for its Native history yet this ranch celebrated settler colonialism. The juxtaposition felt off putting, but familiar. The place emulated the cowboys and Indians stories too often told in the American West, the stories that hide truths of stolen land and genocide, and frame western landscapes as places of conquest. Now as oil rigs take over previously grazed lands, the cowboys themselves have been pushed out by the next prospectors. The Colorado Plateau is a place of preservation and adventure, but it is also a national sacrifice zone.

After I checked in, Kailey and I biked to our campsite among large trailers and motor homes. Some of the campers passed us on the road. I assumed they were annoyed by us, but I was surprised when some greeted us with praise. One couple even bowed to us. They had retired and sold their house seven years ago. They bought a motor home and now spend their lives on the road. From southern Utah they were headed north to escape the high temperatures of a desert summer. I joked that they were going the right direction as opposed to my southern trajectory.

The next morning Kailey and I hopped on the bikes again, singing as we weaved downhill through the canyon. We reached a fork in the road and turned left to head towards Myton, our entrance into the Uinta Basin. A few minutes later we hit the dirt road of Gate Canyon. As we pedaled past washes and stared up at the cliffs towering above, I remembered Dennis informing us of efforts to pave the gravel road into an interstate. His words sting: “You wouldn’t even recognize it as a canyon.”  

I’m beginning to feel a bit like Ed Abbey, admonishing roads and “progress.” But I can’t help but question our capacity for restraint. I’m on this journey to listen, to try to understand perspectives I’ve antagonized in the past, but where do I draw the line?

Existential questions turn to more immediate needs. My muscles fatigue, my skin burns, and my mouth dries. It’s going to take us longer to get through the six-mile long Gate Canyon than it did to go down the previous fifteen miles. As the exhaustion dampens our spirits, a familiar face rounds the corner. Eric, Kailey’s partner, parked his car in Myton and biked up to meet us on the road. He filled our hands with Mike and Ikes and revealed a PBR as our reward for finishing the climb. He told us the top was just around the bend. Two miles later we reached the summit.

As the road transitioned from gravel to pavement, the Uinta Basin appeared. In the far distance rose the Uinta Mountains with peaks blanketed in snow. Kailey and I chugged the PBR and snacked on everything we had that wasn’t GU.

The next fifteen miles were more similar to the first fifteen. Kailey, Eric, and I took up a whole lane as we zoomed down the paved highway together. Oil and gas rigs started popping up more frequently and we began counting. As we approached the end of our ride we came atop a small hill and all of a sudden the town of Myton appeared. Within immediate view I counted fifteen rigs.

I realized the initial disturbance of the drill pads no longer shakes me. I am moved to anxiety by what the rigs symbolize: climate chaos.  

A side benefit of riding my bike across the Colorado Plateau is transporting myself with my own energy. But I have never believed the solution to climate change is found in individual action. My ears ring with the chant “systems change not climate change.” But the understanding that we need systems change not individual solutions doesn’t mean I lack feelings of guilt or complicity.

Shortly after the town of Myton came into view I spotted Eric’s car. Rather than camping in the field of extraction, Kailey and I decided to throw our bikes on the rack and drive an hour into the Uinta Mountains. We fully felt the irony. As we drove away I joked, “Thank god for those oil rigs.” It wasn’t a very funny joke.  

Often when I talk about dismantling systems (capitalism) with those who have a different theory of change, there’s an assumption that I think we should and can go back to the Middle Ages. I don’t think that. At all. But we have crossed lines. As I entered Uintah County I felt the lure of progress in the air, false hopes of booms that will never bust built on ideals of endless growth. Sometimes progress takes us in false forwards.

Passion for Place, Compassion for People

Passion for Place, Compassion for People

My 1,500 cycling journey across the Colorado Plateau began in the backseat of a Ford pick-up. To avoid the endless suburbs of the Wasatch Front, my grandparents drove me and my friend Kailey Kornhauser to our starting point in Price. Eight miles north of Price near the exit for the small town of Helper, we passed a giant billboard advertising the world’s largest coal miner. I imagined replacing the tall, black statue with the world’s largest environmentalist, painting it green, crowning it with flowers, and placing a Keep it in the Ground sign in one hand and seeds in the other. I didn’t come to Carbon County to engage in direct action, though. I came to listen.

After kissing my grandparents’ tear soaked cheeks goodbye, Kailey and I pedaled through the neighborhood streets of Price, past green parks and a main street with store fronts that evoke the Wild West and the more familiar chains that dominate struggling western towns. I realized I had never been beyond the gas station right off the highway exit. During my many trips to southeastern Utah from Salt Lake, Price was merely a half-way marker.

 

As we pulled up to our first meeting, a man with white facial hair donning a long, brown workers apron and a black lab puppy greeted us with a jovial hello. Dennis Willis is a retired BLM rangeland manager and recreation specialist. He now heads the Nine Mile Canyon Coalition and works tirelessly to protect the public lands he once managed. In his living room surrounded by wildlife paintings, he shared a bit of his life story. Most of his responses began with a reference to a geologic period as he joked about his age: “Well back in the Pleistocene there were mammoths.”

When asked what inspired him to pursue a career in public lands, Dennis responded, “I just looove it.”

He grew up exploring the Sierra Nevadas with his parents and from a young age admired park rangers and forest service employees. He said, “I thought that guy that drove around in the green pick-up truck and mopped out the out houses had the coolest job in the world.”

A career with the BLM left Dennis with various accomplishments. He especially finds pride in the large amount of grazing permits he retired and running 5,000 miles of river on the government’s dime.

His career with the BLM landed him in Price in 1979, right in the middle of the town’s coal boom. “Money was flowing like water,” he said.

When talking about the boom years, Dennis described a town where Labor Day was the biggest holiday of the year and Main Street buildings housed the American Socialist Party and Industrial Workers of the World. That seemed like a foreign place compared to the Price I thought I knew.

“The blue collar union feel to this town was just incredible,” Dennis said. “Everybody had a union sticker of some sort on their car or pick-up truck. When you’d go to the grocery store you would see union jackets all the time.”

The unions are now gone and the Labor Day parties have decreased in scale, but a trace of the union is found in the egalitarian culture that remains. For the most part the town lacks good and bad neighborhoods, but rather on any given street wealthy houses are found alongside more modest homes. The cemetery isn’t divided up into sections, but rather everyone is buried together.

Randy Mabbutt, a mining safety educator at the Utah State University extension in Price, spoke to the role of the unions further. We met with Randy in his classroom that unfortunately that day was experiencing an outage in air conditioning. Before the building was acquired by the university it was the hospital where Randy was born. He said, “I was actually born in this very building, so I haven’t gone very far. And if it doesn’t get any cooler in this building I might be able to say I died here.”

Amid the jokes, Randy shared stories from his 30-year career as a miner in Carbon County. Randy didn’t work for a union mine, but he said, “We benefitted by having the union, and if anybody tells you they didn’t they’re crazy.”

When the union mines would raise their pay, the non-union mines were forced to raise their pay as well to remain competitive. If Randy were to do it all over again, he would work for a union mine because of the health care benefits. Rather than teaching at the university, he’d be out on the golf course.

Randy also talked about the famous Labor Day celebrations, from coal shoveling competitions to the array of food. He said, “It was something that brought out the entire community. People really remember it fondly.”

When I asked Randy about his connection to Price and the regional environment, it became clear that his love for the place wasn’t so different from the love Dennis described. The stereotype that coal miners don’t care about the environment upsets Randy. He said, “Coal miners are outdoorsy people. They don’t want to see the environment destroyed, they really don’t because they enjoy it. They enjoy being outdoors and they love the beauty of it.”

Randy particularly loves the desert. Not far from his home is the San Rafael Swell, which he says is “like a lot of the national parks except you don’t have all of the people.”

He doesn’t have a lot of use for big cities and lives on the edge of town for more open space. With the dying coal industry, he feels for the younger generation who share his same love of the outdoors and detest for big cities but are forced to find jobs elsewhere. 

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Randy has hope that coal jobs will return to Price, and amid my own skepticism and the climate sirens going off in my head, I can’t help but feel empathy for Randy and his community. It’s a sad irony that the only way young people can stay in Price is to mine the very earth they care for deeply. We create antagonisms and dichotomies between the coal miner and the environmentalist, but yet again I’m reminded that the real enemy is a system that bases a community’s survival on bottom lines.

My mind flashes to the film Pride, which shows the true story of lesbian and gay activists in London who supported the British miners’ strike in 1984. Margaret Thatcher’s administration was oppressing both groups, so they sought unity in the struggle against the neoliberal regime. After hostile interactions and uncomfortable meetings, the two groups eventually built meaningful relationships and showed up for one another in moving ways. The movie Pride left me with the same question as the town of Price, “What would a Climate Justice Activists Support the Miners group look like?”

I can advocate for a just transition, but what about when the solar jobs don’t appear in the dying coal town? Randy has heard lots of talk of renewable industry but seen no follow through. And if you’ve experienced the traffic jams and overcrowded camping in Moab, then you know the recreation economy has serious limits. Climate change may be global, but climate justice begins with community solutions.

I don’t know how to create an alliance between climate activists and coal miners when I could never advocate for the return of coal. Maybe I’m just under an illusion, awe struck by the days when the left aligned with labor rather than giving them no better option than Donald Trump.

As Randy’s concern for the young people of Price rings in one ear, the pragmatic words of Dennis ring in the other. “The sad thing is a bunch of our community leadership see that little sweet spot of 1970-1984 as what normal is supposed to be,” he said. “And it wasn’t normal at all.”

Normal. As we transition into an era of climate chaos, that word seems so trivial.

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I am left with more questions than answers, but I find guidance in the words that directed Dennis in his public lands career. During his first agency job with the forest service at Flaming Gorge, Dennis asked his district ranger what it took to be a good ranger. The district ranger responded, “Pretty easy. All you need is two things. You’ve gotta have passion for the place, and compassion for the people that like that place.”

As tears stream down his face, Dennis characterizes the ranger as an absolutely great guy, a dear friend until his death a couple years ago. That’s when it hits me how fortunate I am to spend the summer listening. Receiving wisdom passed down is a rare gift.

My own passion for the Colorado Plateau and compassion for the people who make up its communities drove me to embark on this journey. As I try to describe my project in academic terms, Dennis reminds me I must hold tight to my original motivation. 

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I biked away from Price with a new perspective on a community to which I previously gave little thought. The next day Kailey and I headed north eight miles to the neighboring coal town of Helper. We passed cattle guards and houses with signs that read “Proud Union Home.” We pulled up to the artist’s river house lent to us by two newcomers to Helper, Roy and Anne Jespersen, and it was clear that Helper is in transition. The small house was beautiful. Mugs of different colors hung above the kitchen sink. Paintings from Anne and other local artists in Helper lined the walls. Large, deep chairs rested on the front and back porches. And the Price River ran within a few feet of the backyard.

Kailey and I met Roy and Anne at the Balance Rock Eatery & Pub on Helper’s historic Main Street. They shared updates on the town. Even though Main Street looked abandoned, Roy told us that every building but one was purchased. Where previous hardware stores and brothels stood, art galleries were opening.

Roy and Anne themselves are renovating a building on Main Street to serve as a combined living space and studio. As Anne walked us through their future home, I felt like I was in a studio in New York, not rural Utah. But then we moved to the back of the building and through the walls of windows I saw the railroad a few feet away and salmon and tan cliffs towering above.

The landscape also creates jobs, as the public land agencies are one of the biggest employers for the town. During lunch, one woman walked in with a sleeping baby strapped to her, passing out flyers for a nature journaling course for the local kids. Her husband works for the BLM.

A town with rising artists and nature journaling attracts my inner creative.

Is Helper an example of a just transition?

It’s a beautiful idea to revive an old coal town with art. But how much does it benefit the long-time residents of the place as opposed to the newcomers? This is a question I didn’t get answered in my short stay in Helper. Roy and Anne revealed to me that the answer is most likely complex. As Anne installed radiant tubing in the sidewalk to heat the floor of her new home, Roy overheard a Helper old-timer ask, “What in the hell is Helper coming to?” But then they also pointed to the paintings lining the walls of the restaurant and told me they were made by a retired miner.

I didn’t get to talk to the miner-turned-painter or the man who shakes his head at the changes to his hometown. But I learned there are more stories for me to listen to, more people to meet. This journey is not just a 1,500 cycling trip. It’s a lifetime of building relationships.

Roy walked me and Kailey up and down Main Street, introducing me to some of the people bringing creativity to Helper. From the artist couple who have lived in Price with their two young kids for the past fifteen years, to Morgan Lund, an actor who left his job as a professor in the theatre department at the University of Utah for the cleaner air in Helper. More than once, people compared the air quality in Salt Lake to that of Price. Do we choose breathing or jobs?

Morgan told me he likes places people don’t appreciate. He pushed me to try to understand Helper, to listen and see what people often ignore.

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As I sat sipping wine from the porch of the artist guest house, I watched the sunset over the plateaus surrounding the small town. People walked their dogs in the middle of the street and the river quietly rushed past a yard behind me. Biking through town, it felt manageable and safe, comfortable yet inspiring with the dramatic colors of the surrounding land. But understanding Helper requires more of my time. 

 

Rather than paint the largest coal miner green, I want to shake his hand. I want to listen to his stories.

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