Deserts and Forests and Canyons, oh my!

WOWFWL Days 42-57:

Mexican Hat, UT — El Paso, TX

Greetings from Opelousas, Louisiana! We are currently 78 days and 3,979 miles into the journey across the ol’ US of A, with just under three weeks and 1,300 miles to go! We’ve finally hit the flat country, so we’ve got many big-mileage days ahead of us. Despite the 8-10 hours of riding we are doing each day, we are still making time to write these blogs to keep you updated and educated on public lands in America!

When we left off in our last blog, we had just spent an evening camping at the spectacular Goosenecks State Park. The next morning, we hit the road bright and early, and after climbing a couple of long hills, arrived in Monument Valley, located in the Navajo Nation just north of the of Arizona-Utah border. The “Monuments” found here are massive rock formations, rising up into the sky, seemingly from nowhere. If you’re familiar with the movie Forrest Gump, you may recognize one particular hill from the part of the movie when Forrest is running across the US. Locals fondly refer to this as Gump Hill!

After passing through Monument Valley, we finally entered our fourth state, Arizona. We spent our first evening in the state in the town of Kayenta, where we had secured a host for the evening. Kayenta is located within The Navajo Nation, which makes up much of the northeast corner of the state of Arizona. Our hosts in Kayenta were Luis and Val, who welcomed us into their home to stay with them and their two adorable young kids and kitten.

A 20-mph headwind kind of day on the Navajo reservation.

After dinner that evening, Val told us about the coal and uranium mines located around the Navajo reservation. Val’s father was a coal miner on the reservation for 40 years; “I’m a real coal miner’s daughter”. Val explained how these mines have affected the health and way of life of people in the reservation, including some of her own family members’ bouts with cancer. It was educational and moving to hear Val’s stories and the many ways in which the mines have affected her community.

Uranium mining began its boom on the Colorado Plateau (the desert region centered around the Four Corners area) in 1939 during WWII when the U.S. launched the Manhattan Project to create an atomic weapon. The Atomic Energy Commission, created by the Atomic Energy Act of 1946, provided monetary incentives to people who found new uranium deposits. By the 1950’s, there were about 800 uranium mines on the Colorado Plateau. Moab, Utah was nicknamed the “Uranium capital of the world”, with many up-and-coming millionaires. (If you have read the book “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey, you might have an inkling of what mining did to the community. The book is a detailed recount of the transformation of the deserted Arches National Park into the bustling tourist attraction it is today.) However, the rush for uranium was over by the early 1960’s, with individuals losing out to large corporations. The government had a surplus of stockpiled uranium, so it stopped supplying incentives for new discoveries of uranium. This drove the market prices down and put the remaining uranium producers out of business by the 1980’s.

There is an enormous amount of environmental damage that occurs as a result of uranium mining, as it leaves scars on the landscape that are hard to remove. There has been talk as of recent about reviving old uranium mines, called zombie mines. These mines would be allowed to get back up and running with no environmental review or revision of past operation plans. But these zombie mines pollute the watershed, spread toxic waste into the groundwater, and leave concentrated dissolved uranium behind that exceed the standards for drinking water.

Interestingly enough, exposure to trace amounts of uranium is a natural part of our world, and the radioactive substance shows no harmful effects. However, it is detrimental to one’s health to live near waste sites of uranium mining, work in the industry, eat food grown on contaminated soil, or drink water found near waste disposal. The effects of exposure to concentrated amounts of uranium causes illnesses like kidney diseases and is linked to the rapid development of cancer. The abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo nation have had these effects and more on the Navajo for many years.

During our day off in Flagstaff, Arizona, we had the opportunity to attend a presentation given by a Navajo woman about the cultural and psychological impacts of contaminated uranium on Navajos, and her personal experience regarding this issue. On the Navajo Reservation, the consequences of uranium mining are complex and psychologically detrimental, involving historical and intergenerational trauma. Individuals who worked in the mines suffered PTSD and increased anxiety, leading to psychological and emotional wounds that were perpetuated through generations in what is called “blood memory”. Suffering from adverse childhood experiences across multiple generations results in complex trauma that are impacted even further by the continuing effects of colonization to this day. If trauma is not dealt with in a healthy way, it is passed on to our families, continuing cycles of coping that result in internalized oppression, violence and abuse.

It’s is important to understand the story of Native American communities all over the nation, but especially in areas where there was concentrated white settlement and mining exploration. Not only were these communities never given a chance to heal after being repeatedly lied to and cheated by the federal government, they were never given the resources to bounce back from uranium mines that boomed then busted. The health and economic consequences of uranium mines on the Navajo reservation are substantial and cycles of poverty and trauma continue to affect families across generations.

Threats from uranium mining aren’t just present on the Navajo reservation, either; they are present in public lands, too. Especially in one you’re probably pretty familiar with: The Grand Canyon. According to the Grand Canyon Trust, “irresponsibly operated uranium mines located on federal public land just miles from the North and South Rims threaten to permanently pollute the Grand Canyon landscape and the greater Colorado River.” And to make matters worse, the current administration is considering opening up the area to even more mining.

Visit the Grand Canyon Trust website to learn more, and sign a petition to defend the Grand Canyon from uranium mining.

Speaking of that Grand ol’ Canyon, on Day 44, we met up with our fifth team member, Peter, just east of it, in the town of Cameron, Arizona! Peter had flown to Phoenix and biked north towards us for a couple of days prior to our meeting up with him. Having met up with us at last, Peter joined the four of us as we all headed west towards Grand Canyon National Park.

We took a “rest” day at Grand Canyon National Park, if you can really call it that when we hiked the South Kaibab Trail to Skeleton Point and back. We hiked a total of 6 miles and descended 2000 feet, about halfway down the canyon, and caught a glimpse of the magnificent Colorado River far below. It was truly spectacular, but difficult to comprehend the scale of the canyon from just one hike. Having watched the informational video at the Visitor’s Center, the three geologic layers of the canyon were easy for us to spot: the sedimentary layers at the top, the Grand Canyon Supergroup, and the Vishnu Basement Rocks. From the rim to the Colorado River, the canyon exposes layers of rock that range from 200 million to 2 billion years old. Many layers were deposited when the oceans rose and receded multiple times, leaving behind fossils and skeletons within the sediment. About 75 million years ago, the Colorado Plateau was lifted up about 2 miles when the Pacific and North American plates collided, forming the Rocky Mountains. The new drainage system for water allowed for the formation of the Colorado River, which took a relatively short time of 6 million years to cut deep into the plateau.

Heading out of Grand Canyon Village the next day, we cruised down a long, gradual descent for many miles, until we turned onto scenic US Highway 180. It was somewhere on this highway that we entered the Coconino National Forest. After climbing the San Francisco Peaks, we reached Flagstaff, and arrived at our host Sue’s house for the evening, excited to take the next day off to catch up on business and meet with folks around the area.

That night, Sue had arranged for some of her friends to come over for dinner to meet us. One particular friend, John, was very knowledgeable about public lands in the area, and was kind enough to set up a meeting for us with the Grand Canyon Trust the following day.

The folks we met at the GCT the next day told us about their work in advocating and protecting public lands on the Colorado Plateau. Most notably, Ethan, the soon to be executive director, spoke eloquently about the issues facing the area, including a proposed uranium mine in the Grand Canyon.

The Grand Canyon Trust, as Ethan described it, is a “Swiss army knife” organization. They dabble in primary research, education work, volunteer work, policy and litigation, among other things. They have a focus on their namesake, the Grand Canyon, however they’re involved with any public lands issue all across the Colorado Plateau. That means they are one of the groups ready to step in and take up a legal fight should the federal government make attempts to shrink Bears Ears or Grand Staircase Escalante National Monuments.

Ethan explained that the trust has been in the business of buying up grazing leases at fair market value, only to graze them below their capacity, putting only 30% of the allowed cattle on these plots. Back in Boulder, UT this was just the sort of behavior that had really angered Vard, the local rancher who had shared with us his distaste for the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. We asked Ethan, does grazing this land below it capacity anger locals? His answer: yes.

The process of buying up these grazing leases began as a win-win: ranchers who wanted out were able to sell and get a fair market value for their land and in exchange the Grand Canyon Trust and other organizations were able to retire these lands and allow them to recover from the damage that years of grazing does to the desert landscape. Grazing takes a significant toll in the arid west, destroying vegetation, eroding stream banks, damaging soil, and polluting waterways with fecal waste. However locals quickly became suspicious. Concerns that these outside interest groups were trying to kick people off these grazing lands quickly mounted. Local ranchers want to see these lands used to their full extent and as a result see the designation of “National Monument” as a threat to them, their livelihood, and their way of life. However in the case of Grand Staircase National Monument, one of the most controversial National Monuments as we have experienced first hand, 97% of the monument is grazed and the designation has not decreased grazing potential according to Ethan.

Ethan then informed us of the huge subsidies these ranchers receive that are funding this way of life. All grazing in the west is subsidized, with public land costing on average a tenth of the price of an equal value parcel of private land. According to a study done by the Center for Biological Diversity, ranchers paid less to graze in 2014 than they did in 1981. The same study said that these subsidies have cost the American taxpayer more than $1 billion over the past decade. So, we asked Ethan if grazing on public lands doesn’t make ecological or economic sense, why is it happening? And furthermore, why is it such a huge determinant of the fate of our national monuments?

In some cases, it’s not just Climate Change and mining threats facing public lands, but cultural and ideological ones.

Ethan’s answer spoke to a common theme that we have been seeing throughout the entire trip. He told us, “there’s a mythology, a story, that we tell ourselves about who we are, who we want to be. It’s the cowboy, it’s freedom, it’s the salt of the earth, manifest destiny, the Marlboro man.” There’s a nostalgia with which we regard the rural American west and it is truly considered “un-American” to stand against a cowboy or rancher. As a result, this relatively small interest group commands a disproportionate share of the political power that affects, often adversely, all Americans.

Also while in Flagstaff, we learned that the community is being proactive in trying to protect their land from dangerous wildfires by using a combination of prescribed fire and mechanical thinning. The goal of this work is to prevent future fires from getting so large that they destroy property. Prescribed fire can help to reduce future fire intensity by decreasing the amount of fuel on the ground that can carry fire off the ground and into the tree canopies. Mechanical thinning helps reduce fire intensity by removing smaller trees that could also carry fire. Flagstaff has to do all of this work now because in the past, fires were suppressed and so the forests have become more dense. The increased fuel in the forests makes them more susceptible to really intense fires that destroy forests and property.

Fires are a big part of our nation and many of them start on public lands. We would in fact later come across a prescribed burn going on in the Gila National Forest in New Mexico. Flagstaff’s proactive approach to dealing with fire on the public lands around their community is commonplace among many communities facing the threats of wildfire.

On Day 48, Ariana turned 22! We celebrated with a cake in Sedona and some more bike-riding!

On Day 49, we completed our first century ride of the trip, 113 miles from Prescott Valley to Phoenix! As proud as we were to accomplish such a feat, the ride did take a toll on some of us. Katie went to the doctor the next morning, worried about a cough she had had for several weeks at that point, only to discover she had bronchial pneumonia. We figured it was best that she take some time off of the bike to recover, so she and Peter decided to stay in Phoenix with a family friend for a couple of days, while Alex, Hannah and Ariana biked on.

How we felt after our first century ride...

During their time without Katie and Peter, the threesome pedaled their way through some long days, crossing the Tonto National Forest, San Carlos Apache Reservation, and the Apache National Forest. We watched the landscape transform as we climbed up onto a high mesa as we entered New Mexico, with meadows and scattered trees, on what was one of our absolute favorite rides yet.

Four days after leaving Phoenix, we rejoined Katie and Peter in Silver City, NM. That same afternoon, we met up with Nick, a reporter from Santa Fe, who joined us on his own bicycle to ride with us to our end destination for the day, the Gila Hot Springs. There is only one road to the hot springs, and it includes a 7-mile 1,500-foot climb up a steep mountain pass. While we painstakingly chugged up the pass, Nick cruised gracefully alongside us on his carbon fiber bike, unburdened by the weight of panniers, asking us questions about our ride, which we answered between breaths. We biked through thick forests of ponderosa pine which grew in beautiful and healthy abundance.

The climb was more than worth it when we finally reached the top, knees aching. Our reward was a steep 7-mile descent to the valley floor, and the glorious Gila Hot Springs.

We thoroughly enjoyed our soak in the hot springs that evening, located deep within the Gila National Forest. The Forest was established in 1905 as a 2 million acre plot of public land, the sixth largest National Forest in the U.S. Within the forest are three wilderness areas: the Gila, Aldo Leopold and Blue Range Wilderness areas. The Gila Wilderness houses the Gila Cliff Dwellings National Monument, a site occupied by the Mimbres people from around 1000 to 1130 A.D. Through the efforts of Aldo Leopold, a Forest Service supervisor, in 1964, the Gila became one of the first designated wilderness areas in the country.

Sad to say goodbye to the hot springs the next morning, we braced ourselves to again tackle the 1,500-foot climb up and over the mountain pass, the same one we had summited the day before, to return to our normal route. Once completed, though, the rest of the day was a beautiful and “cruisy” ride through mountain valleys all the way to the town of San Lorenzo. We finished the day by biking partway up Emory Pass, our final mountain pass of the entire bike trip. That night we concocted our strangest dinner yet, a mixture of Manwich sauce, chicken wild rice soup, black beans, and hamburger helper.

We began the next morning with an easy 5 miles to the top of Emory Pass, which tops out at 8,228 feet. This elevation brought the trip full circle, as we recalled our very first major pass of the trip, just 50 days earlier, Carson Pass, which maxed out at a very similar elevation. We’d come a long ways since those first few days of climbing. But even as seasoned, expert climbers, we were looking forward to the flat lands of the east. At the top of Emory Pass, we danced a little last-pass dance, jumped back on our bikes, and sailed down the other side, saying what we though was goodbye and good-riddance to hills and mountain climbing for WOWFWL.

Little did we know, Texas was about to throw us a few curves balls.

Stay tuned for more! Signing off for now, this is WOWFWL. Remember to #KeepItPublic.

One thought on “Deserts and Forests and Canyons, oh my!

  1. Good to hear more about your travels since we met in Utah. Looking forward to a successful conclusion to the trip for all of you. I hope all is well.


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