Tom Clyde: There’s more to San Juan County’s story than you think
My invitation to the Royal Wedding was apparently lost in the mail. I’d already blocked the week out, so I went to Bluff instead. One of the things that make Utah such a great place to live is that within a 5 or 6 hour drive, you have options like Moab, Yellowstone, Jackson Hole, or Bluff. It had been years since I had been in that corner of the state. It’s well worth the trip.
A friend has organized these explorations of the Utah hinterlands for a few years. They are a one-off deal for a small group. It couldn’t be done on a commercial scale. The idea is a mixture of good road biking, historical exploration, discovering little-known corners of the state, and having a good time. This year, we had a retired history professor who traveled with us. He’d spent a 30-year career in Blanding studying every aspect of San Juan County from the Ancestral Puebloan people (formerly known as the Anasazi) to the uranium mining in the recent past, with a great story about every cowboy, Indian, and Mormon pioneer in between. He knew it all, and was struggling to compress years of study into a 10 minute roadside discussion of a location that had played a part in everything.
If I understood it correctly, the Puebloans were mining uranium and selling it to the cowboys from Colorado, who were planning to use it in their fight with the Mormons over the grazing rights in the Bears Ears National Monument. Or something like that. Actually, he was fascinating, and I wish we had more time for explanation.
The sag wagon driver was a wonderful Navajo woman. The best seat in the van was the front passenger seat, but not because there was more leg room. Sitting next to the driver allowed you to get the Navajo version of the same stories. After a detailed explanation of a skirmish between the Najavos and a federal survey party, in which the surveyors made an heroic escape, the driver muttered, “That’s not the way we tell it.” That, in a nutshell, is San Juan County. In the official version, life began with the Hole-in-the-Rock expedition when the Mormons made a terribly difficult journey from Escalante to settle in Bluff, at which point the clock started. But you look around, and talk with a Navajo shuttle van driver, and you quickly see, “That’s not the way we tell it.” There’s always more to the story.
We saw Natural Bridges National Monument, Hovenweep with its ancient ruins, biked through garden spots like the reservation town of Aneth. We saw Newspaper Rock and Dugout Ranch and stopped at the Home of Truth, a 1930’s and 40’s utopian community in the desert. We toured Monument Valley, which is breathtaking, and rode a back road to Oljeto, where a cell phone tower is surrounded by hogans. There had been a trading post there, and we learned all about trading posts. They functioned as a combined grocery store, livestock market, bank, post office, newsstand, art gallery and embassy all under one roof.
Then we went down a dirt road to a mission run by a Navajo woman who is an Episcopal priest. She invited us in for a discussion about religious traditions, but instead of taking us into her brick church, we all sat down in the hogan out back. She described her mission of trying to preserve the native traditions in the modern world. She started a small fire of traditional ceremonial sage with a new propane barbecue lighter, and wafted a blessing of sage smoke toward each of us with a turkey feather fan. That’s a once in a lifetime event.
At another stop, we got the skinny on how modern designs for Navajo weavers are converted from drawings to actual weaving patterns using specialized software. Artists bring their designs in and the younger generation uses their laptops to generate the patterns for the weavers. The image of a family sitting in their hogan, with grandmother weaving on an ancient loom while a kid on a computer is generating new patterns, is an example of how the old and new try to mesh. It might work for a few, but the overall impression of reservation life was pretty bleak.
We finished up with a hike into the Moon House ruin, a Puebloan village that is remarkably intact 1,300 years after they packed up and moved. It is famous for a room that has the phases of the moon painted as a border around the perimeter. The place looks like they just went to lunch and will be back shortly, but it’s been vacant for over a thousand years. It’s a safe bet there’s nothing in Park City that is going to last that long.
Tom Clyde practiced law in Park City for many years. He lives on a working ranch in Woodland and has been writing this column since 1986.
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Tom Clyde has a lot to worry about these days, with the coronavirus pandemic, the uncertain economy and airplane parts falling from the sky. Add mountain lions to the list.