• On Cairns, Hoodoos, and Monoliths: What Happens in the Desert Shouldn’t Always Stay in the Desert

    Rebecca Worby Reckons with the Objects Others Leave Behind

    You cannot walk straight through the Utah desert. “Start across the country in southeastern Utah almost anywhere and you are confronted by a chasm too steep and too deep to climb down through, and just too wide to jump,” Wallace Stegner wrote in Mormon Country, his 1942 book about Utah and the Mormons who settled there. “It is a country that calls for wings.”

    To anyone who has tried to traverse this landscape, it came as no surprise that it was a Utah Department of Public Safety helicopter—out counting bighorn sheep with the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources on a Wednesday in mid-November—that spotted the gleaming metal object that caught the internet’s attention and became known as the Utah monolith.

    It’s not clear who installed the sculpture, which stood nearly ten feet tall. It was in the middle of red rock nowhere, but in a spot reachable by anyone with the right vehicle and the wherewithal to handle rugged four-wheel drive roads. The hike in from the nearest road was less than a mile.

    Drawn to the mystery and the bright flash of something that had nothing to do with COVID-19 or the outgoing presidential administration, the American populace latched onto the story (and, later, to the stories of new monoliths that appeared in Romania and California). Who? How? Why? Was it aliens or art? In the days after word of the sculpture got out, hundreds of people flocked to the site.


    In October 2013, Dave Hall and Glenn Taylor, two Boy Scout leaders in their forties, knocked over a hoodoo in Utah’s Goblin Valley State Park. “We have now modified Goblin Valley,” Hall proclaimed in a cell phone video. “A new Goblin Valley exists with, uh, this boulder here, at the bottom.” The video went viral, incriminating the Scout leaders, who claimed they’d done what they did for the sake of safety. That boulder could’ve fallen on a kid, they said. They hadn’t even considered that it might be a crime.

    Both men faced third-degree felony charges. In March 2014, they were sentenced to a year of probation and ordered to pay for signs warning future visitors not to do what they did. Court records say the men caused between $1,500 and $5,000 in damage, though there’s really no way to measure the value of a geologic feature created by millions of years of erosion.

    In the video, they seem pleased with their own physical power, their triumph over nature. “Dude, that’s crazy,” Hall marvels. “It was held up just by that little bit of dirt.” 


    For decades, collecting Native American artifacts from the sprawling public lands near Blanding, Utah was a common hobby for locals, though such collection is illegal. For some, however, this was more than a casual hobby, and in 2009, a two-year undercover sting resulted in federal prosecutors charging 23 people with stealing and selling artifacts from the area. Prosecutors described them as “a ring of archeological grave robbers.”

    Though it was officially called the American Indian War Memorial, most people knew it simply as “the obelisk.”

    Physician James Redd was among those charged. He was found dead of an apparent suicide the next day. In Illinois, another man involved was found dead of self-inflicted gunshot wounds after turning himself in. Sixteen of those charged lived in Blanding, many of them from families dating all the way back to the Mormon pioneers who arrived in the 1880s. This raid wasn’t the first, but it was the largest of its kind ever undertaken by US authorities. Its aftermath sent shockwaves through the town, where many have a tense relationship with the federal government.

    This history of looting was a big part of the fight for Bears Ears, which President Barack Obama declared a national monument at the end of 2016. The monument was meant to protect a broad landscape, 1.35 million acres of the ancestral homelands of five sovereign Native nations: the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Pueblo of Zuni, and Ute Indian Tribe.

    Many Blanding residents opposed the monument. In the months before President Donald Trump reduced the monument by roughly 85 percent, a #RESCINDBEARSEARS billboard greeted visitors to the town. 


    In the fall of 2014, a young woman named Casey Nocket began posting images on Instagram of works of art she’d created with markers and acrylic paints in several national parks—or rather, on them. Over the course of less than four weeks, Nocket defaced rock formations in seven national park units, including two in Utah: Canyonlands and Zion.

    Redditors effectively broke the story of Nocket’s graffiti, which was shared by the Modern Hiker blog. The National Park Service applauded the public’s role in “identifying and sharing evidence of illegal behavior in parks.” Nocket was sentenced to two years’ probation and 200 hours of community service. She is banned from the United States’ national park system for life.


    Lockhart Basin, where the Utah monolith stood, was part of Bears Ears National Monument as declared by Obama, but not part of the monument’s scant remains after Trump’s proclamation. After the steel pillar was discovered, Reddit sleuths quickly identified its location, releasing its coordinates to the world and sharing Google Earth evidence that the sculpture had been in place since at least October 2016. That would mean it was installed before Bears Ears was ever a monument, before the monument’s protections were extended to and then retracted from the red rock alcove where it stood.


    Very few people have seen the series of structures that make up City. The massive earthwork, which Michael Heizer began building in 1972, spans nearly a mile and a quarter of desert in Garden Valley, in Lincoln County, Nevada. Its scale is frequently compared to that of the National Mall. Made of earth, rock and concrete, City is a minimalist ode to pre-Columbian cities—Teotihuacan, Chichen Itza. “When they come out here to fuck my ‘City’ sculpture up,” Heizer told the New Yorker in 2016, “they’ll realize it takes more energy to wreck it than it’s worth.”

    Not far from City lies the Nevada National Security Site, better known as the Nevada Test Site, where 928 nuclear bombs were detonated (100 above ground, the rest below) between 1951 and 1992. The long-stalled proposed nuclear storage site at Yucca Mountain is also nearby. The site would have required a rail line, and the proposed route ran through Garden Valley. In 2015, Garden Valley—and Heizer’s City—gained protection as part of the new Basin and Range National Monument, so there will be no rail line, even if the Yucca Mountain project someday goes forward.


    In the late 1970s and early 80s, when the US Department of Energy was seeking storage solutions for the nation’s toxic nuclear waste, Yucca Mountain wasn’t the only place under consideration. One of the other ideas: Store the waste inside Gibson Dome, a salt dome right next to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. For high-level nuclear waste to get to the Gibson Dome, a rail line would have been necessary. DOE contractors assessed three possible routes. The one that was found to be best would have run through Lockhart Basin.

    Who? How? Why? Was it aliens or art?

    Environmentalists opposed the repository plan. But since Moab was a uranium boom town, some found it fitting: “We’re not tryin’ to bury anything here we didn’t dig up here,” as someone put it to the Deseret News environmental specialist in 1982. The Atlas Mill in Moab, which opened in 1956, was the first privately-owned uranium processing facility in the country. By the early 1980s, however, the uranium industry was sputtering. The mill closed in 1984, leaving behind a 16-million-ton pile of radioactive waste, which today is in the process of being relocated, one trainload at a time, to a permanent disposal cell 30 miles north.


    In October 2020, protesters in Santa Fe tore down a monument that had stood in the plaza at the center of the city since 1868. With ropes and chains, it came down in pieces, to the cheers of onlookers. After the first section was toppled, one activist spray painted the words “LAND BACK” on what remained.

    Though it was officially called the American Indian War Memorial, most people knew it simply as “the obelisk.” To the heroes who have fallen in various battles with savage Indians in the Territory of New Mexico, read its original inscription, though the word  “savage” was chiseled away some years ago. In one Santa Fe Reporter photo, the word “savage” has been replaced, in black marker, with “resilient.”


    Pat Bagley has been drawing editorial cartoons for the Salt Lake Tribune since 1979. In a cartoon published a few days after the metal sculpture was discovered in Lockhart Basin, a man and a woman stand amid a red rock landscape with their backs to one another. The man admires the obelisk, gesturing at its tall gray grandeur. The woman, facing the opposite way, admires a petroglyph on a sandstone wall. “AMAZING!” says the caption.


    On the evening of Friday, November 27, less than a week after the monolith’s location was discovered, a group of people—upset about the illegal artwork and concerned about the damage that heavy tourist traffic could do to the landscape—set out to dismantle it. Driving in, they passed an old Chevy with what appeared to be mangled metal in the truck bed. When they arrived at the site, the sculpture was gone. One of them scrawled “BYE BITCH” in the sand.

    A few days later, a BASE jumper from Moab alleged in a YouTube video that he and three other men had done the dismantling. “This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert,” one of the men said mid-removal, according to a photographer who witnessed the event.

    What remained: a shallow hole in the ground with some kind of epoxy resin around its edges and one triangular piece of metal. Zak Podmore, a Salt Lake Tribune reporter who visited the site on Wednesday, when a steady flow of the curious was making its way to the site, and again on Saturday after the sculpture was gone, noted that visitors had done “astounding” damage in just a few days: “Off-trail dirt bike tracks crisscrossed the area. Hikers had left foot paths approaching the sculpture from every direction.” Photos showed stacks of rocks where the monolith once stood, small memorials, some incorporating the metal triangle.


    The day after the BASE jumper known as “Mr. Slackline” took credit for the disappearance of the sculpture, something else happened in San Juan County that didn’t get as much attention: The county commission passed a resolution that called on President-elect Joe Biden to restore Bears Ears National Monument to its original boundaries.

    That same county commission had vehemently opposed the monument when it was created. What changed was this: The county was found to be gerrymandered in a way that disenfranchised Native Americans, who make up nearly half the population (47.3 percent, compared to 43.6 percent white and and 5.6 percent Hispanic). After the districts were redrawn, the 2018 election resulted in the county’s first-ever majority-Indigenous commission. Kenneth Maryboy and Willie Grayeyes are both Navajo. The county commission’s remaining Anglo member is a man named Bruce Adams.


    In 2017, when then-Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke arrived at the Blanding airport on a trip to see the Bears Ears country for himself, I watched Bruce Adams hand him a cowboy hat that said “Make San Juan County Great Again.”


    Deep in the heart of Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument is a dome of swirling, striated Navajo sandstone called Yellow Rock. I hiked it one day in the spring of 2016 along with a couple of Bureau of Land Management employees. The monument, which had not yet been vastly reduced by Trump alongside Bears Ears, was celebrating its 20-year anniversary. I was there as an artist-in-residence for the occasion, my only job to explore the monument for three weeks and write something about it. I never published the piece I wrote, though parts of it may still play in a promotional video at the monument’s visitor centers.

    The rock was astonishing; in one spot, it peeled up and away in the precise shape of a curling ocean wave. One of the BLM staffers casually kicked over unnecessary cairns as we walked, sending satisfying clatters reverberating off the wavy layers of yellow, white, and pink. Stone stacks or cairns have a tendency to show up everywhere in nature that people and rocks meet. They’re helpful when they show which way a trail heads, but often they commemorate nothing more than the presence of the person who piled them. “It is an unnecessary marker of humanity, like leaving graffiti,” says a popular High Country News opinion piece published in 2015. “Pointless cairns are simply pointless reminders of the human ego.”

    At one point on our hike, we found fresh graffiti, a word scratched right into the peach-hued rock. Annoyed but unsurprised, the BLM staffers picked up rocks and attempted to grind the letters away: L-O-V-E. I watched as the letters gradually lost their sharpness, as bits of sandstone were reduced to grains of sand.

    Rebecca Worby
    Rebecca Worby
    Rebecca Worby's work has appeared in Catapult, Guernica, Orion, Outside, and elsewhere. She received her MFA in creative nonfiction from Columbia University in 2014. She is currently an editor with Wildsam Field Guides, based in Austin, Texas.

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