Running Wild in Bears Ears

Running Wild in Bears Ears

During the spring and fall of 2017 I lived in Bears Ears National Monument—in the back of my Jeep Wrangler. What started as an adventure to check out the newest (and most controversial) National Monument for an REI story assignment, became an almost year-long exploration of 1.35 million acres of backcountry to run/hike, write about, photograph and map the best trails and routes for my first book, “The Best Bears Ears National Monument Hikes” (available now). 

Now that the project is complete I am often asked what the best part of the experience was. I can say without any doubt, that it was living in Bears Ears. Often completely alone, my days were long and simple. What my schedule lacked in variety, the terrain, weather and remoteness of Bears Ears more than made up for, making every single day its own adventure.

Morning

Race the sun. My first story about Bears Ears had focused on the Navajo running/spiritual tradition of waking up to “run to the east”. Practitioners get up at dawn, start running towards the light and yell at the sky which is believed to awake the spirits, who then gift them with strength and endurance. Waking up at first light was also inevitable, when sleeping on the ground cowboy style, or in the back of the Jeep—natural light is the best alarm clock.

Fill up the tank. Most of my time was spent far away (hours) from the nearest gas station, supermarket or running water. I always travelled into Bears Ears with plenty of back up supplies, at least enough to last one week which, as it turns out, is about all that fits in a Jeep for one person. Good To-Go meals were an extremely valuable space saver and source of nutritious “rocket fuel”. I’d devour the Oatmeal along with several cups of black coffee before hitting the trail.

Write now. My intentions were almost always to start the day with a run, but the morning is when I find I have the most creative energy for writing, so I usually try to maximize that. All too often I get lost in my work and before I know it, it’s….

Afternoon 

Give me my burrito, baby. By the time I had finished writing I was obviously hungry again. I am OBSESSED with burritos and loved to wrap the Good To-Go Mexican Quinoa in a tortilla with tons of avocado. Yum. 

Alpine start. I considered anytime I got on a route before noon an “alpine start”. 2pm was often the norm, and one time I mistakenly believed that I could finish the 17-mile Fish Owl Loop before dark, despite starting at 5pm. Without the confines of anyone else’s schedules, I discovered my own rhythm and pace of life—I don’t have anyone to confirm this, but any time that I have not accounted for here was probably spent daydreaming, watching ants crawl over rocks or reading.

I love to run! Despite putting it off until later in the day, running was always my favorite chunk of time. Most routes were deep within the many canyons of Cedar Mesa, covered between 8 and 20 miles and involved very technical and slow moving terrain. As an elite runner, it is possible for me to push myself on the road and run 10 miles in about an hour (6 minute miles). Out here, a 10-mile route might take me 4 hours or more because, in addition to the terrain, I had to carry plenty of water, camera gear, a notebook and most importantly, pay attention to the minute details of the routes in order to write about them.

Taking it all in. Aside from running the routes and getting my work down, stopping in awe at the extremely beautiful landscape, cliff dwellings and petroglyphs (tucked around what felt like every turn in the canyons) and jumping in every swimming hole possible, certainly slowed things down a bit. Totally worth it.

Feed me. During my runs I fueled myself on Pop Tarts, Snickers bars and Sufferfest beer (yes, really). By the time I made it back to the Jeep all I wanted to do was eat—A TON. Whenever possible I would “dress up” my Good To-Go meals to up the calories and make them feel even more like a home cooked dinner. One of the best creations I came up with was adding a can of salmon to the Mushroom Risotto along with fresh greens. When I ran out of fresh ingredients I was always so grateful that each Good To-Go meal was loaded with real veggies.

Night

Desert solitaire. Nights alone in the desert were often the most lovely and challenging part of my day. After seeing such incredible places I often yearned to share the experience with someone else but I didn’t have cell service. I quickly learned that the desert itself could be this friend. Each night I’d crack open a beer, light a fire, sit down directly in the dirt and watch as the stars emerged one by one, and the moonlight shifted. I’d listen to the sounds of the wildlife—the coyotes and the owls. When the fire began to dim I’d unroll my sleeping bag and drift off to sleep, thinking of nothing more than another perfect day in Bears Ears, just like this one.

Story By: Morgan Sjogren | Photography by: Jay Kolsch

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