To drive through San Juan County, Utah, is to learn the meaning of deep time. A seemingly endless array of majestic buttes and volcanic plugs stand sentinel over a vast expanse of land, creating a world that feels primeval and timeless. A jagged, thousand-foot-high sandstone spine thrusts skyward, while towering mesas, water carved canyons and petrified sand dunes appear in the distance, providing visual testimony to the region's multimillion-year history.
During my decades of travel across southeast Utah, I have come to know this country in all seasons. Muted midwinter light rests gently on the mesas, the red rock landscape subdued with a dusting of snow. The brilliant sunlight of midsummer intensifies the harshness of the landscape, its ruggedness revealed in jagged shadow. The cracked earth and parched plants of a scorching July day are transformed in minutes by monsoon rains, releasing long dormant scents that are imprinted in my memory.
In a landscape that often looks and feels empty, one is constantly reminded that humans made a life and a living here long before our time. Enter any of the canyons in this nearly 8,000-square-mile wonderland – each one, like a sandstone fingerprint, completely unique – and you will find evidence of ancient civilizations that thrived in a harsh climate, building stone structures, creating pottery, and crafting tools and weapons, remnants of which have survived for centuries, even millennia. The canyons bear silent witness to the earliest settlers of this land, the ancestors of today’s Pueblo people, who migrated southward to Arizona and New Mexico over 700 years ago but whose spirits remain. Faded tipi rings and half-collapsed octagonal structures made of mud and wood speak to the presence of early Ute, Paiute and Navajo peoples. Their descendants are still here, continuing to draw spiritual and material sustenance from the land.