It wasn't the broiling desert scene I had envisioned when I headed to the Southwest after a long Minnesota winter.
But still, last month I stood mesmerized, watching big, gentle flakes of snow drift down on a landscape of rock, pinyon and juniper trees and cacti blooming in yellow, pink and wine-red. With a dozen other volunteers, I was ensconced, dry and cozy, in a 1,000-year-old abandoned rock dwelling tucked into an alcove high in a sandstone canyon.
The only sounds were the breeze and an occasional raven. We spoke of the Ancestral Pueblo people who built the ruin we sat in, who carved the footsteps in stone, who thrived for hundreds of years on the corn, beans and squash they grew and then departed, sometime before 1300.
My group was on a break from trail maintenance in a remote place called Beef Basin in southeast Utah, south of Canyonlands National Park. The nearest pavement was 50 miles of high-clearance dirt, sand and rock roads away. In the words of Wilderness Volunteers, the group that had organized us, we were there to "give something back."
And we were working at it. Under the guidance of a Bureau of Land Management ranger, we cleared trails, blocked paths cut by cattle and hikers, tore down illegal fire rings (sometimes built with the hand-hewn rock of former ruins), hauled out old beer cans (in itself an interesting archeological study), fixed barbed-wire gates to keep out cows, and more.
As pressure builds on federal lands and as resources stay flat or dwindle for the BLM, the National Park Service, the National Forest Service and other agencies, volunteer work has become more important than ever. If you've been to a state or national park lately and noticed who's providing many of the interpretive services for evening campfires and the like, you'll know what I'm talking about.
But I didn't travel across the country just for the privilege of wielding a medieval-looking hoe/rake known properly as a McLeod and informally as "six sucking chest wounds on a stick." And I didn't even do it entirely in hopes of escaping from Minnesota to the hot, dry desert.
I was there mainly to get access to some of the most stunning country in America. Millions of years of erosion have carved red, tan and white canyons into impossible formations. The landscape is dotted with ruins and rock art and splashed with light so intense and varying that it seems to vibrate.
Camping with like-minded people from across the country was a bonus.
In my group, there were retired engineers (one train, one electrical); a New York Jewish atheist; a Salt Lake City history Ph.D., who could explain the Mormon theory of celestial progression; an Albuquerque writer; a San Francisco cab driver turned English teacher, and others. It's energizing to argue with a Tennessee legal aid attorney over whether the pesto sauce goes into the canned-salmon couscous or gets ladled on top.
Southeast Utah is a rewarding, special place. Layers of conflicting and colorful culture and history run deep. It's a land of stalwart Mormonism and home to some of the fiercest anti-federal property-rights zealots in the country. It's been plundered for many decades by illegal pot- and basket-hunters. It's also the world of "The Monkey Wrench Gang" author Ed Abbey and of other exquisite writers like Terry Tempest Williams and the late Ellen Meloy. And, of course, it draws stout enjoyers of, and defenders of, public lands.
But that's just me. I find the place fascinating so I go there as often as I can. You can find your own way to give back, all over the country. Wilderness Volunteers, a nonprofit based in Flagstaff, Ariz., runs trips from Mount Rainier to Maine to the Boundary Waters of northern Minnesota. It's pretty cheap, it gets you into the wilderness and it lets you become part of a constituency of quiet, something the land desperately needs.
Dave Peters is a longtime Minnesota reporter and editor. He directs Minnesota Public Radio News' Ground Level project exploring community issues.