Wednesday, April 23, 2014


After four dusty days spent slithering through slot canyons and scrambling over boulders in Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, this morning’s walk is notably refreshing. Steve Defa, a 59-year-old psychotherapist from Escalante, Utah, is leading me up a sandy wash shaded by big ponderosa pines and smaller pinyons. The air is fragrant with pine needles and sage after last night’s rain; the air pleasantly cool.

After a mile or so, we emerge into the canyon country for which the monument is known. Sandstone walls pocked with shadows and studded with green rise on either side. “This is backpacking heaven,” Defa says of his 1.9 million-acre backyard. “There’s more here than a person will ever get to in a lifetime.”

Soon, though, he picks up a tar ball the size of a brussels sprout and rolls it in his hand. I notice a young conifer bent sideways from a flood, its upper branches looking like they’ve been dipped in tar. Plants growing in the wash are black and brittle. “This is where it really begins,” Defa tells me, ducking under some bare willows. An acrid smell creeps into the fresh morning air; it smells like hot summer days of my childhood, when the new asphalt poured into cracks in the pavement became soft and gooey and I’d poke it with a stick.

A quarter-mile more and we come to an eight-inch layer of crude, dried to the consistency of warm asphalt and mixed with gravel and rocks. The layer extends four miles up Little Valley Wash, varying in depth and composition as it meanders across the landscape like a greasy black snake. Similar scenes can be found in three nearby washes, all of which drain into the Escalante River – a tributary of the Colorado – and all of which spill down from Death Ridge, a plateau on which Houston-based Citation Oil operates 19 wells. ...

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