If you wanted to disappear, where would you go? A small town in southern Utah is a good bet, at least according to its reclusive inhabitants. Yet they know that their days of being off of the information grid are numbered, if not gone already. Indeed, I am posting this courtesy of the town’s wireless internet service.
Still, this corner of the Colorado Plateau thrives on myths of vanishing. From the ancient Puebloans to young Anglo explorers like Everett Ruess, the parched landscape invites tales of unsolved mysteries. Some are just tales. The theory that the ancient Puebloans vanished without trace or explanation by the end of the thirteenth century has been supplanted by knowledge, much of it from contemporary Hopi and Pueblo people, that the Anasazi (as they are still often mislabeled) migrated due to drought, resource scarcity, and accompanying social and political instability. They were then absorbed into the Hopi and Pueblo tribes that continue to live in the region today. Some vanishings persist, however. Everett Ruess, the young Californian who roamed throughout the Navajo Nation and southeastern Utah in the 1920’s and 30’s, disappeared in 1934. Despite occasional false positives, his body has never been recovered. Did he fall of a cliff in Davis Gulch, which is now flooded by Glen Canyon? Was he killed by whites or Natives? We may never know, and maybe we don’t want to.
The region’s secrets also used to include the location of the thousands of archeological sites hidden in its cliffs, crags, and washes. But today, thanks to blogging, published guides, and hand-held gps technology, anyone can plug in a few coordinates and bag as many cliff-dwellings and petroglyphs as possible. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is aware of the problem. Their solution, at least in one resource-rich area, has been to post signs at trailheads warning people not to violate the laws. As one long-time local put it, they might as well have constructed a big neon billboard saying “Cool Ruins and Potsherds– This Way!” The Plateau’s vast archeological riches are also at risk due to the BLM’s inability to resist interpreting its multiple use mandate as “all uses in all places at all times.” With increasing pressure to drill for oil and gas in every conceivable location, and at the same time to procure recreation fees for the handful of places off-limits to drilling, the likelihood that the land and its secrets will be left alone is extremely low.
Despite all of the information available, knowledge about the Plateau’s history is ephemeral. In this little town, for example, there is a struggle between the inhabitants and the LDS Church about who has the higher claim to presenting local history. To protect the town’s identity (at least temporarily, until the reader opens a new tab and does a google search,) I will leave the details to the reader’s imagination. Suffice it to say that the locals believe that they are on the side of historical accuracy as opposed to commemoration. As commemoration ascends, facts and details seem to recede. At the same time, the risks to the region’s archeological resources put the bases for assessing the facts in jeopardy. Can it be that the more information we have access to, the more we put knowledge at risk? As it gets harder to sustain the mysteries of a region, does it also become more difficult to discern its truths? It doesn’t have to be this way. There is nothing inevitable about technology revealing too much and yet saying nothing. But there is nothing foregone about this not being so either.