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Messengers: A 250-mile Bears Ears and Grand Staircase Running Story

Now more than ever, we believe in coming together and celebrating the things that unite us in the midst of a divisive political landscape. For us, that’s running.

By: Greg Balkin + Save to a List

This is the story of a diverse group of people — Navajo, Olympic athletes, and dirtbags with $5 sneakers — coming together to run 250 miles across our most endangered national monuments and stand united as a voice for protecting our public lands. We'd love if you'd take a few minutes to watch “Messengers” and share it with others who you think would be interested!

On December 4, 2017, President Trump made the declaration that he would be drastically shrinking Utah’s Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments in the largest elimination of federally protected land in American history. We’d filed our comments and called politicians, attended the rallies and signed the petitions, but none of it seemed to matter. On February 2, this land that the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition had fought to keep safe would officially open to extractive industries.

So we did what we knew how to do: we ran.

Trump had made his decision without ever stepping foot in this corner of Southeast Utah, so we’d go ourselves to see what would be left unprotected. Twenty of us — 17 humans, three dogs — gathered in the desert to execute a simple idea: Run 250 miles in 6-mile legs over the course of a single weekend to see the side of these national monuments you can’t see from a capitol building.

Our team was made up of everyone from local Navajo to everyday data scientists, Olympic athletes to dirtbags fresh out of Goodwill with $5 pairs of sneakers. Many of us, still strangers, had nothing in common except a curiosity for learning more about the cultural, recreational, and ecological significance of these places. We weren’t all runners, but we’d sure as hell found a reason to run.

Our route funneled us through conifer forests and snow-caked trails, sleepy mesas and purple earth, crumbling spires and echoing canyon walls. We ran past petroglyphs that gave us a glimpse of the years of human history we were becoming a part of. Len Necefer, a powerful voice in the outdoor community, had grown up running these same trails with his family. He shared with the group a sage and eagle-plume “baton,” explaining that eagles are the messengers between humans and Diyin Diné (Navajo Holy People), and that the Navajo had a long-standing tradition of using runners as conduits for communication and ceremonial practices, often covering hundreds of miles to share messages.


“Running is a cornerstone of the people and cultures who call Bears Ears and Grand Staircase home. The history of relay runners and messengers extends hundreds of years throughout this landscape. Prior to the introduction of horses by the Spanish, these runners served a critical role in carrying time sensitive messages between communities and tribes. Today running still serves a critical role in rights-of-passage ceremonies.” — Len Necefer, Natives Outdoors 


As Len and the other Navajo runners continued to teach us about the land, we knew this run wasn’t about how many miles we racked up or who had best time. It was about finding commonalities in the midst of a divisive political landscape and standing in coalescence — indigenous people, athletes, dirtbags — for our public lands.

We hope our footsteps will carry a message: that these wild places are worth defending, and maybe the first step in doing that is to take another. And another. Maybe our rallying cry sounds more like the steady thud of rubber on dirt. After all, sound carries in the desert.

February 2, 2018 is the first day Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante will be open for business for the extractive industries. We believe the most effective way to take action right now is to donate a tax-deductible gift to help support the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) and their lawsuit against President Trump. Learn more and donate at MessengersRun.com.

Thank you to the team that helped make this project happen: Magda Boulet, Len Necefer, Jorge Moreno, Katie Boué, Alice Baker, Craig Prendergast, Keith Madia, Wyatt Roscoe, Sheyenne Lewis, Clare Gallagher, Gil Levy, Carolyn Morse, Lenny Strnad, Brianna Madia, Maggie George, Daniel McLaughlin, Greg Balkin, Johnie Gall, Andy Cochrane, Dagwood, Bucket, Bea, Chaco and Gizmo.

Photos: Johnie Gall/@DirtbagDarling Video footage: Yeehaw Donkey/@YeehawDonkey

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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