Sandstone Sage: A Conversation with Joshua Cruce, Desert Mystic

Sam Anderson

undefinedPhoto By Esther Yarger 

Nestled in the northern reaches of Utah's Bears Ears National Monument is a sprawling sandstone canyon system that entrances rock climbers from around the world. With an attitude often approaching spiritual reverence, thousands of climbers visit Indian Creek every season to test themselves against the desert rock’s challenging beauty. The jaw-dropping scenery, stark remoteness, and an eclectic, welcoming community come together to produce a profound effect that few can describe. 

Joshua Cruce is an exception. 

Cruce (pronounced KROOS), 25, is a native Texan who has followed his passion for climbing from Mexico to the Rocky Mountains to the Great Basin Desert, burning his trail between countless cliffs in many states. Josh fell in love with Indian Creek during a recent three-week stay. He climbed impressively, "redpointing" (climbing continuously without falling) a few of the area's classic hard routes, including Annunaki (5.11+) and Family Home Night (5.12). However, Josh's internal engine does not run exclusively on climbing. To Josh, who self-identifies as Christian, the desert is highly powerful—both spiritually viable and personally significant. 

I got the chance to talk with Josh about desert living, pursuing truth and meaning on the road, and slowing down—so much that you can see the rocks themselves move.

undefinedPhoto by Travis Kale

Josh: I get restless easily, and I love when I can act on it—when the right circumstances align, and I can leave my job for a period and explore new places.

Me: I’ve always known you—much like myself—to travel as a lone wolf, but you also surround yourself with interesting folks.

J: I’m intentionally traveling alone, with no commitments to other people’s schedules. However, I’m grateful that climbing is a social sport. I’m naturally introverted, but the true meat of climbing happens with at least one other person, so you have to build trusting relationships with people. That’s important to me.

Me: When you are in that introverted place, is there something that makes your engine run that has nothing to do with people?

J: I get more energized from other people’s energy, but it also wears me out. I need to take some time to slow down, be aware of everything around me and how I feel. The things you learn, people you meet, relationships you have, information or spiritual practice, all need to be integrated—it can’t be separated. Otherwise, there’s no truth to the experience. Or you can’t spot the untruths. So spending time alone, I can lean into that integrating process. 

undefinedPhoto by Micheal Stevens

Me: Indian Creek has a reputation as a place that will expose the truth for people. What’s your perspective on the effect the Creek [the area’s nickname] has on you?

J: Let me start with the desert in general. In some parts of the desert, I can have a dedicated spiritual practice during a time I’m spending alone. I’ll be meditating and fasting, focusing on only one thing. The Creek usually falls into the next phase, when I’m going to come out of that [isolation] and be all I can be with other people. It’s a good place to have very deep conversations.

Anyone who is drawn to climbing in the desert has a certain openness to awe and wonder. It’s an attitude of not knowing everything, but always pressing to know more, while understanding that ultimately, we can’t know everything.

Me: What about the desert environment causes such an intense effect on people? I think it’s widespread, but it can be hard to articulate.

J: I think [the desert’s esoteric effect is] more correlation than causation. You start to see things from different perspectives, different viewpoints.

I had this great moment a year ago, looking at a field of rock fins. There were no people around, and all I could see were the rocks. All I could think of was how alive they seemed! They are just alive at a different pace than we are. They are all migrating and moving and constantly changing, from the wind, from erosion. That motion is too slow for us to see unless we commit to a change in perspective.

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Photo by Esther Yarger

Me: that sounds like a really good day!

J: It was really good. That day was during one of my fasts, and I was interested in Einstein’s relativity (time being relative to speed). When you are inside a slot canyon, it seems so alive. Seeing the curves in it and how water would flow through it and change its shape. I tend to be pretty skeptical and avoid pseudo-sciences, so I’m not about to assign consciousness as we know it to rocks. But from the perspective of relativity, everything is connected.

Me: How do you think we should interact with that connectedness, especially as explorers or seekers of truth?

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Photo by Esther Yarger

J: To me, climbing is about learning to move—adjusting my body and my understanding to solve the puzzle in the rock. Figuring out a sequence or discovering how to match my body to the shape of the rock, becoming able to work with it, to solve the puzzle—it never feels like a fight against the rock. I always come off feeling an affinity toward the rock, rather than being defeated by it or conquering it.

And from a human perspective, I think Christianity—or any religion—is worthless unless we direct it toward relationships with other people. Climbing brings me back into those relationships, where I can try my best to express love and compassion and to understand and empathize with other people.

President Trump and various Utah lawmakers are in the process of dramatically reducing the size of Bears Ears National Monument. At the time of this writing, early reports estimated the cuts would strip the Monument down from its current 1.35 million acres to just over 200,000 acres—an 85% reduction. Environmental and Native American groups are preparing legally to challenge Trump’s decision.

Joshua Cruce is home for the winter, which is exciting to me and a lot of other Texas climbers. Catch him if you can on social media or at our local Texas cliffs.