Death threats, monoliths and desert destruction: Ross Bernards photographed Utah monolith’s final moments, and he was happy to see it go

Death threats, monoliths and desert destruction: Ross Bernards photographed Utah monolith’s final moments, and he was happy to see it go

“I agreed with them, it needed to be removed.”

ArtDecember 04, 2020 By Will Brendza

Ross Bernards and his friends were following a deliberate and premeditated path, as they approached the remote desert venue. Carrying camera equipment and a drone, they carefully avoided trampling cryptobiotic soil, following sandy drainages to a slickrock ridge, they scrambled along — towards the site of Utah’s mysterious monolith.

Evening was settling over the land. Stars, emerging from the deepening darkness above.

 “As we were getting closer to the spot, I started wondering if there was a fire in there,” Bernards says. The red rock walls surrounding their destination were glowing warmly and flickering. But as they came into view, they discovered a much different scene than what they’d expected.

“There were four people who had strung up Christmas lights around [the monolith]. And they were like holding hands and dancing in a circle around it.”

When the group noticed Bernards they froze immediately, embarrassed. “They looked over at us and they were like, ‘we're really sorry you had to see that.’" He recalls chuckling.

The Christmas light party broke down and left a few minutes later, and Bernards, a professional adventure, landscape and nature photographer began to set up. He started snapping photos, and practicing a drone photography technique, known as light painting.

Little did he know that those would be the last photographs ever taken of that mysterious landmark.

“I wasn't even planning on sharing those photos,” he says. “Not until the monolith got taken in front of us.”

The last photo of the monolith ever taken. Courtesy of Ross Bernards.

In the weeks since that unexplained monument was first spotted by a helicopter crew, conspiracies have swirled around it: of aliens, of artists, of promotional campaigns and cosmic natural events. Seemingly overnight the area went from an unknown and nondescript pull-off on a BLM dirt road, to a tourist trap for a global-curiosity. People were driving from far and wide to bear witness to one of 2020’s strangest artifacts, so far.

“On our way out there, we passed by so many cars coming back,” Bernards says. “I've driven on a lot of dirt roads out there and I have never seen that many cars.”

And unfortunately, unlike Bernards and his friends, who are veteran desert dwellers, who understand human impacts on that delicate ecosystem and how to avoid them, many of the visitors who came before them didn’t know desert etiquette quite as well. They made pull-offs and parking lots where there weren’t any before; they made their own paths, hiking directly from their vehicles to the monolith, treading on cryptobiotic soil, distressing small critters, and trampling vegetation under foot. And, without any public restrooms, visitors were leaving human waste and litter everywhere.

For about a week that traffic continued, people came and people went, impacting the landscape as they did so — until the fateful evening of November 29th. The evening when Ross Bernards and his friends arrived on a whim, from Edwards, Colorado.

“I didn't even realize we were going out there until the morning of, when our two friends showed up from Denver,” he says. They’d discussed maybe making the trip out there the night prior, but not in any real seriousness. At least, Bernards hadn’t thought so.

“Then our friend actually showed up and I was like, ‘Oh, we are going. It's happening.’”

And happen, it did. They piled into a car and made the drive, venturing off the pavement near Indian Creek, onto a dirt road and into the BLM south of Moab. By 8 pm they had arrived and Bernards was already taking photos — they had the monolith all to themselves.  

Or so they thought.

“We were just hanging out, enjoying it. We just kept saying, ‘this is the weirdest thing.’” Bernards says. “I was about to send my drone up with the last battery I had, when all of a sudden I hear these people walking up.”

He paused, turning around and saw four men walking towards them out of the dark. Two of the men hung back as the other two walked straight past Bernards’ and up to the monolith.

“They were kind of inspecting it,” he recalls. “They were putting their hands on it and shaking it a little.”

Then, Bernards says, one of the men looked directly at them and said, “I hope you got your pictures.”

“We all kind of thought he meant, because they were going to do the same thing we were doing: come in and take some photos and enjoy it for themselves.”

Instead, the two men started throwing their weight into the monolith like linebackers. It tilted, leaning over. They pushed it further. They shouted to their two friends who’d hung back and told them that tools wouldn’t be necessary. Then, with one final, forceful shove, the monolith popped out of the soil and slammed into the ground with a heavy thud.

“One of the panels popped off of it,” Bernards says. “And one of the guys said, ‘well, that's why you don't leave trash in the desert.’”

Then they dismantled the thing, loaded the pieces into a wheel-barrow and turned to leave.

As they passed by Bernards, one of the men muttered, “Leave no trace…

“We were all just kind of dumbstruck,” he says. “Like, what the heck just happened?”

What indeed? Who had those men been? Where had they come from? And why did they remove something that had sparked so much interest in so many people?

Bernards had his theories. Which, he actually got to confirm, when one of the mystery men contacted him over Instagram a few days later to come clean. 

And of course, Bernards had to ask — if only to confirm his own hypothesis — why?

“He told me outright, ‘To us, this is just this is litter. This needed to be removed. In and of itself, it wasn't damaging anything. But the attention this area was getting, was destroying it.’”

That was a point Bernards agreed with wholeheartedly. And one that he had come to realize on his own. In the Instagram post Bernards made about the experience, he wrote:

“We stayed the night and the next day hiked to a hill top overlooking the area where we saw at least 70 different cars (and a plane) in and out. Cars parking everywhere in the delicate desert landscape. Nobody following a path or each other. We could literally see people trying to approach it from every direction to try and reach it, permanently altering the untouched landscape. Mother Nature is an artist, it’s best to leave the art in the wild to her.”

The response to that post was insane, according to Bernards. Some 35,000 people liked it — but he says, he also started getting a lot of hate mail and even, death threats.

“I've gotten emails that say, 'You're a fucking liar and I hope you die a painful death because this is going to come back to haunt you.'” Bernards says.

A few days later the thieves revealed their own identities publicly — owning up to the ordeal and providing photos and videos of the removal as proof. Their organizer, a professional skydiver, slackliner, tour guide, and Moab Monkey Wrencher named Sylvan Christiansen, made an Instagram post explaining their actions.

“We removed the Utah Monolith because there are clear precedents for how we share and standardize the use of our public lands, natural wildlife, native plants, fresh water sources, and human impacts upon them.” He wrote. “The mystery was the infatuation and we want to use this time to unite people behind the real issues here— we are losing our public lands— things like this don’t help.”

So, the question of why the monolith was removed found an answer, at least. But the mysteries behind who put it there in the first place and why, are still very much open-ended. No one has come forth to claim the monolith — or for that matter any of the other two that have popped up in Romania, California and the UK in the weeks since.

When asked whether he thought the monolith had been a guerilla art installation, a marketing campaign, a hoax or some kind of extraterrestrial visitation, Bernards offered his own explanation.

“I think someone has an affinity for the artist John McCracken,” he says, referencing the famous minimalist artist form the 70’s and 80’s, who’s signature avant-garde “plank” sculptures were monochromatic, narrow and very monolith-like.

“I think just a very small handful of people knew that [monolith] was there and I don’t think it was anything but an art piece for them.”

That was, until their private art installation got noticed, blew up online and drew the curiosity of the entire world…

Maybe. We still don’t know for sure, though — and we may never. The BLM officer that Bernards spoke with after the incident told him flat out: the guys who took it aren’t in trouble. It’s the person that put it there, who they want to find.

“The way they’re looking at it, to the BLM, this was like removing a tin can from the desert.”

And, that’s really the real nut of this whole ordeal. As artsy and strange and bizarre as this monolith was, it could set an ugly precedent. How many more artists, having watched this saga unfold, are planning already on installing their own art out in Utah’s BLM? How many more sculptures will environmentalists like Christensen have to remove from nature because of this?

Hopefully not a lot. But, if the subsequent monoliths that emerged after the discovery of this first one are any indicator, the answer to both of those questions is: Many.

“I truly believe that it was a good thing that [monolith] was removed,” says Bernards. “All of us who have platforms in respect to the outdoors, have a responsibility to educate people on the principles of leave no trace and why those things matter.”

Photo courtesy of Ross Bernards.