“Within this underslung lopsided rump-sprung dough-bellied highly irregular parallelogram lies the least inhabited, least inhibited, least developed, least improved, least civilized, least governed, least priest-ridden, most arid, most hostile, most lonesome, most grim bleak barren desolate and savage quarter of the state of Utah—the best by far.“ -Edward Abbey
Millions of years ago in Southeastern Utah, the interior of the earth pushed itself through it’s own crust forming five distinctive peaks: Mt. Ellen, Mt. Purnell, Mt. Hillers, Mt. Holmes and Mt. Ellsworth. The Henry’s. The Henry Mountains were the last mapped mountain range in the lower forty-eight. From the tops of these peaks one can see absolutely nothing and absolutely everything. The fact that these mountains were left to their own for so long is not surprising. The close to two million acres that contain the Henry’s and make up the surrounding Colorado Plateau are extremely remote. Although the national parks in the area draw millions of visitors each year, it is rare to come across visitors outside of their borders. Despite this, or because of it, the area seems to attract and breed residents of incredible strength of character, as if they were born directly from the dry, cracked earth. I have read that the Native Americans in the region believe that when they die they take the form of clouds, enabling them to supply rain to their kin when they are properly beseeched to do so. Every act is one of faith for those that live in such a desperate landscape.
In the Colorado Plateau, more than anywhere else I have experienced, the landscape defines those that live there. This desert is a place of many contradictions, seeming to attract and expel simultaneously, creating a place where irony is understood and under appreciated. Imagine the annoyance of puffy white clouds passing over the desert floor day after day and not laying down a drop of rain. When rain does come it often brings with it enough force to wash out roads. Like a naive girl attracted to bad boys, what brings many to the desert is the challenge of finding intimacy with something that is intrinsically distant and remote. Most visitors to the area, drawn by the beauty and solitude, pass through, rejected by the isolation and desolation that is an equally true version of the desert. Some stay and make the desert their home and their livelihood. There is a sense of pride the these desert communities that is inviting yet discourages familiarity. Those who make a go at life in the Colorado Plateau must have strong defenses, whether they are adaptability or plenty of weapons. Historically, the southwest has been regarded as an alternative society, attracting artists, writers, and others pursuing a life lived amongst nature. The isolation is also a draw to those seeking a safe existence apart from mainstream America, namely: outcasts, outlaws and the outward bound.
“Whenever we look there is but a wilderness of rocks- deep gorges where the rivers are lost below cliffs and towers and pinnacles and ten thousand strangely carved forms in every direction, and beyond them mountains blending with the clouds.” -John Wesley Powell
Just east of the Henry’s is the part of canyon country known as Robber’s Roost. It was used as an outlaw hideout in the last twenty years of the nineteenth century. Utah’s second claim to historical fame, after the Mormons, is Butch Cassidy and his band of desperadoes, the Wild Bunch. Then, and still today, 80% of Utah’s population lies 250 miles north of Robber’s Roost- along the Wasatch Front surrounding Salt Lake City, the region originally settled by the Mormons. Not unlike the Mormons, the Wild Bunch sought a place where they could operate free from persecution. For both groups, the isolation of the desert provided a landscape almost as unforgiving as the eyes of the law, but livable. The Mormon church held many beliefs that divided it from mainstream society at the time, many beliefs which are still held by fundamentalists today. Beliefs such as the validity of the practice of polygamy, the concept that the laws of God override the laws of men, and the belief that the United States government is corrupt and should be destroyed. Despite the passing of the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act in 1862, the law against plural marriage was not enforced until 1887. Big business and industry grew to dominate Salt Lake City politics, and the Mormon church needed statehood in order to be able to elect their chosen officials. The federal government, as well as the vast majority of non-Mormons, intensely opposed the practice of polygamy. In 1894 Congress passed the Enabling Act, which laid out the steps Utah must take in order to achieve statehood. One of the requirements was to include a ban on plural marriage in the state constitution. Utah became a state in 1895 and those who maintained the virtues of the polygamy, along with small farmers, ranchers and anyone else who did not fit into the new scheme of federal oversight, escaped deeper into the desert. It is a fact that many western outlaws were “reformed” Mormons. Robber’s Roost is part of the Outlaw Trail, which runs through Utah on its way to Mexico from Canada. The hideout is situated in a canyon so deep and narrow that the entrance could be guarded by a single gunman. Outlaws like Butch Cassidy, who was raised Mormon, were known for cattle rustling and bank robbing. Because of the population dispersion and the lay of the land- vast spaces of seeming flatness abruptly disconnected by impassable cliffs and canyons, settlements and means of communication few and far- any law enforcement efforts in the Wild West were dangerous, time consuming and often ineffective.
“Perhaps it is necessary for me to try these places, perhaps it is my destiny to know the world. It only excites the outside of me. The inside it leaves more isolated and stoic than ever. That’s how it is. It is all a form of running away from oneself and the great problems: all this wild west..” -D.H. Lawrence
In 1934 Everett Ruess disappeared. At the time he would have been twenty years old. He was an artist who left his home in California to travel the deserts of the southwest in 1929. He sought solitude where he could paint and write and satisfy an inner need to articulate the wilderness. People who knew Everett described him as “a strange kid”. In November of 1934 Everett and his two burros left the Mormon town of Escalante to explore the neighboring canyons. He stayed with a couple at a sheep ranch in Soda Gulch a week later and then headed south, intending to follow the Escalante river arm to its convergence with the Colorado River, at what is now Lake Powell. In letters home Everett described the area as having “such utter and overpowering beauty as nearly kills a sensitive person by its piercing glory.” And it may have. Ruess’s burros and evidence of his camp were discovered in Davis Gulch, but Everett nor his body have ever been found. His life has become that of a legend, and his disappearance still spurs debate as to what brought his end. Some speculate that he faked his own demise or was carried away by a flash flood. Others believe he was done in by cattle rustlers or Ute indians. One woman believes she met Ruess in Monterrey, Mexico in 1937 while for years rumors of a wild old hermit who wandered the Canyonlands of Utah fueled the notion that Ruess was still alive. In April 2009, a crevice burial site containing a skeleton was discovered at Comb Ridge outside Bluff, Utah. Initial DNA tests indicated the bones were those of Ruess. The results were refuted later that year after more testing, leaving the mystery intact.
“To live in the desert requires a certain kind of madness that is epidemic out this way. To wander off into that desert, alone or in company, is to test the very limits of one’s endurance and to tempt the end of one’s tenure on this otherwise green planet.” -Gregory McNamee
In May 1998, Jason McVean, Robert Mason and Alan Pilon fatally shot police officer Dale Claxton in Cortez, Colorado. What followed became one of the longest and largest manhunts in the nation involving over 500 local and state police, the FBI, and the Navajo Nation. The three suspects were confirmed to be anti-government survivalists and authorities believed they fled across the border into Utah to hide in the maze of redrock near Canyonlands National Park. Three more deputies were wounded before Mason was found dead from an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound six days later on the banks of the San Juan River arm near Bluff. Despite extreme efforts by police, including trying to smoke the remaining fugitives out by setting fire to parts of the river canyon, McVean and Pilon continued to evade them for months. The consensus from locals as well as law enforcement was that the labyrinth of canyons in the area, the lack of roads as well as the lack of officers familiar with the terrain and backcountry search tactics, would make it impossible to search the area thoroughly. The body of Alan Pilon was found when a group of Navajo hunters stumbled across his body in Squaw Canyon, Colorado. It had been a year and a half since the search began. His body was a mere two and a half miles from where the trio of men had fled after killing Claxton. The body of McVean was not discovered until 2007, within ten yards of the search party’s path nine years earlier. Evidence suggest he also took his own life within days of killing Claxton.
In general, the individual agendas of those who have settled in the Colorado Plateau, their desire to live apart from “the real world” as it is referred to, has not been terribly encroached upon. But the battle between man and his surroundings has tamed the desert. Within the last forty years the demand for resources has transformed the landscape, diminishing the power it once held over it’s inhabitants. Roads have been laid, bridges span canyons, and rivers have been dammed. The Colorado Plateau contains all five of Utah’s national parks: Arches, Canyonlands, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Zion. The greater Colorado Plateau has many more National Parks, National Monuments and National Recreation Areas spanning Utah, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico. All one needs to do to visit the area these days is hop in the car and drive there. The Colorado River and its tributaries are the most utilized fresh water on earth. The river is pumped through mountain tunnels from Lake Havasu to Phoenix and Tucson as well as diverted two hundred and fifty miles across California to Los Angeles and San Diego. More than twenty dams exist on the Colorado River system including the famed Hoover Dam and the controversial Glen Canyon Dam. So much of the river is expended that it rarely reaches its delta at the Sea of Cortez
As the land is transformed, its effect on those that live there is inevitably transformed. One could surmise that the weakening of one, in turn weakens the other. To be sure, there is a dark side to an existence in a landscape that serves as a cover, but there is also a great camaraderie in it. The landscape gives a facade of permanence, with its towers of redrock and never-ending views. But stand there long enough and you will see it shift before your eyes. The common goal of hiding out, regardless of one’s seeker, endears desert dwellers to one another in a way that few communities can experience. Criminal behavior aside, Butch Cassidy had a reputation for being friendly and good natured with ranchers in the area, he needed their help and many became allies. No one comes to live in the Colorado Plateau due to circumstances, only choice. The result is an intentional community where despite one’s best efforts to isolate, the landscape endears a vulnerability that demands at some point you will need to rely on your neighbors and they will need to rely on you. Perhaps it is this mutual respect for the land, and by extension, for each other, that is the real attraction after all.