Saturday, May 30, 2009

Butch Cassidy's Shangri-la

The more I see of Bryce Canyon country, Escalante, the Grand Staircase, and the San Rafael Swell, the more I think I know what drove Butch Cassidy into a life of crime.

The Cenozoic aged rocks of the Paunsagunt Plateau eroded into colorful and fanciful hoodoos, surrounding the plateau in horseshoe fashion. The Eastern slope of the plateau formed Bryce Canyon, a natural amphitheater. Headward erosion created exquisite scenery from Bryce Canyon around to the South end of the plateau, and back to the North along the Western Slope towards Panguitch. You drive through Red Canyon which is part of this formation as you climb up onto the Paunsagunt traveling toward Bryce Canyon. Butch Cassidy is rumored to have used Red Canyon for one of his super-secret get away trails.

Chantra, Sunnie, Preston and I took the Cassidy trail 10 miles up onto the Sevier Plateau toward Mount Dutton just North of the Paunsagunt for an overnighter. Preston claims it was his favorite campout, bragging to all who will listen about how he handled that 3 year old mustang all by himself.

It is not difficult to imagine how hard it was to explore these beautiful places at the end of the 19th century. Even if your farm or vocation allowed the spare time for it, riding your mount for days or weeks just to get there had to kill the leisure side of it. Robbing banks, trains, and payroll stages was about the only career that afforded one the opportunity to chase all over this incredible land. Butch had it pretty much to himself back in those days, and he knew it better than anyone else--a true professional. The lawmen who had real jobs only scratched the surface of Butch's haunts. Even today, some of his trails are very difficult to find.

Honest work and modern technology make much of Utah's remote country accessible these days. Checking eyes 4 or 5 days a week lets us load up the trailer and be there in hours. Sure glad we don't have to rob banks, trains or payroll stages to experience the majesty of Southern Utah.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Escalante's impromptu Theatre

For an audience of just two, the Author of this critically acclaimed masterpiece spared no expense, every detail proving the transcendency of His production values. From the entrance to the theatre, to the pre- and post-show entertainment, each human sense was pleasantly invited to participate until the storied climax lifted our spirits to their feet in thunderous applause. It was choreography of universal magnitude that played just once--and that once, offered exlusively for us.

We entered the canyon by mule and mustang after a day of hard rain, with the promise of more to come. Broken clouds filtered the sunlight on the sandstone cliffs and the sweet smell of Russian Olive wafted through the canyon against the fresh smell of wet-desert. Dense foliage along the silt-laden river made passage difficult for mule and rider. We were in the foyer of the grand amphitheater and the decor consisted of an arch, a natural bridge, panels of ancient art, and a cliff house safely ensconced above our reach.

Crossing the river a couple more times, we found ourselves inside the main hall. Just in time for the grand entrance, we took our seating, box-style in an alcove under an overhang in the red rock. Camp had been struck, the mules cared for, and dinner prepared at our feet. As if on cue, the house lights dimmed as dark clouds gathered. In the pit, the orchestra rewarded our anticipation with a clap of thunder that reverberated up and down the canyon walls. It was Act I. The soft sound of the wind rustling through the cottonwood trees was soon replaced by the dissonant, white noise of rain beating against every instrumentality in the theatre. A sudden chill brushed our faces while the smell of ozone and rain mixed with the scent of Russian Olive and tamaracks. For about 20 minutes, we watched the plot unfold.

Act I faded as quickly as it started, and Act II entered above stage. The grand thrones across the canyon began to shed their water, ending the momentary silence. The high-pitched, percussive sound of impromptu water falls lifted our eyes upward while the dancing and splashing of pure, life-giving water followed ancient courses sculpted in the sandstone by rains past. For about 20 minutes, we watched and listened to Act II as it crescendoed to a fevered pitch, then softly faded back into the base silence of the Escalante river.

Act III, the grand finale, entered below stage. A flash flood of muddy water came charging down the canyon, boldly altering the topography with its abrasive force. The quiet background music of the Escalante built into a climactic roar as nature displayed her mighty power. BRAVO! For another hour, the domed river ran high and thick and our ovation lasted long after night's curtains were drawn and the stage emptied.

The post-show glow flickered against the alcove walls as our campfire held the darkness of night outside. Eventually, we retired to our sleeping bags, anxious for the morning so we could explore Sand Creek canyon--dreaming of what surprises lie around the next bend.

We were boyhood pals who grew up in Mona at the foot of Mt Nebo. David Jones and I spent our childhood brushing against the forces of wind, water, season, and storm. Our profession back then was that of explorer and we hunted, fished and scaled all the wild places on whatever conveyance we could find. Our profession changed to Optometrist as we came of age, and we battled chiggers and ticks while feverishly exploring Missouri where we went to school. Now blessed with businesses and families, it takes monumental effort to do what used to come so naturally.

Impromptu waterfalls
David hadn't been on horse since we were kids and he had never been on a mule. He's a smart kid and he quickly learned how to take advantage of Molly's sure footedness. Our journey was a complicated trail that wasn't fit for dudes, but Dave refused to be intimidated. The result was a chance to see the power of the Almighty on display and the time to enjoy the miracle of friendship.

Molly stuck in quicksand

Monday, May 11, 2009

C'Urban Guttered Mule

Curb and Gutter... like a plague, meticulous landscaping stifles childhood development and breaks the circle of life that teaches valuable common sense. Doubt me? Count up all the wilderness retreat programs and youth rehab ranches in this country and ask yourself why they don't do "inner city experiences" for troubled youth.

Nearly 8 years ago, we built our now-too-small house on an acre-plus in an AG zoned subdivision beyond the edge of town. Nestled in a "Little Valley" contained between the Fort Pearce drainage, a vaulted ridge line, and a solitary mesa, we could brag that nothing stood between us and the Grand Canyon, some 90 miles to our South. We chose to build here for the solitude, the opportunity for an AG lifestyle, and for the Master-planned promise that future development would be additional AG friendly neighborhoods.

It all made sense back then. St George, once a rural community, was struggling a little to find somewhere for it's residents to go who wanted AG living, but who were finding themselves increasingly relegated to small, scattered pockets of traditional rural life, surrounded by hostile densities. Self contained Little Valley was the perfect fit--backing right up to the vaulted ridge line that bordered St George's planned replacement airport, it was a natural area for AG type density. And so it was promised. City Fathers privately assured many of us of this promise and codified it in the city's general plan.

We loved it. Living amidst rolling fields of alfalfa, and open desert, we were tucked nicely within protective geography; existing together with salt-of-the-earth neighbors who came for the same freedom to raise 4-H hogs, horses, and kids. There was room to spread our wings, and chores without the possibility of parole. A quiet place without urban sounds, our world was filled with the silence of morning's Rooster.

It was short lived. Boom times were here and the developmental tsunami started at the top of Little Valley. My neighbors with AG zoning on the North end soon found themselves surrounded, and rancher Blake's feedlot which he had relocated 3 times to avoid hostile density found himself facing petitions from the new subdivisions across the street. Schools, parks, and dense neighborhoods flooded nearly half of Little Valley with almost no warning. All of a sudden we get notice from the city that they want to meet to get our input on the future development of the rest of Little Valley. We went. To our chagrin, the city spent 2 hours explaining what the new master plan looked like, and then got offended when we unanimously (except for the developers) rejected the notion. They were planning the highest single-family density in St George history to fill in and surround all the existing AG neighborhoods. At our behest, they codified this new master plan anyway, and publicly claimed that we were absent from the planning process when it was over.

Seasons change. A new majority got elected to city council just about the time the economy turned south. Unfortunately, one new subdivision had already been approved under the new plan, and 100 new homes on 30 acres next to me is underway. It has 100 foot buffers, but it lies squarely between our AG zoning and the Southernmost neighborhood that also has AG zoning. To this point, we felt completely powerless as we had lost every single battle we had with the city. Then we get notice of a 90 home subdivision plan on the beautiful 14 acre pasture across the street from me. At nearly 7 homes per acre, 10 of the homes were platted to be within 10 feet of my neighbor's corrals across the street.

My neighbors and I went to war again, feeling a bit hopeless. After arguing for years, to no avail, that we feared a backlash from such high densities, I stood in that particular meeting and said, "You know, its not just their intolerance of us we worry about. We don't tolerate high density housing around us either. Having AG use next to manicured subdivisions is like farting in an elevator--even if the new neighbors don't complain, we are going to be mighty uncomfortable with our smells and noises in their presence." (Someone whispers, "Does Dr. Gooch know he's on TV?") We finally won our first battle. The new city fathers said, " we really want to pave over every last little bit of fertile soil in our city? Is it really fair to crowd out the existing property owners with hostile development? Maybe we should have somewhere for this to exist. Perhaps we should re-visit that new masterplan." They voted no--even though the developer had met every single requirement of the new master plan. The mayor about had a heart attack and muttered out loud (but off the record) that he hoped the city didn't get sued.

So six months later, (just this week) I get an invitation from the city to sit on a committee to re-evaluate the balance of Little Valley's development. I said yes. I'll let you know how it goes.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Up Short Creek without a Camera


One of the headwaters of the Fort Pearce drainage is Short Creek. A true desert spring, it runs through the sandy washes of Hildale and Colorado City, then spills over the Hurricane Fault and into Warner Valley before meandering to its convergence with the mighty Virgin. Most of the year, the washes remain empty from Colorado City and beyond--occasionally filling with the flash flood waters of a desert rain somewhere upstream.

Above Colorado City, Short Creek is alive with water all year long. The creek isn't more than a trickle most of the time. It follows a deep canyon carved into the Navajo sandstone. The head of Short Creek percolates right from the base of a towering amphitheatre at the top of the narrow, winding canyon. Known mostly to the locals, it is an extraordinarily peaceful place, with a deep emerald pool at the foot of the over-arching wall. Protected from wind, the acoustics of the place are that of a great tabernacle, and the choir is a chorus of frogs with a rich variety of voices.

They say it is nearly impossible to get stock up into the amphitheatre at the top of Short Creek. Two walls stand in the way. The first wall is its own small amphitheatre. Some of the local teenagers who wanted to get their own horses up the creek carved a chute into the wall for portage to the next level. The second wall is an angled slab with slanted steps that rises about 20 feet up to the final level.

Yesterday, three of my kids and I got our stock to the main amphitheatre--2 mules and 2 mustangs. The mules did well, but the the mustangs scrambled and fell more than once. I took several photos of my kids working out the difficult spots and some short videos of the animals coming back down the two walls. I even had some video of the frog-chorus inside the amphitheatre which I eagerly anticipated posting on this blog. The video and pictures were proof that we actually did it.

Somewhere on the way back down the canyon, after all the fun parts, the camera bounced out of my pocket and was lost. I rode back and looked, but soon realized the futility of the effort. My kids had stayed on the trail, but I had meandered all over the place--cutting my own trail in and out of the creek in such a way that I could never retrace my steps. My tracks in the sand were indistinguishable from the cattle in the lower canyon where I lost the camera.

So, I'm up the creek with out a camera. And here are some stock photos that kind of match our tale. The amphitheatre of our story looks a lot like Lower Calf Creek Falls--minus the falls. You'll just have to believe we were crazy enough to get where we got without picture proof.