Out West, in Utah’s Butch Cassidy country
“Most of what follows is true.”
That’s the opening of “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” the 1969 movie about two bandits born as the sun was setting over the mesas and buttes of the old Wild West.
Morally ambiguous, the movie struck a chord with Vietnam War-era audiences who stood and cheered when Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance met a hail of bullets in a dusty Bolivian town, etching the final freeze frame onto my 15-year-old heart.
I didn’t know it then, but the movie wrote something else there: a love of the sumptuous Western scenery, which I rediscovered on a trip last month to southern Utah.
Only part of the movie was filmed here, and the real Butch robbed banks and trains all across the West, making frequent stops at Fanny Porter’s high-class bordello in San Antonio. But with five national parks, Utah’s concentration of grand Western scenery is unrivaled in North America, and it’s also where Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, was born in 1866.
On the Parker spread in the beautiful Sevier River Valley 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, Butch learned to be a cowboy first and, later, how to put his brand on other peoples’ livestock. He trained his mounts not to shy at the sound of gunfire and to stand still when he jumped into the saddle from behind.
Apparently, he pulled only one big job in Utah, the 1897 Pleasant Valley Coal Co. payroll robbery at Castle Gate. But between heists, he and his Wild Bunch gang often hid out in isolated nooks and crannies on Utah’s Colorado Plateau.
I set out to track the historical and Hollywood outlaw in Utah but got only as far as St. George when I started running into a third persona: the apocryphal Butch, who is in some ways the most interesting because of the people who told me about him.
Legend, lore and facts
Sprawling St. George is the capital of Utah’s Dixie, so named because Mormon church leaders dispatched pioneers like Butch’s father, Maximillian Parker, to settle and propagate cotton here around the time of the Civil War.
Downtown, at the Washington County Library, I met bear-sized Bart Anderson, a retired St. George hematologist, historian and folklorist, widely known as Ranger Bart because he has devoted his golden years to giving slide shows at nearby national and state parks.
Of the 111-program repertoire, the one on Butch is the most popular.
It features some well-known vintage photos of the outlaw, including the mugshot taken when he was sent to the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary for horse-stealing in 1894 and a group portrait of the Wild Bunch dressed like city slickers. That picture, thought to have been taken in 1900, was proudly displayed in the window of a Fort Worth photography studio. When law enforcement officials spotted it, they used it to create wanted posters.
The Butch it portrays is a handsome, affable-looking man with a mischievous smile beneath his mustache. By many accounts, he charmed locals and lawmen, paid a penniless widow’s mortgage, rode back for his dog in the middle of an escape and never took a man’s life (though his Wild Bunch henchman Harvey Logan, a.k.a. Kid Curry, is often remembered as a psychopathic killer).
“Butch was a contagious fellow, well-liked,” Anderson said. “The movie got that much right.”
But interviews with scores of people revealed what Anderson considers fallacies in William Goldman’s Oscar-winning “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” screenplay: Elzy Lay was the real brains of the gang. The relationship between Butch and Sundance’s girlfriend, Etta Place, played in the movie by Katharine Ross, was far from platonic.
And, as so many locals claim, Butch didn’t die in South America on Nov. 6, 1908. Instead, he and Sundance rode all the way back to Utah, stopping in Mexico to meet Pancho Villa.
Others have tried to prove the opposite, including writer Anne Meadows. In her book “Digging Up Butch and Sundance,” she marshals documentary evidence about the movements of Butch, Sundance and Etta after they fled the U.S. in 1901 and reports on the inconclusive exhumation of a grave thought to contain the remains of the outlaws in the village of San Vicente, Bolivia.
The movie takes a middle ground by leaving their fate to the imagination but faithfully underscores the passing of the outlaw era in the scene in which Butch takes Etta riding on a bicycle, a newfangled contraption at the time not about to supplant the horse, in his opinion. The scene, set to Burt Bacharach and Hal David’s “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” was filmed in the ghost town of Grafton on the Smithsonian Butte Road Scenic Backway, a graded dirt road southwest of Zion Canyon National Park.
At the cleaned-up cemetery, I found a historic marker and artificial flowers on the hard earth graves of Mormon pioneers. They settled here around 1860 just down the Virgin River from the magnificent red rock cathedrals of Zion Canyon, but floods, disease and hostile Indians made the colony unsustainable. By 1910, most of them had moved on, leaving Grafton to Hollywood location scouts who found backdrops in southern Utah for a passel of westerns, including “The Deadwood Coach,” with Tom Mix (1924), “My Friend Flicka” (1943) and John Ford’s “Rio Grande” (1950).
Down the hill, the same historic preservationists who rehabbed the cemetery have fixed up an old Grafton homestead and the schoolhouse that Butch and Etta passed on their bicycle. Cattle still graze in nearby pastures and, of course, the Navajo sandstone cliffs behind the ghost town never needed restoration.
After that, I drove east through the red-and-white slick-rock country along Utah 9, then turned north on U.S. 89, another showstopper of a road that runs through the hamlet of Orderville, where shops sell porcelain dolls and custom-made coffins. In the late afternoon, the lowering sun highlights the edges of the nearby Markagunt and Paunsaugunt plateaus with colors you would never find in a paintbox and searches into side canyons for bad guys on the lam.
I turned east on Utah 12, headed for Ruby’s Inn, on the threshold of amazing Bryce Canyon, whittled from limestone into a gallery of pinnacles and spires known as hoodoos. Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who gave his name to the landmark that is now a national park, once said, “It’s a helluva place to lose a horse.”
It would be just as hard to find a horse -- or, for that matter, a fugitive from justice -- in Red Canyon, an overture to Bryce a few miles west of the national park turnoff. Its Cassidy Trail fingers north into a network of gulches, lined by tangled cedars, scree, hoodoos and vermilion-colored cliffs, where locals say a posse tracked a teenage Butch when he took up rustling.
Bryce Canyon Pines, a nearby motel, offers daylong trail rides to the remains of one of the stone cabins where he is thought to have stashed fresh horses for the Pony Express-style relay escapes he perfected. But with snow on the ground when I was there, all I could do was clamber up the side of Cassidy Draw to ascertain that Butch knew a good hide-out when he saw one.
The next day, I drove west to the ranching town of Panguitch, with a main street made wide enough for a wagon to turn around. Its block-long business district has old-fashioned, Western storefronts occupied by cafes and shops, including Cowboy Collectibles, where I found reproductions of Wild Bunch wanted posters.
Panguitch is where Butch’s youngest sister, Lula Parker Betenson, spent her last years after writing “Butch Cassidy, My Brother,” published in 1975. The book confounded Western scholars with its assertion that Butch arrived at the Parker home in nearby Circleville in 1925 driving a new black Ford, unscathed by the bullets of federales who supposedly had killed him and Sundance.
Lula was just a toddler when her big brother left home, but in the 1930s she believed widely publicized claims that William T. Phillips of Spokane, Wash., was Butch. Later, she changed her mind, saying she knew where the real Butch was buried but planned to take the secret to her grave. She died in 1980.
Fame, Hollywood style
Ranches, barns and pastures line the 20-mile stretch of U.S. 89 north of Panguitch. West of the road just before Circleville, I spotted the lonesome old Parker homestead beside an alfalfa field and a poplar windbreak. It is privately owned, but there was no one to stop me from inspecting the wood cabin with a loft where Butch likely slept as a boy.
I stopped at Butch Cassidy’s Hideout restaurant and motel in Circleville for Butch’s Special Cheeseburger plate, then visited 84-year-old Alfred Fullmer. Sitting on the couch in his sunny living room, Fullmer remembered that he raced horses with some of the Parker boys.
Like some locals, he believed Lula’s story about Butch’s 1925 homecoming, though he said no one talked much about the bandit before the movie. “Afterward, everybody claimed they’d seen him. I don’t know, maybe I did,” Fullmer said with a rueful smile.
The next morning, I headed east on Utah 12, to my mind one of the finest scenic roads in the U.S. It makes a 120-mile loop through the minuscule ranching communities of Tropic, Cannonville and Henrieville at the threshold of 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, then rounds the east side of 10,188-foot Powell Point. I drove with one hand on the wheel and the other on my camera all the way to the high desert town of Escalante, where I picked up my friend Bill Wolverton, a resource management ranger for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which abuts Grand Staircase-Escalante. He knows the region well and offered to take me for a hike.
On our way to the trail head for Upper Calf Creek Falls, we stopped at Head of the Rocks point, overlooking what seemed like the edge of the world. There Wolverton showed me the north face of the massive Kaiparowits Plateau, the snow-capped Henry Mountains to the northeast and the badlands around Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long buckle of earth with a Parthenon frieze of sculptured red-and-white rock marking Capitol Reef National Park.
Utah 12 crosses the wild Escalante River near Boynton Overlook, named for John Boynton, who turned himself in after killing Washington Phipps in a dispute in 1878. Short of manpower, the Escalante authorities gave him $10 and told him to ride to the county seat in Parowan, about 100 miles west. Boynton was never seen again.
It was a short walk from the highway to Upper Calf Creek Falls. Wolverton and I sat looking into the canyon, remembering the scene in the film in which Butch and Sundance jump from just such an aerie, yelling a profanity. “I saw that movie again, and it was like 40 years hadn’t passed,” Wolverton said. “I could anticipate all the lines.”
After that, I took a section of Utah 12 over 10,000-foot Boulder Mountain, unpaved until the ‘70s, then spent the night in a room with a fireplace at the Lodge at Red River Ranch on the Fremont River west of Torrey, a beautifully restored stagecoach inn that the owners claim Butch visited.
The next morning in Capitol Reef National Park, I hiked nearly two miles up the side of Grand Wash to Cassidy Arch, a spot wild enough to have earned Butch’s name.
Then it was on to Hanksville, about 50 miles east of Capitol Reef, where I met Utah canyoneer and guidebook writer Mike Kelsey, who had promised to take me to Robbers Roost, a 30-mile-wide mesa banked on the south by the Dirty Devil River. Together with Wyoming’s Hole-in-the-Wall and Brown’s Hole on the Utah-Colorado border, the Roost was the impregnable lair of the Wild Bunch. It had narrow slot canyons for hiding out, some springs, just enough fodder for horses and overhangs where bandit sentries watched for posses.
It can be reached only on rough, mostly unmarked dirt roads mined with rocks and sand traps. Kelsey, an old hand at such terrain, drove fast, pointing out water tanks for cattle that roam free on land leased by the government to ranchers.
Around midmorning, we pulled up at Robbers Roost Spring, in a deep-set gulch rimmed by red rock with water palatable to cows and horses but too bitter for humans.
From there, we walked a little way up the canyon to the remains of an old stone cabin built by early ranchers and supposedly used by the Wild Bunch.
Farther on at Silvertip Spring, clean water dribbles through a high-walled slot on its way to the Roost drainage. There, spry Kelsey did some cliff-climbing, then showed me the juniper stake corral where it doesn’t take much imagination to picture Butch breaking horses.
A shared hostility to railroad barons and bankers kept the outlaws on good terms with the tough cattlemen who worked this isolated range. Antipathy to outsiders persists among some of them, which is why Kelsey was concerned when we next headed for the Biddlecome-Ekker Ranch at nearby Crow Seep.
But I had permission to see the place from Gayemarie Ekker, one of the ranch owners. She lives now in Cedar City, Utah, but she grew up with her mother, Hazel, father, Arthur, and older brother A.C. on the 160-acre Robbers Roost ranch started by her grandfather Joe Biddlecome in 1909. The kids learned how to ride and hunted for a robber’s stash on nearby Deadman Hill.
“Butch Cassidy was our Robin Hood,” Ekker told me.
The snug ranch house and nearby one-room cabin built by Grandpa Joe were deserted when Kelsey and I arrived. They sit on top of the cedar-strewn mesa, with red slick rock in the backyard, the stark profile of the Henry Mountains on the horizon and a filigree of secret canyons you can’t see from above.
Maybe Butch left America in 1901 and never saw home again. Maybe he was just a two-bit crook who didn’t look at all like Paul Newman. Maybe everything I found out about him on my trip was a pack of lies. But gazing out over the Roost, I knew one thing for sure. The landscape of southern Utah is true blue.
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