A Utah man and his ghost town: a love story
WOODSIDE, Utah — Roy Pogue has loved a lot of things in his 63 years — like his wife, Chris, and her little Daffy Duck tattoo, not to mention the couple’s six children.
Yet few things have made his heart go flip-flop more than a dry-gulch piece of land out in the middle of Utah’s nowhere.
Sometimes, love truly is blind. A lot of words describe Pogue’s backside-of-beyond parcel, where rust rules and the thermometers have all surrendered to the cold and the heat. One of those words is Godforsaken.
More than 700 dusty, rocky acres in all, the spread sits along the trickling Price River, under the boxy shadow of the Book Cliffs. Like Pogue himself, a man in bib overalls, handlebar mustache and well-oiled cowboy hat, the property exudes a bit of Wild West panache: At its core is a creaky old ghost town complete with an abandoned gold mine, cold-water geyser and a supposed onetime hide-out for the outlaw Butch Cassidy when he wasn’t riding with the Sundance Kid.
But now, in a move that breaks Pogue’s heart, he’s put it all up for sale. Despite its scruffy “as is” condition, he’s asking a pretty price: $3.9 million.
Potential buyers might see only isolation and neglect: a jumble of abandoned trailers, water tanks, squat-looking shacks and the shell of an old service station, all surrounded by a fence to keep out vandals.
If most towns rise up out of the desert, this one just lies there. But for Pogue, the place has been a refuge.
The little hamlet of Woodside, located along a lonely rural highway three hours southeast of Salt Lake City, was already long abandoned when Pogue settled here, but that suited him just fine. A disabled veteran from the nearby town of Moab who had a hard time finding steady carpentry work, Pogue says that in his 20 years here, he’s ruled his own fate: He’s been a one-man sheriff, judge, jury and good Samaritan.
Over the years, he made ends meet by ranching, farming (yes, farming) and running his gas station. And for a long time he made it work. For 70 miles along isolated U.S. Route 6, between the towns of Price and Green River, it’s been just Pogue and a herd of free-range llamas. But maybe not for much longer.
After decades of sweat, labor, battles with the federal government over cattle and water rights, fights with his wife, who prefers people to llamas — and, finally, declining health — Pogue performed the toughest chore of his life: pounding in the for-sale sign.
“This place has meant so much to me,” he said, sweating under a relentless midday sun. “It’s the closest thing to real freedom I’ve ever known in my life. At this price, it might be a cold day in hell before someone buys it. And maybe that’s good.”
When Pogue bought the land in the early 1990s, it no longer had water or electricity, not to mention other people. School buses wouldn’t come this far out, so his wife moved to a real town two hours away to raise the kids. Pogue visited his family when he could, but there was so much to do in town and only one man to do it.
He won’t say how much he paid for Woodside. There are a few things, like why he walks with a limp and details of his early life, that Pogue just doesn’t want to discuss. “I was moving away from things — I didn’t want anybody to know anything about nobody’s business.”
Slowly, he became an expert on Woodside, reading books and chatting up former residents. The town, he says, was founded in the late 1880s when the railroad provided local ranchers a way to get their livestock to East Coast markets. By 1910, Woodside’s population had swelled to 328. There was a large hotel, saloons and schoolhouses — all long gone.
For someone so solitary, Pogue likes to tell stories. Like the one about how, following the 1897 Castle Gate train robbery, Butch Cassidy hid out in an underground warren of tunnels beneath one house outside town. Stubborn locals refused to give up the outlaw to the marshals, he says.
As a boy, Pogue came here to see the famous cold-water geyser, which is akin to its hot-water counterpart except that carbon-dioxide bubbles — not steam — drive the eruptions. “The old-timers drank the water if they got sick,” he says. “It’s like sodium bicarbonate. If you’ve got a bout of gas, that’ll cure you. You’ll burp a couple of times and then you can go your own way.”
Pogue blames Lady Bird Johnson for ruining Woodside. Her 1960s highway beautification program tore down the unsightly billboards along U.S. Route 6, many advertising the town’s geyser attraction. Without signs to guide them, tourists buzzed on by.
Today, without constant caretaking, the geyser is a sorry sight — a tiny gurgle plugged by logs and rocks thrown in by kids and other mischief-makers. In 1970, the Woodside cafe burned down while the old service station opened and closed with different owners. Now, as one blogger who has traversed Highway 6 writes, “only the bravest of highway travelers venture in to see if anyone is actually there.”
Despite, or perhaps because of, its otherworldly remoteness, Woodside has played supporting roles in film and television. The huge tanker truck explosion in “Thelma and Louise” was shot here, along with various motorcycle ads, and religious movies by the evangelist Billy Graham and the Mormon Church. “Moses cut out the Ten Commandments right at the base of that hill,” said Pogue, pointing east toward a pile of rocks. “And John the Baptist bathed Jesus right over there in the Price River.”
For years, Pogue battled the Bureau of Land Management, which he dismisses as the “Big Land Monster.” He says officials confiscated his cattle, denied him water rights and made his life miserable. In a statement, the agency said that “it has been more than 10 years since the BLM has had any formal interaction with Mr. Pogue,” with whom officials worked with “on property boundary issues.”
Pogue says he paid the bills by running the gas station. Over the years, his old truck towed dozens of broken-down cars along the highway, often free of charge. One French couple returned to spend their honeymoon inside an old trailer to celebrate the day Pogue had rescued them. Other travelers sent him Christmas cards for years.
Entertainer Willie Nelson, who once owned a ranch nearby, would stop by to say hello before walking out along a bridge near the river, looking off into the desert’s vastness. “I never saw a man that age smoke so much pot,” Pogue recalled.
Once a French company arrived asking permission to film a lingerie ad featuring a bevy of young models. Pogue was suspicious. “Those girls just didn’t look old enough to dress like that,” he said. “But they all turned out to be legal. I guess I don’t know how old young people are anymore.”
A few years ago, time and bad health caught up with Pogue, and he moved back in with his wife in a town a few hours north. He first considered selling in 2008, after suffering a third heart attack. “Really, I don’t know why I’m still here — maybe my name didn’t come up in that book yet,” he says, taking a swig of water.
Realtor Mike Metzger says the property, like its irascible owner, is one of a kind. “If you look at it as barren dirt, it’s overpriced,” he said, “but if you see it as a piece of Old West Americana, then it’s a bargain.”
For now, weeds grow between the filling station tanks, and the only colors to break the desert’s brown expanse are the plastic flowers left at the graveyard, just over the hill on BLM-run land, where many plots date to the mid-1800s. But Pogue sees so much more. At night, his mind relives the countless walks he’s taken on land he has called his own, admiring the stark beauty of a place few travelers stop long enough to see.
His wife says, “This place has been his blood, sweat and tears.”
And his dreams.
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