cirrus and rim

Eight of us, four Canadians and four Americans, paddled down the taupe- colored Green River in Utah for nearly half a dozen days before making camp at the head of Horsethief Canyon. This was said to be one of the very canyons that famed train and bank robbers, Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, had found refuge with their shadowy cohorts.

Even though it was mid-April, it was hot and after the tents were put up, we sought shady shelter to eat some lunch before heading switching footwear and heading up the meandering sandy wash that snaked up a canyon.

A large boulder cracked and worn from millions of summers and winters had once tumbled and settled, like a solitary feature at the base of rocky and steep slope. It’s tapered aspect angled over us like ramp and made a perfect sun shelter for our camp kitchen area. And we were not the first to pause here.

Stippled chest high is a small herd of sheep, desert bighorn I suspect. The artist had tapped the images hundreds if not thousands of years ago. Was it a Fremont culture native or Anasazi hunter who paused to create this mysterious billboard of sorts? Was the intent of the boulder art to give a message to followers? Or perhaps it was rendered out of respect for the game that nourished “the people.” I kind of like to think the native had found himself resting in the shade of the boulder and was simply expressing his creativity for no reason other than to do some stone doodling.

If the thicket of thieves had sequestered themselves in this remote canyon hideout, had they paused here to ponder the petroglyphs?

Tom lunching with visions

Horsethief Canyon was one of several of Butch’s favorite hideouts. While it did not have the notoriety as his remote Robbers Roost further north up in the San Rafael Swell in Utah, Horsethief Canyon is in rugged and isolated country that is mostly described as desert and sinuous canyons.

With water bottles filled and stowed in our daypacks we began hiking up canyon. The creek soon disappeared beneath the loose sand and we soon found ourselves weaving amongst impressive water-smoothed boulders. While the land wears its aspect of desert impressively, I couldn’t help but wonder how a rainstorm could turn this canyon into a mighty rapids of water rushing to merge with the Green River. With the azure sky overhead, I was confident we would not have to clamber up any canyon slopes to avoid any deadly, surging washout.

We were not alone inside the deep sandstone walls. Tracks of small desert dwellers squiggled their hieroglyphics up and down the washout banks. Small lizards were common sights and Say’s phoebes flittered ahead of us, always keeping their distance from us.

sand tracks

I wondered if the sandy score of footprints and tail drags came from a lineage of snakes and lizards that might have skittered from Butch and Sundance. My guess is that this canyon acts somewhat like a biological bank where species can remain undisturbed from human alterations to their homes.

An hour of hiking up canyon we delighted in finding small pools of fresh, clear water. The pools beckoned us to take a dip, but with a mysterious bend in the canyon up ahead we pushed on to explore for signs of Butch and Sundance.
With the day waning we finally halted at an immense water-smoothed sandstone bowl. We could only imagine the torrents of water that must pour through here, rushing to join the Green River.

A raven called from up canyon. Knowing the raven’s importance in many native myths and stories, particularly as a magician or trickster, combined with Butch Cassidy’s love of tricking and disappearing from the law, I couldn’t help but wonder if Butch’s spirit now flies black and still haunts prickly, rocky, and heated hideouts.

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