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Waldo Wilcox: Range Creek's Fremont Artifacts

Rancher and mountain-lion trapper Waldo Wilcox kept the country's greatest
open-air museum a secret for 50 years. Now his stash is open to the public,
and the "Indian stuff" has started to disappear.
Text by David Roberts   Photography by Greg Child

Text: The Cowboy's Indians

See incredible photos of the artifacts >>


Back then, in the early 1970s, Waldo Wilcox wasn't the slightest bit famous. Outside of Emery and Carbon Counties in central Utah, few folks had ever heard of him. Around his hometown of Green River, he had something of a reputation as a recluse, for he spent as much as ten months of the year—a lot of it alone—out on his spread along Range Creek, way up on the Tavaputs Plateau, in some of the most beautiful but least accessible terrain in the Southwest. For weeks on end Waldo's only companions were his dogs, horses, and 400 cows.

See incredible photos of the artifacts >>

Raising cattle for a living was always a tough and financially precarious business, and over the years Waldo used his cowboy skills in ingenious ways to augment his income. One such enterprise was to capture mountain lions alive and sell them to zoos. (The going price in those days was about $500 a specimen.) When the hunt went right, his trained hounds, Shorty and Dink, would corner their prey on a tree limb or a rock ledge. Waldo would unlimber his lariat, lasso the lion, truss it up, and then somehow carry it down the mountain without getting mauled.

And on a February day around 1970 (by now Waldo can't pin down the precise year), Shorty, Dink, and their master were on the trail of the biggest mountain lion Waldo had ever seen, or would ever see.

As Waldo and the dogs pushed the cougar higher and higher up a craggy ridge that towers over Range Creek to the east, they negotiated a perilous gauntlet of sandstone slabs, boulder-choked gullies, and skin-shredding scrub oak thickets. At last, 1,500 feet (457 meters) above the valley floor, Shorty and Dink trapped the great animal, which had taken shelter on a ledge right beneath the caprock of a square, lofty butte. Waldo pulled out an old camera and took a fuzzy photo of the cougar crouching in its aerie (today the picture hangs mounted on the rancher's wall in Green River). Then the wildly yapping canines closed in.

With two swipes of a paw, the cougar killed Shorty and tore out one of Dink's eyes. This was a cat, Waldo realized, that was not destined to be sold to a zoo.  The rancher raised his rifle, fired, and killed the great beast with one shot. He then wrestled the mountain lion down from the ledge, cut off its head, skinned it, packed up the booty, and prepared to hike with a hysterical dog down the opposite side of the mountain.

But then Waldo paused. In a glance, he saw that the cliff just to his right bore the vestiges of a 15-foot (5-meter) ladder made of logs. Evidently, ancient inhabitants of Range Creek had turned the butte top into some kind of refuge. Curiosity trumped the urgent need to retreat.

Leaving Dink to tend to his wounds, Waldo clambered up the ladder in cowboy boots and, for an hour, explored the bedrock oasis in the sky. He found arrowheads lying everywhere, potsherds strewed in the dirt of shallow runoff rivulets, four rings of upright stones marking anomalous above-ground shelters, five or six big grinding basins, and, on a ledge 20 feet (6 meters) below the rim, a dilapidated storage bin. On the north rim, he discovered three rows of big stones that had been piled along the cliff edge. Waldo concluded that the inhabitants had used the stones as ammo to bombard enemies trying to sneak up the log ladder, the only possible route of access to the butte top. Though the artifacts looked as if they could have been left there a week earlier, Waldo was almost certainly the first person to visit this lofty refuge in at least 700 years.

Below the cliff Dink was now howling in pain and terror. Waldo shinnied back down the ladder, gathered up the mountain lion hide and head, and started descending, by a route he'd never reconnoitered, toward a tributary of Range Creek called Dilly Canyon. But in the fading light of dusk, he came to a 50-foot (15-meter) drop that impeded his progress—its only weakness a tight, technical chimney. "I put my rope through Dink's collar," Waldo later recalled, "pushed him off the cliff, then lowered him down. Pulled one end and got the rope back up. Same with the lion skin and the head. Then I climbed down myself." It was after dark by the time Waldo returned to the cinder-block cabin that, all winter long, centered his austere homestead.

It was his reclusiveness, as much as anything, that led to Waldo's sudden fame and emergence as an unlikely ecological hero in the summer of 2004, when the rancher was 74 years old. After his parents had bought the Range Creek spread in 1951, the Wilcoxes erected tall fences with padlocked gates at both ends of the valley. According to Waldo, "We wanted to keep people out. Didn't want 'em destroying the Indian stuff we found on our land."

Waldo's parents and his older brother soon moved on to other ranches in the Tavaputs, while Waldo, his wife, Julie, and eventually their four kids stayed on in Range Creek. For schooling, from September to May, the kids and Julie moved 25 miles (40 kilometers) south to the family's snug house in Green River, while Waldo lingered on, the lonely lord of his outback estate.

For 50 years, everywhere Waldo wandered in Range Creek, chasing stray cows or tracking cougars, he stumbled upon "Indian stuff"—potsherds, chert flakes left by arrowhead makers, manos and metates ("corn grinders," in Wilcox's parlance), rings of stones outlining shallow pithouses, granaries on dizzying cliff ledges where the precious corn was stored, and even the graves of the long-dead. These were the remains of the Fremont people, contemporary northern neighbors of the far better understood Anasazi.

All over the West, in a century-long tradition, ranchers and tourists alike have made a sport of gathering arrowheads, pots, and even skulls to keep as curios on their mantelpieces. But Waldo left virtually every artifact he found in place. "It's the way I was brought up," Waldo says. "Mom and Dad always told me that just 'cause we owned the land didn't mean the Indian stuff belonged to us. They wouldn't go to the cemetery and dig folks up just for the gold in their teeth."

In 2001, with a heavy heart, Waldo succumbed at last to the limitations of old age and sold his ranch. By then, Waldo and Julie's four children had reached adulthood and chosen careers of their own. The Range Creek spread was bought by the Trust for Public Lands and the state of Utah; eventually the property came under the aegis of the state's Division of Wildlife Resources (DWR), which envisioned turning Range Creek into a bighorn sheep hunting reserve. But in the interim, archaeologists got a look at the spread. They were uniformly stunned. As Utah State Archaeologist Kevin Jones said, "Preserving Range Creek will be the most important thing I can do in my life."

An archaeology team from the Utah Museum of Natural History (UMNH), under the direction of Duncan Metcalfe and his wife, Renee Barlow, began
a systematic survey of Range Creek's glories in late 2001. For three years the team managed to keep the hidden valley a secret. But a local newspaper leaked the story in the summer of 2004 and touched off a wildfire of national media coverage. Native Americans from New Mexico to Nevada would come forward, outraged to have been kept in the dark about a remote canyon that, some of them insisted, might have been part of their own ancestral heartland.

Overnight, Waldo Wilcox morphed from a crusty, reclusive rancher into a hero worthy of national headlines (see "Guardian of a Ghost World," National Geographic, August 2006). The flashbulbs blinded Waldo, who at his core is a shy and modest man. And in the end, all the fuss only deepened a nagging sorrow that had been hanging over the rancher since he'd sold what he often called "the most beautiful place in the world."
 
Over the past six years mountaineer Greg Child and I have made many a trip into the canyonlands of southeastern Utah, seeking out the most inaccessible Anasazi ruins and contriving ways to climb and crawl into them. We had spent virtually no time, however, exploring the Fremont domain farther north. When I read the newspapers in the summer of 2004, I became anxious to go into Range Creek, and it took only a phone call to put the match to Greg's kindred ambitions.

That August we made the first of what would be five trips into Range Creek. From our first hour there, Greg and I saw that the archaeological wonders of this sanctuary lay in an abundance of granaries perched on drastically exposed ledges in cliffs ranging from a hundred to more than a thousand feet (30 to 305 meters) above the valley floor. The challenge of getting to those storage bins hooked us instantly.

We were not, however, allowed just to head off on our own. DWR had mandated that our every step be accompanied and surveilled by a UMNH archaeologist—
ostensibly for fear that we might filch the Indian stuff that Waldo had left in place. Fortunately I had inveigled my way into the good graces of Renee, who more than any other archaeologist on site was eager to explore those daunting granaries. She had, in fact, taken beginning climbing and rappelling lessons just to be able to reach the more inaccessible ruins.

By our second trip, in May 2005, Greg and I had also spent a fair bit of time with Waldo. At his house in Green River, he pulled out the giant mountain lion pelt from his storage shed for Greg to photograph, head reattached by an expert taxidermist. In Range Creek, he guided us to some of his favorite places. A tall man with a slight stoop, curly white hair, and a ruddy, weather-beaten face, he hikes with his hands clasped behind his back, like a clergyman crossing the heath.

After a particularly long day's tour, we sat in the yard outside the cinder-block house Waldo had built for his family in 1961 (it now serves as the cluttered headquarters for the UMNH archaeologists) as the rancher unfurled his own version of the prehistory of Range Creek, based on his half century of observation.

The first residents of Range Creek, Waldo believes, were a race of dwarfs he calls "the Little People." "I seen some of their skeletons comin' out of the ground," he said. "They wasn't but four foot tall. I think they got inbred and hungry, and they just went downhill."

At some point, argues Waldo, the Fremont came into Range Creek and killed off the Little People. Then later the Utes wiped out the Fremont. One day while we were out hiking, Waldo pointed out a petroglyph panel with two distinctive styles of rock art. "I tried to show this to ole Duncan [Metcalfe]," Waldo explained. "You got crude stuff and you got good stuff on the same rock. There's two different cultures here.

"Duncan and them archaeologists say it was all Fremont, and they just up and left, but I don't agree. From everything I've seen, a lot of people was killed in here," he said. "Every place you find an arrowhead, there was a dead Indian."

On that February day around 1970, after he had shot the giant mountain lion and explored the adjacent butte top, Waldo concluded that the pinnacle had been the site of the Fremont people's last stand against the invading Utes. The "Fortress," as he nicknamed the butte top, was the scene of the Fremont demise in Range Creek.

Not many professionals would subscribe to Waldo's theories of Range Creek's past. Most archaeologists believe the Fremont abandoned their homeland in a voluntary migration, not as the victims of a Ute invasion. Duncan rolled his eyes when I brought up Waldo's theories. But I'd grown to admire the cranky old rancher, and I was inclined to cut him some slack on the Little People. And the more time I spent following in Waldo's footprints, the higher that admiration ratcheted.

One day in May 2005, using binoculars, Greg, Renee, and I worked out a long, devious route that we thought would get us to the Fortress. Three times on the ascent we broke out the rope to belay Renee up the cliffs. The butte top itself still had only one line of access, which Waldo had described: a steep groove up which the Fremont had built their 15-foot (5-meter) log ladder.

We spent hours on top, discovering the same vestiges of the ancients that Waldo had first seen more than three decades earlier. The few prehistoric sites Greg and I had seen elsewhere in the Southwest that were as dense with artifacts had nearly all been hidden deep inside sheltering alcoves—not ranged across a stony summit, bare to the ravages of wind, rain, and sun. Whether or not the Fortress was the site of some Fremont last stand, it was plainly a hyperdefensive aerie. "What a desperate place to live," Greg muttered.

Before leaving I belayed Greg down to the dilapidated granary 20 feet (6 meters) below the south rim. As he poked around, he was startled to find a 1967 penny lying beside the storage bin, as if pitched there from the top of the butte. At last we headed along the "back way" toward Dilly Canyon. Slithering down the tight chimney, I was awestruck by the winter hunting trip Waldo had pulled off so long ago, returning with a mountain lion skin and a badly injured dog.

Later, over the telephone, I told Waldo about our ascent and mentioned discovering the 1967 penny. Waldo chortled over the line. "I told you you'd never find my name carved anywhere," he said. "But every time I got to a site, I'd flip a penny in there. You keep lookin', you'll find my pennies all over the place." He paused. "I was too tight to leave a quarter."
 
The longer Greg and I hung out with Waldo in Range Creek, the more keenly we sensed a building antipathy between the rancher and the archaeologists. Duncan would outwardly compliment Waldo, but his dismissal of the self-taught cowboy's theories of prehistory was hard for him to disguise. For his part, Waldo saw "ole Duncan" as the very prototype of the stuffed-shirt academic. On a hike in a neighboring canyon, Waldo took Greg and me to a bizarre ancient stone wall in the middle of nowhere that he had discovered decades before. Greg and I could make neither head nor tail of it.

"I was hopin' you could tell me what it was," said Waldo with feigned regret. "Now I'll have to bring in ole Duncan to explain it to me."

From the start Waldo had been dismayed to see many of the UMNH team smoking cigarettes, not only around the ranch house but also as they worked in the field. The cattle Waldo had run for 50 years had kept Range Creek grazed, but since 2001, the grasses had grown thigh high. The whole canyon was now a tinderbox. According to the rancher, Duncan ignored his plea to institute a no-smoking rule for Range Creek.

"They had a fire in here in 2002," Waldo told me. "Claimed it was caused by lightning. I'll give 'em the benefit of the doubt, but archaeologists were smokin' down there. They might have started it by accident."

The rancher sighed. "You spend your whole life takin' care of a place only to see it tore down right in front of your eyes."

I myself was not impressed by the quality of the UMNH team's work. With no apparent research plan in mind, Duncan's grad students were engaged in systematically GPS-ing every site and using plastic bags to gather up chert flakes and potsherds, for eventual curation in the museum in Salt Lake City. That was standard archaeological practice in the Southwest in the 1960s and '70s, but by 2005 it was hard to justify. It's generally agreed that to excavate a site is to destroy it forever; in the same way, to pick up a potsherd and carry it away is to rob it of its provenience (no matter how carefully the GPS coordinates are taken), and in turn to deny a future generation the chance to ask questions in the field that our own generation has yet to conceive.

I was not surprised to find that Waldo felt the same way—after all, the preservation ethic he had lived by his whole life was being undone daily by grad students toting their plastic bags. "I don't think what ole Duncan and his wife are doin' is right," he told me. "They should leave the stuff where it is. I think the canyon's the biggest and best museum the Indian stuff could be in."

In the spring of 2006 the DWR changed the locks on the gates at either end of the 12-mile-long (19-kilometer-long) homestead in Range Creek. Whether inadvertently or not, neither the agency nor the UMNH team gave Waldo a key. Now the rancher who had kept the place pristine for the archaeologists and grad students was locked out of the valley that for half a century had been his home.
 
It didn't take long for Greg and me to realize that Range Creek comprises some of the ruggedest terrain anywhere in the Southwest. Every slope soaring out of the creek bottom abounded in steep scree, loose boulders, jungles of thorny bushes and trees, and short, blank cliff bands in the most inconvenient locations.

The scale of the place is also colossal. In Range Creek, there are ridge crests that look down 4,000 feet (1,219 meters) to the creek bottom, approaching the vertical relief of the Grand Canyon from the South Rim to the Colorado River.

It would be the work of several lifetimes to explore Range Creek and its side canyons. Waldo himself guessed that in his five decades of rambling, he had found only a small fraction of the Indian stuff. The wildest of all the
Fremont sites that Greg and I were able to visit was a pair of granaries that Renee nicknamed "Waldo's Catwalk." And thereupon hangs a tale.

Back in 1951, just months after buying the spread, Ray "Budge" Wilcox stood with his two sons on the dirt road a few miles (about five kilometers) north of the ranch buildings. Looking west, all three men squinted up at a distant cliff, a thousand feet above the creek bed. "There's somethin' there, right in the middle of it," Waldo said. "Some Indian thing."

"Nah," said Don, who was five years older than Waldo. "It's natural. Just rocks."

Later that year, at 21, Waldo was drafted into the Army and shipped to Japan. During his two-year stint in the military, he used field glasses for the first time. The tantalizing "Indian thing" on the high cliff was often on his mind, so he bought a cheap pair of Japanese binoculars and mailed them home.

"They weren't that good of field glasses," Waldo told me, "but I could see everything that was there. Sure enough, it was a big old granary halfway up this sheer cliff."

One day in 1954, on yet another of his lonely jaunts, Waldo hiked to the base of the cliff. What he saw there utterly stunned him. And for decades he kept his silence about what he had found.

In May 2005 Greg, Renee, and I pursued the phantom of Waldo's discovery. As we worked out the devious zigzag to the foot of the cliff, forced into gnarly bushwhacking and exposed scrambling on tricky slabs, I marveled at the stretches Waldo had tamed so long ago. Soaked in sweat, we gained the ledge at the foot of the precipice, then traversed to the right around a corner, where all three of us stopped in our tracks and stared upward in astonishment.

Just as Waldo had described, a dead trunk of a 25-foot (8-meter) Douglas fir leaned against the cliff, which was inclined a shade less than vertical. The tree apparently had served as a Fremont ladder, though it looked far too spindly to support a modern climber. Above the ladder, a thin crack split a pair of arching overhangs. That crack had evidently been the ascent route of a Fremont virtuoso who had pioneered the line, for halfway between the treetop and the "big old granary"—actually a pair of granaries sharing a common wall—a hefty stick had been jammed endwise into the fissure, like a huge wooden piton. The stick would have been the key to reaching the handholds and footholds on the overhanging cliff above.

The five-foot-tall (two and a half-meter-tall) double granary was perched on the skimpiest of ledges, which had been extended to support the massive storage bin with a triangular scaffold of heavy logs that stuck out into the air like splayed fingers. As we examined the weird structure through our binoculars, its architecture baffled us, for it was clear that nothing held the logs in place except the weight of the granary itself. Above the ledge, the cliff arched another 90 feet (27 meter), all of it severely overhanging.

The predominant theory about why Fremont granaries are so often found in dangerous, inaccessible places is that, facing hard times just before they abandoned their heartland, the Fremont hid their corn (the most precious stuff they owned) where the "bad guys" couldn't get it. The bad guys, once thought to be invading nomads, were more likely other Fremont bands, driven by famine and drought to desperate raids upon their neighbors.

It took us an hour to find a scrambling route to the top of the cliff. There Greg tied our ropes to a pair of piñon pines. One by one we rappelled off the 150-foot (46-meter) cliff. Beyond the lip, however, we dangled in space, spinning like spiders from silken threads.

When I reached a point in midair just above the pair of granaries, I got a great view of the site. The doors of the storage bins—flat slabs of sandstone shaped to fit—lay intact, closing the rooftop orifices that were the only entrances to the granaries. But I now hung far out from the cliff face, a good 20 feet (6 meters) beyond even the protruding platform of logs.

A climber dangling free cannot generate enough momentum to swing himself into a cliff. So as I slid on toward the ground, I was reconciled to defeat. But Greg urged us to come back later for another try. He still had a trick or two up his sleeve.

On our return to the Catwalk two days later, Greg sat at the foot of the cliff and stared at the route that led to the ledge 60 feet (18 meters) up. "It's gotta be 5.11," he ventured. "The guy who put it up must have just gone for it, free climbing, balls out."

Two hours later, atop the cliff, Greg was once more setting up a rappel. This time he tied into trees some 20 feet (6 meters) to the right of our first attempt, where a thin crack split the overhang. As he slid down the rope over the lip, Greg inserted a cam into the crack, lowered himself some more, and then sprang away from the cliff with a thrust of his toes. As he swung back into the cliff, he deftly slammed another cam into the crack. And again. In this fashion Greg made his way down the rope, staying in contact with the cliff at an angle 30 degrees beyond vertical.

When he was even with the Catwalk, but 20 feet (6 meters) to the right of it, he started to pendulum, skittering back and forth across the cliff face, traveling farther with each swing. At last he made it to the Catwalk ledge, where he slotted home one more cam to stabilize himself. He had reached the granaries, likely the first person to do so in at least 700 years. One thing he knew, however: The technique he had used had not been available to the Fremont.

Now it was a simple matter. Greg reeled in Renee like a fish as she rappelled on a separate rope off our original line. Breathless with excitement, belayed carefully by Greg, she tiptoed up to the structures, then, with infinite care, lifted the lid on each. Out of sheer wonderment, she narrated aloud: "Ready? Wow, it's heavy. . . . It looks like they used an adobe seal to close the doors. But the seals are broken."

To Renee's disappointment, both granaries were empty. But the implication came to her at once. "It's incredible. They put all their corn here. But then they came back and got it, and took it away. They had to break the seals to get it."

Then, involuntarily, Renee whooped and yelled, "This is the coolest archaeology
I've ever done! This is the thrill of my life!"

One day in April 2006, as we drove along the Green River corridor, Waldo, Greg, and I stopped to look at a Fremont petroglyph panel that had been defaced by initials carved along its edges. One of the more prominent etchings reads "F McP." "I hate to say it," Waldo offered, "but that's my aunt. My mother's sister, Fern McPherson."

Waldo had grown up on Florence Creek, an eastern tributary of the Green, which flows into the mighty river only seven miles upstream from the mouth of Range Creek. "A little while back," the rancher told me, "I had to listen to this so-called historian tell me where the name 'Florence' comes from. I waited till he was done, then I said, 'You know that's all bullshit, don't you?' Then I told him how my granddad and my two great uncles went in there in 1883, and they brought in a woman to cook for 'em. Her name was Florence Fuller."

A few miles farther up the Green, we came to a BLM sign indicating yet another tributary, Nefertiti Canyon. Waldo pointed up the stream. "Trail goes right out of the canyon there," he said. "My dad and my granddad built it. Called it the New Year's Trail. It'll always be New Year's Canyon to me. That's what it was before the damn hippies come in." "Hippies," I had come to learn, was Waldo's all-purpose designation for everybody from grad-student archaeologists to BLM rangers to the river runners who had slapped an Egyptian label on a canyon that had already had a name for the better part of a century.

The more time I spent in Waldo's company, the more I realized that he was a walking encyclopedia of local lore and understandings that would evaporate with his passing. Waldo knew it: That sense of impending loss, I guessed, was at the core of the vague sorrow he seemed to carry with him wherever he went, even as he told funny stories about the blatherings of self-styled experts.

The year before, while driving us in his pickup into Range Creek by the Turtle Canyon road, Waldo suddenly put on the brakes, got out of the truck, hooked his thumbs in his jeans pockets, and stared at the skyline to the west. "This is where the old horse trail from Woodside comes in," he mused. "I oughta flag it. I'm probably the only one still alive who knows where it is."

A few days later we stopped on the dirt road several miles north of the Range Creek ranch buildings, and Waldo pushed his way through a frieze of ferns and cattails to a hidden source bubbling from the ground. "Dilly's Spring," Waldo announced. "Taste it. Sweetest water you ever drank."

"Who was Dilly?" I asked as I filled my water bottle, remembering also the name of the side canyon by which Greg, Renee, and I had descended from the Fortress.

"Tom Dilly," Waldo answered. "He was one of them old outlaws. When he was hidin', he'd hang out here, right near the spring. He was a real ladies' man. Real smooth. He could talk anybody into anything. If I could've known any of them outlaws, I'd of picked Tom Dilly. He wasn't a bank robber, but he stole more cows than Butch Cassidy did gold."

"So Butch Cassidy was in Range Creek?"

"All the time."

But suddenly Waldo gave vent to an unsentimental stricture: "People look at Butch Cassidy like he was a god. But a thief is a thief is a thief. Butch Cassidy was just a damned thief who was too lazy to work for a living."
 
Lore that is destined to be forgotten . . . a sense of the land that will vanish when Waldo dies . . . even the skills Waldo honed during his 50 years on Range Creek have lapsed into the limbo of lost arts. How many people still alive in the West know how to track a cougar, corner it on a ledge, and rope it into submission?

I would give much to have seen Waldo wield his lariat in his prime. He told me that he once roped a stray bison that wandered into Range Creek, then single-handedly castrated it, for fear that the animal would interbreed with his cattle. "I did everything wrong," Waldo recalled, "and it all worked out right. I threw at his head and missed. He stepped in the lasso with his two front feet. I jerked the rope up and hit him sideways with my horse and he lit on his back in the wash. He couldn't get up. My horse kept the rope tight. I got down in the wash and did my business, then I let him loose. Never did see that buffalo again."

For sport he had roped a black bear or two ("If you give him a little slack, he'll pull the noose off with his arms, just like a monkey"), and, once, a bighorn sheep, just because when his dad had done the same thing back in the 1930s, it had made the newspapers. Nobody in Utah had ever heard of a cowboy pulling off such a stunt.

In the vast labyrinth of the Tavaputs Plateau, I asked Waldo one day, Were there other canyons with anything like the richness of the "Indian stuff" in Range Creek?

"Nothin' as good as Range Creek," he replied. But months later, in April 2006, Waldo shared another of his secret spots with Greg and me, on the condition that we not name the place in print. We spent four days exploring this hidden canyon, two of them with Waldo, two on our own.

The secret canyon was no match for Range Creek in beauty—a stark, forlorn corridor between lumpy cliffs, it cut a long swath through the Tavaputs. It looked to me like a poor place to live, with a scarcity both of firewood and of potable water (only a silty stream ran through it). And though ranchers had tried unsuccessfully since before the turn of the 20th century to homestead here, the Fremont (and for all I knew, the Little People) had found the barren place congenial, for its cliffs and boulders proliferated in rock-art panels.

Having just turned 76, Waldo hiked with the bowlegged limp of a cowboy feeling a lifetime of aches and pains, but he was clearly having fun. "I never thought I'd come back through here," he announced after an hour, "and I knew for damned sure I wouldn't be walkin'!"

In a small stand of cottonwoods, we came upon a rusty stove going to pieces in the grass. Waldo touched it with the toe of his boot. "That old stove," he said, "started out in Fisher Valley. Granddad had it. He give it to Dad. Dad took it to Range Creek, then to Bighorn. When he stopped runnin' cattle in Bighorn,
he give it to some Italian sheepherders who brought it down here."

I was flabbergasted by the precision of Waldo's recollections. As we approached a huge, lone boulder, I saw a rusty shovel head lying at its foot. I picked it up. "I suppose this is yours?" I needled.

Waldo didn't miss a beat. "Yep. I used it to sand the ice in winter, so the cows could get across the stream."

Even farther up the canyon, Waldo pointed out the sagging ruin of a wooden house that sits half a mile (about a kilometer) away on the far bank of the stream. "Ellick Reed and Albert May built that, back in the twenties," Waldo said. "Ellick was the handyman in this county. He had his hand in about everythin' was built around here.

"Ellick come in, tried to help Albert take care of [the cabin], but they went bankrupt. Al ended up a pumper for the old steam locomotive out of Woodside. It just broke his heart goin' bankrupt here."

Waldo paused reflectively. "Come to think of it," he added, "except for my kids, there's no one I been in here with who's still alive. My dad's gone, and my brother, and everybody who worked for them, and both the old men who lived in that house over there are dead, and their kids are dead." The sorrow hung in the warm, windless air.

On one of our days in the secret canyon, Waldo stayed and shared our campfire before, late in the evening, driving his pickup back to Green River. I mixed up a salad, while Greg cooked steaks over the fire and roasted corncobs in their husks in the coals. Waldo drank the single beer he allows himself on the rare festive occasion. At the moment ole Duncan and his entourage of hippies working their mischief in Range Creek seemed but a distant rumor.

Waldo took a bite of corn. "I hate to say it, but I think that's the best corn I ever ate," he told Greg. "You make a good oven, boy."
           
Pushing hard and long on our two marathon hiking days, Greg and I managed to traverse all but a mile (about two kilometers) of the secret canyon. We spotted dozens of rock-art panels, a few potsherds, and one perfect arrowhead made of chert with intermingled streaks of gray-green, copper, and red.

On a hunch Greg climbed the cliffband above the terrace where we found the arrowhead. We were by then at the most remote bend of the long, winding canyon. While I sketched a faint petroglyph of a pair of bighorn sheep, Greg climbed until he was a good 500 feet (152 meters) above the valley bottom—halfway to the distant rim of the canyon.

Then I heard his cry of astonishment, and an echoing command: "Hey, come have a look at this!"

I scrambled up to the high corner that jutted out in a major canyon bend. Greg stood beside a boulder coated with the dark brown mineral accretion known as desert varnish. The entire upper portion of the rock had been carved—a millennium ago? or two, or three?—by some artist in the grips of a vision. The design was pure abstraction, an intricate mass of curved and intersecting lines, what some rock-art experts call a "maze." It was the most masterly ancient image we would come across in the whole length of the secret valley, and it occupied a truly lordly niche overlooking miles of canyon forking north and east of us.

Waldo later admitted he'd never seen that petroglyph boulder. "One reason I brought you guys in there," he said, "was I figured there was at least ten times as much Indian stuff as I ever seen." Only then did it dawn on Greg and me that we might just possibly be the only Anglos ever to have seen the ancient maze graved on the obscure rock halfway up the canyon wall.

Whoever carved the maze had known exactly what it meant. And his people had known, too. And they had known why he carved it there, on that boulder, not the next one (which was blank), at that high bend in that particular canyon.

The Hopi sometimes interpret petroglyph mazes as migration maps left by their ancestors, recording the people's wanderings from the time of their emergence from the underworld to their present whereabouts. But there is only the faintest of possibilities that the Fremont are ancestral to the Hopi. The patina in the carved grooves was so dark that we knew the art was very, very old. Perhaps it was the work of an archaic nomad long before the Fremont had arrived, a shaman from some culture we have yet to identify.

It was this sense of lost meaning that ached inside me, linked with what I perceived as Waldo's sorrow. More than once I had heard the rancher say, "I figure I know Range Creek better'n anybody else ever did, 'cause them Indians didn't live so long."

When Waldo dies, his life's store of knowledge and wisdom will go with him, and we will be the poorer for it. The valley where he lived for 50 years will still be there, of course, in all its glory and mystery. But the meaning of Range Creek is nothing you can put in a plastic bag.

See incredible photos of the artifacts >>

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