Spirits in the Rock
Ancient Peoples and the Modern Traveler in Remote Range Creek Canyon
“We call it Choo-Choo Rock,” says Butch Jensen, our Range Creek Canyon guide for the day, as he points to the distinctive landmark. He’s the owner of Tavaputs Ranch, located on the plateau looming thousands of feet above us (Read: The Hunt for Tavaputs). Butch continues, “It’s Locomotive Rock to everyone else, but that’s what Jeanie has called it since she was a little girl,” and the name has stuck for the Jensen family. He’s referring to his wife of almost four decades, Jeanie Wilcox Jensen, who along with her parents and the four generations of ranchers before her grew up exploring the nooks and crannies of Range Creek’s spectacular and unforgiving landscape near the Book Cliffs in southeast Utah. In 2001, Jeanie’s uncle Waldo Wilcox sold the Range Creek ranch property to a trust; in turn the land is now owned and protected by the state of Utah and the Natural History Museum of Utah.
Range Creek is also home to some of the richest undisturbed remains of Fremont native culture in the southwest, including spectacular pictograph and petroglyph panels and ancient food storage granaries tucked into precarious cliff faces.
"The road itself is a celebration of cowboy engineering and the judicious use of dynamite; in most cases a one-lane dirt path blasted into the rocky cliff face."
Descending into Range Creek from the West Tavaputs Plateau is part of the adventure. The Wilcoxes built Sheep Canyon Road in 1951–52, the almost completely vertical three thousand-foot drop sliced by ten switchbacks. It’s easily maneuvered in a high-clearance Jeep, but vehicles any longer than that — like the Suburbans the Jensens use for larger tour groups — need to complete a couple of K-turns on the steeply angled pitch. The road itself is a celebration of cowboy engineering and the judicious use of dynamite; in most cases a one-lane dirt path blasted into the rocky cliff face. It’s a drive that’s equal parts visually stunning and hold-your-breath terrifying, especially in bad weather.
“After we hit the first switchback, things can get pretty quiet on the ride,” says Butch of passengers on their first Sheep Canyon experience, “There’ve been some white knuckles.” Understatement, thy name is Butch Jensen.
My inner mama-bear shudders to think of raising toddlers on the knife-edge ridge tops, with sheer drop-offs on either side of the small group of pit houses built hundreds of feet above the creek bottom. Was it desperation and self-protection that drove the Fremont to live so perilously? Or a desire to be closer to the elements, their gods or the powerful sky?
Archaeologists studying the settlement patterns of Range Creek and other nearby drainages note that early inhabitants of the areas cultivated crops in the creek bottoms and built settlements nearby on gentle slopes above the flood zone. Over time, the Fremont moved higher up the cliff faces for both living and for storing food, perhaps as a defensive measure against raiding. Says NHMU archaeologist and field school director Shannon Boomgarden, “It’s all a very tight occupation period.” Although there are indicators of people in the area as early as 400 A.D., the vast majority of the artifact concentrations and architecture (which can be dated by the wood beams used in construction of dwellings and granaries) points to peak occupation between 900-1200 A.D.
"My inner mama-bear shudders to think of raising toddlers on the knife-edge ridge tops ... hundreds of feet above the creek bottom."
Since 1999, a dozen or so students enrolled each summer for the Range Creek archaeological field school have been annually inventorying the known sites in the canyon, monitoring for vandalism — which is fortunately rare with the limited access to the canyon and current permitting system — and erosion. They conduct research projects in the canyon mimicking prehistoric agricultural strategies to figure out just how much work and resources it took for people to irrigate, grow, harvest, then transport their crops to the remote granaries.
Says Boomgarden, “It’s an incredible opportunity for research,” in Range Creek Canyon. “I love that students are so isolated in this spot,” with no internet access, cell phones or outside distractions; all communication in the canyon is done face-to-face. “It’s a good baseline to come from when thinking about how the Fremont lived. It’s valuable for students to take a moment to image what it was like a thousand years ago.”
As we pile into Butch’s Jeep for our return trip up to the Tavaputs Plateau, I’m struck anew by the intimacy and challenging verticality of this landscape, how this rugged and intimidating place has changed through time, from the Fremont living precariously on ridge tops to the Wilcox family literally building access to the world with dynamite and cowboy ingenuity. And I give my kids a big huge mama-bear hug when I meet them back at the ranch, thankful for toddler years spent on terra firma.