The lair of the ‘Wild Bunch’
June 15, 2005
The Robber’s Roost country of Utah was one of the last areas in the lower 48 to be fully explored. In this forgotten part of the world, eroded canyons cut the desert into more folds and creases than a plastic surgeon sees in a lifetime.The Roost is best known as the hide-out for a pair of outlaws who robbed their way through this Wild West landscape more than a hundred years ago. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid reached mythic notoriety for the romantic images they conjured. They used Robber’s Roost as a remote sanctuary, a hidden defile where few lawmen would venture, a place relegated to outcasts, hermits and other social castaways.
That’s why Graeme and I headed there 10 years go during one of our annual spring mountain bike tours, eager for a landscape with history and attitude. We rattled and rolled down Poison Springs Canyon, forded the Dirty Devil River, pushed over the Big Ridge and came in through the backdoor of the Maze District of Canyonlands. We sought out Robber’s Roost Canyon, the occasional home of Butch and Sundance, and whatever gang members trailed behind them.We nearly ran out of water, but the indistinct dirt track we followed finally led to the head of the canyon where Butch and Sundance had built a cabin in the late 1800s. Only a chimney was left standing, and a few blackened corral posts, meek and homely monuments to an ignominious pair of outlaws who met their fate during a gunfight in South America.Robber’s Roost spring was running, and we guzzled headache-cold water as clear as ice, drinking deep from the spring that once quenched the thirsts of highway men. The joke was on us when we noticed a dead pack rat filtering the flow in a tangle of willows, and we roundly cursed the demons who had put it there.
We camped that night near the cold stone chimney, feeling the gravity of the place. As the stars lit the heavens, we sensed the presence of stubborn ghosts, the spirits of recalcitrant badmen who knew no rest in the grave. Now they float in the ether, watching over long-forgotten booty probably still hidden in that immense desert country.Our route back across the Dirty Devil was a faded, two-track dirt road that ended atop a precipitous slickrock butte. Cairns led down into the canyon, and there, at a hidden spring trickling into a lush sandstone alcove, we encountered an old Mormon professor who said he had pioneered that trail. He looked at our bikes with misgiving, then warned us of a rattlesnake “bigger around than your leg” where the trail climbed out on the other side. There was a peculiar glint in that old man’s eye that gave us cause to heed his words.We never saw the rattler, but we determined to return there one day with our families, when our sons were old enough to appreciate a good cowboy yarn. That time came this April when we slung on backpacks and retraced our steps into Robber’s Roost country. We had come to revisit the mythical power of the Old West, longing to see that wild country again.
Wives and children can make just about any place feel tamer, but not so for Robber’s Roost. You can’t take the wildness out of a place that’s wild by nature and kept that way by the absence of man. The Wild Bunch is still holed up there, or at least their spirits are.After working our way down into the canyon on a series of slickrock ramps marred with the scratches of iron horseshoes, we held up at the river crossing to deliver the legend of the giant rattler. Our sons were all ears as we sat on the sandy riverbank and took off our boots for the crossing.”They say that snake is as big around as your leg,” intoned Graeme.
“As long as a fire hose,” I added. “With fangs the size of your little finger,” Graeme embellished.The kids were riveted, so I upped the ante: “They say it can swallow a man whole and gulp him down so fast that not even a scream can be heard until that snake belches. And then it’s just a muffled cry, like the distant howl of a coyote.”
“Naaah,” they chided, messing with their pack straps and fiddling with their shoes.”Then go ahead and cross,” we told them. “If you’re not afraid, just step in up to your waist, and let’s see if that old snake is just a legend or if it becomes your worst nightmare.”Cold, murky water has a way of eroding one’s courage, especially with bare feet on mud and the visceral image of a serpent from hell thrashing around in the imagination. The boys silently deferred to us, so Graeme and I stepped in and crossed, sinking occasionally into the soft, gooey mud up to our thighs. We set up our camp beneath a huge boulder written all over with Indian pictographs, where I found an arrowhead right next to my sleeping bag.
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In the firelight that night, with stars burning through the inky blackness, we talked about Butch and Sundance. We pictured them sniffing the piñon smoke of their fires, chewing beef jerky and drinking whiskey chased with ice-cold spring water. We wondered about hidden treasure and the plans those outlaws had made for the next robbery. We wondered if they talked about women. We thought about the Indians who had painted the rock and left their marks for us to puzzle over. We wondered about the big rattler and whether it only came out at night.The kids huddled close to the flames as a canyon breeze fanned it hot and steady. Graeme passed the whiskey flask, and we all had a taste to keep off the chill, real or imagined. We felt a rare kind of communion at that moment as bats flitted in the shadows, the river hissed with the voice of that rattler, and our imaginations played with our fears.If those long-dead outlaws felt the same sense of freedom we felt, then they were free men. And if they satisfied their hunger for the quiet isolation of a hidden desert canyon, the way we did, then they lived a rich life, indeed.Paul Andersen is a columnist and contributing writer to The Aspen Times who has a dose of outlaw blood in his veins.