Durangoan’s two-volume opus leaves no desert rock’s name unturned
As a young canyoneer and backpacker, Steve Allen wanted to learn more about the red rock canyon country of southern Utah. He began a desert quest that took him into some of the wildest country in America. Forty-thousand hard-hiking, boot-busting, knee-wrenching miles later, he shares his knowledge in Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names, a southwestern geographical and historical magnum opus.
Allen’s father spent years with aborigines in the Australian Outback. His physician-mother treated cowboys in the Black Rock Desert. Allen grew up exploring the deserts of eastern Washington, northwest Nevada, Arizona and Baja Mexico. His desert roots run deep. A skilled rock climber and canyoneer, with many first ascents of vertical walls and descents of tight, twisting slot canyons, Allen also wrote Canyoneering: The San Rafael Swell, Canyoneering 2: Loop Hikes in Utah’s Escalante, and Canyoneering 3: Technical Loop Hikes in Southern Utah.
His new book took 40 years to research and write, though he’d been dreaming it up half his life in the pre-dawn or those last minutes of golden light on a canyon rim. For 15 years, in nine-month stretches, he base camped out of Hanksville, Utah, living in a van. “My only address was P.O. Box 62, Hanksville.”
Allen spent hundreds of hours in archives and research libraries all over the West, but the time he loved best was talking to that last generation of desert settlers who not only knew the country, but named it.
“Luckily, I was able to do sit-down interviews with many of the classic old-time cowboys, those who had spent a lifetime on the range. Their knowledge of their piece of land was often astounding,” he said.
The Durango resident’s two-volume Canyon Country Places Names is 750,000 words, with more than 4,000 entries that are listed from A to Z. There are careful notations about land ownership; is it public land, or is it private? There are 2,180 bibliographic references. This tombstone of a book chronicles explorers, pioneers, cowboys, miners and river runners “who put names on the land” in 13 Utah counties with references to three counties in northern Arizona and three in western Colorado.
Ever wonder how Wooden Shoe Buttes, Mollies Nipple or Ticaboo got their names? How about Mexican Hat, Blanding, Salvation Knoll or Hell Roaring Canyon? Allen’s got 12 versions of Birch Canyon, Birch Creek and Birch Spring, eight varieties of Calf Canyon and 11 place names for Cottonwood Canyon. I was shocked to discover that in southern Utah the devil has a canyon, garden, lane, monument, pocket, racetrack, slide and window all named after him. Turns out there are 20 Trail Canyons in eight Utah counties.
Allen’s got place names for every nook and cranny, meadow, mesa, mountain, side canyon and draw in such well-known places as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Lake Powell, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, and Arches, Bryce Canyon, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks. But he also covers canyon areas that are less heralded such as Mancos Mesa, Lake Country, Cedar Mesa and the Dirty Devil/Robbers Roost country. And, don’t forget the upland areas standing high over the canyons: the Aquarius, Awapa, Kaiparowits, Paunsaugunt, and Markagunt plateaus. Even the lofty ranges of the La Sal, Henry and Pine Valley mountains are covered.
I learned about Bachelor Basin, Bagpipe Butte, the Bears Ears, Cleopatras Chair and Harveys Fear Cliff. Allen is meticulous with his spelling and translation of Navajo and Ute place names. Who would have thought that in Navajo Comb Ridge means “Mountain Sheep’s Testicles”?
I finally got the lowdown on how Shirt Tail Corner, Cheese & Raisins and Dead Horse Point earned their sobriquets. Research for this book is staggering. Each page brought new place name revelations from the likes of Emery Kolb, Barry Goldwater, F.V. Hayden, Kent Frost, Katie Lee, Edson Alvey, Richard Wetherill, Zane Grey, Vaughn Hadenfeldt, Pearl Baker, Neil Judd, Bert Loper, W.H. Jackson and Ed Abbey. The book offers quotes and observations from explorers, anthropologists and local ranching families, with even a few lines of poetry.
Stories attach to the land, and the pioneer quips and quotes stand out with bald humor. Pearl Baker’s father, Joe Biddlecome, moved into the remote Robbers Roost country. She said he was “a cowhand of such competence that he had been invited to leave western Colorado, where his cows always had two calves and sometimes his bulls showed up with calves following.”
I learned about stock tanks designed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, stock trails, mining roads, river rapids, proposed dam sites and climbers’ first ascents of stone towers. Allen notes that in Parunuweap Canyon near Zion National Park, Maj. John Wesley Powell’s 1872 descent “marks the beginning of the modern-day sport of technical canyoneering in America.”
In the 1890s, gold miners along the Colorado River in Glen Canyon worked placer claims. Steve Allen has worked his own claims, and this book is a wealth of local history in shiny nuggets. How did Fry Canyon get its name? Mormon pioneer Albert R. Lyman stated, “In the solitude of Elk Mountain and White Canyon, a gray-bearded hermit appeared every now and then, always alone, always armed to the teeth, and always in rags and dirt beyond description. He gave the name of Charley Frye, and while he lived, good horses, especially stock horses, disappeared in a very remarkable way.”
As for the barefoot beaver trapper Claud Simmons, he was described as “filthy and sloppy as a man can ever get.” His hands were so calloused and dirt-caked that with his fingers he could lift live coals from a campfire to light his pipe. Locals nicknamed him “Tidy.”
Not only does Allen know how to research and write about the Southwest’s public lands, he knows how to give back. For over 25 years he has been a legendary leader of donor trips for environmental groups, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for nonprofit organizations. His painstakingly planned backpack excursions change people’s lives. He’s opened their hearts and they’ve opened their checkbooks.
Allen tells me, “We take them to places they’ve never heard of that need protection. They are wilderness-eligible lands, and they see that these landscapes are as good as anything in the national parks and that they are worthy of protection. It is very satisfying.” Allen is booked a year in advance for eight to 10 annual week-long backpack trips.
Marcey Olajos, board member for Durango Nature Studies and the Center for Biological Diversity, says, “Steve has the ability to make his hikers aware of the importance of protection as he leads us into fantastic places, without being preachy. He truly loves the land. I would follow him anywhere.”
Ronni Egan with Great Old Broads for Wilderness says, “He somehow manages to present his groups with just enough challenges for their skill and fitness levels, while maintaining safety and flexibility. One of his most remarkable talents is knowing where to find water at the end of the day in places you’d swear there wasn’t a drop in 100 miles.”
Every generation rediscovers southwestern canyon country. In this decade, it’s Steve Allen’s two-volume Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names that will teach us the most about the red rock desert and pioneers whose lasting legacy is the names they bestowed upon the land. I’ll need two copies – one for the shelf and one for the truck.
firstname.lastname@example.org Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College.
Research goes canyons deep