"I wouldn’t want some damned hippie digging me up and picking the gold teeth out of me after I die," says Waldo Wilcox, 77, the longtime owner of a 4,350-acre tract of high-desert country that included part of Range Creek Canyon, a little-known Utah wilderness where I’m standing right now. "I wanted to leave this land the way it was, so I left all the dead Indians’ stuff alone."
It’s an unorthodox land-management philosophy for a rancher (and vaguely insulting if you like Phish as much as I do), but that’s what has made Range Creek, 120 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, such a stunning place to explore. Mysterious petroglyphs line the canyon’s sepia-toned walls; they’re so precise and unblemished, it’s like they were etched in the rock yesterday. Cliff-side granaries are still stocked with dried corn. Visitors trip over grinding stones left by the Fremont, the native people who lived here and throughout Utah from 700 to 1400 AD, when they mysteriously disappeared. In fact, Range Creek is so well preserved that archaeologists have found intact sandals, woven baskets, and strands of ancient human hair. Standing here in the early November chill, I have the distinct feeling that the last 1,000 years never took place.
Waldo’s family had owned–and tightly guarded–this swath of high desert canyons and scrubby grazing land since the 1950s. But seven years ago, with little fanfare, Waldo sold the property for $2.5 million to the state of Utah. Old age was making it hard for him to run his cattle operation, and he wanted to retire. The agreement stipulated that the property, which is surrounded by 100,000 acres of BLM wilderness, would remain undeveloped (though Wilcox retains mineral rights). It also allowed the state to open the ranch, which encompasses 12 miles of the 50-mile-long Range Creek Canyon, to the public. That last part made national headlines because of the artifacts scattered across the terrain beyond the ranch’s gate. Many worried that looting was imminent. Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case, in large part because the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, which closely manages the area, permits no more than 28 visitors per day. Far fewer actually come–only 550 people a year have made the journey on average. It certainly helps that Range Creek is in the middle of nowhere.
My own trip involved a flight to Salt Lake City and a three-hour drive on an unlit highway into a land so remote I could only pick up one fuzzy radio station. (And it was playing "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk,” Trace Adkins’s ode to cowgirls with plus-sized cabooses.) The night was intensely quiet, so dark and billboard-less that I had to shout along with the music to keep myself from falling asleep.
When I finally passed East Carbon City, I turned off of UT 124 and read this sign: Warning. Range Creek is a primitive area. You must carry your own drinking water. There are no toilet facilities and no cell phone coverage at Range Creek. Proceed at your own risk. Perfect.
The next morning, I emerged into the biting autumn air, expecting to walk a circuitous path dodging ruins and pot shards. But I didn’t see anything other than dirt, clay, rock, and blue sky. Was I missing something? I was just starting to work myself into a panic when the sound of boots clomped out of the bushes. It was Mark Connolly, one of three conservation officers who watch over Range Creek.