The Rocky Mountain states that I’ve been describing in this blog over the past several weeks project a breathtaking majesty when their massive, snow-covered mountains are beheld from the arid flatlands below. But while its Wasatch Range is formidable enough to have hosted the Winter Olympics eight years ago, one of those states displays an even more vivid masterpiece of nature.
In Utah, towering and jagged rocks jut out of the earth like broken teeth —shimmering red teeth when the sun beats directly upon them. Weathered boulders balance on tiny fulcrums of rock, narrow spires stick like pins out of a clifftop, and stone gargoyles shaped like ships or faces turn orange in certain light — or a slick and sinister yellow when sudden mountain storms pelt them with needles of rain.
Civilization comes upon you by surprise here. You’ll be winding through a canyon, round a bend, and find yourself in a little town of red-brick stores and red-stone houses, red-dirt yards, and a bright-white Mormon temple.
Utah’s Colorado Plateau, on which all of this sits, has been rising every year for millions of years — and it will nudge upward again by a few millimeters this year. In the process, rivers like the Green and the Colorado have eaten into the soft sandstone and grown wilder. So has the wind. That’s why jagged spears of stouter rock that resisted erosion appear almost out of nowhere on the horizon. There’s even one place, far from any road, where you can hike down a 600-meter canyon that narrows to just four meters at its base.
The rocks are bright red because, long ago, iron deposits in the sandstone oxidized as they were exposed to air. Ripples of gray limestone, once submerged in prehistoric seas and now interspersed in the sandstone, also weave through the hillsides. Where geological shifts were sudden, you’ll see red rock on one side of the road and gray on the other.
Hidden among the jaw-dropping formations are little Utah state parks with names that suggest Color Country: Coral Pink Sand Dunes State Park, Kodachrome Basin State Park, Escalante State Park — escalante, the Spanish for climbing, climbing — escalating — through these stark hills.
But most tourists head for Utah’s remarkable concentration of national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches National Park, Carol’s and my favorite, where the wind has whistled clear through boulders, creating bows of red rock rising into the sky.
They are all overtures to the most awesome natural wonder of them all — the enormous Grand Canyon, 200 kilometers to the south in Arizona.
In Color Country you’ll see human rockclimbers but not much wildlife beyond a lone eagle or a skittering lizard. Way back in the remote Henry Mountains, however, the intrepid backpacker can find America’s only free-roaming, huntable buffalo herds. In the blistering heat of summer, hikers had best be wearing wide-brimmed hats and carrying plenty of water, for the shivers of dawn can turn to sweats and delusions under the baking midday sun. Been there. Done that.
Skiers flock to Color Country in wintertime, not so much for downhill excitement but to glide along trails cross-country style, past formations such as the “Fiery Furnace,” the “Delicate Arch,” and mysterious clusters of rock spindles called “hoodoos.”
Then, come late spring, much of Utah turns bake-oven hot and vibrant red once again.
What do these American films have in common: “The Green Grass of Wyoming,” “Fort Yuma,” “Death Valley Days,” and “The Badlanders”?
“The Green Grass of Wyoming” was not filmed in Wyoming.
“Fort Yuma” was shot hundreds of kilometers from Yuma, Arizona.
“Death Valley Days” was recorded nowhere near Death Valley in the California desert.
“The Badlanders” was produced far from the Badlands of South Dakota.
And not one of them was shot in Hollywood.
All of these “westerns” — and about a hundred more — were filmed in Little Hollywood, in the deserts and canyons near the tiny Utah town of Kanab. So were non-westerns like “The Planet of the Apes.” Many television episodes have been shot among the red rocks, too.
Why there, more than 1,000 kilometers from the real Hollywood?
About 80 years ago, three brothers — Gron, Chauncy, and Whit Parry — were running a small bus company offering sightseeing trips past the rocky gorges of what became Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Grand Canyon national parks. This was a time when Hollywood producers were looking for more realism in their movies than plywood sets with phony rocks and painted skies could deliver.
A big-shot producer who happened to take the bus trip fell in love with the incredible vistas. Even though movies were still strictly black and white, he figured Utah’s spectacular cliffs and canyons would be the perfect backdrop for the stagecoach robberies, cavalry charges, and Indian wars that are staples of western movies. In 1924, the first film, “The Deadwood Coach,” starring cowboy hero Tom Mix, was shot near Kanab.
Whit Parry gathered up photographs of the filming of that movie and drove to Hollywood, where he convinced other producers to bring their casts and crews and props to Kanab as well.
Back in Utah, his brothers bought an old cabin and turned it into a lodge where actors, directors, and film crews could stay during shoots. The Parrys recruited people in town to feed the cast, build Old West sets, and provide horses and mules for films starring actors like Clark Gable and Henry Fonda. The Parrys also brought in the “extras” — men and women without speaking roles who walked “Main Street,” rode Indian ponies, and drove cattle past the cameras. Gron Parry once boasted that he could supply “an 80-year-old man, a six-month-old baby, a buffalo, or a chipmunk.”
By 1980, the popularity of westerns had dipped — and the cost of shooting in the wilderness grown so high — that producers found cheaper alternatives closer to Hollywood. Though most of the old movie forts and corrals and ranch houses have blown to the four winds, Parry Lodge still stands. It’s a guest house, full of photos of the glory years. And occasionally, when somebody’s making a TV commercial or a low-budget film, there’s even a call for an 80-year-old man, or a baby, or a chipmunk.
The wind blows most of the time in Kanab, and off to the west as well, in the middle-sized city of St. George on the Nevada border. Still farther west and south, too, where — in the 1950s and ’60s at the height of the Cold War — the federal government exploded more than 80 atomic bombs in the atmosphere above the Nevada Proving Site. Authorities were careful to conduct these tests when the winds were blowing northeastward so they’d miss populous Los Angeles and Las Vegas.
But the radioactive breezes did not miss all civilization. Shoshone Indians lived nearby, ranchers grazed sheep, and a few thousand people lived quietly in little St. George, right in the line of the prevailing winds.
“Downwinders,” they began to call themselves. Locals remember gathering on high ground for the perfect view of the distant mushroom clouds, and visits to their schools by men carrying Geiger counters.
They remember sheep born deformed, and proven reports of increases in human deaths from terrible diseases. One woman, Claudia Peterson, lost a daughter to leukemia, a sister to melanoma, her father to the after-effects of a brain tumor, classmates to Hodgkin’s Disease and bone cancer, and a half-dozen neighbors to other cancers.
In 1955, cowboy film star John Wayne shot his only costume epic, “The Conquerer,” in red-rocky Snow Canyon, 18 kilometers (11 miles) north of St. George — just as fallout from a nuclear test wafted directly overhead. Wayne, co-star Susan Hayward, director Dick Powell, and others associated with “The Conquerer” would one day die of cancer. Coincidence?
Claudia Peterson told me there were no widespread protests about the atomic testing because St. George was a quiet, patriotic little Mormon community that believed military officials when they said the town and its people were perfectly safe. The U.S. Government subsequently admitted some responsibility for the deaths downwind of the Nevada Test Site. In 1991, it awarded $200 million in victim compensation.
Today St. George is a boomtown for golfers, skiers, and retirees. The downwinders’ story is told in two books: “American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War” and “The Day They Bombed Utah”. You won’t, however, find these books mentioned in the St. George tourist and retirement brochures.
A quick addendum to my recent blog about American bison, or buffalo. My friend and poker buddy Walker Merryman, a South Dakota native, wrote to tell me, “My first job was in the concession stand at Wind Cave National Park, where our featured item from the grill was an exceptionally tasty buffalo burger. We didn’t tell the tourists that about a third of it was ground beef. Buffalo meat is so low in fat that it is almost impossible to successfully cook it without burning it to a cinder. You have to add some meat that isn’t so lean.”
So if your buffalo burger crunches like charcoal, it’s probably genuine.
Gargoyle. A decorative, carved water spout resembling a grotesque dragon, famously mounted around the roofs of castles. This word as well as “gargle” come from the French gargouille, or “throat.”
Geiger counter. You know the meaning of this word if you’ve seen one of those low-budget, black-and-white space-invader movies. It’s an instrument, full of dials, that gives off static sounds that grow more insistent closer to the radiation source. German physicist Hans Geiger and a colleague developed the instrument in 1907.
Oxidize. To introduce oxygen to another chemical or metal, creating different substances called oxides. Oxidized iron in some rocks takes on a rusty hue. Some metal surfaces are deliberately oxidized as a preservation technique.