On the Butch Cassidy trail in Utah
By Susan Spano
Los Angeles Times
By Susan Spano
ST. GEORGE, Utah — "Most of what follows is true." That's the opening of "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid," the 1969 movie about two bandits born as the sun was setting on the old Wild West.
Morally ambiguous, the movie struck a chord with Vietnam War-era audiences who stood and cheered when Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance met a hail of bullets in a Bolivian town, etching the final frame onto my 15-year-old heart.
The movie wrote something else there as well: a love of Western scenery, which I rediscovered on a March trip to southern Utah.
With five national parks, Utah's grand scenery is unrivaled in North America. It's also where Robert LeRoy Parker, alias Butch Cassidy, was born in 1866.
On the Parker homestead in the Sevier River Valley 200 miles south of Salt Lake City, Butch learned to be a cowboy first and, later, how to brand other peoples' livestock. Apparently, he pulled only one big job in Utah, the 1897 Pleasant Valley Coal Co. payroll robbery at Castle Gate. Between heists, he and his Wild Bunch gang often hide out on Utah's Colorado Plateau.
I set out to track the historical and Hollywood outlaw in Utah but got only as far as St. George.
Downtown at the Washington County Library, I found vintage photos of the outlaw, including the mug shot taken when he was sent to the Wyoming Territorial Penitentiary for horse-stealing in 1894 and a portrait of the Wild Bunch dressed like city slickers. The Butch it portrays is an affable-looking man.
As so many locals claim, Butch didn't die in South America on Nov. 6, 1908. Instead, he and Sundance rode back to Utah, stopping in Mexico to meet Pancho Villa.
Others have tried to prove the opposite. The movie takes a middle ground by leaving their fate to the imagination but faithfully underscores the passing of the outlaw era.
I turned east on Utah 12 and headed for Ruby's Inn, on the threshold of Bryce Canyon, whittled from limestone into a gallery of pinnacles and spires known as "hoodoos." Mormon pioneer Ebenezer Bryce, who gave his name to the landmark that is now a national park, once said, "It's a helluva place to lose a horse."
Locals say a posse tracked a teenage Butch here when he took up rustling.
The next day, I drove west to the ranching town of Panguitch. Its block-long business district has Western storefronts occupied by cafes and shops, including Cowboy Collectibles, where I found reproductions of Wild Bunch "wanted" posters.
Panguitch is where Butch's youngest sister, Lula Parker Betenson, spent her last years after writing "Butch Cassidy, My Brother," published in 1975. The book confounded Western scholars with its assertion that Butch arrived at the Parker home in nearby Circleville in 1925 driving a new black Ford, unscathed by the bullets of federales who supposedly had killed him and Sundance. She died in 1980.
I stopped at Butch Cassidy's Hideout restaurant and motel in Circleville for Butch's Special Cheeseburger plate, then visited 84-year-old Alfred Fullmer.
Fullmer remembered that he raced horses with some of the Parker boys. Like some locals, he believes Lula's story about Butch's 1925 homecoming, although he said no one talked much about the bandit before the movie.
"Afterward, everybody claimed they'd seen him. I don't know, maybe I did," Fullmer said.
The next morning, I headed east on Utah 12. It makes a 120-mile loop through the minuscule ranching communities of Tropic, Cannonville and Henrieville at the threshold of 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, then rounds the east side of 10,188-foot Powell Point.
Bill Wolverton, a resource management ranger for Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, which abuts Grand Staircase-Escalante, knows the region well. Utah 12 crosses the wild Escalante River and it was a short walk from the highway to Upper Calf Creek Falls. Wolverton and I sat looking into the canyon, remembering the scene in the film in which Butch and Sundance jump from just such an aerie.
"I saw that movie again and it was like 40 years hadn't passed," Wolverton said. "I could anticipate all the lines."
After that, I took Utah 12 over 10,000-foot Boulder Mountain, unpaved until the 1970s, then spent the night at the Lodge at Red River Ranch on the Fremont River west of Torrey, a beautifully restored stagecoach inn that the owners claim Butch visited.
The next morning in Capitol Reef park, I hiked up the side of Grand Wash to Cassidy Arch, a spot wild enough to have earned Butch's name.
Then on to Hanksville, about 50 miles east of Capitol Reef, where I met Utah guidebook writer Mike Kelsey, who had promised to take me to Robbers Roost, a 30-mile-wide mesa banked on the south by the Dirty Devil River.
The Roost was the impregnable lair of the Wild Bunch. It had narrow slot canyons for hiding out, some springs, enough fodder for horses and overhangs where bandit sentries watched for posses. It can be reached only on unmarked dirt roads.
We walked up the canyon to the remains of an old stone cabin built by early ranchers — and reportedly used by the Wild Bunch.
I had permission to see the place from Gayemarie Ekker, one of the ranch owners. She lives now in Cedar City, Utah, but she grew up with her mother Hazel, father Arthur and older brother A.C. on the 160-acre Robbers Roost ranch started by her grandfather, Joe Biddlecome, in 1909.
"Butch Cassidy was our Robin Hood," Ekker told me.