Cathedral Valley and Claude Dallas

We were the only people out there, my family and I. Cathedral Valley in Capital Reef National Park was about as back of the back of beyond as it was possible to get. We’d come into the park from the north, crossing the Comb Ridge on a road where one other vehicle had passed since the last rain. We saw three cows, one of which was dead and mummified, and a few buzzards, and eventually one pickup who was as surprised to see us as we were to see him. In other words, it was a pretty typical back-country road in Utah in the late 1980s. We spent the night in the only hotel in Fruita UT.

The next day, we checked in with the ranger station at the National Park and got a map, looked at warnings and so on. The ranger expressed, not exactly dismay, but great surprise to hear about our route. Apparently no one comes in from that direction, especially not in a family vehicle. Note, we were in the second generation of Toyota Forerunner, which was still a pickup chassis with amenities on top. It had the highest clearance of any non-lifted 4-WD, and very robust skid plates. Very robust.

The ranger warned us about the roads. They are spotted here and there with bentonite, a type of decomposed volcanic ash that has become clay. When it gets wet, it is worse than gumbo mud. It has less traction than buttered glass or frozen pig poo.* All you can do is park and wait for the stuff to dry, then continue on. There were a few sandy patches that might require 4WD, but otherwise the roads were in good shape, so long as it didn’t rain. We had 25 gallons of water and diluted GatorAde™ with us, and food, and extra gas in Jerry cans. No worries!

It was a great day to visit the park, hike, and just be out under the huge, high-desert sky. If memory serves it was in the upper 70s for temperatures, because of the elevation. Sib was in grade school, I was in junior high, and frisky, so stopping every so often to let us run around, hike, and do our thing was the plan for the day.

Our eventual goal was Cathedral Valley. This is a sub-section of the park that, at the time, was very, very remote, not visited, and stunningly beautiful. By the time we got there, the shadows had begun stretching toward the east, and we opted not to try and hike down into the valley, but stayed up top, listening and looking around.

Upper Cathedral Valley – Capitol Reef National Park, UT Source:

Now, we’d had music on in the vehicle. It was Ian Tyson’s then-new album Cowboyography, which included the ballad about Claude Dallas. Now, we’d been up in Idaho and Montana when Dallas had broken out of prison, and that was one of the reasons why we carried rifles in the vehicle when we were waaaaaayyyyy out in the Back of Burke. So here we are, the only vehicle for miles and miles, and that haunting pedal steel starts playing. “In the land the Spanish once had called the Northern Mystery,/ Where rivers run and disappear, and the mustang still is free./ By the Devil’s Wash and the coyotes’ Hole and the wild Owyhee Range . . .”

We looked at each other, and at the land around us, and three of the four of us shivered, probably for different reasons, but still. I had a similar moment some years later, not long after my record-setting climb to get away from a pack of feral dogs. We were alone. Very, very alone. In a place of incredible, hard, beauty. Where anything might be out there, and probably was. We didn’t stick around much after that. It was getting late, after all.

*The one time I involuntarily left a road in the Midwest in winter was due to frozen liquid pig poo. Ordinary road ice has nothing on that stuff for slickness!


9 thoughts on “Cathedral Valley and Claude Dallas

  1. Sounds like a wonderful trip. Yeah, when I went out in the Idaho back country, I usually packed a 357 revolver for reasons.

  2. I drove through Capitol Reef in the late 50s with my family. We were in a ford sedan. Bulldozers were placed at strategic points to redo the sandy road after a storm.

  3. Y’all were braver than I was. I did that in a Jeep, and wished for something bigger! Regarding slick, wet red clay is right up there… sigh

  4. The loose silt up in the Great Basin was about as bad. Range control warned you which tracks to avoid, and to not try plowing through a loose wallow. And never stay parked on a wet or damp ssf pot for more than an hour.

    Knew someone mgt wasn’t happy with after rolling a rental car in a wallow. Heard about test items above a given weight and ground pressure ratio which disappeared overnight without track or trace – sank down below economic recovery depth.

  5. I believe you on the slickness and stickiness. We used bentonite clay in leg poultices on our horses’ legs. Great for making even, no lump poultices. Hell to get off fingers.

  6. I did a double take upon seeing that name.

    General local consensus was that those particular game wardens were thugs with badges, they’d most likely deserved it, and he’d performed a public service.
    That said, plugging them in the back of the head afterwards was clearly going too far, and couldn’t be overlooked.

    That’s the first time I’ve heard of a song for him.

    • A few years ago, Bearcat (an occasional commenter), had a long discussion about the events. Basically, what you said, but in a more detailed form. I’d have to go back to Tyson’s autobiography to see why he wrote the song, but that whole album ranges from good to fantastic.

  7. Our local soil has a mix of pumice* and clay, a combination of bentonite as well as broken-down gypsum shale. In winter, the soil will freeze and the ice layer will keep the surface water from penetrating. Walking on a thin layer of mud over the ice is an interesting experience when temperatures are just above freezing. Not sure how well snowshoes would work on the mud, but the traction spikes might help.

    (*) The obsidian shards in the soil make working it with bare hands quite splintery. It’s not good when some of that soil gets in leather gloves.

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