Letters from the Desert
from Steve Allen

Dear friends,

Yet another year has passed in the canyons of Utah. My twelfth. Many of you will remember when I escaped the real world in 1988 and headed to the desert for a short period of refreshment before returning to a reality of business and work. Luckily, things don’t always go as planned; I never did get back to ‘real’ life, having found happiness as a hiker and writer.

Time spent in the backcountry is now a precious commodity. Wilderness romps have given way to the serious fun of putting together a place names book for Utah’s canyon country. Literature research takes me from one library to the next all across the west, and interviews with the old timers—ranchers, miners, river runners, and other early explorers—provides fresh materials and new insight.

I’ve found a common bond and a common language with the wonderful folks I talk to. Sitdown interviews provide a welcome outlet for many who otherwise wouldn’t have a chance to tell their stories. And the stories I hear are so wonderful. Some are quixotic, others amusing, and many are amazing. A couple of examples:

One would think that the name Hens Hole Peak on Thousand Lake Mountain would have something to do with chickens. The real story, though, involves Henry ‘Hen’ Maxfield, a sheepman who roamed the area in the late 1800s. Henry was very tall and lanky and had a bad back. In order to more comfortably shear his sheep, he dug a waist–deep hole on the peak and stood in it so the sheep would be at a convenient level, thus giving us ‘Hen’s Hole.’

Pete Steele Butte stands above Tarantuala Mesa on the west side of the Henry Mountains. Pete and his brother settled in the area in the early 1900s. Pete was not known for his cleanliness. Interviewee Keith Durfey:

“... the old cowboys would come by his [Pete’s] place ... and one of ’em, one day, was settin’ down to eat some sourdough biscuits and they opened up the gallon honey can, had the ‘pop’ lid, and one of ’em says, ‘Pete! There’s a mouse in your honey!’ And Pete says, ‘I know it. You don’t have to eat the mouse. Just eat around it.’”

Interviewee Betty Smith ran the Smith Ranch and Rancho Not So Grande on the northeast side of the San Rafael Swell for many years. One day a lightning storm trundled across the flats near the Rancho. While Betty and her granddaughter Donna were standing in the doorway of the Rancho watching the storm, a bolt of lightning struck between them, blowing out the back of the house!!

Napoleon said “What is history but a fable agreed upon.” I keep that in mind as I hear the stories. There is a kernel of truth in each one, but true or not, they still describe and define the landscape.

I hope your year went well. Most of you I will see this coming spring. Until then, good travels.




© 1990–2007 Steve Allen