The devil gets his due in Utah, in spite of (or perhaps because of) the roots of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in the state.
On recent wanderings through south-central Utah, we encountered Devil’s Garden and Dirty Devil River, as well as Hell’s Backbone and Hell Hole (in addition to the ghoulish Death Hollow, The Witches and Goblin Valley). Utah is also home to Devil’s Slide, Devil’s Kitchen, Devil’s Playground, Devil’s Castle, Devil’s Twist, Devil’s Gap, Devil’s Saddle, Devil’s Window and Devil’s Testicles (OK, the last one is made up, but we saw a rock formation for which that would have been an appropriate name).
Our adventures focused on what are today the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. We remained on the west side of the latter’s Lake Powell, the devilish pleasure created by the hellacious monstrosity that is the Glen Canyon Dam (which Edward Abbey succinctly deemed “sinful ugly”).
Abbey’s writing provided one attraction to the region. Another was Everett Ruess, the painter, poet and young man of letters who vanished near Davis Gulch in 1934 at age 20.
Ruess’ mysterious disappearance helped secure his legend, but his gift to us is contained in the remaining journals and letters that document his travels. Though he aspired to be a painter, and even cultivated a brief friendship with artist Maynard Dixon, whose own work centered largely on the American West, Ruess’ most impactful contribution comes from his words.
Well-read, observant and self-confident, but also questioning and prone to bursts of immaturity and anger, Ruess developed a deep-seeded urge to commune with wilderness rather than conform to society. In his teens, Ruess roamed Yosemite National Park, the northern California coast, northern Arizona and southern Utah essentially solo, occasionally ingratiating himself to strangers or briefly joining a group on an archaeological outing or other excursion.
All the while, Ruess religiously maintained journals and correspondence, much of which his family saved; samples of his writings and art can be found in the book Everett Ruess: A Vagabond for Beauty, and his archives may be accessed at the University of Utah. In his fine poem Wilderness Song, Ruess shares a condensed version of his journeys and promises:
Always I shall be one who loves the wilderness;
Swaggers and softly creeps between the mountain peaks.
I shall listen long to the sea’s brave music;
I shall sing my song above the shriek of desert winds.
Sadly, Ruess’s last known journal evanesced with him. In one prescient letter, Ruess wrote, “And when the time comes to die, I’ll find the wildest, loneliest, most desolate spot there is.”
Though remote, the Davis Gulch area is not exactly wilderness, and wasn’t even in Ruess’s time. Hole-in-the-Rock Trail (now Road) was created by Mormons in the late 1800s and spans more than 50 miles from the tiny town of Escalante through the desert and around concealed ravines to a rut in Glen Canyon. As it was in the 1930s when Ruess visited, the area remains a grazing range to the hooved locusts that are cattle.
Ruess was fascinated by early Native Americans’ links to the land, and he actively sought their petroglyphs and cliff dwellings. Rock engravings are still visible throughout the slot canyons, as are the remnants of ancient shelters in the sandstone walls.
Alas, the more poetic and meaningful monikers given to the terrain’s landmarks by American Indians have largely been lost to time, replaced with those assigned by Mormons and other white folk; one man’s Mother Earth Head is another’s Satan’s Bunion. In Death Comes for the Archbishop (one of Ruess’s favorite books), Willa Cather contrasts “the Indian manner to vanish into the landscape” with “the European’s desire to ‘master’ nature, to arrange and re-create.”
Perhaps if we were less intent on conquering the wild, on viewing it as an obstacle, we would not bestow such ugly names on such beauty.