April 21, 2013

“Not a grog-shop, or gambling saloon, or dance-hall was to be seen…

~Dellenbaugh, Kanab, 1872

Is it an illusion, a mirage this biblical expanse of desert in southern Utah?  Our client gamely reminded himself that this was precisely what he’d been looking for-a landscape unchanged since 1872-as we set off into the piercing light.  The house will be a lair out of a James Bond movie.  Lucky for us, there are no bad guys to be found, only one of the most attentive and friendly client we've ever had the pleasure to work with.

The house will have floor-to-ceiling windows with vivid desert views making you forget...turn off that I-phone!  The perfect way to finish the day is to sit out on the terrace, cozy up to the roaring fireplace, gaze out at an endless sea of stars, and haul with the coyotes.

But I’d also wanted to explore southern Utah in the footsteps of an improbable outdoor adventurer—Frederick Samuel Dellenbaugh, who at the ripe age of 18 joined the last great voyage of exploration in the Old West. This Gilded Age Hardy Boy made it through the raw desert in May and June 1872 with a group of amateur explorers who were hardly more qualified than himself. In his later years, Dellenbaugh traveled the world as an artist and writer, and helped to found, in 1904, the esteemed ExplorersClub, now on 70th Street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.

I was fascinated by his teenage adventure, largely forgotten today, when he and his friends found the first route through southern Utah’s maze of canyons, discovering the last unknown river in the continental United States, the Escalante, and the last mountain range, the Henrys. They were the first to peer into that phantasmagoric expanse of Bryce Canyon and the first to cross what is now Capitol Reef National Park. At one particularly tricky canyon crossroad, they tried to convince a Ute Indian to act as a guide, “for the labyrinth ahead was a puzzle,” Dellenbaugh later recalled. After the man wandered off, the group pressed on anyway, trusting to their spirit and wits.

Parts of southern Utah have since been immortalized by the painter Maynard Dixon, the novelist Zane Grey, the photographer Ansel Adams and countless Hollywood westerns.  And yet, it still qualifies as the best-kept secret in the West. While millions of travelers are drawn every year to Grand Canyon and Zion National Parks, many unexplored areas offer a seemingly endless choice of natural wonders that lie blissfully forgotten and empty.  It’s America’s Outback. I drink to that.  Where’s that Polygamy Porter?