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 that stood and cheered when Paul Newman as Butch and Robert Redford as Sundance ran, guns blazing, into 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 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 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 hid 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 when I started running into a third persona: the apocryphal Butch, who in some ways is the most interesting because of the people who told me about him.
St. George is the capital of Utah's Dixie, so named because Mormon church leaders dispatched pioneers such as Butch's father, Maximillian Parker, to settle and grow cotton there around the time of the Civil War.
Downtown at the Washington County Library, I met Bart Anderson, a historian and folklorist, known as "Ranger Bart" because he has devoted his retirement years to giving slide shows at nearby national and state parks.
Of the 111-show repertoire, the one on Butch is the most popular. It features 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.
"Butch was a contagious fellow, well-liked," Anderson says. "The movie got that much right."
Many locals claim that 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 while faithfully underscoring the passing of the outlaw era.
Around 1860, Mormon pioneers settled in Grafton, just down the Virgin River from the red rocks of Zion Canyon National Park. But floods, disease and hostile Indians made the colony unsustainable. By 1910, many had moved on, leaving a ghost town for Hollywood location scouts, who found backdrops for a passel of Westerns, including The Deadwood Coach with Tom Mix (1924), My Friend Flicka (1943), and John Ford's Rio Grande (1950).
I drove east through the red-and-white slickrock country along Utah 9, then turned north on U.S. 89, which runs through the hamlet of Orderville.
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 the teenage Butch here when he took up rustling.
Bryce Canyon Pines motel offers daylong trail rides to the remains of one of the stone cabins where Butch is thought to have stashed fresh horses for the relay escapes he perfected
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.
Lula was a toddler when her big brother left home, but in the 1930s she believed claims that William T. Phillips of Spokane, Wash., was Butch. Later, she changed her mind, saying she knew where the real Butch was buried but planned to take the secret to her grave. She died in 1980.
Ranches, barns, and pastures line the 20-mile stretch of U.S. 89 north of Panguitch. Just before Circleville, I spotted the lonesome, old Parker homestead, now privately owned. The wooden cabin has a loft where Butch might have slept as a boy.
In Circleville, I stopped at Butch Cassidy's Hideout restaurant and motel for Butch's Special Cheeseburger plate, then visited 84-year-old Alfred Fullmer.
Fullmer remembered that he had 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," Fullmer said. "I don't know, maybe I did."
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.
On our way to the trailhead to hike Upper Calf Creek Falls, we stopped at Head of the Rocks point, overlooking what seemed like the edge of the world. Wolverton pointed out the north face of the massive Kaiparowits Plateau, the Henry Mountains to the northeast, and the badlands around Waterpocket Fold, a 100-mile-long buckle of earth with sculptured red-and-white rock marking Capitol Reef National Park.
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 it was on to Hanksville, about 50 miles east of Capitol Reef, where I met Utah guidebook writer Mike Kelsey. He took 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 by unmarked dirt roads.
Kelsey, an old hand at such terrain, drove fast, pointing out water tanks for cattle that roam free on land the government leases to ranchers.
Around midmorning, we pulled up at Robbers Roost Spring, in a deep-set gulch rimmed by red rock, with water fine for cows and horses but too bitter for people.
We walked up the canyon to the remains of a stone cabin built by early ranchers - and reportedly used by the Wild Bunch.
A shared hostility to railroad barons and bankers kept the outlaws on good terms with the tough cattlemen who worked this isolated range. Antipathy to outsiders persists among some of them, which is why Kelsey was concerned when we headed for the Biddlecome-Ekker Ranch at nearby Crow Seep.
But 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.
Ekker told me: "Butch Cassidy was our Robin Hood."
Visiting Butch's Territory
US Airways, United and Southwest fly nonstop from Philadelphia to Las Vegas; from there, St. George, Utah, is about 100 miles northeast via I-15.
Places to stay
Boulder Mountain Lodge (Utah 12, Boulder, 800-556-3446, www.boulder-utah.com) is a contemporary wood lodge on Boulder Mountain that has a hot tub overlooking a bird sanctuary and a stylish restaurant. Doubles range from $72 to $162, depending on the season.
Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks have historic lodges and cabins. Zion Lodge is open year-round; doubles start around $154. Bryce Canyon Lodge is open April 1 to Oct. 31, with doubles starting about $125. For information, contact Xanterra, 1-888-297-2757, www.xanterra.com.
Butch Cassidy's Hideout Motel & Cafe (339 S. U.S. Highway 89, Circleville, 435-577-2008, www.butchcassidyshideout.com) is a small, shipshape motel and cafe; doubles from $58.
Lodge at Red River Ranch (Highway 24, Teasdale, 1-800-205-6343, www.redriverranch.com). The lodge, just west of Capitol Reef National Park, has 15 elegant guest rooms full of Western antiques; doubles from $160.
Ruby's Inn (1000 S. Highway 63, Bryce, 1-866-866-6616, www.rubysinn.com). The inn, at the entrance of Bryce Canyon National Park, is a Best Western hotel that is favored by families; doubles from about $70, depending on the season.
Places to eat
Boulder Mesa Restaurant (Burr Trail, Boulder, 435- 335-7447). Known for hamburgers and pie; $10 to $15.
Bryce Canyon Pines (Highway 12, Bryce, 1-800-892-7923). A motel with a friendly restaurant renowned for blueberry banana cream pie; dinner for one about $20.
Oscar's (948 Zion Park Blvd., Springdale, 435-772-3232). Serves huge burgers and burritos; about $10 to $15.
Rim Rock Restaurant (2523 E. Highway 24, Torrey, 1-888-447-4676). Steak, chicken, and pork chops, plus a great view of Waterpocket Fold; $20 to $25 per person.
For more information
Utah Tourism 1-800-200-1160, www.utah.com.
- Los Angeles TimesEndText