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Chasing the Ghosts of Utah’s John’s Canyon on a Bike

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The night solar lay low as I dismounted my bike and walked off the path right into a labyrinth of creosote and prickly pear cactus. Minding each step, I arrived on the rim of the San Juan River gorge and leaned over the sting. The partitions of the chasm fell away in a sequence of steps and cliffs to a muddy ribbon of water 500 ft under. A gust of wind riled a swirl of sand as I regarded by means of squinted eyes to the primary ledge just under my ft. My creativeness immediately manifested the grotesque picture of a headless physique twisted amongst the rocks. A chill shot up my backbone. Perhaps doing this trip solo wasn’t an important concept.

Solely hours earlier, I left my automobile on the mouth of John’s Canyon and began my push westward alongside the southern boundary of Utah’s Bears Ears Nationwide Monument. I pedaled briskly hoping to take advantage of a brief afternoon, the burden of eight liters of water slowing my progress. The excessive desert is gorgeous within the waning mild of day, however on this event I wasn’t prepared for the arrival of darkness. Not simply some other bikepacking romp, my route retraced the footsteps of a nefarious killer. For the primary and final time ever, my GPS unit contained the approximate coordinates of victims dispatched and our bodies dumped. There have been most absolutely ghosts within the canyon. I might really feel their presence.

I first discovered of the John’s Canyon murders years in the past whereas skimming by means of a five-page newspaper in Blanding, Utah. A small editorial on the again web page introduced the 70th anniversary of the macabre occasions. The dearth of particulars appeared to imagine everybody from the realm already knew them. I didn’t.

In 1934 throughout the crush of the Nice Melancholy, a grifter named Clint “Jimmy” Palmer arrived within the city of Hugo, Oklahoma. There he met Dillard Garrett and his 13-year-old daughter, Lucile. The Garretts couldn’t have recognized it then, however Palmer was already an all-around ne’er-do-well, moonshiner, and convicted felon. Made a perpetual itinerant on the run from the legislation, he was additionally a confirmed pedophile and suspected psychopath. It wasn’t lengthy earlier than Palmer had designs on younger Lucile and finally murdered her father. He buried the headless torso in a river financial institution, kidnapped the younger lady, and fled to the isolation of John’s Canyon.

The excessive deserts of the West have lengthy been a hideout for folks escaping society. It’s the very cause why I discovered myself pedaling a loaded bike alongside a sandy highway. I used to be admittedly dodging work. Palmer hoped to outrun the hangman and stay in seclusion along with his captive bride. However in contrast to me, the one individual for miles, they weren’t alone within the canyon.

It didn’t take lengthy for the irascible Palmer to get entangled with the one different residents within the space. Working as a sheepherder, Palmer repeatedly tussled with cattle ranchers over grazing rights and entry to water. All of it got here to a boil in 1935 when native rancher William Oliver confronted Palmer. In a foolhardy transfer, Oliver lashed Palmer with a rope in anger. Palmer responded immediately and shot Oliver, then emptied his gun into his lifeless corpse. Nonetheless unhappy with the deed, he minimize off Oliver’s head with an axe and dumped the physique over a cliff. Solely hours later, he did the identical to Oliver’s grandson, Norris Shummway.

They are saying time by no means forgets the desert. It’s true issues don’t appear to age within the arid environs of Southern Utah. Alongside my route I pedaled by dozens of historic petroglyphs, their mysterious carvings illustrating a tough however easy existence of looking and foraging. On the far finish of my trip on the mouth of Slickhorn Canyon, the detritus of an outdated oil rig littered the bottom. Rusted peach cans and glass jars traced the outlines of outdated shacks. I even discovered the crude stone hut Palmer and Lucile used to outlive the winter and summer season of 1934 and 1935.

I’ve ventured into the backcountry of Utah for greater than 20 years and contemplate myself a hardened traveler for doing so. After I consider younger Lucile, the life she endured these years, and the tragedies she witnessed, I notice I’m not robust in any respect. Ponied up on a carbon fiber mountain bike and sleeping in a high-tech tent, my time in John’s Canyon made me a vacationer, not a troublesome man.

Earlier than the murders of Oliver and Shummway, Lucile’s life was a residing hell. Within the winter months of 1934, whereas pregnant along with her captor’s little one, she was taken to Goulding’s Ranch to obtain correct care. She finally gave start to a son, James Dee, who died simply seven days later. It’s onerous to grasp her resiliency. She was by no means given a good break. Not lengthy after the seize of Palmer and his convicted for the homicide of Lucile’s father, Lucile herself was convicted of consorting with a recognized prison; a tragic and misplaced interpretation of occasions.

I didn’t spend a lot time driving within the desert round John’s Canyon. The miles I coated weren’t nice and even all that difficult. The surroundings was mind-bindingly stunning, however the weight of Lucile’s story, above that of Palmer or his different victims, blankets the pink rocks and low scrub.

After I returned to my automobile I took a second to soak up the silence. I attempted to think about the sounds of gunshots as they echoed off the canyon partitions. Bikepacking journeys are seldom so introspective. It was a refreshing change to plod alongside, misplaced in a story not even Hollywood might greatest. And like most good tales, this yarn additionally has a contented ending. Regardless of her tribulations, Lucile went on to stay a pleasing life crammed with the normalcy she was disadvantaged of in her youth. She survived John’s Canyon.

I did, too.

Pictures by Christophe Noel

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