‘Blow Sand in His Soul’ captures beauty of landscape
Contributing to the 50th anniversary celebration of Canyonlands National Park is a biography of the park’s biggest advocate, the “Father of the Canyonlands,” Bates Wilson.
“Blow Sand in His Soul: Bates Wilson the Heart of Canyonlands” by Jen Jackson Quintano is part biography of National Park Service Superintendent Wilson, part historical record and part love letter of the desert landscape.
Quintano, who now writes from her cabin in North Idaho at the base of the Cabinet Mountains, lived 10 years in southern Utah’s Canyon Country, and her narrative is enriched by her deep understanding of and obvious appreciation for the sand, canyons and spires Wilson dedicated his professional life to both protecting and sharing with the world.
“Piñon and juniper branches crackle to life in the predawn dark,” Quintano writes. “Color licks and flickers up the surrounding sandstone walls, introducing reds into the young morning’s grays. As his travel companions slumber, Bates splinters the thin layer of ice in the water bucket, pours, situates the coffee pot on the fire, and then lights a cigarette. As the coffee perks, smoke swirls and stars fade, but Orion stands sentinel until he is finally — reluctantly — vanquished by dawn. And the desert is born anew: buttes, towers, a jumble of chaos and empty perfection sweep to infinity. Such is the topography of Bates Wilson’s heart.”
Wilson served as superintendent of Arches and Natural Bridges national monuments from 1949 until 1972, when he retired. During his tenure, he oversaw the expansion of Arches and its upgrade to a national park.
Superintendent had a broad job description that could include roping a stray, rappelling to petroglyphs, cooking huevos rancheros around a campfire or trailing Hollywood film crews into Utah’s backcountry.
A down-to-earth, self-sufficient and personable man, Wilson seamlessly moved among bureaucrats, politicians, ranchers and tourists. Edward Abbey admired Wilson as a mentor, and Wilson had a life-long friendship with Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall.
Wilson was known for his dutch oven diplomacy, introducing visitors to the beauty of the desert country with a Jeep or horse tour ending in a hearty campfire meal. The “cowboy-cum-diplomat” could close a deal over shots of bourbon. Humorously, “James Beam” was listed on rosters of official Park Service reports. Mr. Beam reportedly served the role of “Mascot.”
Wilson encouraged Moab to embrace tourism in order to diversify its economy in the wake of inevitable boom-and-bust cycles of mining. That legacy is probably second only to the park designation for Canyonlands on Sept. 12, 1964.
“Blow Sand in His Soul” is enhanced by abundant personal and historical items from Wilson’s family, and from the Canyonlands and Arches National Park archives. Accompanying the narrative are numerous primary sources, such as trip logs, newspaper clippings, historical photos, letters and maps.
A glossary of “Desert Vernacular and Batesisms” is a funny and appropriate addition.
As with all historical reference books, however, “Blow Sand in His Soul” would have aided researchers by including an index.
That omission aside, readers will learn much about the charismatic and adventurous Bates and the intriguing history of the park itself.
Friends of Arches and Canyonlands Parks-the Bates Wilson Legacy Fund spearheaded the publication of the book, a softcover that retails for $18.95.
Local readers may recognize Quintano’s byline from her work for High Country News, Mountain Gazette, Inside/Outside Southwest, The Independent and several newspapers. This is her first book. Her second is under way: a biography of her great-uncle, Mike Miksche, an acclaimed mid-century artist in New York.