What’s in a canyon-country name? Author Steve Allen knows

As a young canyoneer and backpacker, Durango resident Steve Allen wanted to learn more about the red rock canyon country of southern Utah. He began a desert quest that took him into some of the wildest country in America. Forty thousand hard-hiking, boot-busting, knee-wrenching miles later, he shares his knowledge in “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names,” a Southwestern geographical and historical magnum opus.

Allen grew up exploring the deserts of eastern Washington, northwest Nevada, Arizona and Baja, Mexico. A skilled rock climber and canyoneer, with many first ascents of vertical walls and descents of slot canyons, he also wrote three books on Utah canyoneering.

His new book took 40 years to research and write. He’d dream of it in the pre-dawn or those last minutes of golden light on a canyon rim. For 15 years, in nine-month stretches, he base-camped out of Hanksville, Utah. “Living in my van,” he said. “My only address was P.O. Box 62, Hanksville.”

Allen spent hundreds of hours in archives and research libraries all over the West, but the time he loved best was talking to that last generation of desert settlers who not only knew the country, but named it.

“Luckily, I was able to do sit-down interviews with many of the classic old-time cowboys, those who had spent a lifetime on the range,” he said. “Their knowledge of their piece of land was often astounding.”

His two-volume “Canyon Country Places Names” is 750,000 words, with over 4,000 entries that are listed from A to Z. There are careful notations as to land ownership: Is it public land, or is it private? There are 2,180 bibliographic references.

Ever wonder how Wooden Shoe Buttes, Mollies Nipple or Ticaboo got their names? How about Mexican Hat, Blanding, Salvation Knoll or Hell Roaring Canyon?

Allen’s got 12 versions of Birch Canyon, Birch Creek and Birch Spring, eight varieties of Calf Canyon and 11 place names for Cottonwood Canyon. I was shocked to discover that in southern Utah, the devil has a canyon, garden, lane, monument, pocket, racetrack, slide and window all named after him.

Allen has place names for every nook and cranny, meadow, mesa, mountain, side canyon and draw in such well-known places as Glen Canyon National Recreation Area/Lake Powell, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion national parks. But he also covers canyon areas that are less heralded, such as Mancos Mesa, Lake Country, Cedar Mesa and the Dirty Devil/Robbers Roost country.

And, don’t forget the upland areas standing high over the canyons: the Aquarius, Awapa,  Kaiparowits,  Paunsaugunt,  and Markagunt plateaus. Even the lofty ranges of the La Sal, Henry and Pine Valley mountains are covered. 

Stories attach to the land, and the pioneer quips and quotes stand out with bald humor. Pearl Baker’s father, Joe Biddlecome, moved into the remote Robbers Roost country. She said he “was a cowhand of such competence that he had been invited to leave western Colorado, where his cows always had two calves and sometimes his bulls showed up with calves following.”

I learned about stock tanks designed and built by the Civilian Conservation Corps, stock trails, mining roads, river rapids, proposed dam sites and climbers’ first ascents of stone towers. Allen notes that in Parunuweap Canyon near Zion National Park, Maj. John Wesley Powell’s 1872 descent “marks the beginning of the modern-day sport of technical canyoneering in America.”

In the 1890s, gold miners along the Colorado River in Glen Canyon worked placer claims. Steve Allen has worked his own claims, and this book is a wealth of local history in shiny nuggets.

How did Fry Canyon get its name? Mormon pioneer Albert R. Lyman stated, “In the solitude of Elk Mountain and White Canyon, a gray bearded hermit appeared every now and then, always alone, always armed to the teeth and always in rags and dirt beyond description. He gave the name of Charley Frye, and while he lived, good horses, especially stock horses, disappeared in a very remarkable way.”

As for the barefoot beaver trapper Claud Simmons, he was described as, “as filthy and sloppy as a man can ever get.” His hands were so callused and dirt-caked that with his fingers he could lift live coals from a campfire to light his pipe. Locals nicknamed him “Tidy.”

Not only does Allen know how to research and write about the Southwest’s public lands, he knows how to give back. For over 25 years he has been a legendary leader of donor trips for environmental groups, raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for non-profit groups. His painstakingly planned backpack excursions change people’s lives. He’s opened their hearts and they’ve opened their checkbooks.

Every generation re-discovers Southwestern canyon country on public lands. In this decade, its Steve Allen’s two-volume “Utah’s Canyon Country Place Names” that will teach us the most about the red-rock desert and the pioneers whose lasting legacy is in the names they bestowed upon the land. I’ll need two copies — one for the shelf and one for the truck.

Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College in Durango. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).


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