Redrock storyscapes

  • Author Steve Allen climbing in Utah canyon country.

    Harvey Halpern

Escalante. Monticello. Manti-La Sal. Sheiks Flat. Kigalia. Tavaputs. Moroni Slopes.

Spoken like mantras, these place names conjure the Utah canyon country's bastard heritage – Spanish, Navajo, Ute, Anglo and Mormon. Today, they entice dreamers with their visionary topographies. But in earlier days it was the absence of names that drew people eager to fill in the blank spaces on the maps. John Wesley Powell and his crew scattered names along the Colorado River as if they had created that landscape: Cataract Canyon, Music Temple, Vermilion Cliffs. Many followed in their wake; soon, the maps became crowded. Posthumously, and ironically, Powell even lent his name to a recent manmade feature, the "lake" also known as Glen Canyon Reservoir.

"Landscape," wrote the art critic Simon Schama, "is a work of the mind. Its scenery is built up as much from strata of memory as from layers of rock." Place names form a palimpsest of memory on the landscape. They anchor territory in our imagination, claiming and taming it.

In his two-volume Utah's Canyon Country Place Names, historian and guidebook author Steve Allen, a longtime canyoneer, has gathered more than 4,000 names, listed alphabetically. Allen worked on the project for 15 years, sifting through maps and literature and interviewing old-timers, and the book is rich in early descriptions and tales told by explorers, pioneers, cowboys, miners and river runners.

The two volumes document hundreds of historic roads, trails, railroads and highways, as well as major cowboy line camps, now-vanished towns, and the water sources early settlers used. Each entry opens a peephole into the past, occasionally offering a non-sanitized glimpse of the Western mentality. Squaw Flats, Mollies Nipple, Bishop's Prick and other offensive monikers proved durable to varying degrees; a bureaucracy's sense of propriety often edited or left them off topographic maps. Nigger Bill Canyon near Moab became Negro Bill Canyon. (One wag proposed renaming it African-American William Canyon but was overruled.) Calling it Black Canyon, as some suggested, might defy racism, but also would blur the legacy of Bill Granstaff and the other black pioneers whose contributions to the West are too often ignored.

The names of settlers and explorers like John C. Fremont and Powell are peppered all over the landscape, routinely ignoring, erasing or corrupting Native American designations. A local Paiute word for a bug-filled wetland sounded like "Moab" to newly arrived Mormons, who were familiar with this name from the Bible and believed that the Natives were "Lamanites," a lost tribe from Israel.

Honorific names can stray into the outright possessive. Pappys Pasture, Bobbys Hole, Lees Ferry and other place names mark prime Anglo-American real estate. Animal and plant names often honor the naturalists who first collected and described them. Explorers pleased sponsors by naming landmarks after them; mountains sometimes commemorate industrialists or obscure secretaries of state. A variety of cottonwood, a river in Capitol Reef National Park and even a pre-contact Native culture were christened after Fremont, pathfinder and politician. Prospectors, trappers and traders established wilderness outposts that bore their surnames. Given the backgrounds, gender and biases of most mapmaking colonists, it is no surprise that few women or artists grace the land's linguistic register.

Place names are useful mnemonics, wrote the Southwestern curmudgeon Edward Abbey, but he doubted their ability to capture the essence of things. "Is there any reason out there for any name?" he asked with habitual contrariness. "These huge walls and giant towers and vast mazy avenues of stone resist attempts at verbal reduction."

Sure, Ed. But all language is verbal reduction. Just as haiku is whittled-down poetry, so place names are narratives in a nutshell. All landscapes teem with verbalized regional meanings. Allen's compilation celebrates a sense of shared history, drawing from societies sustained by the land. Solid as bedrock in its research, Utah's Canyon Country Place Names is as many-hued as the Chinle formation and as finely textured as Navajo sandstone. Readers won't devour it but instead sample and savor as they would Grand Gulch on a day hike.

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