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.

High Country News Classifieds
  • GUIDE TO WESTERN NATIONAL MONUMENTS
    NEW BOOK showcases 70 national monuments across the western United States. Use "Guide10" for 10% off at cmcpress.org
  • CARBON RANCH PLANNER
    The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic, and social health through education,...
  • EDUCATION AND OUTREACH DIRECTOR
    Education and Outreach Program Director The Quivira Coalition (www.quiviracoaltion.org) is a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that builds resilience on arid working lands. We foster ecological, economic,...
  • WESTERN DIVISION DIRECTOR OF FIELD PROGRAMS
    DEADLINE TO APPLY: October 29, 2021 LOCATION FLEXIBLE (WESTERN HUB CITY PREFERRED) Overview The Land Trust Alliance is the voice of the land trust community....
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.