Cowboys, Hikers and the Bridges Not Yet Built

The West is home to a quiet civil war over land and treasure. Can we call a truce?

The Hell’s Backbone Bridge over Box-Death Hollow connects the Utah towns of Boulder and Escalante. | Photo by Heidi Kyser

The Hell’s Backbone Bridge over Box-Death Hollow connects the Utah towns of Boulder and Escalante. | Photo by Heidi Kyser

About an hour southeast of Boulder, Utah, in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, is a bridge between two cliffs 1,500 feet above Box-Death Hollow. It’s the pinnacle of a Civilian Conservation Corps project completed in 1933 and a prescient symbol of cultural tensions now brewing in the world below.

When Boulder residents learned New Deal funds were available for public works, they petitioned the federal government for a road to Escalante, Utah. Only a half-hour apart as the crow flies, the two towns were separated by the rugged landscape that the Escalante River and its tributaries had carved through the mountains. To build the bridge, the Corps felled two large trees, planed each on one side and laid them across the gap. An engineer nicknamed “Sixty Mack” drove a tractor across the beams to finish the structure. The bridge, which has since been modernized, was said to creak and sway during crossings, earning it the nickname “Hell’s Backbone.”

Before hitting Hell’s Backbone Road, my significant other, Peter, and I stopped at a small grocery store in Boulder. Two trucks—one small, one large—were getting gas out front, and two men stood near the pumps chatting amicably in the cool morning air. The taller, older of the two wore a cowboy hat and boots; the other had the flannel, unwashed look of a 21st-century hippie.

I wondered what each would say if I asked how they felt about the federal government building the first road between Boulder and Escalante. Emotions run high on the subject of Big Government’s hand in Utah’s land-use decisions. There are more than two sides to the issue, and most people find themselves straddling multiple perspectives.

Environmentalists, who want to see the fragile wilderness left intact, protest the building of infrastructure and the designation of land for recreational use. Outdoor enthusiasts—from hikers and rock climbers to fishermen and hunters—want the natural resources they enjoy to be protected; they draw a line between themselves and others, such as ATVers, whom they see as destructive. Livestock ranchers—the first humans since the Ancestral Pueblo Indians to settle in the Escalante region—have leases with the Bureau of Land Management for grazing, but resent regulations that restrict their ability to make a profit on land they consider their own.And developers are still seething from former President Bill Clinton’s 1996 creation of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, which converted nearly 2 million acres of BLM land to protected wilderness after a bill proposing to do more or less the same thing had failed in the U.S. Senate.

“The South was forever shaped by the Civil War, and today we in the West are in the midst of our own,” writes Utah author Terry Tempest Williams. “It is not a battle over issues of slavery. It is a battle over public and private uses of land, what will be developed and what will remain sovereign. Guns are replaced by metaphorical monkey wrenches and shovels.”

After two days of backpacking through Escalante, Peter and I checked into the Boulder Mountain Lodge, and prepared for a much-anticipated dinner at Hell’s Backbone Grill. “It’s an apt name for us, because the restaurant has been precisely that for the community: a bridge,” co-owners Jen Castle and Blake Spalding wrote in their cookbook, With a Measure of Grace. To accomplish such feats as getting a liquor license, the pair had to listen to and work with the local Mormon community. In the end, they found common ground and carved out a harmonious coexistence.

On this night, bridge metaphor notwithstanding, the restaurant was full of people much like us, nature-loving city folks. Afterward, Peter and I strolled along Highway 12, the scenic byway that now connects Boulder and Escalante. We passed a brightly lit café, with a barn-red exterior. Inside, a crowd of older men and women in Western shirts filled long tables.

I wondered how they felt about our being there, drinking wine, spending money in their town, enjoying their land—our land. During our time in the wilderness, we always try to leave the lightest possible trace, but every mark adds up.


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