Published: August 2006
Guardian of a Ghost World
For 50 years rancher Waldo Wilcox guarded a Utah canyon full of artifacts from the ancient Fremont culture. Now the secret's out.
By David Roberts

Waldo Wilcox stayed on his father's Utah homestead in Range Creek for 50 years, even as he married and had four kids, and during that half century, the man performed a truly extraordinary feat.

As soon as the Wilcoxes had moved to Range Creek in 1951, they built sturdy fences with locked gates at either end of their prime cattle-raising spread, which stretched 12 miles along a remote canyon floor. As a grown man, Waldo regularly patrolled his valley—with shotgun in hand, rumor has it—to keep out trespassers.

In 2001, at the age of 71, he sold his ranch to the Trust for Public Lands. Waldo's wife had never much liked her remote home, and he had seen no way to divide the ranch fairly among his grown children. With heavy heart, Waldo moved into a boxy little house in nearby Green River.

The next summer, archaeologists got their first look at Range Creek. They were overwhelmed by what they found: arrowheads, potsherds, beads, grinding stones, rock art, granaries on high ledges, and rings of stones, the remnants of buried pit houses—all this, the work of the Fremont, farmers and hunter-gatherers who had lived there a thousand years ago and more.

Unlike many ranchers in the American West, for whom collecting prehistoric treasure was a customary hobby, Waldo had left virtually every artifact undisturbed. "I won't lie to you," Waldo says. "I picked up arrowheads, 'cause if I didn't, somebody else would. But I never dug anything up. Maybe I'm superstitious, but I figured them Indians wanted the stuff left there." About human remains, the rancher was particularly circumspect: "I don't want some damned hippie digging up my body after I die."

Last year at a meeting in Salt Lake City, Kevin Jones, the official Utah state archaeologist, said Range Creek was the best protected area he'd ever seen. "And the great irony," he said, "is that it was protected by a single private owner, not by all the laws that we've passed to preserve our cultural heritage."

Because of the canyon's riches Range Creek was kept secret for three years after Waldo sold it. But when a local newspaper leaked the story in 2004, a nasty controversy erupted. Powerful lobbyists for sportsmen's groups that had helped raise the money to buy the ranch insisted the canyon, now owned by the state of Utah, remain open to big-game hunting and trout fishing. Some even recommended clearing piñon and juniper trees to improve the reserve for wildlife. Native Americans were furious that the archaeologists had been invited into Range Creek before they knew of it. In the end, a number of tribes claimed ancestral affiliation, sight unseen, with the canyon, and Native American spokesmen demanded they be consulted about its future.

As of 2006, the future of Range Creek is still up in the air.

From the start, the archaeologists enlisted Waldo as their guide to the often well-hidden Fremont sites. One spring day last year, as she walked the valley-bottom dirt road in Range Creek, team co-leader Renee Barlow, of the Utah Museum of Natural History, was bursting with pride: "So far we've found 280 sites, ranging from ruins and rock art panels to scatters of potsherds and toolmaking debris. Every one Waldo either told us about, or we found it on the way to a site he told us about. And we've only seen 15 percent of the canyon!"

"You ain't seen 5 percent, kiddo," Waldo rejoined.

Waldo's partnership with the researchers has a certain edge, for he takes a dim view of professional archaeology—and not without reason. Years ago, at a ruin a good thousand feet above the valley floor, Waldo had found an eroding Fremont skeleton sticking skull-first out of the earth. To protect it, he picked up a nearby metate—or "corn grinder," as he calls the stone basin the ancients used to pulverize their maize— and laid it over the skull.

Four years ago, Waldo directed a pair of archaeology students to the site. They came back from the all-day hike exhausted but exhilarated. "They told me, 'We've discovered that the Fremont buried their dead with corn grinders covering their heads,'" Waldo recounted. "I said, 'Yep, and I bet I can tell you right where that was, too.'"

Waldo gradually developed his own theories about the ancients who once thronged Range Creek. One evening, in the cinder-block house he had built for his family that now serves as the cluttered headquarters for the archaeologists, the rancher unfurled his ideas, based on the rock art and artifacts he had found.

"The first people in here wasn't but four foot tall," he said. "I call 'em the Little People. I think the Fremont come in and killed off the Little People. Then later the Utes come in and killed off the Fremont. Every place you find an arrowhead, there was a dead Indian."

Project leader Duncan Metcalfe, of the University of Utah, absorbed this narrative from an adjoining chair. He kept a straight face, but professional dismissal oozed from his pores. Metcalfe and the other archaeologists had found little evidence of any prehistoric inhabitants other than the Fremont. And no professional would give credence to Waldo's Little People.

Waldo perceived the dismissal. "I may not know what I'm talkin' about," he said later, "but hell, them archaeologists don't know either. They're just guessin'."

One of the first to guess was Noel Morss, an amateur archaeologist who named the Fremont in 1931, after digging sites in central Utah on the Fremont River. More than 70 years later, experts still struggle to come up with a list of distinctive cultural traits to differentiate the Fremont from their contemporaries to the south, the Anasazi. They know, for instance, that the Fremont created sophisticated rock art, leather moccasins rather than yucca sandals, and a particular kind of thin-walled gray pottery. These scholars believe that the Fremont homeland reached from Utah into Nevada, Idaho, Wyoming, and Colorado. Dwelling on the edge of the reliable growing season, where late-spring or early-fall frosts all too often ruined a whole year's crops, the Fremont never fully committed to a farming way of life. Many kept hunting and gathering as a fallback option, always ready to pack up and move on.

By a.d. 1350, the Fremont had largely disappeared from their homeland. No one knows what became of them. Perhaps some migrated east to the Great Plains and assimilated with nomads who hunted bison. Others may have been wiped out by the Ute, Shoshone, and Paiute, who might have surged into the Fremont heartland from the west as early as the 13th century. Perhaps many Fremont simply starved to death.

The most significant ruins in Range Creek are all high, inaccessible sites, many of them granaries. Greg Child, an expert mountaineer, Renee Barlow, and I worked our way into ones that even Waldo hadn't reached, becoming almost certainly the first visitors in at least 700 years.

That the Fremont stored their grain on such severe cliffside ledges made perfect sense to Waldo. "It's like why you put your money in a bank," he said. "If you only got a little bit of corn, and everybody's hungry, you hide it away where other folks can't steal it."

The most extraordinary of all the sites we explored—nicknamed Waldo's Catwalk by Renee—was 60 feet up an overhanging 150-foot cliff. When we arrived at the base of the cliff, Greg said softly, "My mind is blown." We could see the route some Fremont daredevil had used to reach a ledge with two granaries. The Fremont climber had leaned a 25-foot-tall Douglas fir trunk against the cliff to shinny up. From the tip of this makeshift ladder, he had "gone for it" (in climbing parlance), using hand- and footholds to launch his body over two outjuts of rock that blocked his way like roof cornices on a building. Midway through that desperate passage, he had hung on with one hand while with the other he had slammed a hefty stick into a crack, then trusted it with all his weight as he pulled himself up on it before continuing his climb.

Greg estimated the route would rate 5.11 for modern climbers, on soft, crumbly sandstone—near the limit even for today's best rock jocks using nylon ropes, sticky-soled shoes, and cams and nuts for protection. We were not about to tackle it. Instead, Greg got us into the site from the rim above by slotting spring-loaded cams into a crack, stitching a rappel tight to the overhang, then swinging sideways till he reached the ledge.

Some 50 years ago, Waldo had climbed to the base of this cliff, then stared up in wonder. But when I expressed astonishment at the Fremont acrobat, Waldo was less impressed. "Look at it this way," he said. "Them Indians did nothin' but climb every day. Maybe some of 'em fell off and died, but the ones that didn't got pretty darn good at it."

In the summer of 2005, the tension between Waldo and the scientists who had taken over his erstwhile paradise began to mount. During their four seasons in Range Creek, the teams had plotted the GPS coordinates of every site they'd found and recorded the location of every potsherd, arrowhead, and metate. But they were also gathering up artifacts to take to the Utah Museum of Natural History. Waldo was dismayed. "I think they should leave the stuff where it is," he said. "The canyon's the biggest and best museum the Indian stuff could ever be in."

Waldo has nursed a sense of doom about the canyon he loved. The cattle he ran kept the valley grazed, but today the grass stands thigh-high, creating a tinderbox. It infuriates Waldo that the archaeology team—more than half of whom smoke—won't institute a site-wide smoking ban.

"The whole place is gonna burn down," Waldo said. "Ten years from now, when the canyon's ruined. . . ."

One May evening, Waldo and I sat on the lawn in front of the cinder-block house. Far above us to the north, a butte where Waldo had discovered a ruin caught the orange glow of sunset. The old man seemed in a pensive mood. "What does it feel like to come back?" I asked.

Waldo paused. "It hurts," he finally said. "I should've had my ass kicked for sellin' it. There's only one Range Creek in the world, and I let it slip through my fingers."

But then a certain gleam lit his gaze. "There's one other place I know of with as much Indian stuff in it as you got here," he said. "And if they ruin Range Creek, that secret's goin' with me to the grave."