On A Murderer’s Trail in Bears Ears

“It’s magic hour!” I yelled to Sam cruising behind me. The western light bounced off the enormous sandstone walls as the road at the base snaked its way high above the San Juan River. On the horizon we spotted distant views of towers and spires of Monument Valley. Our group of desert wanderers spent eight days exploring the southeastern corner of Utah on bike and foot. We explored the new Bears Ears National Monument and followed the trail of a murderer. No, not a recent murder but one that took place in 1935.

The Bears Ears National Monument has been featured in the news since it was created by President Obama’s signature during his final days in office. Opinions remain strong on both sides—some support and some do not. Passions came to a head when the Outdoor Retailer Show pulled out of Salt Lake City as the organization felt like Governor Herbert and state politicians did not share the same vision/belief in protecting this treasured landscape. We chose not to share political opinions and beliefs; our group simply took pleasure in the epic desert landscape of Bears Ears National Monument.

The desert winds howled out of the south, the way we were headed. Great. I hate wind. I despise wind. Ahhh, you get the idea. So, we decided to interrupt the constant wind noise with a milkshake at Stan’s Burger Shack in Hanksville. Our group included a mixed bag of professionals, teachers, business owners, and a radio personality. However, as we scooped and slurped our milkshakes, I became aware that half the group had never traveled south on Highway 95. With a smile on my face, I informed them they were in for a treat! Our bellies full, we faced the wind again, drove south and feeling the sugar buzz, we pulled over in the North Wash area roughly 30 miles south of Hanksville. Here, the uplift and weathered rock created numerous slot canyons to hike and explore. We sauntered down Leprechaun Canyon following the wash bottom, while marveling at canyon country all around us. Lilly, my eight year old daughter, and Sammy, her eleven year old friend, led the way as the sandstone walls closed in and created a slot canyon only about 10 inches wide. Sammy’s father, Sam, got spooked and quickly turned around to escape the confines of the slot. We inched and climbed our way forward; the walls towered 100 feet above us. We retraced our steps back to our vehicles, and thankfully, the winds had mellowed as we headed south on Highway 95.

We pulled our vehicles into Hite Marina on the shores of Lake Powell. Whoops, I mean the Colorado River. At one time, Hite was the beginning of Lake Powell; but with years and years of low snowpack, the lake vanished. The Colorado River flows toward the west, and the visitor gets a glimpse of what Glen Canyon looked like prior to 1963. Hite, located in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, offers the only gas station for miles. After topping off our fuel tanks, we rallied toward the northwestern entrance of Bears Ears National Monument (BENM).

The BENM includes fairly remote country. We brought water and gas to last a few days. No visitor center welcomed us. Just how we like it. Dust engulfed the vehicles behind me as I motored down a dusty, dirt road on our way to a dispersed campsite. This monument asks all visitors to be stewards of the land, and we complied by finding a low impact spot on the slickrock for camp. My wife, Louise, prepared dinner as I set up the tent. Our friends, Todd and Susie, sat and gazed in awe of the landscape. The views and grandeur of canyon country defy explanation. It’s best to experience them first-hand.

The BENM includes hundreds of miles of roads. These roads provide access to canyons and campsite everywhere. Furthermore, the roads provide limitless opportunities for scenic mountain biking. The following morning, everyone clipped in and pedaled down the tacky red dirt road. Liz, Sam’s wife, and I drove the support vehicles. No matter what direction we turned, we viewed incredible scenes. Think of it as the classic Utah White Rim ride outside of Moab without the people. We saw one other vehicle in all the miles traveled. Louise suggested we crank a few more pedals before lunch. We stopped at a stunning red rock butte, and as we munched sandwiches, we commented that moments like this are what draws us to the desert.

The rollercoaster of the road led us to a canyon rim. We found yet another splendid campsite on the slickrock, and set up camp once again. The western sun still shined in our faces as it slowly set behind the Blue Notch (a terrific road that accesses the shores of Lake Powell) in the buttes on the western side of Highway 95. The adults all watched and marveled at Sam’s culinary skills as he prepared pizza for the kids over the campfire, while the rest of us enjoyed fajitas. Dinner was a success and conversation flowed between friends. The simple joys of Utah’s canyon country.

“How many rappels are in this canyon?” Louise asked skeptically.
“The last time I was down here, there was just one.” I responded.
The group geared up and gathered on top of the first rappel. We all safely dropped into the slot canyon. Once in, our eyes orientated to the dark slot. The smooth sandstone walls showed the years of flash flood water rushing over them. Now, we walked on gravel, and rock-hopped a few chockstone boulders on our way.

“Dad!” Lilly yelled from the front of the line. “There seems be to be another rappel.” I surveyed the scene and noticed the canyon had changed since I had been here last. A 25-foot rappel stared us in the face. I used my creative skills to rig webbing through a small rock arch to serve as our anchor point. Lilly informed me that she was scared, but I did my best to support her as I belayed her down from the top. I enjoyed helping her safely descend with a big smile plastered on her face when her feet touched the ground. She took off her harness and sprinted away, down canyon. The slot opened up and eventually we intersected with the enormous White Canyon.

White Canyon originates at the bottom of the Bears Ears buttes in Natural Bridges Monument and snakes its way down to Hite. We took off our harnesses, stowed our gear in our packs, and eyed the beautiful rock art panel at the mouth of the canyon. Lilly pointed to a snake pecked in the desert varnish. Stunning, nine hundred plus years old works of art. We strolled back to our vehicles and basked in the spring sun. We spotted arches, rock art, and ruins along the way. The cottonwoods were blooming and the birds, chirping. Spring in the high desert of Utah.

Back to the trail of a murderer. In our vehicles, we followed Highway 261 through the heart of the BENM until the ground fell away. We spotted Monument Valley and the Valley of the Gods some one thousand feet below us. Our group cautiously descended the Moki Dugway and marveled at the beauty before us. I had driven the road numerous times; but for the first-timers in our group, the jaw-dropping scenery and canyon country before them was hard to comprehend. The right hand turn we looked for wasn’t even signed. But, we found it. The history lesson was about to start.

The year was 1934, and the land was not much different than it is now. Clinton Palmer and his “girlfriend,” 13-year-old Lucy Garret, entered John’s Canyon after arranging employment with Harry Goulding who owned a trading post in Monument Valley. Their job was to run Harry’s sheep to green pastures and generally, keep an eye on his flock. The couple wasn’t really a couple. Lucy had been kidnapped. Poor, young Lucy didn’t know at the time that Palmer had killed and beheaded her father in Texas or that he was running from the law dragging her along. Lucy naively thought her father was meeting them at a later date. Palmer escaped the law and society by sneaking into a deep, isolated Utah canyon high above the San Juan River.

Rays of light bounced off the sandstone walls, as we made our journey into John’s Canyon. We pondered what young Lucy was thinking back then as we watched for rocks and road hazards while our vehicles eased along. Todd, Susie, Carolyn, and Dave pedaled bikes ahead on the tacky red dirt after leaving their vehicle at the start. The road continued to traverse the landscape so pedaling was fluid and fast.

“There it is!” I yelled to the others. A stunning, “this shouldn’t be here” waterfall lay ahead and cascaded down the limestone rock terrace. Yeah, water in the desert is like gold. Palmer thought so and so did local rancher, Bill Oliver. Bill, a former San Juan County Sheriff, owned the grazing rights to the land. Goulding knew this and informed Palmer to try to work out some land sharing with Oliver. The spring fed creek in lower John’s Canyon was a perfect environment for grazing cattle. Sheep too? Oliver warned Palmer to stay off his grazing allotment a few times before and therefore, the stage was set.

In February 1935, Palmer and Oliver met on the John’s Canyon road. They exchanged angry words and gunshots. The bullets from Palmer’s gun knocked Oliver off his horse. Palmer emptied his gun into Oliver. Oliver died. Palmer then took Oliver’s body and dumped it over the edge of the road. The gunfire might not have been heard by Oliver’s grandson, Norris Shumway, or maybe he did hear it and tried to hide. Regardless, Palmer found and killed him as well. He beheaded Shumway with an ax before tossing his body over the edge of the road, toward the same abyss of the San Juan River.

All of this death and destruction wasn’t in our thoughts as we setup camp along the waterfall. Surely, they felt different back in the winter of 1935. Louise prepared for dinner as the group got the fire started, and we all witnessed the magic hour come to an end as the sun set. I drifted asleep that night with the full moon shining into the tent and the frogs bellowing.

Palmer and Lucy hightailed it out John’s Canyon after gathering their belongings from their makeshift cabin. They traveled south and stopped at the Gouldings, who tried to convince Palmer to right his wrong, but Goulding was scared for his life too. Palmer continued south. A posse formed and took off, hot on Palmer’s trail. However, snow and rain turned the road into a muddy quagmire. That gave Palmer time to get away. Palmer and Lucy returned to Texas, where he was quickly captured; he spent the rest of his life behind bars. Lucy helped convict him and, after that, lived a pretty “normal” life.

We awoke the following morning and people wandered randomly. Some packed to return to civilization while others explored the canyon on foot. My family and I biked out of John’s Canyon. There was a light headwind as I began to crank on my bike toward the east. The three of us stopped at one of the many rock art panels along the way. The duck head petroglyphs were simply stunning and appeared to be freshly pecked; not 900+ years old. Our vehicle hit pavement roughly 16 miles later. I loaded the bike on top of the Land Cruiser and scarfed down a quick lunch. The Moki Dugway laid to our west and basked in the afternoon sun. To our east, was the small town of Bluff, the southeastern gateway to the Bears Ears National Monument. Which way to turn? Decisions…. With a smile on my face, I made the turn. Which direction? That’s another story…

A phenomenal book to read is The Disappearances by Scott Thybony. His book follows three men who all got lost or escaped into Utah’s canyon country in 1935. One of the men was Clinton Palmer. The others? You have to read it.

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