“I find that as technology advances us into the future with stunning innovations, I become more interested in the past. For this reason I wanted to see for myself what remained of The Outlaw Trail before it was too late.”
Although he was writing from the perspective of 1975, Robert Redford’s words seem as relevant today as they did then. While many see Redford as the epitome of Hollywood glamour, throughout the years he has maintained a ruggedly down-to-earth perspective and a connection with the everyman that few in La-La Land can claim.
If it weren’t for his acting chops and good looks, it’s easy to imagine him a writer. What makes The Outlaw Trail a compelling read is Redford’s ability to relate not only stories of the past but also his own narrative as he followed their trail. In many ways that narrative is the most interesting part of the book.
Redford makes the perfect guide for the Outlaw Trail. Not only had he recently co-starred in the movie, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” (1969), but he also had a deep and abiding interest in all things West. This curiosity and love for the West and its people is what National Geographic was looking for when it contracted with Redford to write a piece for their magazine. The Outlaw Trail ran from Canada to Mexico, with its most famous stretch starting with Hole-in-the-Wall in central Wyoming down through the border of Utah and Colorado. This is the area which was the focus of Redford’s travels.
While Butch Cassidy is widely known, it’s the likes of rancher Garvin Taylor that come alive in Redford’s hands. He writes that Taylor is a “treasure of grit and homilies. In his black hat, forehead white and baby-skinned in comparison with the leathered lower half of his face, Taylor’s visage resembles a topographical map. His small eyes squint surprise when he speaks–a disarming innocence.”
Taylor and his son Curt were Redford’s guides for the first stop on the Outlaw Trail: Hole-in-the-Wall. Located in central Wyoming and a tad east of the Wind River range, this area was particularly suitable for what Redford calls an outlaw “stronghold”. Like a castle rising from the plains, this high plateau offered only one way up, a narrow, rocky path. Outlaws posted sentries at the stronghold’s only entrance, who would alert their gang whenever lawmen approached, giving them ample time to mount a defense. In Redford’s view, “…two men with Winchester rifles could hold off an entire army.” Hole-in-the-wall was so formidable, it’s been said that no posse had ever been able to successfully apprehend a single outlaw there.
Garvin Taylor ran a nearby ranch and had been poking around these parts for most of his life. Despite a precarious trail leading up to Hole-in-the-wall, Redford observed that Taylor had “…never gotten off his horse, and I realized this was simply because he didn’t like to walk, Cowboys hate walking; they really know how to use their horses. They conserve the energy of the horse, treating it like a valuable piece of farm equipment. They seldom ride all out, contrary to many dudes’ visions of what riding the range is all about.”
Redford’s next stronghold was Brown’s Park, a canyonland area at the northeast border of Utah and Colorado that’s bisected by the Green River. It was here that outlaws holed up and wintered cattle in the area’s many hidden enclaves and valleys. Like Hole-in-the-Wall, the geography afforded outlaws easily defended pinch points against incursions by the law. It became such a popular spot that a semblance of civilization sprung up, with “a school for children, the Jarvies’ store, a blacksmith shop, saloon and other accoutrements of community living.”
Redford’s guide for the area was rancher Bill Allen. But it wasn’t the stories of the past that Allen brought to the campfire, but more recent tales of cattle mutilation. And here’s the strange thread that Redford captured, not just from Allen, but other ranchers as well: “Find a dead cow somewhere on the range with just an eye gone, or a lip or an ear. Sometimes it’s worse–the testicles, the heart, the stomach–perfectly removed with what looks to be a surgical instrument. No blood–all the blood drained out. No sign of death. No footprints, no markings at all, no clues. Several of ‘em all over. Gettin’ worse. No one’s ever seen it happen.” Fast forward to today: there continue to be reports of mutilation in the area that are very similar to the ones mentioned in Redford’s book.
But it wasn’t the unexplained that worried rancher Bill Allen and others. It was the Bureau of Land Management–the BLM–who they claim has been relentlessly converting open grazing land to protected federal properties. “The BLM came in on the ranch, put in a fish and game reserve, tried to push us off and make their own rules. We’ve spent the better’n twelve years in the courts tryin’ to stop ‘em. Twelve long years. Twelve years isn’t so much in the life of a bureaucracy, but it’s critical in the life of a person.” What resonated in 1975 is a storyline still playing out today. In The Outlaw Trail, Redford provides a sympathetic ear and gives voice to the many residents in Brown’s Park who were struggling to maintain their way of life.
While Redford might have painted the lives of present-day ranchers in picturesque terms, he had no illusion about the past, where “few lived to a ripe old age. It was a place where no one asked many questions; a time when eyes in the back of the head was a necessary feature for survival. Life had a low premium and most everyone was prey to the whims of others. The Park had its own law and very little was sacred. It was a place where daughter murdered father and brother murdered brother.”
With its bloody past by then long gone, Redford was free to spin tales of Brown’s Park’s magnificent beauty, made more intense by remote areas accessible only on horse. His “expedition” party consisted not only of local ranchers, but also a posse of his friends, among them the famed writer Ed Abbey and artist Kim Whitesides. Despite the often cold conditions of their mid-October rides, Redford gives us descriptions that would make most of us want to saddle up. “Fresh smell of cowboy coffee cut the dead chill of dawn. Then there were the sounds of slow awakening–voices, saddle leather creaking, utensils clattering, the sizzle of bacon and sourdough pancakes, stiff body groans and a lot of coughing from the old-timers.”
The final “stronghold” that Redford covers is Robbers Roost, located in southeastern Utah at the confluence of the Green and Colorado River. According to Redford, “there is no other spot in the United States, save possibly the Grand Canyon, where the awesome beauty of nature’s violent erosion is so apparent. One does not feel the presence of any animal, let alone man.” Today this area is known as Canyonlands National Park. “The area was ideal for the outlaw . . . having memorized the routes through the region and the locations of the springs, he would purposely lead the chase parties astray, usually to a dry back canyon. The lawmen would become disoriented, lose their way and often die of starvation or dehydration. For this reason the law seldom ventured into this savage land.”
Leading Redford’s party through Robbers Roost was A.C. Ekker, who started the outfit, Outlaw Trails, Inc., to guide riders through this legendary country. Redford observed that Ekker is “a man of unusual efficiency. He’s a take-charge man, impatient with lethargy and complication. He is simple, in the best sense of the word, and has an extraordinary ability to see a task clearly and reduce its complications to the simplest level. This I admire.” Like many ranchers in the area, Ekker not only fought encroachment by the BLM, but also changing weather patterns that had been slowly drying up the land and making his way of life a dwindling proposition. But rather than dwell on the past, he made the best step forward. “I’d love it, of course, if ranchin’ was a bit like it used to be, but you can’t make it on cows now, so I’d bet that workin’ this river-trip-backpack-trail-ride business is where it’ll be.” Those interested in traversing these same trails today can still contact Ekker’s original outfit, which is currently run by Simon Casson. More information can be found at Outlaws Trails.
One of Redford’s final observations comes while riding on the Colorado plateau with Ekker: “As I looked around, it seemed that I could see forever, as the saying goes. There were no parameters; the distance was so extreme and clear that you felt you had never seen before. The eye in this day and age is not accustomed to being asked to see more than a short distance, and usually there is so much to look at–buildings, people, cars, wires, windows, signs–that it blinds the senses. But here in this uncommon, virgin stretch of space with no boundary save a lone horse running wild at its center, I was overwhelmed. I felt lucky, lucky to see this, lucky to be able to see it. There is no way of knowing the exact impact a moment like this has on the psyche—but it can’t be bad.”
Reading Redford’s stories in the The Outlaw Trail will have that same effect on your psyche. They are numerous and insightful. It’s the type of book to keep near your favorite chair whenever you want to be reminded of what is great and wonderful about the West.
Ed. note: While the Outlaw Trail is out of print, it’s available from many booksellers on Amazon for less than ten bucks.