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 1)Range Creek in 1951, they built 2)sturdy fences with locked gates at either end of their 3)prime cattle-raising 4)spread. As a grown man, Waldo regularly patrolled his valley with shotgun in hand, rumor has it to keep out 5)trespassers.
Unlike many 6)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 7)arrowheads, because if I didn’t, somebody else would. But I never dug anything up. Maybe I’m 8)superstitious, but I figured them Indians wanted the stuff left there.”
In 2001, at the age of 71, he sold his ranch to 9)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, 10)archaeologists got their first look at Range Creek. They were overwhelmed by what they found: arrowheads, 11)potsherds, 12)grinding stones, 13)granaries on high ledges, and the 14)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.
So the archaeologists enlisted Waldo as their guide to the often well-hidden 15)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 tool making 16)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 haven’t seen 5 percent, 17)kiddo,” Waldo 18)rejoined.
Years ago, at a ruin a good thousand feet above the valley floor, Waldo had found an 19)eroding Fremont skeleton sticking skull-first out of the earth. To protect it, he picked up a nearby 20)metate-or “corn grinder,” as he calls the stone basin the ancients used to 21)pulverize their 22)maize, and laid it over the skull.
The most significant ruins in Range Creek are all high, inaccessible sites, many of them granaries. Greg, 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.
The most extraordinary of all the sites we explored 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 23)daredevil had used to reach a 24)ledge with two granaries. The Fremont climber had leaned a 25-foot-tall 25)Douglas fir trunk against the cliff to 26)shinny up.
Some 50 years ago, Waldo had climbed to the base of this cliff, then stared up in wonder.
In the summer of2005, the tension between Waldo and the scientists who had taken over his 27)erstwhile paradise began to mount. During their four seasons in Range Creek, the teams had plotted the 28)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 29)tinderbox. It 30)infuriates Waldo that the archaeology team, more than half of whom smoke, won’t institute a site-wide smoking ban.
One May evening, Waldo and I sat on the lawn in front of the cinder block house. The old man seemed in a 31)pensive mood. “I should’ve had my ass kicked for selling it. There’s only one Range Creek in the world, and I let it slip through my fingers.”
But then a certain 32)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 going with me to the grave.”