Back to Hole-in-the-Rock

“It is certainly the worst country I ever saw … most of us are satisfied that there is no use of this company undertaking to get through to the San Juan this way.” —Platte D. Lyman

Noelle Bronson tugged at the ribbon tightened around her blond ponytail. She gave a final look before leaving the mirror, hesitating at the door for one last glimpse as if she might never see a mirror again.

Outside in the yard she could hear the sounds of engines running and of her friends laughing as they came up to the front door calling her name.

She smiled into the mirror and said, “Let me live through this.” Noelle had been looking forward to this outing for months. “At the time, I was mostly thinking about having fun with my friends. I’d heard about my great-great-grandfather, Parley Butt, who was part of the original scouting party and also came through the Hole with the main company when he was only 17. Even though his story was part of our family tradition, none of us had ever been there,” Noelle said.

It was almost 7:00 A.M. and time to meet at the stake center. When they drove into the chapel parking lot she saw most of her friends from the Blanding Utah West Stake, along with leaders and dozens of off-road vehicles packed with provisions and camping gear for the journey ahead of them.

To Noelle and the others, this morning was the culmination of more than a year’s efforts in planning and preparing for this youth conference. The young people of the stake had requested an activity that would let them learn more about their own unique heritage. Like Noelle, most of them had been raised on the stories of the Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers and how they had come to settle Blanding. Many of them were descendants of these early settlers and yet had never seen the places that figured so importantly in their own upbringing. Names like Grey Mesa, Salvation Knoll or the Chute were familiar names but were not familiar to many as places.

During the planning stages, the purposes of the youth conference were identified. The youth and their leaders involved in the planning wanted to have a good activity that was close to home, that would help develop spirituality, and that would provide an experience to bridge the gap between the pioneer heritage and today. Adults from each ward who were experienced with 4-wheel drive vehicles and (if possible) had been on at least part of the trail were called as specialists to help with the activity.

Some felt that this was an impossible journey. Though it had been 100 years since the first pioneers made the journey, the area that they traveled in was still probably among the most remote and little explored places in the U.S.

The presidencies and planning committees met several times during the winter. The young people read histories and studied pioneer journals. They learned how their ancestors had answered a mission call by President John Taylor to come to this wild corner of the world and establish a peace mission among the Indians, how in addition to this challenge they were to provide a civilized buffer in this part of Zion because to that time the San Juan country was controlled by thieves, outlaws, and murderers who used this corner of southern Utah as a place to hide out from the law.

Two hundred and fifty people, including women and children, answered the call. They brought 85 wagons and hundreds of cattle and horses with them on the journey, traveling southeast from the settlement of Escalante to what is now San Juan County. The company was made up of Saints from Cedar City, Parowan, and Paragonah. They traveled across more than 200 miles of unexplored wilderness. The pinnacle of their pioneering effort was in carving a road bed down the side of Glen Canyon to the Colorado River below. They started their descent in a notch or hole in the rim of the 1,800 foot-high canyon wall. This notch then became known as Hole-in-the-Rock. The incredibly steep grade down the upper portion of the road dropped one foot for every two feet forward.

Many of the descendants of the early pioneers still feel under obligation of that original call from President Taylor. In his campfire remarks to the youth, Stan Bronson explained, “We are here to help bring about the fulfillment of the prophecies relative to the restoration of Israel. We have never been released from that first call. I believe the end result of this ‘peace’ mission will be to have the fulness of the gospel operating among the Lamanites here. The ‘peace’ will come here from the ultimate giver of peace and be evident in the hearts and lives of this people.”

“I was excited about going on the Hole-in-the-Rock trip with our stake so I could see for myself the places that have been talked about,” said Cheyenne Johnson. “Walter Joshua and Elizabeth Kinney Stevens, my great-great-grandparents on my father’s side, were newlyweds. That trip was their honeymoon, and I think it must have been more honeymoon than they wanted since it was supposed to last six weeks and it lasted six months.

“Grandpa Stevens drove the first wagon down through the Hole. Also on my mother’s side of the family, great-great-grandparents Benjamin and Sarah Perkins were on that trip. Grandpa Perkins and his brother Hyrum had been miners in Wales and they were responsible for blasting out some of the places where they needed to build roadways down through the Hole. One place known as ‘Uncle Ben’s Dugway,’ was named after Grandpa Perkins. Platte D. Lyman, another great-great-grandfather on my mother’s side, was also on the trip. His wife Adelia stayed in Fillmore to have a baby who was born while the group was at the top of the Hole. He was carried through the Hole-in-the-Rock a few months later. That baby was my great-grandfather, Albert R. Lyman, who later married Mary Ellen Perkins, and they were the first settlers in what is now Blanding. They had 15 children, my grandmother being the 15th. Grandpa always kept a journal and wrote many stories and books. I was anxious to see the country where he had been a cowpuncher and to see his name carved in the rock at Lake Canyon. I felt a special closeness to him there.”

The day had arrived. After much worry, prayer, and planning, these young people from Blanding were going to try to retrace the incredible journey their pioneer ancestors had made 107 years earlier. Brother Glen Shumway, the stake Young Men president, had spent a good deal of his life as a uranium miner and had worked outdoors in this wild country.

“I knew how inhospitable this country could become. The weather, the gnats, the sun, and of course the condition of the trails were all concerns because any one of these factors could wreck the experience for us,” Glen said.

At the stake center, 30 4-wheel drive vehicles were loaded with 135 people and all of their provisions for the three-day outing. Young people from Blanding, Kayenta, Bluff, and Mexican Hat were also represented. It was appropriate that several Native Americans participated because their Paiute, Ute and Navajo ancestors had lived and hunted in this same desert. The caravan traveled the first 75 miles on Highway 95 because at this point the modern road was much the same as the route taken by the early pioneers.

Along this part of the journey they saw Clayhill Pass, where the existing road crosses the old trail. They also were able to see Comb Ridge and Salvation Knoll in the morning light. Because they were traveling from Blanding back to the Hole-in-the-Rock, they were seeing the pioneers’ journey in reverse order. The caravan turned off the paved highway and headed into the desert. Early morning light amplified the color and richness of the red sands and the desert spring wildflowers. The yucca plants were in bloom with many of the pale yellow flowering spikes rising six feet and taller into the air. Purple sage and prickly pear cactus blooms added to the beauty of the desert with its many other flowers. After driving for a few miles they stopped at a tank trailer that seemed to be parked alone in the middle of the desert. Of course Brother and Sister Boyles had towed the trailer here earlier so every vehicle’s fuel tank could be topped off before they got into the more rugged part of the journey.

Even at this point, however, there was some uncertainty from a few of the young people about continuing on.

Peggy Sue Pincock said, “I surely wish I was home doing something else.”

For the rest of the day they traveled. Walking and riding they crawled up slick rock slopes and over sandy dunes and finally inched their way down into Lake Canyon.

They drove through the sandy bottom of Lake Canyon, and then bumped up and down ridge tops for an exhausting final leg of their journey into the camp near Marble Canyon at the base of Grey Mesa.

By this time, even though the group had only been out one day, many felt as Elizabeth Morris Decker felt 100 years earlier when she said, “It’s the roughest country you or anybody else ever seen; it’s nothing in the world but rocks and holes, hills and hollows.”

As the afternoon sun leaned farther to the horizon, tents sprang up around the campground. The clang of dutch ovens could be heard as the aromas of the evening meal spread throughout the campsite. Dutch oven potatoes cooked with onions and bacon, barbecued chicken, corn, fruit punch (seven gallons for each 50 people), and s’mores (a graham cracker, chocolate bar, and marshmallow sandwich dessert) seemed to fill stomachs and rejuvenate the spirits of the camp. Then, like their pioneer ancestors, they held a meeting with musicians and speakers who told about the original journey, and they sang songs of the present and the past.

After a good night’s sleep and a campfire breakfast of scrambled eggs, pancakes, and orange juice, the group felt strong enough to tackle the slick rock slopes of Grey Mesa. Once they got to the top they had relatively smooth going for 15 miles. From the top of the mesa they could look down and see Lake Powell and the Big Bend of the San Juan River. The drivers let themselves and their vehicles slowly down the other side of Grey Mesa while many from the company enjoyed the walk.

As the day wore on they traveled to the top of Cottonwood Canyon, where they were able to look down the canyon and across Lake Powell to the Hole-in-the-Rock.

Though the youth activity took three days instead of six months, there were many parallels in the two journeys. Many of the names were the same, the country was still the same, this modern trip was organized much like the original one. And, like the first trip, this one accomplished the purposes originally intended for it.

“What an eye opener! I couldn’t believe the places those people went over. I love the stories of all the hardships and trials and especially the motivating stories of super faith and hard working pioneers. They were great and very faithful people to do what their leaders asked them to do. I hope I can take this wonderful example and apply these hard working and faithful qualities to my life,” said Annette Carroll.

John Hunt, one of the leader specialists, added “I am 47 years old and have lived in Blanding all of my life. This is my first time to go on this trail. I learned that pictures and stories are not adequate. I have flown over this trail many times, but nothing equals being here. I took my jeep places I never would have believed it would have gone.”

Brother Shumway seemed to sum up most of the feelings of the group when he said, “We all came home with a greater appreciation for the original Hole-in-the-Rock pioneers, who showed their love for the gospel by leaving comfortable homes, disrupting their lives to heed the call of the prophet to extend the boundaries of Zion into this beautiful but inhospitable land of San Juan. We found greater love and appreciation for one another as we camped, ate, jeeped, played, and worshiped in that pleasant setting. We were touched by the Spirit of the Lord in our fireside programs as we listened to the special speakers and music. Most of all, we felt the hand of our Maker, who was with us on this journey and who will be with us on all of our journeys through this life and the eternities.”

[Quotes about Hole-in-the-Rock]

Charles Redd later wrote about the climb up Comb Ridge: “Aside from the Hole-in-the-Rock, itself, this was the steepest crossing on the journey. Here again seven span of horses were used, so that when some of the horses were on their knees, fighting to get up to find a foothold, the still-erect horses could plunge upward against the sharp grade. On the worst slopes the men were forced to beat their jaded animals into giving all they had. After several pulls, rests, and pulls, many of the horses took to spasms and near-convulsions, so exhausted were they.”

“By the time most of the outfits were across, the worst stretches could easily be identified by the dried blood and matted hair from the forelegs of the struggling teams. My father [L. H. Redd, Jr.] was a strong man, and reluctant to display emotion; but whenever in later years the full pathos of San Juan Hill was recalled either by himself or by someone else, the memory of such bitter struggles was too much for him and he wept” (in David E. Miller, Hole-in-the-Rock, Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1966, pp. 138–139).

Salvation Knoll, another early landmark, was so named by George B. Hobbs when he and three others were on an advance scouting party. They were lost Christmas day in 1879. They were out of provisions and they were traveling in snow and extreme cold. Thinking they might die, Brother Hobbs decided to climb a small knoll which he named Salvation Knoll.

His journal records, “This was surely Salvation Knoll, for on looking to the northeast across a spur of the Elk Mountain I discovered the Blue Mountains, about 10 miles away” (in Hole-in-the-Rock, p. 88).

When the main body of the pioneers got passed Comb Ridge and went on a few more miles they were too tired to travel any farther.

“As they rested in exhaustion from the last intensive strain, for the first time they began to see themselves for what they were: weary, worn out, galled, both teams and men. For so long they had walked and slept and eaten and lived on sloping uneven ground that the thought of level bottom-land was extremely sweet. Yet one woman spoke for the whole group when, recalling this last phase of the journey she said later, ‘I was so tired and sore that I had no desire to be any place except where I was.’ Someone pointed out to her that Montezuma wasn’t even twenty miles away, and that some of the head wagons were already over Butler Wash and onto dirt road—even then it made no difference. When they began to sing “The Latter-day Work Roll On,’ she had to sing to keep from crying” (Charles Redd, in Hole-in-the-Rock, p. 140).

[photos] Photography by Ronald L. Knighton, Jerry Redd, Bronson Kelly, Petrea Kelly, and Brian K. Kelly.

[photos] For the youth, the Chute was the scariest descent of the trip. They didn’t have to brave the terrors of Hole-in-the-Rock and San Juan Hill, like their pioneer ancestors did.

[photos] For pioneers, Salvation Knoll (above) symbolized the end of an arduous journey. But for the youth, who were tracing the route in reverse order, it marked the beginning of an adventure.

[photos] On a roadside baked with sun, or at firesides full of story and song, travelers basked in a new understanding of their heritage. Descendants of the original inhabitants of the land and descendants of the pioneers both found that their hearts turned to their fathers.