Until he got famous, Waldo Wilcox spent most of his life moving cattle through a remote valley in Utah, 150 miles southeast of Salt Lake City. He had a 4,200-acre spread deep in the Book Cliffs region—a wilderness with rock walls that rise to 10,000 feet. The ranch snaked for 12 miles along Range Creek, through scrubby foothills, lush meadows and alpine forests. Waldo's parents, Pearl and Ray "Budge" Wilcox, bought the property in 1951, and three generations of Wilcoxes would endure Range Creek Canyon's frigid winters, scorching summers, periodic droughts, and bears. All of that time, they tried hard to ignore the prehistoric Indian ruins that lay everywhere across their land.
It couldn't have been easy. Pit houses dug halfway in the ground, their roofs caved in, dotted the valley floor and surrounding hills. Arrowheads, beads, ceramic shards and stone-tool remnants were strewn all over. Human bones poked out of rock overhangs, and hundreds of bizarre human figures with tapered limbs and odd projections emanating from their heads were chiseled on the cliff walls. The family kept mum about this mysterious world. Waldo in particular became a zealous guardian, chasing off curious locals who got wind of all the artifacts.
Then, in 2001, Wilcox, entering his 70s, quietly sold the property for $2.5 million to the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, and then federal and state agencies helped arrange for the land to be deeded to the State of Utah. Archaeologists called in to visit the site were flabbergasted. The ruins were not only extensive but well preserved: the pit houses were intact, no graffiti or bullet holes marred the petroglyphs, and granaries were stuffed with corncobs a thousand years old.
Scientists wasted no time in setting up a research camp. "There are few places left in the continental U.S. where the sites haven’t been picked over and vandalized to a great extent," says Kevin Jones, the state archaeologist for Utah. The researchers soon realized they’d lucked into a constellation of 1,000-year-old hamlets that belonged to the enigmatic Fremont people, highly mobile hunters and farmers who lived mostly in Utah from around A.D. 200 to 1300 before disappearing—like the cliff-dwelling Anasazi, their contemporaries farther south.
So far, archaeologists have documented nearly 300 Fremont sites at Range Creek (none of which has been excavated). And they managed to keep a lid on their work until a June 2004 Associated Press story described the archaeological riches and the eccentric landowner who'd guarded the secret for decades. Wilcox became an overnight sensation, portrayed in newspaper stories from Salt Lake City to Sydney, Australia, as a heroic cowboy who'd stood vigil over an amazing time capsule. "It's like being the first white man in there, the way I kept it," Wilcox boasted to one reporter. Archaeologists' comments fueled the place's mystique. Jones was quoted as calling Range Creek a "national treasure" and its discovery akin to "finding a Van Gogh in your grandmother’s attic." Another hailed it as "one of the most important archaeological collections in North America."
Part of the excitement rests on hopes that Range Creek may help explain what happened to the Fremont. Along the canyon floor, traces of large villages indicate a flourishing settlement, while pit houses and granaries built high in the cliffs suggest a defensive retreat. "We’ve seen places where people were living in knife-edge ridges, 900 to 1,000 feet above the valley floor, which means to get a jug of water you’d have to send someone on a big long hike and back up," says Jones. "These people were afraid of something. They were obviously trying to protect their food, and it wasn’t from mice."
Research at Range Creek may help explain why farming rather suddenly halted across much of the Southwest seven centuries ago, prompting tribes to abandon their ancestral pueblos. Over the years, experts have suggested that warfare, drought, disease and religious upheaval may have caused the exodus. "The most interesting thing about the Fremont is they adopted farming, did it at varying levels of intensity for 1,100 years, and then quit," says Duncan Metcalfe, curator at the Utah Museum of Natural History, in Salt Lake City, who is conducting research at Range Creek. "If we can figure out why, I think we can understand why other populations, at the time, abandoned agriculture too."
The Wilcox ranch lies only 30 miles southeast of Price, Utah, but the journey takes two and a half hours on a rutted logging road that curves up 4,000 feet along sheer cliffs before descending into Range Creek. Waldo Wilcox meets me outside the north gate. He now lives in Green River, 50 miles north, with his wife, Julie. But he still has the run of his former property. Clad in bluejeans and a straw cowboy hat, Wilcox shoulders a set of ropes, which he uses to pull himself over large boulders. A stylized or "walking" X, his cattle brand, is emblazoned on his pale-blue shirt, on the side of his pickup truck and on various cliffs. He seems a cross between John Wayne and Archie Bunker, a sometimes ornery anachronism whose speech is peppered with political incorrectnesses. He professes little interest in the former inhabitants. "All I know is I grew up with a bunch of dead Indians, and that's all I want to know," he tells me. "It was their life."
We meet up with Jones, the lead archaeologist, and when I first see this storied site, I'm underwhelmed. The collapsed pit houses—basically, circles of boulders—pale in comparison to the majestic ruins of New Mexico's Chaco Canyon or the grandeur of Colorado's Mesa Verde, with their multistory stone houses nestled into overhanging cliffs. Here most of the granaries—which number in the hundreds and range from cabinet-size to several yards across—are so high in the cliffs they are visible only with binoculars. "Because the archaeology itself isn't spectacular or striking to the average visitor, this won't be a great tourist attraction," Jones says with obvious gratitude.
But the place grows on you. Jones and I follow Wilcox up the steep slopes through patchy groves of pinyon, juniper and sage. Wilcox sets a brisk pace. Several hundred feet above the valley floor, we stop at a natural bench where some 50 slabstone boulders form a ring—the foundations of a pit house. Perhaps a thousand years ago, the pit was dug about two feet into the ground. The builders would have leveled the floor and sunk four juniper or cedar posts into a squarish frame near the center of the pit. They would have fastened another four logs horizontally to the tops of the posts, and then leaned numerous logs against those crosspieces. Branches and brush may have been added to the walls and roof, which would have been covered by a thick layer of earth. The typical house was roughly conical or like a pyramid with a flat top and stood about 12 feet across and 6 feet high. A hole in the roof allowed for access in and out via a ladder and let smoke escape. Near some of the houses, the ground is still black in places from the ash of cooking fires. A lot of pit houses burned before the occupants could clear out their possessions—a boon for archaeologists.