Cold Blood in John’s Canyon
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Deep in the canyon country of southern Utah, time is thin, and murders from 1935 are close to the surface. The Bedrock Bags crew set out to bikepack a bit of history.
Words by Joey Ernst; photos by Joey Ernst & Andrew Wracher
The crack of a rifle broke the stillness of the Utah desert morning. A hawk, startled by the sudden noise, took flight from a stunted tree in the wash. The man on the ground faltered but continued to advance; the man with the rifle jumped off his stolen horse, grabbed an axe from the camp woodpile, and attacked the wounded rancher, almost decapitating him. It was the first of March, 1935, and one of the last things Norris Shumway knew, seeing Palmer ride up on his grandfather’s big bay horse, was that Palmer had killed his grandfather. Save the quiet shuffling Palmer made as he dragged Shumway’s body toward the dirt road, John’s Canyon was quiet once more.
Fast-forward to 2016, and the Bedrock Bags crew is walking slowly up the wash, looking for something only a few of us had seen. “Pretty sure it’s somewhere right around here”, Andrew says. Sure enough, we walk around a corner through the goathead thornbushes and there it is. Carved deep into a sandstone boulder are initials and a date: NS FEB 28 1935. It’s an inscription, made by a bored young man, that became an epitaph less than 24 hours after being created. The story sounds like fiction, but we were out to retrace a bit of history, a real-life Western. Doing so while bikepacking made it even more interesting.
We left Durango on an October Friday afternoon, bound for points west and warmer temperatures. The popular perception of bikepacking gear makers may be of constant trips in beautiful places, but we only had the weekend to ride. Our customers would brook no argument if we weren’t back to the sewing machines by Monday morning. After passing through the old gold-rush town of Bluff, we set up car camp on the south end of Comb Ridge, a stunning slickrock escarpment that soars over the surrounding desert. It was a gorgeous afternoon. We made dinner, told stories, bemoaned the state of US politics. We launched model rockets, did some target shooting, and relaxed. After watching the stars come out and witnessing some excellent fireball meteors, we rested for the adventure ahead.
Morning found us packing up Coconino and Entrada bags, loading the bikes on the edge of the San Juan River canyon, just west of Goosenecks State Park. East of here the San Juan is a big, shallow river meandering along between gentle sandstone bluffs, but as it nears its confluence with the Colorado River (now in Lake Powell), the San Juan has cut deeply into the earth and currently resides a thousand feet below a large bench of land, making torturous twists called the Goosenecks. The large bench carries far downstream and is home to Goosenecks SP, the Honaker trailhead, and John’s Canyon Road. Above the bench, the rim of Cedar Mesa hovers a thousand feet up, accessible in this area only via foot or by single-lane dirt road. Almost our entire route would be constrained to the bench and John’s Canyon Road.
Most of us had bikepacked John’s Canyon Road more than once. The area is harshly beautiful, with no escape from the desert sun. The canyon below, rim above, sedimentary rock layers, and twisting canyons provide a landscape of straight horizontal lines paired with sinuous depth. As we pedaled westward, we admired the 800-year-old petroglyphs that abound in the area, inscribed in the rock by Anasazi inhabitants before they mysteriously vanished from the southwest around 1300. Lizards, snakes, antelope squirrels, and red-tail hawks are some of the few current inhabitants. After making a small detour to see the Shumway inscription, we cruised down the fairly smooth dirt road, winding our way into John’s Canyon proper, home to the largest water spring for miles around. This spring – a year-round water source – was the root cause of the bloodshed of 1935.
It was in this very landscape that the Oliver family ran cattle before and during the Great Depression. John (namesake of the canyon) and William Oliver were brothers from Blanding, well known men of standing in the area. William had been sheriff near the turn of the century, but by 1935 he was in his seventies and had returned to cattle ranching. The Oliver brothers had long-standing grazing rights to the John’s Canyon area, and when a stranger from Texas began working for an area sheep rancher and unexpectedly moved sheep into the canyon, tension began building. Clint Palmer – known as Jimmy in Utah – had been hired to manage a large herd in the area. Looking for water and good grazing land, and not particularly endowed with respect for others or the law, he brazenly moved into John’s Canyon despite protests from the Olivers.
Palmer may well have felt that taking risks on grazing rights was small potatoes. He had left Texas in a hurry two or three years before, after killing a gambling acquaintance and kidnapping the man’s daughter. At the time of the murder and kidnapping, Lucille Garrett was thirteen years old and living on the road with her father, one of the thousands of American men rendered jobless and and somewhat loose of ethics by the Depression and Dust Bowl. By 1935, Lucy was a frightened and timid fifteen- or sixteen-year-old, living in the Utah backcountry with a violent captor, and the death of her infant son fresh in her memory. Shortly after their son’s death, Palmer took her out of the hospital at Monticello and back to the sheep and the John’s Canyon oasis.
The spring at John’s Canyon truly is an oasis. Huge cottonwoods grow along the wash along with lush grasses. Old corral structures are readily visible. We pedaled through the stream crossing, and Tae and I opted to ride upstream a bit to find some more history. If you know where to look, you can find the dugout shelter that Palmer built near the creek. Low and rough, it isn’t certain that Palmer and Lucy lived in it, as there was also a small cabin in the canyon at the time. Either way, crouching down to look inside is to realize how rough life was on the land at the time. Further up the canyon, and much further back in time, there are Anasazi cliff dwelling ruins. With our 27+ bikes, space-age camping gear, and top-shelf bikepacking bags, we had it easy compared to any prior inhabitants of the canyon.
Heading back out of the canyon, we continued to follow the old road west, first built by oil-well interests around 1910. Two major landslides, several miles apart, have blocked the road to jeep traffic, leaving it mostly to hikers, animals, and bikepackers. We passed a faint inscription by Silas Honaker, namesake of the geologic layer and placer mine operator in the 1890’s. Time is thin here – the ghosts of yesteryear aren’t difficult to spot. Our destination for the day was the confluence of the San Juan and Slickhorn canyons, accessible many miles in via extremely rough old road. After tanking up on water at John’s, we needed to get water for the night. We picked our way down to the river. Once we’d admired the canyon from the bottom and checked out the century-old oil well, we filtered water and headed back up to the bench, setting camp and hanging out around a small twig fire. In that moment, with night around us, it wasn’t difficult to imagine the year was 1935…
William Oliver had had enough. He’d given Palmer a place to live, taking pity on the obviously terrified girl, when the strangers first showed up in Blanding. Despite that kindness, now Palmer was working for Harry Goulding and living on the range, and was muscling in on their cattle grazing ground – no small problem in the desert, especially since the cattle didn’t like to drink at the spring once sheep were present. William had even begun wearing his revolver again when on the range, not trusting of the Texan. In late February, William and his 24-year-old grandson, Norris Shumway, drove William’s Ford Model A from Blanding to John’s Canyon, intending to check on their cattle and talk yet another time with Palmer about moving Goulding’s sheep off their allotment. Arriving at their camp – a place called The Seep – they parked the car in favor of the horses they kept at John’s. On the afternoon of the 28th, William rode his bay horse upcanyon to have a conversation with Palmer. While he was gone, Norris idly carved NS FEB 28 1935 into a boulder at The Seep, unaware of the misfortune about to befall him.
When William rode around the corner into John’s proper, Palmer met him on the road. After a brief argument, Palmer drew a pistol and shot William three times. William attempted to defend himself, but, wounded, was unable to prevent Palmer from retrieving a high-powered rifle and taking a final shot. Palmer then used William’s horse and rope to drag the body down the road to a place where the cliffs were close to the shoulder, where he then threw the body into the canyon. The next morning, he mounted William’s horse, rode to The Seep, and killed Norris with an axe after gravely wounding him with the rifle. Finally, he put Norris’ body in the Model A, threw him off the cliff a couple miles from William, retrieved Lucy from the spring and lit out for Texas by way of Flagstaff.
Only the passage of decades makes it somewhat easy to stand in places where people were murdered and feel little beyond a certain quiet reflection. Far from being voyeuristic in nature, we were interested in retracing historical events via bike, in one of our favorite areas of the world. It is edifying to realize that not all that long ago, the West really was wild – for good and bad. It’s too easy to forget that in our hyper-connected yet disconnected world. Lucky for us, the traces of the past last a long time here, and as always, traveling by bike puts one in close touch with the world. As we rode past the places where William Oliver and Norris Shumway were pushed over the cliff’s edge, I looked over and gave a little nod of acknowledgment.
When the Oliver men didn’t return for several days, the people of Blanding put a search posse together. Although it took some time, they eventually found both bodies and brought them home for a proper burial. Palmer was captured in Texas, and spent the rest of his sorry life in federal prison for the murder of Lucy’s father. If released on parole, authorities in Utah would have put him back in prison for the John’s Canyon murders. Instead, he died in prison in 1969. Lucy, I’m happy to say, lived a long and much better life, getting married and having children before dying in the 1990’s. A photo of her in her late teens shows a happy, pretty, smiling woman – the resilience of the human spirit is no small thing. In the 1990’s, skeletal remains were found in John’s Canyon, and there are some that say they were Navajo sheepherders killed by Palmer so that he could have their jobs. Even more intriguingly, the last-known traces of Everett Ruess (one of the West’s most famous disappearances) are found not too far downstream from John’s, in an inscription dated 1934. Could Ruess have met his end at Palmer’s hands? We will probably never know.
We pedaled back up to the trucks in late afternoon, Monument Valley in the distance and huge thunderheads building in every direction. As we drove back to Durango, sewing machines waiting for our return, we were quiet. It was difficult not to think about everything we’d just seen. John’s Canyon, Utah – wild, beautiful, filled with human history both ancient and mere decades past – and a wonderful place to go bikepacking.
About Joey and Andrew
Joey Ernst and Andrew Wracher are co-owners of Bedrock Bags and Velorution Cycles, located in Durango, Colorado. Joey enjoys playing southern-flavored hardcore through a half-stack and hanging out with his cat; Andrew prefers bluegrass on his mando and his yellow lab. Both are fans of NPR and spending as much time outside as possible.