At the trail register into Robbers' Roost Canyon – a several-hundred-mile complex of towering walls and deep slots in remote southern Utah – a backpacker had scrawled a warning. A cougar came into his camp at night, yellow-eyed and prowling, and the hiker, "badly spooked," stayed up throwing rocks to keep the animal at bay. My friend Travis, a wisecracking Texan in his fifties, scoffed at the backpacker's note. "What would Butch have done?" he said, holding up the .380 pistol he'd brought with him. He meant Butch Cassidy – the real one, not the Hollywood version made famous by Paul Newman in the 1969 movie 'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.' In the 1890s, Cassidy and his band of merry psychopaths, the Wild Bunch, holed up in the Roost, one of the wilderness hideouts along the 2,000-mile length of what was known as the Outlaw Trail, the redoubt of the most successful bank and train robbers in the Wild West. "Couple rounds from this and a shot or two of whiskey," said Travis, "and we'll be fine."
A week earlier, in Grand Junction, Colorado, Travis had been accosted by a meth head, and he had drunkenly pulled a knife to defend himself. The guy backed off, but Travis made the mistake of sheathing the weapon, at which point the meth head decked him. Now his right eye socket and cheekbone, both broken, looked like they'd been smeared with tar. I'd wondered if he'd want to do the trip in that condition – he could barely see out of the busted eye – but with Butch Cassidy as motivation, he'd decided to man up.
Originally, I had wanted to use horses to trace the Utah portion of the Outlaw Trail, which is in fact a network of paths sprawling from Texas to Montana. Horse and cattle thieves during the 1860s were the first to blaze these byways, decades before Cassidy. In Utah, outcast Mormons wanted for murder or polygamy established some of the first settlements along the trail's most remote parts. But it was April, and the days were already hot, and no horse guide would take us into the Roost this time of year, as good water would be hard to find. So we shouldered our heavy packs under the sun, in a spring wind that stung our eyes, and headed out on foot.
That night, we camped at the bottom of the Roost, near the Dirty Devil River, which runs wide and shallow, silted and undrinkable. Our canteens were running low, the desert night was cold, and I kept thinking of the cougar. "Yep, that old mountain lion's watching us right now, got 10 times our night vision," said Travis, before drifting into a grinding snore.
In 1976, Robert Redford, who plays the Sundance Kid in the movie, traveled the trail for several hundred miles as part of an article he authored for 'National Geographic.' "As technology thrusts us relentlessly into the future, I find myself, perversely, more interested in the past," Redford wrote. "We seem to have lost something – something vital, something of individuality and passion. That may be why we tend to view the western outlaw, rightly or not, as a romantic figure."
Edward Abbey, environmentalist and self-described anarchist, who joined Redford on his ride along the Outlaw Trail, once wrote that the deserts of the American Southwest were a safe house of political liberty, "a refuge from authoritarian government." In his 1968 book, 'Desert Solitaire,' he described "revolutionaries, operating in mountain, desert, and jungle hinterlands with the active or tacit support of a thinly dispersed population." He was thinking of Vietnam and Cuba, but his words could equally apply to Butch and the Wild Bunch, who were able to survive because of the support of the Utah locals. "If guns are outlawed," Abbey continued, "only the government will have guns...and a few outlaws. I intend to be among the outlaws."
Once upon a time in America, a man could point a gun at a banker and flee with his money into the wilderness and not get caught. Renegades like Cassidy found their way on the Outlaw Trail, operating across terrain that remains even today some of the most forbidding in America. They survived – they thrived – because it was dangerous, unmapped territory. My idea, probably a foolish one, was to see if I could find a place in the wild reaches of the American West where an outlaw, or at least someone who wanted to feel like one, could still hide out.