We gave the kids water from the five-gallon jug in the back of our Jeep. Travis shook his head as they plodded away. In every direction, there was cliff, canyon, sand, rock, and no shade worth dying in. We were five hours by from the nearest outpost of civilization. "The view from the summit of the Roost country," as Kelly put it, "is either sublime or depressing, depending on the amount of water in one's canteen." Travis' assessment was toward the depressing. "Anything goes wrong – get hurt, get sick, horse goes down – you're screwed. A wounded man out here is a dead man." Later, we sat around the campfire and muttered over the dregs of the whiskey. "Know what those old-time sheriffs needed in the Roost?" said Travis finally. "Hellfire drones. Outlaw is sitting in his little canyon, got his Old Crow in his tin cup, horses are happy, he thinks he's got it made – whoosh! Boom! You're dead!"
A few days later, Travis went home, and I moved on to another vast wilderness in Utah called the Book Cliffs. It was 60 miles north of the Robbers' Roost but only a day's ride or less for a horseman like Butch, who once claimed he rode a horse 110 miles in 10 hours. "The fact is that Butch...had made some of the most demanding rides ever known," wrote author and horse guide Simon Casson, "with the added pressure to outpace pursuit, avoid ambush, and evade capture." The astounding horsemanship of the Wild Bunch was key to their success as thieves in the American wilderness.
I was joined by a 66-year-old veteran horse packer from Colorado named Ronni Egan, who runs a conservation nonprofit called Great Old Broads for Wilderness. As a young woman, Egan worked for the legendary packer A.C. Ekker, who, during the 1980s and 1990s, maintained a ranch at Crow Seep in the Robbers' Roost, one of the springs where Butch watered his horses. We rode in Egan's truck past the town of Green River, where the Wild Bunch often resupplied, and through the abandoned mining village of Sego, where Butch and Elzy Lay stopped in 1897 while driving a string of "fine horses." Beyond the seemingly impassable line of cliffs was the East Tavaputs Plateau, a folded country of high-altitude canyons and forested ridges. The Outlaw Trail, where it passed into the cliffs and over the Tavaputs, was once a major line of transit for cattle and people, connecting the Roost country with another redoubt on the trail known as Brown's Hole, 150 miles to the north.
The road turned to rough dirt and cobbles, rising 3,000 feet through the cliffs into the high country. A friend of Egan's named Dana Ivers was waiting for us at a campsite at 8,500 feet, under tall pines and with a hundred-mile view south across the Roost and beyond. Ivers, who is 62, was tiny and quick-footed and had a cackling laugh.
The fourth member of our party was Travis Buck, a 29-year-old ranch hand from Colorado who would serve as horse wrangler on the expedition. Buck was tall and bone thin, had shining blue eyes, and wore a wide Stetson and a torn leather vest, over which hung a 9mm pistol in a shoulder holster. When we arrived, he was tending to a line of five horses picketed between pine trees, brushing them down, looking for burrs. The pistol was in case he'd have to shoot one of them if it broke a leg.
In the morning, we headed out under grim, cold skies with provisions for a night and two days, the goal to follow the trail 20 miles or so into a roadless wilderness full of elk and cougar and bear. "Back in the outlaw days," said Ivers, "this was the middle of nowhere."
"It's still the middle of nowhere," said Egan.
Buck said he smelled the musk of elk in the distance as we rode, and sure enough, we spotted a herd on a ridge not far away. We had six dogs with us – collies, an Akita, a Scottish terrier – and they took off like rifle shots, giving chase as the elk thundered in flight. Our horses ignored the commotion, plodding dutifully, and when the dogs came back empty-mouthed and sad-eyed, the steeds slapped them off the path.
Egan rode Jim, a sorrel quarter horse that stood 16 hands tall, the alpha of the herd. He was "broncky," as horsemen like to say, tossing his head, fighting the reins, ignoring commands, and threatening to shrug Egan off his back. Buck was on Diablo, a cranky Appaloosa gelding who got his name a few years back when he spooked and charged, wrapping Buck's testicles on the saddle horn. Ivers had taken Tailstar, a.k.a. "The Professor," a thoughtful Tennessee walking horse. I was given Ironfoot, a palomino said to be "good with children."