The Heart of Two Explorers

My wife and I continued our road trip through Utah, exploring scenic highways and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Tributes to John Wesley Powell and other explorers that came before us can be found at various highway viewpoints.
My wife and I continued our road trip through Utah, exploring scenic highways and the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. Tributes to John Wesley Powell and other explorers who came before us can be found at various highway viewpoints.

Many explorers crisscrossed the lands of southern Utah, but two stand out in my mind. One is John C. Fremont, and the other John Wesley Powell.

John C. Fremont
John C. Fremont

Fremont headed a number of expeditions through the American West, often passing through present-day Utah. In fact, the Fremont river in central Utah is named after him.

During the Mexican-American War, Fremont led a military expedition into California and defeated the Mexican army. He was then appointed by the Navy as California’s first military governor, but got into a dispute with the Army over the legitmacy of this appointment. Fremont was court-martialed over this, and convicted of mutiny. But he became a national hero during his trial, and President Polk commuted his sentence. It was the politically savvy thing for Polk to do for such a celebrated man.

Few people seem to live in or near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But here is one little settlement nestled within the rugged terrain.
Few people seem to live in or near the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. But here is one little settlement nestled within the rugged terrain.

In 1856, Fremont became the Republican Party’s first nominee for president. The newly-formed GOP was banking on Fremont’s national hero status in their bid for the White House. However they didn’t count on him being swift-boated. Revelations came out about a decade-old murder in California of three unarmed Mexicans, committed by Kit Carson. Carson had been under Fremont’s command at the time, and it was alleged that Fremont gave the order. This scandal, along with alleged military blunders, sank his chances of winning the election. He came in second to James Buchanan.

You may have noticed how dark my photos appear. Something very bad happened to my camera on this journey. I haven't figured it out yet. My wife likes this "sunglasses" effect and thinks it's an improvement. I'm not so sure. What do you think?
You may have noticed how dark my photos appear. Something very bad happened to my camera on this journey. I haven’t figured it out yet. My wife likes this “sunglasses” effect and thinks it’s an improvement. I’m not so sure. What do you think?

Yes, Fremont was a man of questionable character and judgment. In fact some of his questionable decisions led to several of his expeditions ending in disaster and lost lives. Historians describe this man as being controversial, impetuous, and contradictory. Not only that, but he also had poor business acumen. He died penniless in 1890, at age 77.

Utah's Highway 12 carried us past the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to altitudes over 9,000 feet. We found this alpine meadow in full bloom.
Utah’s Highway 12 carried us past the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, to altitudes over 9,000 feet. We found this alpine meadow in full bloom.

John Wesley Powell’s character and judgment was not nearly as questionable as John C. Fremont’s. But they both possessed the heart of an explorer.

Powell grew up bucking his father’s wishes, in pursuit of his love for the natural sciences. But he was also an abolitionist. He put his beloved science career on hold and enlisted as a private, to fight in the Civil War.

John Wesley Powell
John Wesley Powell

At the battle of Shiloh he lost most of his right arm to a minie ball. But he continued to serve and fight until the end of the war, leaving the Army as a brevet lieutenant colonel.

In 1869, the one-armed Powell embarked on his legendary expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in Utah and Arizona. This journey included the first recorded passage of white men through the entirety of the Grand Canyon. What a ride that must have been! Three of his men abandoned him in the middle of the expedition, fearing they would not survive the rapids. They were never heard from again. But everyone else did survive.

Powell led a second expedition in 1871, resulting in fairly accurate maps and more extensive knowledge of the Colorado Plateau region.

A distant view of Capitol Reef National Park, from Dixie National Forest.
A distant view of Capitol Reef National Park, from Dixie National Forest.

After these expeditions, Powell devoted the rest of his life to public service. He led the U.S. Geological Survey, and directed the Bureau of Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institute.

Powell with Paiute Indian named Tau-Gu, during his 1871 expedition.
Powell with Paiute Indian named Tau-Gu, during his 1871 expedition.

And he possessed the vision to encourage water conservation in the West, while discouraging the use of widespread agriculture in America’s arid and semi-arid regions. But he was resisted by money interests from the railroads, and his recommendations went unheeded. Then the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s ruined the livelihoods of thousands of western pioneer farmers. After this, Powell’s ideas and policies were finally taken seriously, and implemented.

Powell died in 1902 at the age of 68. I wonder which was the most breathtaking: his journey through the passage of death, or his wild gauntlet run through the Grand Canyon, riding the rapids of the untamed Colorado River.

Aspen forest along Highway 12.
Aspen forest along Highway 12.

You see, death is inevitable. It’s an adventure requiring no courage or free will. But living, true living, is never certain. You must be brave. You must seek out on your own the whitewater maelstrom of risk and reward, and plunge forward with a lust for all things new and unexplored. To really live, you must possess the heart of explorers.

Explorers like John C. Fremont and John Wesley Powell.

The Dirty Devil river, and site of the former town of Hite, Utah. The town was submerged by the waters of Lake Powell, after construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. Due to the recent drought, Lake Powell has receded and exposed the town site again. I wonder when some slick operator is going to open up a real estate office down there?
The Dirty Devil river, and site of the former town of Hite, Utah. This town was submerged by the waters of Lake Powell, after construction of the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963. Due to the recent drought, Lake Powell has receded and exposed the town site again. I wonder when some slick operator is going to open up a real estate office down there?
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2 thoughts on “The Heart of Two Explorers

  1. I love your bits of western history, and your pictures with or without sunglasses.

    I would love to explore the West. Travel is challenging these days with the Crohn’s. I see something missing in your pictures — plumbing 😔

    Liked by 1 person

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