For Tana, who has not only helped me to find my own memory places over the years, but who has been kind enough to share a few of hers as well - including Josie's cabin.
My sweaty left hand slips across the cracked, leather steering-wheel of my mum’s old Ford Mercury Zephyr as I take the left off U.S. Highway 40, just past the L & M Country Store onto UT-149. I’m heading toward Dinosaur National Monument, toward all the pasts and all the futures this beautiful, cursed basin collects in her deep, sandstone bowls. No getting around that fact, so I have a plan, or peace-offering, or trade, or bribe; call it what you will. Turn successfully navigated, I drive slowly, tires sometimes crunching over, sometimes sliding through, the swarm of Mormon Crickets huddled on the asphalt to gather the last of summer’s warmth. No wonder these damn insects are more road-hazard than pest, I think, driving just far enough that I have to squint the L & M into focus in my side-mirror before pulling off the road.
Fifteen miles to the ranger station marking the entrance into the park; I have to pull myself together. I unbuckle the seat-belt and wipe my hand on my jeans before shoving it into my pocket to pull out a lighter. Plucking a Lucky Strike from behind my left ear, I put it between my lips and light it. Tobacco and paper crackle loudly, as I close my eyes and inhale. A sudden thought catches the smoke in my throat and chokes me; mum’s gonna kill me if she finds out I’ve been smoking in her car; so I slide across the front seat, grab the passenger window crank in a newly-sweaty palm and turn it for dear life. Not fast enough. I jump out the passenger door and open the back doors on both sides of the car to let smoke escape. Too late. I buckle myself in again, the cab reeks of smoke. Shit! Just what I need. I hang my left arm out the window, cigarette dangling between twitchy fingers, and for some reason I’m crying now, maybe because this whole scene is ridiculous, and the reason I’m out here in the first place is ridiculous. And even though I’ve graduated from bubble-gum cigarettes to the real sort, I’m still five years old, coming out here for the first time on my kindergarten fieldtrip; sure as shootin’ I’ll see the ghost of Josie Bassett Morris. Just breathe, Bree.
As the Discovery Elementary kindergarten bus rolls up to the parking lot in front of the cabin, a dozen tiny noses are scrunched up against glass inside, creating a thick veil of wet fog. The world outside is blurry, like I’m looking through a snow-globe from the inside out. With great effort, I peel my nose off the window and wipe the veil away with the thread-bare sleeve of my Tears For Fears sweater to get my first glimpse of Josie’s cabin. My breath catches; the cabin is small and squat, with slightly crooked walls, like a giant stepped on it or something. It’s made of wood, but not the flat, shiny kind like our shed at home. This thing looks like it’s built of life-sized Lincoln Logs! While the other kids are bouncing up and down on jungle-green seats, I hold my breath and slip past Miss Massey and the bus driver. No one notices me until I’m walking through the cabin’s front door and I hear a muffled voice screeching “Bree-AANNN-AH PYYYEE, YOU GET BACK HERE THIS INSTANT!” My feet stop; I’m suddenly sure Miss Massey is an evil witch who can freeze me in this spot forever and the next bus rolling up is gonna laugh at the snot permanently frozen in place as it hangs off my chin.
That twat can’t even say my name right, I think, and suddenly my feet unfreeze just enough to step inside the cabin. It’s dark in here; the only light is jutting across the room in perfectly straight beams, like thin little Lightsabers in training. It smells all musty, too, sorta like my papa’s cooler after a fishing trip. I’m kinda confused because the floor is made of dirt, and this place doesn’t have any furniture, but it’s sure a ginormous improvement over the puke-colored shag-carpet in my living room at home. Making a mental note to inform my mum of this fact when I get back, I walk over to inspect the giant fire-place in the center of the cabin; it takes up the whole center wall and has two doors on either side of it leading into another room. In a dark little nook just above the actual fireplace, there are a whole bunch of shiny cans, all lined up in a row. I get just close enough to notice they are the exact same soda my mum and papa drink (Busch something or other) before Miss Massey grabs my arm and yanks me back toward the door. Once outside, I huddle in the cold with the rest of the noses until the witch and the park ranger tell us we can come on inside. While the old ranger rattles off legends about Josie that we’ve all known for ages, I notice the soda cans aren’t in the nook anymore, and just like that, any doubt I had in my mind that Josie’s ghost still lives here, vanishes.
Around fall of my sophomore year in high school, mum figured out I was erasing the thin black line she’d been drawing on her liquor bottles with a Felt Tip Pen to mark how much was left. Cover blown. It was time to move on to safer methods of obtaining booze for the crew. And while we managed to score a bottle of Boone’s Farm for very special occasions, the method of acquisition for such a luxury was no longer worth the trouble (you can only take the gas attendant from the Last Chance out back and lift up your shirt so many times before the novelty wears off). Out of options, I headed for familiar territory, absolutely sure (though she’d been dead for over three decades) Josie’s place would provide a solution to this very pressing problem. By this time, I knew those soda cans from my kindergarten fieldtrip weren’t actually soda; they were tributes to Josie’s legacy of bootlegging during Utah’s alcohol prohibition from the 1920s-1930s. Aside from supplying her infamous beau (Butch Cassidy) and his outlaws (the Hole in the Wall Gang) with fresh horses, (allegedly) stolen beef and whiskey, Josie cooked up batches of apricot brandy and chokecherry wine and hauled it down to the Green River (a location now known as Moonshine Rapids) to sell thirsty Utahans some liquid courage. Turns out Utahans like their whiskey now just as much as they did back then, so for as long as anyone can remember, they’ve been leaving alcoholic tokens of appreciation in and around Josie’s homestead as small thanks for her “service” to the community. It didn’t occur to me until our show-and-tell sessions behind the Last Chance were no longer an option that Josie wouldn’t mind if my friends and I consumed a little of all that appreciation. Problem solved.
Exhaling, I field-strip my cigarette and flip the butt out of the car window – just another ingredient for the highway’s Mormon Cricket soup. It’s now or never. I turn the radio up to drown out the crunching beneath my tires, Ace of Base blaring as I pull back onto the highway and drive the rest of the way to Dinosaur National Monument. Breathing a little easier when I notice there’s no ranger on duty at the fee station, I realize this is the first time I’ve ever brought alcohol into the park. Ten miles down Cub Creek Road, I take the left fork toward Josie’s Ranch and navigate the last mile of washouts and bottomless four-wheeler ruts before pulling into the empty graveled parking lot at Josie’s. Thank God. I’ve made it in before the place is crawling with khaki pants and straw sun-hats. I open the glove box and take out the bottle of Boone’s Farm Strawberry Hill wine I’d picked up from the Last Chance this morning (turns out a two-year dry-spell is all the encouragement our old attendant needed to reinstate our prior arrangement).
The cabin and surrounding ranch complex are shrouded in the shade of countless Cottonwood trees, planted by Josie herself when she settled this homestead in 1913. I take a moment to peek inside the old cabin and grin when I see a few full bottles of Bud Light in the fireplace and a few empty bottles on the floor in front of it. Strolling inside, I gather the empty bottles up, leaving the full ones untouched, and an overwhelming sense of teenage comradery fills me as I head back outside to toss the empty bottles in the trash. I can almost picture Josie leaning against the wood-framed doorway of the house she built with her own hands, bib-overalls stained with the day’s work, Winchester rifle resting casually in the crook of one arm, thin-lipped smile turned slightly up at one corner as she watches young women like me wander in and out of this place – decades of kindred rebellious spirits, passionately inspired to both mischief and greatness by the memory of her outlaw legacy. Tipping an imaginary hat to her imagined ghost, I leave Josie in the doorway and head north up the dirt path behind the cabin.
The pungent, bitter smell of sagebrush permeates the air as I make my way through a field, thick with sage and yellow rabbitbrush, past the old chicken coop (now more rotting wood and sunken earth than chicken coop), and over a narrow, bubbling creek. After walking up the trail a while, I pause when I spot the ridge marking the entrance to Hog Canyon and squint my eyes against the sun to look for the white bell-shaped pedals of Ute lady's tresses, a threatened species of orchid known to grow in the ravine’s mouth. No luck today, but I’m here on business of a different sort so I continue on, keeping Josie’s livestock corral (the very same one she used to hide her allegedly rustled cattle and poached deer in when the law came calling) on my left, until I spot the landmark I came here to find. Two old Cottonwood trees, fused together at their base create a deep crevice where they deviate into twin trunks, their branches spilling over the corral and concealing the nook from prying eyes. Sweeping the branches aside, I clear out dead leaves, dirt and feathers before placing the bottle of Boone’s Farm (only the best for Josie) inside and letting the branches fall back in place.
I had planned on sayin’ something real elegant, but seventeen years of gathering vocabulary aren’t sufficient enough to express the depth of my emotion in this moment. The words catch in my throat and the best I can manage is a weak “It’s the least I can do, Josie. Thanks.” Lame, I know, but it’s not just a bottle of wine and this isn’t just a cool tree; it’s all the twists and turns I’ve navigated from that kindergarten trip to this one. It’s a heart-felt “thank you” for the kinship I’ve always felt with Josie and her legend, a kinship which kept me fighting when I didn’t have any fight left in me and moving forward no matter how many steps I’ve taken backward first. It’s a plea that she’ll keep my past safe and treasure it, in case no one else ever does. It’s a peace-offering for all the appreciation my friends and I have borrowed from her over the years, and it’s a deep appreciation all my own, something owed a long-dead outlaw who gave me so much, still gives me so much. And it’s also a pact, that even though I’m leaving the Uintah Basin for the Army in a couple of weeks, I’ll always remember to come back here… and remember.
(Josie Bassett Morris Photos (black and white) courtesy of the Uintah History Center, Uintah County Library, Vernal, Utah. Color photos by Bree Pye)