Last fall I was invited to join a friend on a bikepacking trip in Southern Utah along a stretch of high desert I knew well—or so I thought. It turns out just driving by a place does little to tell of its secrets. Like many of you, I have driven through Mexican Hat, Utah, dozens of times. As I pass by, my eyes always drift to the eastern side of the road to the geological oddity that gives the small hamlet its name. I’m sure I’ve noticed the little blacktop road heading off to the west, I just never wondered what was down it. Stupid me.
Along the northern edge of the San Juan River, just as it passes through Mexican Hat, there are a series of serpentine bends that lead deep into canyons perpendicular to the river, one of which is called John’s Canyon. This is a beautiful and striking part of the state, currently a hot topic of debate for those who advocate for protected lands. Just to the north, literally atop a cliff towering above, is the border of the newly designated Bears Ears National Monument. Proponents of the formation of the monument assert it is too special to not warrant our fullest protective efforts. While I agree, I’ll leave that debate for another day.
As unspoiled and interesting as it is today, that beauty and ruggedness has drawn seekers of all kinds for centuries. In this one, it brought explorers, pioneers, societal dropouts, and as the West is prone to do—grifters, scoundrels, and outright thugs.
The Disappearances, by Scott Thybony is a fascinating tale of historical events that took place in the 1930s in Johns Canyon as well as the sprawl of untamed lands to the north. It tells of Dan Thrapp (pictured above), a young man from Chicago working as an archaeologist who ventured into the desert in search of Indian ruins, cowboys, and pure adventure. Thybony’s book also includes the tale of Lucy Garrett, a young girl from Texas who was kidnapped by a hardened criminal named Clint Palmer. His wrath spelled the demise for two prominent ranchers, both of whom he killed callously before rolling their bodies over a cliff.
Tybony, a masterful storyteller and accomplished backcountry traveler himself, investigates another disappearance from the 1930s, like that of Everett Ruess. Together, these yarns, told through personal journals, witness accounts, and the physical clues left behind in the red rocks, are retold in a riveting tapestry of murder, mystery, and good old heartache. Thybony’s prose is superb and a joy to read.
For those of us who have spent a great deal of time traveling in Utah’s canyon region, the book evokes constant visuals of places, peaks, canyons, and rivers we have traveled before, unaware of the ghosts who dwell therein. Tybony’s journey to find the truth of what happened to the individuals lost in the desert, but not to time, is a raw tale of adventure in itself as he hikes, rafts, and drives his way into the wilderness, and the past.
What makes The Disappearances so captivating is the fact the Wild West is still very much alive. The events within the three narratives are decades old, but still fresh in the memories of the rocks, some of them wearing the etched names of the main characters. Although not intended as a guidebook, it’s hard to turn the last page and not want to load up a truck, bicycle, or backpack to visit the locations where The Disappearances unfolded. If you don’t return, Thybony is the man to research your vanishing.