Best Secret Keeper

Waldo Wilcox guarded the ruins of a lost civilization for more than 50 years. Now the secret is out.

By Robert F. Howe from Reader's Digest Magazine | May 2005

A World That Time Forgot

Even today, the valley resembles a world that time forgot. Lush undergrowth hugs the swift-moving central creek, and the land is dotted with outcroppings of stone and stands of cottonwood, spruce and box elders. And in the heart of the valley is a promontory topped by what resembles an old-time locomotive fashioned from massive red rocks stacked one upon another by the sheer force of nature.

When Wilcox was 11, visiting Range Creek with his dad, he and a friend guided their horses up the valley, dismounted and began exploring the rocky hillsides. When he discovered a man-made dome of stone and clay, he wasn’t entirely sure what it was, but he did what so many other boys would have done — carved his initials into what he later learned was a primitive granary.

When Waldo fessed up, his father gave him the devil. “He raised me to show respect,” remembers Wilcox, who never forgot that lesson.

Decades later, probably alerted by a hunter whom Wilcox had allowed on his land, a university archeologist contacted Wilcox, asking if researchers could take a look at the ruins he heard were plentiful in the valley. Wilcox was wary but allowed the group onto his property, leading them to a stone wall decorated with pictographs.
“Then one of them gets out a pick,” he recalls, “and raises his arm like he’s about to chip off a piece of the rock. I grabbed that pick out of his hand, showed them fellows to the gate, locked it behind them and said goodbye. I still got that pick somewhere.”

Even as he approached 70, Wilcox continued to run cattle, tending to his herd on horseback. Finally, his aching body, as well as his worried wife and four grown children, told him it was time to retire.

“I hated the idea of leaving, but there comes a time when you have to give it up,” says Wilcox, a muscular six-footer who now lives in Green River, three hours by car from Range Creek. He accepted $2.5 million from the nonprofit Trust for Public Land, a national conservation group, in a deal that ultimately deeded the property to the state — which, he hoped, was more likely than an individual to preserve the ruins.

Sadly, southeast Utah is riddled with sites that have been ransacked for booty or defaced just for the sheer destructive sport of it. A once stunning example of rock-wall art a mile off the Range Creek property is pocked with divots — the permanent scars left by bullets. “People use ‘em for target practice,” Wilcox notes with disgust.

While he presided over the valley, Wilcox lived contentedly among the undisturbed remains of an ancient civilization. Today, he sometimes laments having sold the ranch, in part because even tiny Green River feels crowded to him, but mostly because back in the hills he had a sacred kind of calling: to protect his land and its relics. It wasn’t easy keeping them secret all those years, but it was well worth it.

“If I had to do it all over again,” he contends, “I’d do the same.”

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