Utah has mountains of mysteries
By J. Michael Call
When it comes to mysteries and legends, Utah certainly has a wealth of rich material for an author to draw upon. There are famed outlaws, hidden gold and ancient treasures, strange lights hovering over the West Desert and that elusive and rather hairy big guy who in these parts goes by name of Bigfoot.
It was Salt Lake City author Michael O'Reilly's intention to write a book that hit upon some of these stories, and he does so in "Mysteries and Legends of Utah: True Stories of the Unsolved and Unexplained" (Globe Pequot Press, $14.95). O'Reilly is a writer, outdoorsman and business owner who earned his master's degree in poetry from the University of Utah.
His book is broken into 12 chapters, each dealing with a different subject, ranging from historical events such as the Mountain Meadows Massacre and the Mormon handcart disaster, to colorful characters of the Old West like the storied, tough-as-nails trapper Jedediah Smith and the infamous, but lovable, outlaw Butch Cassidy.
In an interview with the Standard-Examiner, O'Reilly said one of his favorite chapters, "The Lost Rhoades Gold Mine and the Secret of Carre Shinob" tells the story of the legendary gold mine and a sacred Indian burial site containing spectacular treasures.
O'Reilly's story begins in 1855 with a frightened 19-year-old Caleb Rhoades, who reportedly accompanied a group of Utes into the Uinta mountains to bury Chief Walker, the famed Indian chief who converted to the Mormon religion. What Caleb witnessed inside the burial site was the stuff that has helped fuel the legends of gold in them thar hills.
"As far back as the lanterns cast their dusty glow, he could see more skeletons, some wearing ancient Spanish armor, their leather pouches and knife sheaths still perfectly intact," O'Reilly writes. "There were two large, golden disks, taller than a man, each one engraved with words of a language Caleb had never seen. He couldn't fathom their value. Skeletons were adorned with elaborate feathers, jewels and gold artifacts he did not recognize. He had a thousand questions. Could these golden disks, strange masks, anklets and breastplates belong to the ancient Lamanite people written about in the Book of Mormon? Young Caleb only hoped he lived long enough to find out the answers."
Caleb didn't live long enough to discover the answers, but his account has lived on in modern times.
O'Reilly said he enjoyed researching and writing the chapter because of the numerous characters involved -- past and present -- including The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"The most interesting thing is the quest for the gold and how it ties in with the church and their need for gold," O'Reilly said.
His chapter "UFOs and Aliens in Utah" was also of particular interest to O'Reilly because of an unusual experience he had on a mountain-biking trip near Wendover, Nev. That experience, he thinks, might have been something out of this world.
"I was lying in my sleeping bag and looking west, and two lights come up from horizon," O'Reilly said. "I thought they were fighter jets as they came up in formation, but they were really far away from me. They came up slow, stopped, turned right, stopped again in unison, zigzagged and then both lights shot up into space really fast. They weren't moving like normal aircraft."
O'Reilly said that what he saw shares commonalities with other UFO sightings. He includes his experience in the book, but acknowledges that he doesn't know what he saw over the desert that night, "which officially makes it a UFO sighting."
"Regardless of what others think of my experience, whether or not they believe them, I am tremendously grateful for having seen the UFO," he writes. "Because I know I'm not crazy or delusional, my experience allows me to take seriously the accounts of others and to hear their stories with an open mind, without passing judgment."
O'Reilly does include the accounts of others in his UFO chapter, including Alien Dave, famous in Utah UFO circles, and a Sandy man named Darrell Smith, also famous in UFO circles, but perhaps more well-known for his interest in Bigfoot.
Smith and his wife moved to Utah from Southern California in 1979. A year later while watching the evening news, he saw a story that sent him on an ongoing quest for Bigfoot.
"It was on the news that a Bigfoot had come down from Coldwater Canyon to a trout farm in North Ogden and he was eating the trout out of the ponds and left some perfect footprints in the mud while he was doing it," Smith said in an interview with the Standard-Examiner.
"When he was finished with that, he walked back up Coldwater Canyon. One of the neighbors was walking out into the trout farm when Bigfoot was walking out of the trout farm and they met -- face to face. He was hospitalized for shock. He'd come face to face with a Bigfoot."
O'Reilly's chapter on Bigfoot begins with the multiple sightings in North Ogden, which the author says continued over the next 17 years as various landowners and hikers had encounters with fabled creature.
Smith elaborated on one incident in which a North Ogden man got a little angry with Bigfoot because, week after week, his pigs were disappearing.
"He was getting kind of upset about that and one night the pigs were squealing out there, so he takes his hunting rifle out there and said, 'If it's a bear, or Bigfoot or a mountain lion, I'm going to kill it. If it's a human being, I'm going to scare him to death.' "
When the man walked around the outbuilding, Smith said he came upon a Bigfoot who was "palming a 35-pound pig like you would a football."
Leveling his rifle at the creature, the man reportedly said he could see the expression on the its all-too-human face.
"Bigfoot was scared 'cause he knows what a man with a rifle means," Smith said. However, when the man pulled the trigger, the gun didn't fire and Bigfoot ran off toward Coldwater Canyon.
In his 29 subsequent years of researching and cataloging Bigfoot stories, Smith said, guns not firing and cars not starting is a common occurrence when Bigfoot is in the house.
What's that smell?
In addition to being big and hairy, Bigfoot apparently needs a hot shower, some strong soap and an effective deodorant.
O'Reilly writes in his book of a particularly frightening encounter in which one of Smith's friends (named Ron) ran across a Bigfoot while driving with his family up Farmington Canyon.
"After rounding a tight corner in a densely wooded area, Ron slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting something tall and hairy standing in the middle of the road," O'Reilly writes. "For at least five minutes, the giant beast stood there on the centerline, looking around as if he couldn't decide where to go. Finally, he started moving, and for a moment the entire family was on the edge as the beast walked toward the car, swinging his long arms. A few strides later he was past them and out of sight. Ignoring his wife, who begged him to keep driving, Ron jumped out of the car to get a better look at the creature.
"When he opened the door, everyone inside was hit by a blast of foul-smelling air."
Smelling bad is a trait Bigfoot is known for, Smith said, "whether it's on purpose or not."
"A lot of people have said it's like rotten meat, or the worst smell they've ever smelled," he says in the book. "But then I've been within feet of them and never smelled a thing. I've had them follow me through the woods and walk around my camp."
Where's the body?
O'Reilly's chapter on Bigfoot in Utah also quotes renowned Bigfoot expert Jeff Meldrum of the University of Idaho, who O'Reilly says approaches the Bigfoot question from a more academic and scientific point of view than Smith.
So O'Reilly asked Meldrum the obvious question: Why, if there is such a thing as Bigfoot, has no one ever produced a body? Why no Bigfoot road kill?
Meldrum's response: "If this is a species of large primate, then its intelligence is at least on par with that of a chimp or a gorillla, perhaps greater. Given its rarity and its solitary habits, it is not surprising that they avoid traffic."
But Smith has another explanation.
"We know that Bigfoot buries its dead. They've been seen burying their dead," he says in the book. "A couple guys in California saw two Bigfoots burying a third ... the guys went back to town to get help 'cause they wanted to dig it up, but when they returned, they couldn't remember where it was."
Even in death, it seems, Bigfoot remains elusive.