Text By: Carmen Bowes
Photos By: Samuel Taylor and courtesy of the J. Willard Marriott Digital Library at the University of Utah (https://collections.lib.utah.edu/)
Josie Bassett Morris was a badass little lady. She knew what she wanted and she went after it. The catch, all she really wanted was a private, cozy, breezy patch of ground on Cub Creek near the Utah-Colorado border. After visiting her homestead, that’s all I really want. It was perfect. Big tall cottonwood trees, a sweet little cabin, a natural spring, and a thriving orchard; all against the backdrop of a show-stopping Utah desert canyon. The coolest part of our visit: we had no idea we would find our way to Josie’s homestead when our day began.
As Sam and I drive into Dinosaur National Monument, it is sweltering. The vast parking lot of the visitors’ center bleads heat onto my legs. We are here to see big, mind-blowing dinosaur fossils. We ride a bus and walk up a ramp and step into a huge, two-story observation room positioned around a slab of desert stone. Standing at the edge of the observation deck, there are vertebrae and femurs whose sizes are impossible to comprehend. We take cheesy pictures with them, our bodies for scale.
Leaving, we find a pamphlet for a driving tour of the monument. It has nothing to do with dinosaurs but it looks fun. We take off out of the parking lot, the hot wind doing nothing for us.
The first several stops on the tour are petroglyphs. Crazy men with giant heads stare at us from the stone. Big lizard pictures scamper up the rock walls, vertical above the canyon floor. Corn stocks and patterns, lines and dots, are painted in white against the orange faces. A cacophony of images. Our heads drip with sweat, the heat pounding on us makes us tired, ragged.
There is a stop on the tour that takes us to the river bank. I feel the impulse to run and jump in, clothes, boots, and all. I don’t, instead I suffer.
At the last stop there is shade, we soak it in desperately. I grab some icy water out of the cooler and read from our pamphlet, “Josie Bassett Morris is a local legend. Independent in both action and thought, she lived on her own terms. It is here that she chose to settle in 1914… [She] provided for herself. She raised and butchered cattle, pigs, chickens, and geese… For [her], the benefits of the isolation she experienced living here were solitude and beauty.” Josie was born January 17, 1874. She died May 1, 1964.
We put on our packs and I hear water trickling as we walk into the glen of cottonwoods near Josie’s cabin. I read on in our booklet, “While a blessing, the springs from Box and Hog Canyons also gave Josie some headaches because of water use laws. The law stated that any spring that fed a larger stream, like Cub Creek, which another person had rights to, allowed that user to take all the water.” There are two springs on Josie’s property that used to run into Cub Creek. If Josie had followed the letter of the law, she would not have been able to use the water on her own land. Instead, she irrigated the water all over her property so extensively that it dries up before it reaches the creek. Based on the laws at that time, Josie got to keep her water and in turn, her serious irrigation turned her sweet little ranch into a green and lovely spot surrounded by sand and stone.
Intrigued, we save Josie’s cabin for last and wander toward where her orchard and gardens used to grow. The wind coming up the valley blows comfortably against our radiating bodies. I feel Josie here still. Each bit of her ground was thoughtful, purposeful. Her irrigation helps grass flourish where her gardens did the same. The fruit trees still stand in her orchard, crouched under the sun. We stop near a sweeping cottonwood. It is old and heavy, its branches sagging. From the size of its base, I know that Josie rested under this tree. I know that she was working hard in the garden and needed the shade and sat against this big, sturdy fellow.
Old fence posts rise out of the meadow along the rolling trail back to Josie’s cabin. The light is dappled. We walk through a division in the fence and up to her porch, or where her porch used to be. All the floors are dirt. They always were. You can see them below Josie in an old picture of her sitting down for a sandwich. In the picture, the walls around her are full of dishes and canned goods. Now, here in her place, they are bare. Just the wooden structure remains. A fireplace stills lives on a dividing wall and a well is built right into one of the rooms. Most of the windows are small except for two on the side with the view. They are massive and look out over the valley and Cub Creek. There are remnants of newspaper insulation hanging from small nails on the timbers.
I want to fill this place with all my things and learn every crevasse of this valley. I want to wear white flowy shirts and jeans and boots. I want to learn to ride a horse and skin a deer and grow all my vegetables just like Josie.
Sam and I leave this place wishing we could stay. Over the rest of our trip, we look at each ranch we pass like something we could buy and make our own. None of them are quite as good as Josie’s.
When we come home, I start researching our girl. I had an idea Miss Josie was a bit of a rounder but I didn’t know to what extent. Turns out she was into all sorts of trouble in her younger days. At some point she was brought to trial for cattle rustling(thieving), had a small tryst with Butch Cassidy, and may or may not have poisoned one of her FIVE husbands with strychnine. She divorced the rest. When questioned later regarding her husband’s poisoning she said, “I drove my first husband, Jim McKnight, out of the house at the point of a gun and told him never to come back. Let’s just say that some men are harder to get rid of than others.” What a spitfire.
In my hunt for information about Josie, I found nothing but stories of her outlaw heroism, her warmth when welcoming visitors, her strength, her ingenuity, her wit, her rodeo skills, her survival chops, and her incredible spirit. Every interview I read, every photo I saw, every account I heard; Josie’s spirit shined bright as that hot, Utah sun did on the day we stumbled into her corner of Cub Creek.
Josie’s homeplace stole my heart and the more I learned about the woman, the more she won it as well. This lady was resourceful, tough, and independent at a time when societal expectations led the other direction. While I don’t condone poisoning, I do think that Josie is the best part of Dinosaur National Monument. And that is saying something, because I LOVE dinosaurs! Who doesn’t?