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Scott Thybony's Canyon Commentary - 'On The Run'


Of the many twists and turns along the Colorado River, Dead Horse Point is one of the most famous, at least from a Hollywood perspective. It's where the unforgettable ending of "Thelma & Louise" was filmed. It's also a place where real-life-fugitive-drama has played out. In his latest Canyon Commentary, Scott Thybony brings us the tale of two young outlaws who busted out of the Moab jail and headed to Dead Horse Point to hide from the sheriff.

Every bend of the Colorado River has a story. And if not, just ask a boatman and the omission will be corrected. As we drifted toward Dead Horse Point in southern Utah, I asked our guide about the filming of "Thelma & Louise". The final scene shows the fugitives cornered on the rim of the Grand Canyon. A dozen patrol cars close in with helicopters in hot pursuit overhead. Rather than surrender, the women decide to keep going and drive into the void.

Our boatman stopped rowing and showed us a promontory chosen as a landscape-double for the Grand Canyon. Placing dummies in the shells of 1966 Thunderbirds, he said, the film crew launched 3 cars over the cliff at high speed. The cameraman got the shot, but a miscalculation caused 1 car to nearly land on a ranger observing across the river. Since then they've called the spot Thelma & Louise Point.

A real chase, as wild and improbable as a Hollywood film, took place on the same stretch of river. In 1924, 2 young outlaws were chased down the Colorado by Sheriff a boat. It was "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid" meets the "African Queen". The fugitives, Bill Tibbetts and Tom Perkins, had been arrested for cattle rustling and locked up in the Moab jail, all the while protesting their innocence. The cowboys figured they could handle the injustice, but it was the jailhouse grub that drove them to take desperate measures. "It was simply unendurable," they said.

Late at night they pried the bars loose and squeezed out. The cowboys dashed to the river and found a skiff loaded, as planned, with food and bedrolls, guns and even saddles. Pushing into the current, they rowed downstream into the remote canyon country they knew well. The posse was in pursuit the next day, chugging downriver in a motor launch trying to overtake the fugitives. Rounding a bend 24 hours later, the sheriff and his men spotted the stolen boat on a sandbar.

The escapees quickly grabbed a couple of rifles before making their getaway on foot. They disappeared into the rock wilderness along the Green and Colorado Rivers, now within Canyonlands National Park. "They know that country like a book," reported the local newspaper, "and are well versed in the art of roughing it in the hills." For nearly a week they lived on little more than the bulbs of sego lilies and grasshoppers.

The lawmen motored back to town where Sheriff Murphy formed a new posse, outfitted with a string of pack horses. They crisscrossed the Island in the Sky country in a futile search, while the fugitives continued to evade capture. Months later and tired of running, they left the state.

And the jailhouse food that drove the prisoners to escape? In a letter to the newspaper written while on the run, the outlaws gave their side of the story. The sheriff had been feeding them garbage donated by the neighbors for chicken feed, they claimed, and a file concoction called "Scrappo" consisting of half-chewed leavings scraped off someone else's plate. Forced by hunger to eat small portions, they discovered a cat's tooth in the mess and recalled how the house cat had disappeared a few days before. That did it: the prisoners had to escape or starve. Compared to the slop served in jail, they wrote, "six days on grasshoppers seemed like a picnic."

Years later Bill Tibbetts returned to Moab when the statute of limitations expired. Then, in what could have been a Hollywood ending, the reformed outlaw became the town marshal.

Scott Thybony has traveled throughout North America on assignments for major magazines, including Smithsonian, Outside, and Men’s Journal. An article for National Geographic magazine was translated into a dozen languages, and his book, Canyon Country, sold hundreds of thousands of copies. He once herded sheep for a Navajo family, having a hogan to call home and all the frybread he could eat. His commentaries are heard regularly on Arizona Public Radio.