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There's Something About Utah

Exceptional souls leaving their stamp on Utah



Since 1849, July 24 has been a day of celebration, marking the arrival of the first group of Latter-day Saints into the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. Pioneer Day celebrates their dangerous cross-country trek in search of religious freedom. Over time (except for in this COVID-19 year, that is), parades, fireworks, rodeos, songs, dance, picnics and historical re-enactments have become part of the occasion.

But the day means different things to different people. While canceled this year due to COVID, a local Native American group hosts an intertribal pow-wow in Liberty Park on July 24, attracting as many as 65,000 people each year to share song, music, dance, drums and cultural preservation. "We ask the Native American tribes and communities to support our venue in the midst of the State of Utah pioneer day celebrations. ... We are not affiliated with the Days of '47 festivities or any pioneer-related activities," the website for Native American Celebration in the Park notes.

Other non-Mormons enjoy a counterculture faux holiday at local bars called "Pie and Beer" Day, where patrons indulge in pints and slices, with some bars encouraging their wait staff to dress in pioneer garb.

The point being that regardless of religion, ancestry or ethnicity, Utah loves its trailblazers—and the more refreshingly eccentric they are, the better.

In fact, it could be argued that Utah reserves its greatest blessings for the most eclectic among us. The more driven and unique a person may be, the more they seem to thrive in this quirky land. Test drive that idea with the visionaries in your life, and let us know if you find it to be true.

Three cases in point follow. The author, Jared Blackley, has written numerous articles for City Weekly's sister publication, Vamoose Utah. The trailblazers he writes about most assuredly march to their own drum.

We celebrate them and all modern-day pioneers like them this week, grateful for the mark they leave behind.

—Jerre Wroble

Son in tow, Anita Coyle crosses the finish line at Snowbasin - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Son in tow, Anita Coyle crosses the finish line at Snowbasin

What Could Happen?
When everything in her life unraveled, Anita Coyle, mother of four, made a run for it.

When Anita Coyle qualified for the 2017 XTERRA World Championship Off-road Triathlon in Hawaii, she was surprised. The ultra-athlete has always been competitive but qualifying for the world championship is difficult. Of the more than 50,000 competitors in the 35 qualifying XTERRA triathlons throughout the world, only 650 are eligible to compete in the world championship.

Of those 650, many devote their lives to preparing and training. But with less than a month between the XTERRA Pan-Am event at Snowbasin (where Coyle qualified) and the world championships, she didn't think she could properly focus on the race. She'd just given birth to the youngest of her four children the year before and had other priorities on her mind.

But she qualified again the following year, and this time, she really wanted to compete in Hawaii. After discussing it with her husband, Jason, though, she ended up not going. Jason was more practical about the situation. Last-minute plane tickets are expensive, he argued, and the family had just spent a small fortune on a trip to Disneyland. It just wasn't a good time for her to compete. Why was she in a hurry, he asked. He urged her to wait, confident she'd qualify again in the future. "What could possibly happen?"

After a small spat, they came to an agreement—that 2019 would be Anita's year. In case something unforeseen happened, like a flat tire or a muscle cramp, she would compete in two XTERRA events—Beaver Creek, Colorado, and at Snowbasin. They'd make a family vacation of it. They'd rent an RV and visit national parks on the way home. Then, assuming she qualified for the world championship in October, the Coyles would celebrate their 20th anniversary in Hawaii.

Like Anita, Jason was also competitive. He swam four days a week. He had completed two 10-mile swims, which is equivalent to an ultra-marathon. (For comparison, a full Ironman consists of a 26.2 mile run, a 112-mile bike ride and 2.4-mile swim.) He also swam the length of Bear Lake several times and across a 6-mile stretch of the Great Salt Lake. He looked forward to one day swimming to Catalina Island or across the English Channel.

He pushed his heart to keep up with his demanding workouts. But that was the kicker. Unbeknownst to him, he had an undiagnosed bicuspid aortic valve, meaning his aortic valves only had two leaflets, instead of the normal three. This required his heart to work overtime to pump blood through the narrowed valve.

During a routine swim on the night of January 3, 2019, Jason's heart malfunctioned. Feeling nauseous, he hopped out of the pool and walked to the locker room, where he collapsed. Medical professionals did their best to revive him, but he died at age 42.

Anita Coyle: “I finally decided I shouldn’t wait.” - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Anita Coyle: “I finally decided I shouldn’t wait.”

Something Had to Give
After every tragedy, there are those who mourn, and those who grieve. The distinction is stark. After a while, the former move on. Life goes back to normal. Grief, however, settles in for the long haul. One deals with it continually—sometimes for days on end. It can be debilitating.

Anita was always one to finish a race. But this time, she sank into a dark fog. She wanted to crawl into a corner and stay there. She even considered a darker, more permanent solution to ending the anguish but knew that wasn't really an option. Her children and their ongoing needs brought her back to the present. Yet, she needed something else. Overwhelmed with love, remorse and regret, she had no place to unload her emotions.

The phone call she received a week after Jason's funeral didn't help. A nodule that was surgically removed from her thyroid the day before Jason passed away was determined to be malignant. Tests were needed to ensure the cancer hadn't spread.

"This was just too much to even think about," she said. "I lost it. It was too overwhelming." Something had to give. A few weeks after Jason's funeral, she laced up her running shoes and went out for a long run. "It was the only time I felt any sort of happiness or sense of not bearing a load of weight," she said.

Getting back on a bike was harder. Mountain biking was a favorite date activity for Jason and Anita. They rode in the Wasatch often and vacationed in Moab a few times a year. But getting back into the pool would be the most difficult of all, as that would always be Jason's domain.

The idea of trying to qualify for the XTERRA World Championships began to creep back into her head. She asked her closest friends what she should do, and most told her the time wasn't right. She knew it would be an enormous commitment to undertake at this point in her life. But she kept hearing the words Jason had said to her a few months earlier: "What could possibly happen?"

"I finally decided that I shouldn't wait," she said. "I needed to do it now, so I asked friends and loved ones to support me. And they did, in a big way."

She got back on the bike. She got back in the pool. She started an Instagram page—@RacingFromTheAshes—as a way to hold herself accountable. She had no specific training regimen—how could she, a grieving widow with four young children? She assessed her schedule daily. She took advantage of every free moment.

She had always loved spending the summer months with Jason—a well-liked English teacher at Bountiful Junior High who was renowned for his mustache. But now she dreaded summer's arrival, knowing her kids would be home all day. Would summer break make the house feel even lonelier? Would she be able to find enough free time to train?

Emotional Roller Coaster
Lab work and CT scans found no evidence the cancer had spread, but she would need to return in three months to make sure. The days seemed long and chaotic, and nights seemed even longer. In July, she competed in the Beaver Creek XTERRA Triathlon and didn't qualify for the world championships. But she noted who did. In order to qualify at Snowbasin, she would only have to finish no more than two spots behind those contenders. She continued to train while friends and family often helped with the kids.

September came, and she wondered if she had she prepared enough. She raced at Snowbasin. There were no flat tires, no muscle cramps. She finished fourth in her age division, two spots behind the women who qualified in Colorado. And this time, she succeeded: She had once again qualified for the world championships in Hawaii.

The trip to Hawaii was an emotional roller coaster. The night before the race, she was named the XTERRA Warrior, an award given annually to one participant whose resilience in the face of adversity is inspiring. The next day, her resilience paid off—she completed the race. And she's glad she didn't put it off because the world championships were canceled this year due to COVID-19.

When she returned home, nothing much had changed, of course. She was still in the throes of her greatest challenge—raising four kids as a grieving widow—and she will be for some time to come. But she has other aspirations, and other races to run. Happily, her lab work and CT scans remain clear. With every sunrise, there are reasons to be hopeful.

“ ... what I envision is to make this place somewhere artists can come and work year-round.” —Eileen Muza - SALLIE HODGES
  • Sallie Hodges
  • “ ... what I envision is to make this place somewhere artists can come and work year-round.” —Eileen Muza

Solitude and Stars
Cisco's casual re-emergence as an artists' haunt in the desert

Located on the barren, windswept desert plains 45 miles northeast of Moab—just off Interstate 70 between Crescent Junction and Grand Junction, Colo.—the ghost town of Cisco has seen its share of boom and bust since its founding in 1883. But by the time Eileen Muza pulled into town in 2015, it was a graveyard of abandoned cars and RVs. Most of the buildings had collapsed or were in an advanced state of decay, leaning this way or that. Almost all had been tagged with graffiti or vandalized, their windows shot out a long time ago.

Like most visitors who stop in Cisco, Muza was just passing through. An artist, she was on her way to the Great Panel in Horseshoe Canyon. The pictographs there interested her, but there was something else about Cisco that captivated her. Being from the city, it was the first ghost town she had ever experienced.

"I couldn't believe that all this stuff had been abandoned," she said. "That can't be right. Somebody's gotta be here. I mean that house has a satellite dish on it? I didn't want to assume it was abandoned, because you never know. You can go to any 'abandoned' building in Chicago, and you'll find squatters. People will live there. I couldn't understand it."

While investigating the town, she noticed one dwelling in particular that, though in a state of disrepair, appeared to be structurally sound. It wasn't for sale, but she was thinking, "Obviously nobody wants it. Or maybe they do care for it but are too old to keep it up. Who knows what their story is?" Her curiosity led her to find the owner, and she ended up purchasing approximately 2 acres of land, a cabin and several outbuildings, including the original post office, built in 1887, and then moved on joists for over 2 miles when the railroad town was relocated to its current location in 1890, to lie along the standard gauge rail line.

Water was pumped from the Colorado River to Cisco to fill the steam engines, and the town saw its first boom. A motel, a mercantile, a saloon and a school opened. Cattle barons and shepherds in the area used the depot to ship their goods. By 1900, the town had 173 residents. The Goslin brothers of Cisco shipped more than a quarter-million pounds of wool out of the town in 1906. The population peaked at 323 in 1910 before the demand for wool saw a steep decline and the town experienced its first bust. Only 95 citizens remained in 1920.

Charlie's Folly
Over the next several decades, Cisco would experience several other small boom-and-bust cycles. After steam engines became obsolete and trains no longer needed to stop for water, America's burgeoning fascination with the automobile turned the town into a service center.

An eccentric and unemployed geologist named Charlie Steen lived in Cisco with his family for a couple years in the early 1950s while pursuing an educated hunch that other geologists at the time referred to as "Charlie's Folly," about where to find uranium. The tarpaper shack the Steens lived in is still mostly standing and can be seen just off the main road. He was deeply in debt when he lived there and desperate for a grubstake. His kids' clothes were threadbare, and the family was living primarily on venison when his hunch paid off. He found uranium in July 1952. A year later, he owned the largest house in Moab, which is now the Sunset Grill, and was known for throwing extravagant parties and spending lavishly. Though he eventually died broke, his discovery spurred a rush in mine claims, which continued for nearly two decades.

When I-70 was completed in the 1970s, Cisco was bypassed by five miles, effectively killing it as a service center. It was a foreseeable fate, one that, according to local lore, inspired Johnny Cash's song "Cisco Clifton's Fillin' Station." The song is said to be about H. Ballard Harris, who still lives in Dewey, 15 miles south of Cisco on State Road 128. This Scenic Byway follows the Colorado River almost the entire way to Moab and is a painfully beautiful drive.

By the mid-'90s, the post office shut its doors and, within a few years, the town was effectively vacant. By the time Muza arrived, no one called Cisco home. At the time, she had a seasonal job working for the Park District in Chicago. She spent her winters traveling. Though there was no running water or sewer system, Cisco seemed a good place to spend her winters.

It's a Good Thing I Was Super Optimistic
"I was almost 30," she said. "I was at a point in my life where I was feeling like I needed to do something or make some changes in my life. I thought [moving to Cisco] could definitely change things for me, for better or worse."

Optimistic about owning land and fairly confident in her ability to use power tools, she worked feverishly to clean the place up and make it comfortable. As often as possible, she would reuse and repurpose items strewn around her property. There's a fence made out of old box springs. The outhouse uses worn oil barrels to support the posts. The walls are composed of rusty sheet metal.

Her back porch is a leveled amalgamation of several pieces of concrete of varying size and gravel. "It's a good thing I was super optimistic about this place," she said. "If I wasn't, I never would have succeeded. I told myself, ya know, if worse comes to worst, I guess I could just leave it. That's what everybody else did. But, of course, I had no plans for that. Once I start a project, I gotta keep going until I see it through."

And she has seen it through. The project has only developed and grown. Muza hasn't returned to Chicago in a couple years. According to her profile on Airbnb, Muza now lives in a 1950s airstream and is working on a log cabin built in 1932. The original post office and another small cabin can now be rented through Airbnb (no running water but there is electricity, wi-fi and a private outhouse available).

An abandoned bus was given to her by the owner of an adjacent property—he didn't even know it was there—may also soon be used as rentable space. Large and detailed murals have been painted on either side, and both celebrate the history of the town and its lore. On one side there are two revolvers firing at each other; on the other, a shepherd stands with his coffee and looks into the distance while his sheep wander along the base of the bus and over the wheel wells. An artfully designed wooden camper with Dutch-style gables has been built on the back of an old truck. Muza's nonprofit organization, Home of the Brave, will host the town's first semi-annual artist in residence this month. This camper will be the resident's personal space, and the shell of a refurbished Winnebago with a raised ceiling and added windows for extra lighting sits 15 feet away, to be used as a studio.

You Have Time to Think Out Here
"What I really want to do, what I envision," she said, "is to make this place somewhere artists can come and work year-round. I mean, there would have to be some sort of vetting process, so not just anyone shows up, but I envision there being different places for different types of artists to stay and work. It's such a great place for creative thinking. You have time to think out here, but you are subject to the weather and a few other hardships. Perhaps that is its own vetting process. Who knows?"

Though this vision has yet to be formally adapted as part of the nonprofit, creative people are already beginning to show up to help with the work and add art of their own. Mike "Marlow" Mewborn, a vagabond friend of Muza's who camped nearby this summer, said that in his 40-plus years of rambling around the West, he has never been to a place that plays host to so many bohemians and artists. "There are artists showing up all the time," he said. "They seem to be drawn to this place."

The fall Artist Residency Program received 61 applications, from artists representing numerous mediums. There is no reason to believe the spring residency will be any less successful, and who's to say where it will go from there?

"I have a lot of plans still," Muza said. "I want to build a house on stilts. I'd like to take some of these abandoned cars and use them to build a bridge over that depression across the street. I mean, why not?"

For short-term lodging in Cisco, visit
Information about the application process for the Artist Residency Program and Home of the Brave nonprofit organization, visit

This profile by Jared Blackley was published in the October 2019 issue of Vamoose Utah

“At night, I lie in bed and imagine I’m on the river.” —Herm Hoops - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • “At night, I lie in bed and imagine I’m on the river.” —Herm Hoops

River Whisperer
Herm Hoops took the river less paddled to find his purpose

If you ever met Herm Hoops on the river, you'd remember. He was the river guide wearing a baseball cap with an oversize toucan beak on it. His expansive smile, irreverent wit and crass sense of humor are fixtures on the rivers of the Colorado Plateau for more than four decades.

Whether working as a park ranger at Dinosaur National Monument, floating the river as a guide, repairing rafts at his home or shuttling boats and guests to and from the river, he's by nature gregarious with travelers and locals, sharing his experiences and alerting people to threats facing the rivers he loves.

Hoops began advocating for rivers after his first trip to Echo Park in Dinosaur National Monument in the early 1970s. The remote site where the Yampa and Green rivers converge was once a refuge and hideout for Butch Cassidy and his outlaw gang. But the fact that the river was almost dammed, and the area submerged under a reservoir affected Hoops. He began a push to make the 83-mile section of river below Echo Park a national monument.

This section, known as Desolation Canyon, meanders through one of the most isolated and rugged regions in the country. It's the largest area in the contiguous 48 states with no road running through it. What we now call the Green River has been carving its way through this area for 10 to 15 million years. From the river, cliffs rise up on either side like giant sandstone layer cakes—a layer of shale then cliff, shale then more cliff. Every bend offers something new, from rapids to ruins, petroglyphs to wildlife. The deepest part of the canyon is cut more than a mile below the top of the Tavaputs Plateau—nearly as deep as the deepest section of the Grand Canyon.

Designated Wild and Scenic
To Hoops, this stretch of river has always felt like home. He began running it several times a year and estimates he's run it more than 100 times over his life.

Though the petition to turn Desolation Canyon into a national monument went nowhere, Hoops' advocacy of rivers had begun. On the local and national front, he continued to advocate for the fragile desert river systems of the Colorado Plateau where he met with both success and failure.

He spearheaded a campaign to create a boat passageway and fish ladders at the Tusher Dam diversion near the town of Green River. Now, for the first time in more than a century, it's possible to completely navigate the river from the base of Flaming Gorge Dam to its confluence with the Colorado River.

But, he says, he also "spent months pissing into the wind" attempting to get various interest groups along the White River to agree that oil pumps should be removed—not replaced—when they wear out. His advocacy on behalf of Utah's rivers helped turn Desolation Canyon into the largest wilderness study area in the state. And in 2018, Congress designated the lower 60 miles of the canyon as a Wild and Scenic River, protecting it, in many ways, for future generations.

Celebrating their anniversary on the river: Herm Hoops, right, and wife, Valerie - COURTESY PHOTO
  • Courtesy Photo
  • Celebrating their anniversary on the river: Herm Hoops, right, and wife, Valerie

Moonlight on Canyon Walls
Now in his 70s, Hoops' river days sadly are behind him. Because of health issues, he took his final trip down Desolation Canyon in October 2018, just a few weeks after being inducted into the John Wesley Powell River Museum Hall of Fame (there's even a short film about that journey on YouTube titled The Salad Days). A few years prior, he'd been diagnosed with COPD and placed on oxygen, A short while later, he learned he had an aggressive form of prostate cancer. Amid these life-changing diagnoses, he also had a hip replacement.

All the while, he was working on an extensive archive on the history of inflatable boats, a project he completed in 2018 and turned over to the University of Utah's Special Collections in the J. Willard Marriott Library.

He fights back tears when he talks about the river and his most memorable trips, most of which were done alone or with just a few others. Earlier in their marriage, his wife, Valerie, and he would celebrate their anniversary on the river. At camp, he'd dress up in a Sergeant Pepper-like band-leader uniform while she donned a cocktail dress and a parasol. They'd enjoy wine and cheese and then serve shrimp or scallops.

"We were madly in love," he says. "We still are. She's a very important part of my life."

Most of his solo trips down Desolation Canyon took place in the off-season, just after the river ice melted or before it froze. "I really preferred solo trips because there was only one asshole I had to deal with," he jokes. "I didn't have to talk if I didn't want to. I didn't have to socialize. I could write or just stare at the river or the canyon walls. One of the most beautiful things about a river is that it doesn't care about us. It doesn't care about our economics or our dams or our need for water. A river just does what a river does."

He reminisces about river otters floating alongside his raft for nearly a mile and the time he watched a herd of elk cross the river. Then he recalls watching a mountain lion come down to the bank for a drink. "He had no idea I was there, man," Hoops says, noting such wildlife encounters seldom occur on group trips.

"At night," he continues, "I lie in bed and imagine I'm on the river. I imagine I'm lying on a sandbank. I see the river in my mind. I think about the weather on certain trips. But I can't hear [the river]. I can't smell it. I can't feel it."

That's the hardest part, he says. "I really miss the river, and memories only go so far."

The river regularly surprised him with almost ethereal experiences. "When the moonlight comes down a canyon wall," he says, "it can be just like sunrise."

And just before dusk, as the canyon walls darken, the buttes and mesas high above reflect the last rays of the sun so brightly that the rocks appear to be radiating light. Within a few minutes, the rocks darken, and the stars appear, vast and incalculable.

And the river, of course, does what a river does. It flows on.

This profile by Jared Blackley was published in the March 2020 issue of Vamoose Utah