TRUE STORY: The headless hiker of No Thoroughfare Canyon
NOTES FROM AFIELD
For some reason, humans seem drawn to fear. Children hide behind corners to scare friends and family. The most popular rides at amusement parks are thrill rides. One of the wealthiest authors, Stephen King, built his fortune selling books to people wanting to be scared.
Next week marks a holiday devoted to celebrating our fear. People will be visiting haunted houses, parading around as vampires and zombies, and gathering together to participate in the age-old tradition of telling scary stories. Who hasn’t sat around a campfire and heard the story of “the hooked-handed man?” Camping is fertile ground for telling terrifying tales. You’re in an unfamiliar area and who knows what is out there beyond the light of the campfire just waiting for its chance to pounce. Each area, even Grand Junction, has its own terrifying histories that encourage ghost stories.
One of these accounts began with the startling headlines found in our local newspaper Nov. 12, 1914, “Gruesome Skeleton Found At Foot Of Pinyon Mesa Cliffs.” Apparently, two young boys were exploring the area around No Thoroughfare Canyon looking for game. They wandered up a canyon, then known as Red Rock Canyon, about one mile west of No Thoroughfare when they came upon the ghastly discovery. Wedged between two rocks were the sun-bleached bones of a human skeleton. The skull and limbs were scattered around the site, apparently ravaged by coyotes. There was no skin left attached to the bones. According to the article, the only thing that remained was a terrible stench.
The next day Deputy Coroner T. F. Callahan left with the boys to visit the site. Found was the brown suit the person was wearing, a brown hat, a new handkerchief, and a new Tuxedo tobacco can partially filled with moldy tobacco. Due to the size of the bones and the hat, he judged the body to be that of a boy 15 to 16 years old. He could find no broken bones or other signs of foul play, so although he said the death could have been caused by a heart attack or lightning, the death was unconfirmed and would remain unsolved. He did take the skull back to Grand Junction, perhaps so Coroner Yunker might possibly shed more light on the mystery.
The fall of 1914 saw the start of World War I and life in general was harsher in Grand Junction at the turn of the century. Within a month of this discovery, a body was found hanging in a train car, the bones of a boy that drowned earlier in the spring were found by Fifth Street, a coal mine roof collapsed killing a Fruita man, and a young girl’s body was found after being murdered by a local farm hand. No wonder local citizens were drawn to “America’s Darling,” Mary Pickford’s new movie at the Majestic Theater. The skull, which was brought back, was buried under the casket of some other unfortunate soul in the Orchard Mesa Cemetery and the rest of the bones were left forgotten in the canyon.
These bones would have remained forgotten if it weren’t for John Otto, the superintendent of the newly established Colorado National Monument. He was very upset that the skull and bones weren’t either buried in the canyon or that all of them weren’t collected and given a proper burial back in town. Otto couldn’t abide with human bones scattered on top of the ground in the park any longer. He tried to reunite the skull back with the bones, but after getting the runaround from county officials, he was advised they had other matters to attend to and were not concerned about anyone’s bones. Otto, who by his account, had never been to a funeral let alone seen a dead person, was very angry that he had to take care of the bones left behind. His concern may have been so personal because evidence points to an Otto campsite only a few hundred yards from the site of this man’s corpse.
Nevertheless, he arranged for a proper burial of the scattered bones, minus the skull. He provided a polished granite headstone and with several friends and some people that happened to be out for an outing, buried the bones in, as he says, “a pretty spot in the rimrocks.”
Today, the grave and this story belong to the “headless hiker” and the site is still only known by a handful of hikers. If you wish to pay your respects, you could probably Google the site or use the clues in this story or the ones found in the original newspaper article.
Better still, go explore the canyons. You might spend years and never find your quest, yet you will be all the richer for your search. And if your search takes you out as the sun begins to set and the whisper of a breeze is heard in the trees, listen carefully. Perhaps you will hear the soul of the headless hiker crying out to reunite his skull with the rest of his bones.
Kevin Hardy has been a teacher with School District 51 for 27 years. Equaling his passion for education is his love of the outdoors. For more information about hiking in our area, contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Carrie Besnette Hauser considers her position as president of Colorado Mountain College to be a dream job.