I don’t know what Bennion had on his schedule that day, but I was captivated with the tone and texture of his conversation. He reminded me of my friend Kevin’s grandfather I met in my early twenties, who spoke simply and clearly, with the same unhurried speech that seemed like drops of water on a still pond, the perfectly symmetrical ripples emanating outward, seeming to disappear quietly back into stillness, the way an echo fades into silence.
Seemed like several hours we spent together that day, in his sanctuary, until he began to tell me about a piece of property between Moab and the town of La Sal. It was a rugged bit of acreage that included half of an unnamed canyon and the metalliferous cliffs rising up beside it, where the patented mining claim David R G Brown had located on April 28th, 1916, and then surveyed and established ten years later as the Lucky Strike 1 and Lucky Strike 2 lodes in the unorganized mining district of San Juan County, Utah. Bennion told me it had come to his attention some 25 years before, when he was the county attorney.
I knew from the moment he brought it up, before the words even entered his mouth, that a gift of enormous value was being proffered to me. An unusual piece of land for even he...nevertheless, a property Bennion had treasured and held for years, despite numerous requests from the miners who worked the mines in the 1950s to try and purchase the land. He was holding it until one or another of his progeny might show an interest in such an interesting, though challenging property to develop, as this one clearly was.
Bennion had never hiked up onto the property in all the years he owned it, but he described the lower end of the property that crossed the Kane Springs drainage, and the pipe that the miners had tapped into the side of the opposite slope that still produced a trickle of water year round. He offered it to me for a thousand dollars an acre, and laughed when I asked if I could camp there for the night, and bade me farewell and a long life if I didn’t return.
I found that property, and I was greeted by the nesting pair of Red-tailed Hawks who circled overhead as I scrambled into the rocks and swore an oath to protect this unique property that I would never truly own in the bilagáana sense of the word, but knew right away that I would become the caretaker of this piece of land until the day I die.
I returned to Monticello the next morning, filled with a wonderment I had never known in all the blessed years of my life until then, at 9 o’clock, the time Bennion told me he would open up. I told him I could not hold him to the offer he made, that the value was beyond price, and that grandchildren would present themselves, who would be worthy of his gift. He shook his head and reaffirmed the offer and said that I could pay whatever I wanted to pay, or nothing at all, for a downpayment. I asked if I could give him the $4,000 I had saved, and make the $500 monthly payments I could afford. Two days later, on my next visit, he walked me across the street to the recorder’s office and we recorded the deed and the terms of our agreement, and for the next five years and 11 months, I sent Bennion my personal check every month, with a card of my own making and a photograph of one or another of my discoveries on the property...of the fox in the cave entrance who drew my attention away from its mate...of the lightning strikes rolling across the hills next to me with an October storm that spilled not a drop of rain... of the squirrel standing on its haunches to devour a yucca flower...of the horned lizards and collared lizards and the baby pigmy rattler...and of mother hawk in full display and in my face, as I got too close to her nest the first time, and afterwards kept my distance in the three years the pair nested.
I can’t say enough about this man I love more than my own grandfather, this man who invited me and my bride-to-be to their annual ward picnic to meet a few of his family and friends...this federal magistrate who married us in his living room with two of our dearest friends in attendance (who came to Moab themselves, incidentally, around the same time we finally landed). I had a number of years with Bennion in my life. He hired me once to build a tree house for one of his favorite granddaughters. We stopped to visit and break bread together whenever we passed through town, though he would never let me pay the check.
I miss Bennion, but it doesn’t hurt so much. I miss him as I am sure all his family and friends and all the many people he touched with his very long life surely do, and it gives me great comfort to know the company I have in remembering. I found a letter I wrote to Bennion when I sent him my first $500 payment. I saved all the letters he sent to me, and read one of them this morning, and I believe it has changed my life. I’ll tell you about it in next week’s final installment.