ESCALANTE, Garfield County — After 10 years showing off the sweeping grandeur of the area in and around Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument — a territory the size of Rhode Island and Delaware put together but without the humans — trail guides Shawn and Shari Miller have their share of favorite-dude stories.
Like the one about the Easterner who scheduled a weeklong get-away-from-it-all walkabout in the backcountry, with only Shawn to guide him, and then, after just five hours walking through slot canyons, buttes, mesas and never-ending sagebrush without hearing a single car horn honking, he’d had enough.
“Get me outta here,” the man begged Shawn. “I can’t take all this solitude.”
Shawn and Shari love that story. They can relate. Only in the entirely opposite direction.
All their lives, they’ve been running away from the same thing that man from the East was running back to.
This is a couple who lived in Heber City when they were newlyweds and found seasonal jobs at nearby Deer Valley.
They stayed until Heber got a McDonald’s.
Then they fled to Kamas, a smaller place with no McDonald’s and no prospects for one.
They stayed there until they heard the Olympics were coming to Utah.
They relocated to remote northern California, where they bought a seven-acre farm, fixed it up, only to sell out when the walls started closing in.
That got them to tiny Escalante in 2004, a town they came to sight unseen because when they looked on a map they noted it was a half-hour or more in any direction from another town and at least five hours from a city of any considerable size.
They settled into the heart of Garfield County, a place with a density ratio of one person per square mile (Manhattan, by contrast, has 70,000 people per square mile). There’s exactly one stoplight in the county, a flashing one, and it’s in Panguitch, an hour and 15 minutes from Escalante.
Shari tells the story about taking their youngest daughter, Mary, who was born the year they came to Escalante, on a supply run to St. George a year or so ago when she was 9. At an intersection, Mary asked, “Why are all the cars stopped?”
She had never seen a red light before.
The kids — Mary and her older sister Erin — are home-schooled, so shortly after that Shari made certain to take Mary on a road trip to Albuquerque, so her daughter could experience what a big city looked like.
There, Mary had another question for her mother: “Why are there only three stars?”
Shari thought she was asking about the rating of their motel.
Until she realized Mary was used to the zillions of stars to view on a nightly basis in Escalante.
Meet the Millers. They’ve yet to meet the place they couldn’t walk away from if things seem a tad too crowded.
It only figures that they make their living by taking people to the middle of nowhere.
Their business is called "Escape Goats," which refers to the domesticated goats they used as pack animals on their guided trips until about a year ago when they had to stop because of a backcountry rule that goats must be at least nine miles from bighorn sheep — and lately the bighorn sheep have been doing a lot of roaming.
Shawn and Shari understand. They like to give everyone and anything plenty of elbow room.
The ironic contradiction is these outliers love people. And people love them. Their entire business, escalantecanyonguides.com, is predicated on successfully interrelating with others — something they’ve been doing for a decade straight.
But on their terms.
Out in the wide open spaces, people become more agreeable and likable — they discover their best selves, insists Shari.
“It’s amazing how nice they are.”
So Escalante is an ideal fit — for the moment anyway.
“Right now, we can pretty much call this home,” says Shari, “although we’re always looking.”
And just the other day, Mary, the 10-year-old who recently saw her first traffic light, did indicate a bit of restlessness to her parents.
“She thinks this is too crowded. She wants to live in the backcountry,” says her mother, who beamingly adds. “A child after our own heart.”
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: [email protected]