There he stood in the parking lot. Eyes crinkled. Hair white. Faded blue, quilted coat with duct tape on the sleeve. As a young man, he had walked thousands of miles through canyon country, often alone.
As a tour guide, he had found one of the rarest and most valuable of all prehistoric Southwestern artifacts. At 91, he is still alive. Kent Frost of Monticello, UT – last of the oldtime desert rats and river runners.
His friend and driver Marian Krogmann, from Fruita, CO, introduced me, and we went into the lodge for breakfast. Over a cup of coffee, Frost told me his story. Raised in a hardworking Mormon family on a dryland wheat farm south of Monticello, Frost wandered west early on into the slickrock, following both Anasazi and cowboy trails.
Restless and bored with farming, in the late 1930s he rowed as a boatman on the San Juan River for Norman Nevills and Mexican Hat Expeditions. Frost wanted to explore Glen Canyon, so he took off with his brother and walked from Monticello to Hite in five days.
He remembers, “We went real light—dried fruit, raisins, apricots, jerky. I didn’t like carrying a rifle so I got pretty good shooting rabbits and squirrels with a .38 Special.”
They had no sleeping or camping gear. Frost explains, “I learned from the Navajo people to build a fire and sleep by it where there was an overhang in the rocks, which helped reflect heat down on my body.”
The boys met prospector Art Chaffin and he built them a boat to float through Glen Canyon. When food ran low, Frost shot a beaver, which was inedible, but it made good bait for catfish. By 1947, he was working for Nevills rowing through the Grand Canyon and impressing guests by picking rattlesnakes up by their tails.
Then Kent had an idea. He would do on land what Nevills did on water — introduce tourists to the Southwest. Kent Frost’s Canyonland Tours became the first four wheel drive tours into Canyonlands, ten years before its national park status in 1964.
His jeep tours went “back of the beyond,” and in 1958, for $25 a day, Frost provided all food, tents, sleeping bags and air mattresses. The next year he guided on the reconnaissance trip into the Needles with Stewart Udall, who as Secretary of the Interior would work with President John F. Kennedy to create Canyonlands National Park.
Frost knew the country well. Katie Lee wrote in All My Rivers Are Gone, “Kent has jeeped, hiked, walked, floated, crawled, hung, climbed, swung, waded or swum about every crevasse in Southeastern Utah.” Famous photographer Joseph Muench took Frost’s first commercial jeep trip, and Ed Abbey used Kent as a guide for his book Slickrock: Endangered Canyons of the Southwest.
By jeeping into the Needles District and Chesler Park long before paved roads existed, Frost helped create a market for Canyonlands tourism. Writers and photographers then publicized the area so it could be protected.
Frost was written up in Arizona Highways, Desert Magazine, Four Wheeler, Natural History, the Sierra Club Bulletin, and Sunset. Sierra Magazine described him at 65 as “still a slim 150 pounds of spring steel—agile as a goat, unflappable, good-humored, always innovative. A superb outdoorsman.”
Marian Krogmann, his friend of 30 years who backpacked with him into the Escalante, explains, “We’ve done a lot of exploring together. He taught me how to see. To take time and look at things instead of moving too fast in the country.”
It was just that technique of slow and careful observation that allowed Frost to find an extraordinary Anasazi scarlet macaw feather sash and now displayed at the Edge of the Cedars Museum in Blanding. In perfect condition, the sash is 800 years old.
Director Teri Lyn Paul states, “The sash is extremely rare – not another one has ever been found.” The Scarlet Macaw is a warm weather parrot from equatorial Mexico. Finding the sash on the Colorado Plateau was extraordinary. Yucca fiber ropes covered with feathers are attached to a buckskin strap and overlaid with a tassel-eared squirrel pelt.
Within the bright red feathers is a thunderbird shape of iridescent blue macaw feathers that could be a clan symbol. “Maybe the feathers were traded from the south (northern Mexico perhaps) as loose feathers, or maybe they were traded on the yucca cords,” Director Paul muses “It is an object of special meaning and beauty. We are privileged to be able to care for it as part of the museum collection.”
Kent Frost and his clients found the sash when they were resting in an overhang on BLM land. He moved his feet and exposed the sash—which was in a bundle. In 2006, he permanently donated the feathers to the Edge of the Cedars Museum, which qualifies as a federal repository for archaeology. “I was going to sell it,” Frost said over coffee, “but I decided it would be better to keep it in the country where I found it.”
The oldtimers who knew the canyon country are almost gone now. They knew it not from riding ATVs or using maps and GPS units, but rather the old way, walking, on foot across the desert.
In 2004, the Glen Canyon Institute presented Frost with the David R. Brower Award, named after the former president of the Sierra Club.
That’s quite a legacy for the son of a wheat farmer. Kent smiled at me as he put his coffee down, “I’ve had an unusual life.”
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of Southwest Studies and history at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .