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Author shares stories behind Utah's most interesting place-names

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SAN JUAN COUNTY — A veteran hiker has peeled away some of the mystery surrounding the colorful — and sometimes crazy — names of places in the Four Corners area.

When you start looking into place-names in the canyon country, a lot of what you think you know turns out to be wrong. And a lot of the rest of it turns out to be a lot more interesting than you thought.

Steve Allen's hobby is hiking and trying to figure out where the place-names come from — for instance, Sego Canyon, famous for Indian rock-art.

"Most people would think that is names for the Sego Lily, which is the state flower in Utah," Allen said. "But that is not correct. It was named for an old defunct town. About 200 people lived there once because there was a coal mine.

"The mine manager's wife happened to see the Sego Condensed Milk can labels, and she thought that they were very pretty," Allen said. "And she was the one that ended up calling it Sego."

Trivia is the backbone of Allen's massive doorstop of a book, made up of two volumes covering 4,000 places. At bookstores in Durango and Moab, it's a surprising success in its first three months.

"I anticipated selling maybe 50 copies of this tome," said Andy Nettell of Back of Beyond Bookstore in Moab. "Steve (Allen) said 100. To date, we're at about 130. It's huge for us, personally."

What is your favorite Utah origin story? Let us know in the comments.

Some names are obvious. The Monitor and the Merrimac look like Civil War battleships, sort of. The Windows at Arches are windows. And up in Dubinkey Country, named for rancher Dubinky Anderson, there's the Old Spanish Trail. Colonial Spaniards traveled it from Santa Fe to Monterey.

What about Mussentuchit, though? Originally, cowboys called it "Must Not Touch It" because the water was poisonous. That became "Musn't Touch it." And finally, Mussentuchit, with a new pronunciation: "moose-un-TOO-shet".

There's also the legend of Jail Rock. Climb the backside and you'll find a pothole 25 feet deep. According to Allen's sources, a rancher jailed his wife and kids here. When he wanted to go to Moab to get drunk, he'd tell them the Indians were coming and lower them into the pothole.

"He would then go up to Moab for a day or two, have fun with his friends, and he'd come back home and pull them out of the pothole and tell them the Indians were gone," Allen said. "The whole thing with these is, they're stories. How much truth there is to them, we'll never know."

A book this expensive — $99 — and this size is definitely a niche market. But Allen believes once it goes national this summer, it will end up in every library in the country.


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John Hollenhorst


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