Virgin Gunslingers | News | Salt Lake City Weekly

Virgin Gunslingers 

Want to live in this Southern Utah town? You’d better get a gun. It’s the law.

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Every night, Matt Spendlove packs his rifles in the pickup and sets out on a cold, lonely hunt for coyote. There’s a $25 bounty just for mailing a pair of ears to this rancher in Cedar City, and Spendlove could use the money.

If it’s not bounty, he’s after elk meat. And there’s still a market for furs. He’s just part of the area’s simple folk looking to subsist along the wind-swept mesas of Southern Utah where their pioneer ancestors settled long ago.

Things are not so simple now. Spendlove and his wife, Darcey, are among the players in a host of federal rituals that seem so punitive someone had to strike back—even if it was only symbolic.

Take hunting, for example, the communion table of the Old West. Spendlove has a permit to hunt on Kolob Mountain near Zion National Park, but only to hunt above and below the park. So he painstakingly unloads his rifles as he approaches park property and reloads when he leaves, even if it’s a matter of a few minutes drive. He’s stopped frequently for rifle checks, and once, in a rural version of an anti-cruising law, was threatened with a citation for driving back and forth between the two pieces of private property.

“These are people who moved from back East, and don’t know what’s going on,” Darcey says of the park rangers who complicate her life. They grew up in different environments—urban, where guns meant trouble. Darcey, however, got her first rifle at 16 from her father, and still keeps it in her hunting arsenal. “Our kids grow up around guns and they know how to handle them. It’s not that they’re just given a gun and told to go get ’em.”

At 25, Darcey Spendlove has become an accidental, if vocal, champion of gun rights. One of a five-member city council in the town of Virgin, Utah, she helped shepherd in a law last year that declared every household must keep a gun and ammunition. It was a volley that made her and her Virgin neighbors national icons, either as dumb hicks or defiant heroes.

As a teacher before her daughter Dalley came along, about the only controversy Darcey saw was over her daughter’s name. Matt wanted to name the baby Rope, but they didn’t have a boy. Instead, they compromised on Dalley, a takeoff on a little rodeo trick in which you pull the rope up and dally it a while.

The Spendloves own a couple thousand acres in some of the most spectacular land in the country, but spectacle doesn’t pay the bills. The lava rock plateaus around Zion Park have been reluctant hosts to civilization. Darcey and Matt have tried raising pigs, cows and sheep, without much success.

Once, a rancher asked the Spendloves to help round up some errant cattle. They were too late. “The park rangers just shot two beef cattle with shotguns, and completely ruined all the meat except for a hind quarter,” Darcey says indignantly. After all, they’re expensive animals. Don’t they know you use different guns for different things, she asks?

In fact, they don’t care. The law states that domestic animals are not allowed on public lands. The rangers aren’t concerned with preserving someone’s dinner.

Darcey urged her husband to run for council, to get involved in the community and maybe take a stand against this heavy-handed government stuff. But Matt wasn’t a registered voter in Washington County. Darcey figured it wasn’t exactly brain surgery, so she started a write-in campaign herself. It wasn’t too hard, Virgin has only 317 or so people. She already knew most of them, and is related to a few.

Darcey won, no problem. “I used to didn’t say anything, what with all that lingo,” she says. “It was quite the new experience.”

Jay Lee, the mayor and her second cousin, helps her along with the rhetoric. He knows it by heart. He lives the Revolution as though it were today. “I didn’t realize how far this gun control thing has gone until last year after Columbine,” Lee says, recalling the school massacre in Littleton, Colo. “We had 39 gun control laws in the state Legislature, and we shot ’em all down. You don’t wait until they’re knocking on the door.”

It could be that towns like Virgin are the last frontier for gun rights, which are being systematically chipped away in urban areas, Lee says. It’s easy to use protection as the rationale. Look at Cambodia he says. “They convinced the people they don’t need guns,” Lee says. “Then they systematically killed off one-third of their citizens.”

Lee carries around a Paul Harvey column on the Columbine High School tragedy like a piece of Scripture. Harvey ticks off the countries that established gun control—the Soviet Union in 1929, Turkey in 1911, Germany in ’38 and from 1939 to 1945, and on and on. He’s making the point that 56 million people lost their lives because of gun control. You’ve heard it all before. It’s frightening and it’s calculated that way.

“I see what the trend is and I don’t like the trend,” Lee says. “The only protection between us and the federal government is the state. If you can get a law, and another law on top of that, and another, then it strengthens our rights—the rights given to us when we’re born. It’s one more layer.”

Lee started thinking about this layer thing last year, and then hit the Internet. What he found was a little city in Georgia that tried it in 1982. There were only about 5,000 people in Kennesaw, Ga., back then, and hardly a hint of crime. But there was a statement to be made.

“In order to provide for the civil defense of the city of Kennesaw, and further in order to provide for and protect the safety, security and general welfare of the city and its inhabitants … every head of household residing in the city limits of the City of Kennesaw is required to maintain a firearm, together with ammunition therefor,” the ordinance reads.

Today, more than 20,000 people live in Kennesaw, and they’ve still got their gun law. Kennesaw has become a code word of sorts, a call to arms. What crime the city did have apparently has fallen off the barometer.

Now, Virgin can make a similar claim. Lee says proudly that he doesn’t have to worry about hiring a police force—not that they needed one. Virgin has a domestic dispute or two, maybe a drunk-and-disorderly, but the shootings mainly involve coyotes (pronounced ky’-oats). And let them tell you about these coyotes, too. Now, what crazy vegan Easterner has started making waves about killing coyotes?

“You never know when a predator is going to go across the road,” Lee says. He’s complaining about people who call all this coyote killing inhumane. “There’s nothin’ so inhumane as a coyote,” he says, drawing on his total recall for graphic animal confrontations. They hang on at the neck until they choke their prey to death. He’s seen a sheep blinking helplessly while a coyote eats out its entrails. He recounts the one about the calves with their legs chewed off.

Virgin encompasses an awesome 8,000 acres just south of Zion Park. Three thousand of those acres are public land of breathtaking beauty. It’s a humbling type of majesty. People mostly try their hand at odd bits of dry farming, but few try to eke a living from the land. Lee has some acreage atop a mesa, not too far from a pistachio farm. The varmints won’t eat at pistachio trees, apparently, so you can leave them up there without much attention. Lee himself has tried putting in a watermelon patch and raising some cattle. He makes a living, however, as accounts payable manager for a wholesale distributor of plumbing and waterworks supplies. “This mayor job doesn’t pay,” he says.

And yet, there are some dividends. Since the gun law passed last June, Lee has fielded more than 40 inquiries worldwide, has been profiled for gun publications and chaperoned documentary crews, along with NBC Nightly News and those “I-talians,” as the townspeople call them.

Crime, it seems, has escalated in Italy to the point that they’re willing to visit Virgin where “nobody even takes their keys out of the car,” Lee says. “It’s coming though—when you have growth.”

Ken Cornelius remembers when the mayor paraded the Italians into a city council meeting. Later, a guy missing some tools approached him. “It amazes me,” says Cornelius, who has the loathsome distinction of being the only council member to vote against the gun ordinance. “I didn’t think anyone would dare steal anything from this town now that we passed the gun ordinance.”

Cornelius, who’s been on the council for five and a half years, is the spoiler in the otherwise unified media-fest the town is undergoing. It’s not that he’s anti-gun. He hangs his ball-cap collection on the antlers of a deer skull and has a gun closet that holds several hunting rifles—some won in raffles, a couple of collector’s items gathering dust. But he thinks the law is, well, illegal, if not downright stupid.

“I don’t like it,” he says. “It’s nothing personal. We have so many ordinances we can’t enforce them. We’ve got a whole list of ordinances, and nobody knows what they are.”

Everybody knows about the gun law, though. And no, Lee doesn’t plan on enforcing it or keeping a black list of conscientious objectors or social deviants. He just wants to make a point—publicly.

Lee is keeping files of news stories, a congratulatory note from the John Birch Society, and a stack of Virgin T-shirts for visitors to the Town Hall, where the town’s cemetery caretaker helped craft the law. The refurbished schoolhouse holds the city offices, whose walls are hung with old class pictures and a yellowing photo of the townsfolk greeting President Warren Harding when he made Zion a national park in 1919. Upstairs are boxes of rubber ducks from a town fund-raiser and a few assorted antiques positioned around the hollow rooms waiting for the day when the town can build a museum—with handicap access. It’s one of those federal laws.

There’s a well-heeled sense of history here, but you have to be vigilant. Someone once had to be persuaded not to level off the mounded graves in the city cemetery, even though it would make cleanup easier. There’s just some stuff you’ve got to preserve.

Virgin was settled in 1858 by Mormon families from Cedar City digging ditches to fend off the floods from the Virgin River. They tried crops, and managed to grow cotton, corn, cane and grapes, not to mention a little tobacco, according to a history by Gary Zabriskie. You can find some of the history on a city website managed by Cornelius, who threw in a nodding cartoonish figure of the mayor and a few choice statements like, “If you want to find out if you’re a redneck, click here.” Virgin’s newfound fame has forced it to set up a separate website just to handle the gun-law inquiries.

By 1866, the town’s population had grown to 500, about 200 more than what it is today. A minor claim to fame came in 1907 when Utah’s first oil field started up around the North Creek and kept pumping until the late 1960s.

Now, Virgin has a bed and breakfast—one of the many dotting the highway to Zion—and a brand-spanking-new RV park, not to mention Fort Zion. Well, it’s not exactly a fort—more like a Disney set expecting Toontown characters.

Andy Anderson landed here eight years ago by way of Arizona and California. “We always wanted to move here,” Anderson says. “I have five kids, and it’s hard to make a living. This is a great way of stepping back 10 years.”

Anderson hasn’t hunted in years and doesn’t like the idea of indiscriminate killing, although he once held a gun to the head of a drugged-up robber in California. Now, he’s got little Fort Zion, with a trading post and petting zoo and walls full of prop guns that he rents out to movie companies. This is the area where, in 1936, they shot John Wayne in War of the Wildcats, Marlon Brando in Appaloosa, The Electric Horseman and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Oh, and the forgettable sci-fi movie, The Car. Two frames in the James Bond Octopussy showed stuntmen flying off a mesa in Virgin.

But for all its wild-westness Virgin has never seen a confrontation, even in the mid-1800s when they were called on to “fort up” against the Indians.

“We’re not a bunch of militia wackos,” Anderson says. “It’s just part of our heritage to be taken with great respect. The West is changing. Now you’ve got McDonald’s, Chevron and another strip mall, but out here, you’ve got to be kind of handy. Who do you call?”

Fred Johnson likes to rely on his own wit. He scans the panorama from the edge of a mesa overlooking Virgin, a site that he and wife, Shauna, have chosen for their Eagle Spirit Ranch. Stakes are pounded into the black lava rock, outlining the walled-in courtyard that will protect them—mostly from predators and the punishing winds, but who knows?

Johnson is a Vietnam vet who moved to Burbank, Calif., after the war. Back then, he thought just about everything in the West needed protection from mankind. “Then it started to hit me,” he says. “How could I have had such tunnel vision? Rural people have needs, too. In 1974, I moved out of Northridge [California] and I have not gone back to the city since.”

A minerals geologist, Johnson became a consultant helping companies locate minerals and move into the market. He found mining regulations oppressive. “You’re not able to open a mine because there are five endangered weeds and a bunch of toads,” he scoffs. “Federal over-regulation is pushing us to the point where our boot heels are hanging over the edge of the Grand Canyon and we’re not taking another step backwards.”

The Johnsons are what you’d call free spirits with an attitude. They look at the Clinton years as the beginning of The War on the West. Just look at the way the president declared the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, they say.

Shauna, who’s state president of an organization called People for the USA, does more than just talk. People for the USA recently joined the national organization, Frontiers of Freedom, to promote private property rights and limited government. Shauna helped lead a group late last year to “repossess” some cattle from a Salina livestock auction after they were seized by the new Grand Staircase monument manager, Kate Cannon.

Helicopters and personnel from the Bureau of Land Management descended on the area and took the cattle, despite some court maneuvering on the part of the ranchers. “The ranchers are asking how cattle that they thought were unquestionably private, personal property a month ago, can suddenly become ‘government’ property without any due process whatsoever,” a Frontiers of Freedom publication says.

To Shauna Johnson and others, it was blatant cattle rustling by government workers directed from Washington, D.C. “They hired a team to run the monument from out of the area,” she says. “The bad blood on Clinton’s designation of the monument hasn’t gone away one bit.”

Longtime BLM workers, requesting anonymity, admit that the situation could have been handled with more aplomb. “The whole issue is elevated in controversy,” said one government source. “The action had to be taken, but the BLM had not done the best job and all of a sudden dropped the drawbridge on them real fast.”

It’s the sort of thing that fuels the suspicions of people like Jay Lee and Darcey Spendlove, and that drove the Johnsons to the top of a mesa where they dug 40 feet into the volcanic rock for a well, where they make do in a mobile home until they can finish their fortress.

Virgin is just the kind of place you can find a mobile home staked nearby a rambling ranch. And even though most everyone, including the mayor, has had a mobile home at one time or another, the city has legislated against any more. This law probably has some teeth, although Virgin has come to be known for its political rhetoric.

Since Lee has been in office, the town has enacted ordinances or resolutions declaring persona non grata the Grand Canyon Trust, Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, Utah Wilderness Coalition and other environmental groups that are “in total opposition with our values, culture, traditions and economic way of life.” The town has outlawed groups that would restrict the use of land within Virgin, for instance, by declaring it wetlands or habitats or master plans.

Lee likes to joke that there are no endangered desert tortoises in Virgin—by law. “It’s because I say so,” he says.

Interestingly, the town that boasts a gun-per-household has banned guns from a small park by the Virgin River, but that was to keep out the Skinheads from over in Hurricane who like to shoot things up, Lee says.

Virgin isn’t trying to live in the past, but to create its own future. Lee has lots of plans. After all, the 2.5 million tourists who annually visit Zion tend to bypass Virgin now to stay a few miles up the road.

The mayor skids his car to the side of the road and points up at Hurricane Mesa. You can see the pipefittings from the ejection system that’s been there 50 years. In the early ’50s, they used to run experiments there on jet propulsion systems. People could see dummies flying off the ridges in a stream of water. Now, the area is being leased to a Japanese company for private research.

Below, on a lower mesa, is a spot Lee hopes will become a planetarium. Jim Crisp, BLM field office manager in St. George, says they’ve pretty much agreed to turn over that property to private interests if the planetarium thing comes together. They’re also working with Virgin and a national promoter on a motocross venue, among other things.

“The mayor just doesn’t want to shut the door on future opportunities for the community,” Crisp says. “They made very clear they want open space and they’re in desperate need of development just to take care of their streets.”

The gun law and the government ban, well, Crisp sees them as philosophies. “They enjoy their eclectic atmosphere. They like being unique,” he says. “They do not want to have their individual liberties tread upon, and we understand that as an agency.”

That’s big of the government. People like Cornelius don’t have to be quite so kind. “If you’re going to make a statement, well,” Cornelius says, “most people think we’re a bunch of lunatics here.”

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About The Author

Katharine Biele

Katharine Biele

A City Weekly contributor since 1992, Biele is the informed voice behind our Hits & Misses and Citizen Revolt columns. When not writing, you can catch her working to empower voters and defend democracy alongside the League of Women Voters.

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