Robert Redford’s commitment to the natural environment and the history of the American West is one of long-standing. Born in California, Redford has specifically had a presence in Utah since the early 1960s when he first built a home in the state. In 1978, Redford helped establish a film festival in Utah that would later grow into the internationally-acclaimed Sundance Film Festival based in Park City. The name of the festival is drawn from Redford’s role as The Sundance Kid in the 1969 smash Western, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

In 1975, Redford’s approach toward a relationship with the land and an understanding of American history found a specific lived experience and then literary expression. In that year, Redford and a small party travelled on horseback along “The Outlaw Trail” – the Outlaw Trail is a route that had used by Western outlaws that stretches from the Canadian border to Mexico. That route contains a number of former hideouts and horse relay-stations that outlaws such as Butch Cassidy used to evade law enforcement. This clip provides a trailer for a 2010 documentary that explored Butch Cassidy, The Sundance Kid (real name Harry Longabaugh) and their travels along the Outlaw Trail and beyond:

Redford and his party rode three famous sections of the Outlaw Trail – Hole-in-the-Wall in Wyoming, Brown’s Park along the Colorado-Utah border and Robbers Roost in south-eastern Utah. Along the way, they visited with ranchers and those who lived in the region. Photographs of the journey and Redford’s written reflections would be published as an article in National Geographic in November 1976.

In 1978, The Outlaw Trail: A Journey Through Time was published as a book. That book closes with a photograph of Redford sitting with Butch Cassidy’s 94 year-old sister, Lula Parker Betenson, on land where the Parker family had lived. Butch Cassidy’s real name was Robert Leroy Parker.

Photograph from The Outlaw Trail (1978)

– Robert Redford with Local Rancher Arthur Ekker in 1975

The relevance of The Outlaw Trail remains on many levels. It is a book that imparts photographic reverence to the land. It is a text that makes connections between Western history and that land. Further, it remains as a meditation upon a still-ongoing struggle –a struggle between the land and those who depend on it against unchecked development and wholesale resource extraction for energy needs. The book references the mid-1970s demand for energy through oil, natural gas and coal – that demand and its effects have only increased since then. This is an important story.

(Copyright – Chad Beharriell)


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