by Terri Winder
In last week’s San Juan Record, Editor Bill Boyle threw down the gauntlet with the words, “If most readers don’t know what I am talking about (in reference to the ‘Devil’s Heartbeat’), ask ‘someone of a certain age’ (40 to 60 I’d guess) and see what they say.”
I don’t know if he had any one person in mind, but since I’m between the ages of 40 and 60, I couldn’t resist accepting his challenge.
As near as can be ascertained, the Devil’s Heartbeat was born about 1961, when Blanding Airport first installed their beacon, though who originally identified the nighttime phenomenon as a pulsing heart and christened it is a mystery someone else will have to solve.
To see the Devil’s Heartbeat, one had to drive to the end of Old Ruin Road, which turns off Highway 191 at 1600 South, Blanding. The road goes from the highway to the edge of Westwater Canyon, where there is a turnaround point.
Over the years, this scenic spot has been visited by innumerable tourists, but perhaps it’s been visited more by local teenagers. No doubt it was some imaginative teenage boy that wanted to scare his date into finding protection in his arms who invented the story of the Devil’s Heartbeat. If so, Bill Boyle needed to extend the upper range of his respondents to about 70.
For several generations, it was a popular spot for teenagers, as it had all the desirable elements: a swinging bridge that was terrifying in its own right, an Anasazi ruin which some pretended to believe gave rise to ghosts, and the road to it had a thrill hill.
Many a young man sped up before that thrill hill to catch air. I know of at least one who landed so hard on the other side it jammed the doors of his parents’ car and he and his date had to crawl out the car windows when they got back to town.
Another reconsidered making the jump at the last second and experienced a bigger scare when he found a herd of cows on the road just over the hill. Had he done what he’d intended, the consequences would have been more severe than his passengers just hitting their heads on the roof of his car.
Unfortunately, other carloads of thrill seeking youth experienced harsher consequences, which only added to the aura of fear and adventure.
For a time there was a downed pinion tree beside the road that took on the shape of a wolf in the dark. Some enterprising person (again, I imagine a young man) attached an “eye”— something that reflected like an eye would when headlights hit it—which enhanced the wolf’s realistic appearance. This wolf was located just around a turn, which increased the scare element as it appeared so suddenly.
Though the site was most popular during summer months, I’ve heard the story of a group of girls going out after a birthday party one snowy night in January. They had frightened themselves with chilling stories and the wolf sighting before they ever got to the turnaround spot.
Then, on the way back, they slid off the road and their car got stuck in a ditch. As they walked out to the highway, they were holding hands and singing church hymns to calm their nerves.
The Devil’s Heartbeat dimmed considerably when the Blanding airport beacon wattage was lowered in the early 90s. The thrill hill was also lowered to a safe level and the swinging bridge came down. Still, the local legend persisted, as evidenced by the following account on a geocaching site dated October 12, 2007:
“We first went at night to find this cache, but my son and I decided that it was a little too dangerous jumping around the rocks on the edge of the canyon since we were not familiar with the area. So, we went back to Blanding, picked up the rest of the family, and headed over to the local A&W for some ice cream.
“While there, we got into quite a conversation with an attendant that works there. She explained why the West Water area is known as the Devil’s Heartbeat... I guess if you go to the end of the road there and point your car west, looking out over the horizon with all the lights off, you will see the horizon pulse just like a heartbeat.
“Well, we had to go check this one out, so back we went, but the kids were already whigged out by the stories of Skin Walkers that were also included by the A&W lady. So we got to the dead end, turned off the lights, and waited.
“At first I could see nothing until my eyes got accustomed to the darkness. Finally, I could make out the horizon, a blue light above the opposite canyon wall. My wife said it looked like a spotlight lighting up the sky above the horizon. After only a few minutes our youngest daughter started to scream that she wanted to get out of there because she was freaked out. After a few more minutes more, I think all four kids were screaming at us to get out of there.
“I can’t say that I saw anything out of the ordinary. But to make the kids happy we left... without getting the cache again. We woke up the next morning and got the cache on our way out to Natural Bridges Park.”
So, while the City of Blanding is rightfully interested in restoring the Anasazi site as a tourist and archeological attraction, as Bill Boyle observed, for better or worse, the legend of the Devil’s Heartbeat will probably always go with it.