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CERCA: A day or two painting picturesque Circleville

As I was packing up my watercolors and paper, I thought of my last trip to Utah. It had been a day in Pine Valley. I had spent that afternoon hiking up the Whipple trail along a small creek filled with native cutthroat trout.

Any watercolorist can tell you that the palette is important. Red and green are at opposite sides of the color wheel, and normally you would not consider using them as primary colors in a painting. But this is Southern Utah. Green and gold fields with red and orange hills against verdant green towering mountains. I just can’t get enough of Color Country.

I was thankful for the long weekend and intended to use it well with a couple of days dawdling my way north along Highway 89, the Heritage Highway. I had been through Circleville on a couple of occasions and found the drive and the valley appealing to my artistic sense.

Plein aire painting is the fancy word for painting outdoors. It’s one of the most enjoyable things I do. I’ll find a site and do some quick small value sketches to compose a scene, and take some digital photos to use as future reference.

Working small is a convenient and flexible way to do a study. These little paintings force me to loosen up and avoid the bane of watercolorists: overworking.

Also, working small allows me to paint right inside the car, if I choose, mostly to avoid the elements.

I left Las Vegas, turned on my CD player full of Western swing and cowboy ballads. Somehow that sets my mood for Southern Utah. Just getting out of the city is great. Looking forward to the four-hour drive and the scenery with anticipation, I made some mental notes of what I was looking for at my final destination, Circleville.

I enjoyed the drive through the Virgin River Gorge and up to the higher elevations. The high valleys and verdant Dixie National Forest unfolded about a half hour north of St. George. It wasn’t desert anymore. Slowly, the temperature eased down and the humidity rose. The farms and fields were trimmed with pinyon pine and sage.

Even the names of the small settlements and towns have a welcoming charm. Leeds, Silver Reef, Browse, New Harmony, Pintura and Kanarraville are along Interstate 15, and I enjoy the chance to pull out and drive through them.

I couldn’t help noticing the number of cabins and new homes popping up every year among the pines to the west of Interstate 15. I’ve been lucky before and spotted deer and antelope grazing off in the fields but saw nothing this morning.

On through Cedar City, and half an hour later I took Highway 20 East. It goes through a low saddle in the mountains to get to my destination. In perfect weather, I would take the high line over the mountain past Cedar Breaks and down through Panguitch Lake to the Heritage Highway on the other side. Today, however, I wanted to avoid the hanging clouds of the high country. I’ve been caught in a snowstorm at the 10,000-foot level when the temperature dropped to 29 degrees, and that was in May.

Upon reaching the junction of Highway 20 and Highway 89, I enjoyed the rural and relaxing feel that time has bent itself backward 100 years. Passing through the valley along the calm Sevier River, one of the few North American rivers that flows north, I stopped to take some reference photos of the old barns, cattle pens and ranches. This is one of my favorite places to paint watercolors of old structures.

Just a couple of miles north, the road passed through a rocky gap as it opened up into the Circle Valley and the town of Circleville.

The story of Butch Cassidy and his partner, the Sundance Kid, has become one of the better-known chapters in Utah folklore.

LeRoy Parker, better known later as “Butch Cassidy,” was born in Beaver, Utah, in 1866 and moved over the mountain to the farming community of Circleville in 1879. His childhood cabin is just south of town, right on the highway. The small wooden structure and another outbuilding are flanked by poplar trees that Butch and his mother planted in the 1880s. The coming years were to reveal the true character of the man as he fell into a life of rustling, robbery and a questionable death, fighting alongside a man thought to be Sundance, in Bolivia. Many doubt their demise, and stories abound about final years lived under other names.

As I entered town, I stopped at Butch Cassidy’s Hideout Motel and Restaurant for a great patty melt generously smothered in home-cut fries. That’s a meal that would last the day.

Just a couple of minutes up the street, I pulled over under a big tree to do a quick study of the main drag. The quiet peace of a small town afternoon filled the air.

Another seven miles up the road, I took photos and did a small value sketch of the old junction red brick courthouse. It has been renovated and is used now as a venue for private events and functions.

The Circle Valley is dominated by 11,299-foot Mount Holly on the west and Circle-ville Mountain to the south at more than 10,000 feet. The area is a natural mecca for hunting and fishing. Just 10 miles north of town, Piute Reservoir provides trophy trout, and 17 miles east, you can wet your line at Otter Creek Reservoir on Highway 62. There are ample camping and boat launching facilities at both.

I called this a day trip, but stayed in a comfortable motel and woke to a cool, crisp mountain morning at 6,069 feet.

After a hearty breakfast, I set out on my return trip south around the Sevier Plateau. East on Highway 22 to southbound on Highway 12. Winding and peaceful roads made their way along creeks and farms through the small towns and settlements of Antimony and Osiris.

The weather looked better this morning, so I decided to take the high route back to Cedar City. On the way, I passed by Panguitch Lake, on up to the scenic outlooks of Cedar Breaks. I stopped to do a little watercolor and wondered if I’d brought enough red and orange paint to finish it.

Coming down through the high meadows, I counted 18 deer grazing in the grassy fields east of the road.

This trip had already yielded a few watercolors and some great reference photos I will use for larger pieces later. I turned up the music and headed south toward home.

Not even out of Utah, I found myself already planning my next trip here.

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