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Maybe America’s Only Ant Hunter

A VISIT TO HURRICANE UTAH

 

by Bill Graves

If you ever visit Zion National Park, you will probably drive through Hurricane. Upwards of 2.6 million people do every year. In the summer, 4,000 to 5,000 cars pass through here every day, all headed for the park and its 400 parking spaces.

I was not one of those bound for Zion. I was just looking for the Ace Hardware store on the right side of Route 9 coming into town. There I would find the son-in-law of Afton Fawcett. At age seventy, Afton is probably America's only ant hunter. His son-in-law would certainly know where Afton lives.

So far so good. In the store, Afton's son-in-law was helping a lady select paint for her kitchen. She was confused-I couldn't blame her-by all the different names of paint colors that all look white.

"Is your wife's dad still in the ant business?" I asked, when my turn came.

"Oh, ya. He and my brother-in-law, too." Hel told me how to find the house. "I ought to know. I live next door." If fact, four of the six Fawcett children live in the same block Afton and his wife do, along with most of their twenty-five grandchildren.

I located Afton's house at the end of a wide street. There was plenty of room to park my motor home. Wide streets are one thing you can depend on in Utah. Brigham Young, who brought his Mormon followers to Utah in 1847, drew the layout for towns in the state that is still followed today. Young insisted that streets be wide enough for a horse and buggy to turn around.

Afton's twenty-one-year-old daughter greets me at the front door. She called her dad from the basement, where he and his wife work much of the day. It's probably best described as their windowless sorting-assembling-packing-mailing room.

Waiting for Afton to climb the stairs, his daughter told me that she was just days away from going to Japan on an eighteen-month missionary assignment. A book she was reading said that Japan, not quite twice the size of Utah, has a population density of 863 people per square mile.

"How does that compare with Utah?" I asked, expecting a wild guess.

"Utah has 20 people per square mile as of the 1990 census," she replied, as if I had just asked for the time of day.

Afton appeared in the kitchen and invited me to take a seat at the table. Only after he knew me well enough, that is. Having lived his entire life in this small town, he knows everybody who knocks on his front door. I was an unknown, a curiosity as much as anything. Not that Afton did not trust me. I think by nature he trusts everybody. It was just that I was somebody new to get to know.

After hearing about my travels in the motor home, he pushed aside a stack of mail and began telling me about the ant business. "This whole thing started over twenty-five years ago. We were collecting biological specimens for laboratories, which expanded into packaging different kinds of rocks and fossils for school science classes and the like. Then some big retail chains were looking for someone to supply ants to folks who bought ant farms in their stores," Afton explained.

I interrupted, "I remember buying one of those for my kids. It was a plastic box, about the size of book, right?"

Afton nodded. "Some are bigger. Anyway, packed with every farm is a coupon good from some ants. So they send that in, and I air-mail them a package of ants in a vial. We get flooded with orders at Christmas when kids get these ant farms and want them all up and running at the same time. Ants go out of here by the thousands. I even have to go out of town to find 'em on cold days."

Afton shuns publicity and has turned down attractive invitations from a long list of TV talk shows. He got up from his seat to pull a letter from some cookbooks on the kitchen counter. Postmarked 1991, it was from The Tonight Show. I suppose Afton was flattered and probably amazed that people find his work so interesting. But he told Johnny Carson no, and Jay Leno, too. And many more since.

As we talked, little kids passed silently through the kitchen, one at a time, headed for the basement. Afton paid no attention. One came up the stairs munching the remains of a cookie, which explained the stream of small-foot traffic.

After we toured the basement, it was time for an ant roundup. I was about to watch one of the few people in the world who does it.

We took off in Afton's pickup. During the summer, he does his collecting early in the morning when it is cool. During the winter, he gets what he needs in a couple of hours before noon. He collects only red harvester ants. They are the most active and plentiful ants here. If kept cool, they can survive without water for about three days, the normal shipping time.

Afton knows all the anthills around Hurricane. Each one, he said, shelters 5,000 to 50,000 ants. The first one we stopped at looked quiet to me.

On his hands and knees, Afton leaned forward and inserted a soda straw into the hole of the anthill. He then blew on the straw, which apparently created breezy turmoil in the ant colony. Out poured the ants. He rounded up a bunch, blowing them gently with his straw into a tin scoop. He took only a few before we moved to the next anthill. We returned home with maybe a thousand ants in mason jars.

With Afton's ant harvest in for the day, he now must ready for shipment some pressed wildflowers and tadpole-shrimp eggs. School science classes are the primary customers for those. So I headed into town. Afton pointed me toward city hall, where his son Clark has been city manager for the past thirteen years.

Clark answered the question that has been gnawing at me since I first heard of Hurricane.

"Hurricanes, as in weather, do not occur around here. What happened was, a gust of wind blew away the top of Erastus Snow's buggy, which was being lowered off the cliff behind me." Clark pointed over his shoulder. "That was in 1865, so who knows for sure what really happened. Anyway, Snow said something about the wind being a hurricane."

Since Snow was an important elder in the Mormon Church, what he said was considered noteworthy. Apparently, someone thought the "hurricane" comment was too. So the cliffs got the name, and the town picked it up later.

Curiously, people here don't pronounce the word like you and I do. They call it "Hurrican," with a soft a. In fact, many other words here sounded strange. A tongue-in-cheek glossary someone gave me was of help: People "pork cores in coreparts" and never put the "court before the harse," eat "cormel carn," shop at the "morket," or visit Disneyland in "Califarnia."

The accent is obvious and makes it easy to tell the natives from the newcomers. It is linked to the colorful potpourri of people who settled here. Among the first were cotton growers, who were bonafide Southerners. Add to these the Europeans-Swiss, Scandinavians and English-who settled nearby St. George. Then came the miners at Silver Reef, who added mixing Chinese, Irish, Scottish, Cornish, and other languages and dialects. All melted into one culture, local speech sounds like it was "barn in a born."

The center of town is the Pioneer Heritage Park and Museum, a first-class exhibit. It is typical of what I have seen so often in Utah. Steeped in the traditions of the Mormon Church, people here demonstrate a deep respect for their pioneer ancestors.

The early explorers of the West—Lewis and Clark and others—have been given due credit for their brave accomplishments. Towns, rivers, even babies have been named after them. The pioneers were different. They were ordinary folks who left relative security to settle this country. They risked everything they had, including the lives of their families. Drawing the first map certainly took courage, but filling it in took much more. That's what the pioneers did.

In the park, I sat among flowers in the shade of a tall monument topped with the statue of a pioneer family. I wondered if future generations in Utah or anywhere else will create monuments to my generation and others of the twentieth century. Perhaps they already have, if war memorials are to be our monuments.  

From On the Back Roads, by Bill Graves. Copyright 1999 by Bill Graves. Excerpted by arrangement with Addicus Books. $16.95. Available in local bookstores, or call 800-352-2873, or click here.