Southern Utah News Articles
Western Legends honoree Mel Heaton
It was 1963 in Coyote Canyon, Arizona. The usual Saturday morning crowd of Navajos had gathered at the Trading Post to barter, stock up on supplies, and socialize. The real entertainment of the day would be found behind the Trading Post where the corral fence was already lined with eager onlookers. Would this be the day that someone could stick to the back of the trader’s wild and wiry bronco?
Two, then three would-be cowboys hit the dirt, amid jeers and laughter. Suddenly, quietly, out of the crowd came one of the only two white boys present. The immediate silence loudly expressed the unspoken skepticism. Did this “bilagonah” really think he could do better than the experienced local Navajo boys?
Melvin Heaton quickly slipped onto the tense back of the horse and proceeded to teach that bronc a few lessons in cooperation. Word of Mel’s prowess on a horse not only opened many a hogan door to him and his companion, it was just the beginning of the adventures and experiences that would eventually make Mel Heaton a western legend in his own right.
Mel was born in Kanab in 1945 to Melvin Kelsey and Nora Meeks Heaton. He was the oldest of five children. He grew up 25 miles away in Moccasin, Arizona where he spent happy days ranching and farming. Life in Moccasin was truly a family affair, living next to grandparents and growing up with cousins for friends.
The time spent on horseback, and the stories of his youth created a love within him for the Arizona Strip and all of the rich history intertwined in the southern Utah-northern Arizona area. Mel would become a proficient storyteller of local tales, and eventually make the things he loved into a lifetime venture called The Honeymoon Trail Company.
Moccasin teenagers went to Fredonia for high school. Mel was first student body vice president, and then president. He tried his hand at sports, playing both basketball and football.
These were the glory days when western movies were constantly filmed in the area. Mel often worked as an extra, picking up much-needed cash to begin school at Dixie Jr. College.
He spent two years serving a mission for the LDS Church in the Southwest Indian Mission, learning the Navajo language and gaining a love for the people he served. After his mission, Mel spent a semester at the University of the Americas in Mexico City, and then finished up at BYU.
Wrangling for Jack Church in Zion National Park in the summertime, he met his future wife, Rosemary Smith. They have been married for 42 years, and have four children and 14 grandchildren.
Mel spent 12 years working for the National Park Service at Pipe Spring, including one summer at Phantom Ranch in the Grand Canyon. In 1975, in cooperation with the NPS, he organized the first covered wagon train as a re-enactment of the groups who traveled the last portion of The Honeymoon Trail from Pipe Spring to St. George.
The Honeymoon Trail received its name from the hundreds of couples who traveled from as far south as Safford, Arizona, across the Colorado, through Kanab, Moccasin, and then Pipe Spring to the St. George Temple to be married. It was also the route used for the freight wagons that carried the butter, cheese and beef Pipe Spring provided for the sustenance of workers on the St. George Temple. Mel had found his nitch, and in 1978. he left the Park Service and founded The Honeymoon Trail Company.
Now, 32 years later, over 300 magazines, including Reader’s Digest and National Geographic, books and newspapers have published articles about the covered wagon trips, trail rides, and cattle drives of The Honeymoon Trail. They have been filmed by television and movie crews from all over the world. The Circle Vision Theaters in both Disneyland and Disney World have featured Mel’s wagon train and rodeo. It can still be seen at Disneyworld in Florida.
Appealing to the world’s fascination with the American Southwest, Mel has brought thousands of visitors from around the globe to our area who want to experience our unsurpassed scenic beauty by horseback, the thrill of a real cattle drive, and learn first hand how it was to be a pioneer in a covered wagon. Many first come for the sights and time on horseback. What makes them return is the camaraderie, fun and stories around the campfire at night, and the genuine interest and friendliness of Mel, his wranglers, and the many other locals they meet along the way.
Mel says he’s been promoted to chief cook and bottle washer. His son Justin Heaton has taken over much of the business now
The truth is, Mel still sleeps on the ground 240 nights a year and makes sure everyone in the group is taken care of and having a good time. Not many know more than Mel about the trails and stories of our area, and few if any, have shared them worldwide so well. Mel truly is a legend in his own time.