Steve Brownell was born in San Diego, Calif., where he spent most of his childhood. He first came to the Moab area with his parents in 1952. While his parents went out on a pack trip, Steve stayed at the Pack Creek Ranch.
“I knew then that this is where I wanted to be,” he said.
Seven years later, his parents bought the ranch, and the family moved there full-time. “At the time it was a dude ranch,” he said.
Once he was old enough, he started helping with a variety of chores, including rounding up horses, general maintenance and leading horseback rides.
“And washing dishes,” Donna Brownell said.
After graduating high school, Steve Brownell headed to Utah State University in Logan, where he majored in agriculture with the hope that, some day, he would take over Pack Creek Ranch.
Donna Brownell was born on the Hawaiian Islands, where she attended one of the same schools that President Barack Obama had attended. She also chose USU for college, and she and Steve met at a party their sophomore year. They married a year later, and, after graduation, moved to Pack Creek Ranch.
The couple ran the ranch as a guest ranch until 1972. At that point, Steve decided he’d rather raise cattle. They spent the next four years raising Black Angus cattle, and then Steve’s parents sold the lower portion of the ranch and deeded the upper section of the property to Steve and Donna.
At that time, there was nothing on the upper property aside from a few old buildings from the original homestead.
Steve and Donna soon moved with their two young daughters into Moab. Donna began teaching history at Grand County High School. “I taught American history, which was required for graduation,” she said. “[All the students] had to go through me.”
Steve spent five years working for the Moab City Police Department, before taking a job with the Grand County Sheriff’s Department, where he worked until he retired.
In 1988, the couple began building a house on the upper Pack Creek property. The house was off-grid, which meant it had no telephone service or electricity. Because of that lack of services, they delayed moving to the house until 1992, when their youngest daughter graduated from high school.
“We couldn’t move up there with two teenage girls,” Donna said.
After the move, the couple began learning how to work around the lack of services. “The only thing that really bothered me was the kids not being able to get a hold of us,” Donna said. Eventually, they set up a telephone connected to an answering machine in a shed near the lower ranch. Then, on their way through, they could stop and listen to the messages and call their daughters.
“The long distance bills went down in the winter because it was too cold to sit in there and talk,” Donna said. “Then the girls bought me a portable phone so I could sit in the car with the heater on.”
Cell phones made the couple’s lives easier, despite the fact that they had to install an expensive antennae array to make sure they could get cell service at the house.
Both Steve and Donna say they have seen a lot of changes in Moab. “When we first moved to town there was an A&W, a Poor Boy and Pizza Hut,” Donna said.
“Deer hunting used to be the big event,” Steve said. “That was the big influx of people.”
Even though the town has grown, the Brownells say they still enjoy the small town atmosphere that Moab offers. Donna said she still regularly sees students she taught in high school.
“For 30 years the community shared their kids with me,” she said. “What’s really special is they didn’t all go away. I see them all the time.”
Though Donna taught more than 3,000 students in her 30-year tenure, she says there’s always one clear way she knows she’s run into a former student. “Even 30 years later, they still call me Mrs. Brownell,” she said. “It’s a hard habit to break.”
The couple retired within two days of one another, and they now spend much of their time traveling the country, boating, hiking and four-wheeling. “We do lots of playing,” Donna said. Steve is also an active member of Grand County Search and Rescue.
“If I had to do it all over again, I sure would,” Donna said.