Traveling the back roads of western Utah


We took off for a couple weeks to Utah, and the first place we went, where we usually go, was to Milford. It's in a valley with some farmland and a lot of desert, a town of fifteen hundred people. There's a tall range to the east, a huge hunk of granite, and to the west are more mountains, full of old mine shafts and ghost towns or ghost mining camps. These mostly date from the decades around 1900 and were peopled with their share of obnoxious characters who got themselves shot to death in ridiculous bar-room brawls.

Butch Cassidy also came through here from time to time, but he was a rather more gentle sort of outlaw, not obnoxious and didn't get into stupid gun fights. His hometown, Beaver, was east of Milford, over on the other side of that huge pile of granite, the Mineral Mountains. His childhood home is an old stone building, and when we'd visit Beaver, we'd go to see it, but since it's inhabited by another family now, we just drive by and respectfully admire it from the street. Virginia's folks used to hide him out at their ranch over on the other side of Utah, up in a valley known as "Brown's Hole." But that's another story; this trip was along the back roads of western Utah.

We stayed with an old friend of Virginia's, Shawn. He's a history guy, also a mining camp archeologist; well-versed in examining debris such as various cans and containers which have their distinctive styles and thus reveal the ages of the sites -- This style of can came out after 1904, that one dates back to 1890, and so on. In that way he can date the various abandoned camp sites.

Shawn has taken us to numerous sites, 19th century ghost towns such as Frisco and Newhouse, as well as areas where Indians chipped obsidian arrowheads. On this occasion he took us to Crystal Peak, a mountain that he told us was pure white.

Meanwhile, our rear left tire had sprung a slow leak, and so we had some reservations about an excursion out into the middle of nowhere. But we went down to Cedar City and got a very small air compressor pump which actually seemed to work quite well; hopefully it would get us by. With that we resolutely set out, northward for some 20 miles up Highway 257, a good paved road, till we came to Black Rock.

Black Rock is still shown prominently on maps, even though not a single house is still standing. It was once a small town largely of railroad workers and their families; that was decades ago. About 50 people used to live there.

From there we turned west onto a well-maintained dirt road. This whole region is arid. Basically it's a desert -- sage brush, rabbit brush, occasional roaming cattle. From time to time we saw antelope. Along the lower sides of mountain ranges there'd be a fringe of juniper trees, green in the distance. We went over a pass at the southern end of the Cricket Mountains. Beyond and below was Sevier dry-lake, a wide, flat alkaline-covered expanse called a "playa."

The road took us along the southern edge of the "lake." Rivers and streams flow towards it, but mostly the water sinks into the sand or evaporates before arriving, and other than during exceptionally rainy years, the lakebed is dry. In 1985 it reportedly filled to a depth of thirteen feet. This is typical of the Basin and Range, this region of "playas." The wide, flat expanse of white alkali stretches on and on to the north for about as far as the eye can see. Back during the ice age, ending about 10,000 years ago, this water body and the Great Salt Lake were part of Lake Bonneville, covering much of western Utah and beyond.

Passing more mountains, the House Range, then approaching the Confusion Range -- a gleaming white mountain appeared in the distance. That had to be Crystal Peak, and at first I thought it must be a snowcapped peak. Several of the taller mountains around here still had snow on them even now at the end of May. But as we got closer, it was not snow. Finally, after about an hour on this road, we were there. The mountain was an enormously huge deposit of "ash flow tuff" -- white volcanic ash.

Layers of white volcanic ash are to be seen in hillsides and outcrops all over western Utah, Nevada and sometimes even in California. The ash was violently blown out of volcanoes between 20 and 30 million years ago. These deposits are often as much as fifteen or twenty feet thick, and you can see many along the roads in this region. But this was an enormous deposit, several hundred feet high. I'd never seen anything like this before.

The ash in such deposits would've been blasted out of volcanoes and deposited within the short span of a few minutes. Coming out of the volcano, the ash was extremely hot, hundreds of degrees centigrade, and as it cooled, welded together to form rather solid rock. I say "rather solid" -- when I pounded a walking stick on it, it gave a vaguely hollow sound. Anyway, it's not lose or fluffy.

We camped by the roadside on a flat just west of the peak, in a grove of juniper trees. The next morning Shawn was ready to return to Milford in his vehicle. Virginia and I checked our left rear tire. It was down a couple of PSI, so we got out our small pump and filled it back up to 37 PSI. That done we said goodbye to Shawn and drove on westwards. Eventually we came to the small farming community of Garrison; just north of Garrison is Border Inn Casino. It sets right smack on the Utah-Nevada border which runs through the middle of the building. On one side is the casino, and on the other is a gas station. It's one of the very few places around here to get gas, and we filled up.

From here we could turn east, taking Highway 50, a well paved road which would eventually bring us to Salt Lake City, our eventual destination -- or, we could do what we really wanted to do and head north up the Snake Valley, along the east side of the Deep Creek Range. Some decades ago, Virginia had done a wilderness study up in that area, and had for years now had been telling me of her hopes to go back and see it again.

It was another dirt road, and we'd be on these dirt roads for at least 150 miles before we came out onto a paved highway. Should we take it? Our slow-leak tire seemed to be doing okay. Yes, and I should say that this tiny air pump was serving us very well; it turned out to be easier to use than the air pumps at gas stations.

So we set out. There was little traffic, but the few vehicles there were raised huge clouds of dust. The road itself, though dirt, had a hard surface and was well maintained. Not too long ago, when we were kids, practically all roads except for a few main ones were like this.

Although not exactly lush and green, this edge of the Snake Valley along the tall Deep Creek Range was not a dry desert such as what we'd passed through between Black Rock and Garrison. We passed ranches from time to time, and even tiny villages consisting of a handful of houses. None of these had stores or services.

At one place we saw a bunch of cow punchers looking to be doing some sort of roundup.

Out here there's no "online," and those modern navigation devices in cell phones don't function. We were back to paper maps; the ones we had didn't show much detail for these back road areas, so we weren't always sure as to exactly where we were. That's the way it is in much of Utah and Nevada and also a lot of California.

To our left, the Deep Creek Mountains rose up, high enough to be capped with snow even this close to summer -- it was almost June. Now and then a dirt road would turn off to go up towards the mountains. Some were marked with road signs. At a place called Granite Creek we turned up a dirt road for a few miles, then got out and hiked up a trail along a creek with a lot of water flowing noisily down it. I didn't expect to see this much water in a creek out here, in this near-desert. But the mountain was still snow capped. and rapidly melting no doubt.

The trail led up a wooded canyon which was cutting its way down through a contact between sedimentary rock, apparently Paleozoic to the south and much younger granite to the north. Up ahead we saw what looked like a cluster of buildings, but on approaching, they turned out to be angular blocks of quartzite. It was remarkable that they could look so much like houses, even from a fairly short distance. High above up on the right was a large rock shaped like a lion. As we passed by below, we concluded that it looked more like a lizard then a lion. We wanted it to be a lion.

Returning to the car, we continued on for Callao. Years ago, Virginia had a show on a small independent radio station in Salt Lake City; on one occasion she'd attended a presentation given by a rancher from around there. Cecil Garland was the rancher's name; he was a fairly legendary figure, an environmentalist who opposed privatization and above all the MX Missile sites which the military was intending to put here. Virginia taped the presentation and broadcast it on her show; she still remembers some of what he said.

"I came here to speak for my friends," Virginia remembers the rancher saying, "My friends can't be here, can't speak for themselves, so I'm here to speak for them. They are the deer, the antelope, and other animals who live in these parts."

Cecil Garland passed away in 2014, at the age of 88; he'd been a soldier in WW II, and later went on to become legendary for his environmental activism. There are numerous articles online about him.

The fight against the MX Missiles was a major struggle in the late 1970s and early 80s; both he and Virginia and many others were part of it. These people had already been "bombed" by the radioactive fallout from nuclear testing in Nevada, and they didn't want launch sites of nuclear armed missiles around them. Even very conservative people joined in to oppose the MX. Remarkably, these anti-MX folks won, and Utah remains missile free.

Had it been built, the Air Force's MX Missile System would've taken up much of western Utah and eastern Nevada. The plan was to constantly shuttle about two hundred warheads between some 4,600 silos -- a hide-and-seek strategy -- forcing the Soviet Union to expend its entire arsenal to wipe it out. So Utah would absorb the destructive force of any nuclear attack. The chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff reportedly told residents of Utah and Nevada, "We're sorry that someone has to be the bull's-eye, but you're it!"

While the Air Force may have been the biggest monster to cast a covetous eye on this region, it wasn't the only one. Cecil Garland was involved in several environmental issues. Virginia attended and recorded another Cecil Garland presentation for her radio show. She put it in her usual tape storage, but when she returned to work on it, it had been removed, and nobody seemed to know by whom.

Eventually we arrived in Callao, a town that was larger than any of the other three or four villages we'd passed. Larger, yes, but not at all large. There were not more than two dozen residences -- and like the other places passed, no stores or services. We wondered where the people who lived out there got their supplies; they must've had to travel to Ely, Nevada, or maybe to Wendover. Either way it's a long drive.

The community radio station where Virginia had her show was in Salt Lake City. That's where she grew up, and where we were headed now.

Our problem tire was doing fine. At Callao we turned east onto a road that was marked with a notice saying it was historic, as it had been on the route of the Pony Express riders. That was back in 1861 and 1862. And now, 160 years later, this road is still blessedly unpaved.

All through this area, back before Crystal Peak and since, we'd been seeing antelope; once we saw a small herd of wild horses. It brought to mind that old song, "Give me a home where the buffalo roam, where the deer and the antelope play."

Here we traversed another wide, flat expanse, then came to the Fish Springs Range. This area really is desert and looked so dry that I couldn't imagine any sort of fish living around here in springs or whatever, but then who knows?

It was around here that Virginia had participated in that wilderness study so many years ago. She had set out expecting that this wilderness near the Deep Creek Mountains would have trees or even be forested, etc. And she still remembers her surprise on finding it was flat out dessert. Dry, very dry.

Occasionally we passed more markers saying that this was the Old Pony Express Route.

Passing around the north end of the Fish Springs Range, the dirt road continued on, and on.

Eventually the road started to climb; we were going over a pass, and when we got to the summit, we found ourselves on the edge of a sheer cliff, hundreds of feet down, almost straight down. A narrow road wound it's way down the east side, and I held my breath, hoping we wouldn't meet any vehicles headed this way. We didn't, and I relaxed, but the road hadn't seemed wide enough for more than one vehicle.

There was no sign announcing the name of this pass; our map showed a place called "Lookout Pass". Clearly, that had to be this one. And from here, according to my reading of the map, we were only some 15 miles from Highway 36, a paved road.

So we drove on. The sun would soon be setting. Virginia drove, and I did the navigating.

The map indicated a fairly straight road, but this one curved around, back and forth. On and on we drove. "Are we on the right road?" Virginia wanted to know. "Yes, of course we are." I assured her, and of course all along we kept seeing those Pony Express signs indicating we were on the road we wanted. Or could we somehow be going in circles? Not likely, the sun was behind us, getting lower and lower in the sky.

The 36 had to be just up ahead, around that next hill, then the next one. Strange. This was getting to be an awfully long 15 miles. Eventually, we found a place to pull over and camped for the night.

In the dry mud by our campsite we saw hoof tracks. Presumably antelope.

In the morning we put a few more PSI into the problem tire. It had lost some, though not a lot, during the night. But where could we be? We'd driven a lot more than 15 miles since that "Lookout Pass."

Not far beyond our campsite, we came to "Simpson Springs" Campground." This was at the former Simpson Springs Pony Express station. There were both a campground for vehicles, and an old stone building from the Pony Express days.

This historic site was on the map, but it was far from where I had thought we were. Lookout Pass was still up ahead. The one we'd gone over was something else, a pass not marked on the map.

Eventually we came to a turnoff road for Dugway, and we took that, going north. There was a town up ahead, but when we got there, it was inside a military base, behind a fence. Here we found a paved road that took us to the Tooele Valley. But rather than get on Highway 36 and go through the city of Tooele and all its traffic and traffic lights, we took a paved country road up to Grantsville, where we bought milkshakes.

From there we soon got on I-80 and got to Salt Lake City, where we visited with some of Virginia's old friends and high school classmates.

So we were never really lost, just very confused, and I'll say it can be really, really embarrassing to be "lost" on the right road. Did the Pony Express riders ever get lost?

June 2024

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