Sun, Sand, Sage
Odes, to Something or Other
As it was, I found myself atop Sand Mountain, in the heart of the Little Sahara sand dunes, composing a best man's toast to my brother, who is getting married next week in Dallas:
I punched my brother for the first time when he was three. When he was seven, our model airplane armies met for the first time, and mine won handily. When he was ten...
Well, you get the picture.
If there is one defining image of deserts, it is that of sand. In an area so devoid of moisture that few plants can grow, much less even a ground cover, white sand shifts across the valley floors like a breathing organism. At Little Sahara Recreation Area, where the highest sand dune is 700 feet above the valley, sand lifts and hurls across the valley headed northward at up to five linear feet a year. Hundreds of sculpted dunes play out in what locals think of as a miniature version of that much larger desert in northern Africa.
This morning, though, there is quite a bit of snow along with sand. A storm churning over central California Thursday spewed clouds and showers into west central Utah, a powerful landscape where the sky is so huge you can literally watch as weather unfolds. The weather unfolded over Little Sahara, and this morning the sand dunes of Little Sahara are cupped and swarted in snow, hoarfrost and shadow. (No, I don't know what 'swarted' means. I just made it up, but it seems like a word that would describe the dunes this morning.) It had actually been my intention to do some skiing here on the snow-covered dunes — I brought along both cross country and back country ski gear — but the morning sun was melting the south facing slopes quickly, and on the north facing sand dunes the snow sat atop an inch-thick layer of ice-encrusted sand, which would have been difficult to find an edge on, and in the end I had just as much fun hiking up the swollen 700-foot dune and glissading down as I probably would have had skiing down.
However, on foot, I was in the minority. This side of Little Sahara is enormously popular with the off-road vehicle set, who run their four-wheelers and two-wheelers straight up the assagious slopes to the summit, then come careening back down, braking with the motor. I'm sure that once on the vehicles riding the dunes becomes fun, but for a hiker the bikes were more like mosquitoes at a picnic. I stood at the bottom of the mountain for a while, watching the four wheelers gun up the mountain, amazed that no one ever got stuck or in trouble. I kept waiting for one of them to biff it, but no one ever did. I remembered a large sign towards the entrance of the area: 'Number of Days Since a Serious Accident: 24.'
Sands From an Ancient Lake, a Mirage
My brother Charge came to Utah the first hot week of summer in June, 1998. He and I and my friend Staci and three dogs hiked the Chute of Muddy Creek. We did a car shuttle and left his truck at the end of the hike. We set off early in the morning, hiking in the river as the canyon walls gradually closed in and soared above us. We stopped for the night at a tight bend in the river with a sandy beach and shading cottonwoods. None of us had been down the Chute before but I figured we had a few hours of hiking left. In the morning, instead of the canyon opening, it plunged deeper, and the canyon walls rose higher and narrowed until the canyon was the width of a car and the water chest deep. About 2 p.m. we met someone coming up stream and he said we still had several hours to go. When we finally arrived at his truck at in the late afternoon, we were sunburned, dehydrated and ill tempered. We drove across the desert to Green River where we had dinner and said goodbye.
Atop Sand Mountain this Saturday morning, the air is cold like a trout stream, and snowy peaks 100 miles in the distance seem within my reach. To the north are the Sheeprock and Simpson mountains, to the northwest the Drum, Dugway, Fish Springs and Deep Creek mountains, to the west the Swasey and House ranges, to the southeast the Canyon Mountains, topped by piercing Fool Creek Peak, and to the east the Tintic Mountains, home to ghost towns and closed mines. The West Desert of Utah and the adjoining Great Basin Desert in Nevada are so enormous you do not simply drive across them, you sail across, and the mountains in the distance become islands along your journey.
There was a time, actually, about 20,000 years ago, when these mountains really were islands in a literal, great sea. During wetter times, Lake Bonneville covered almost the entire western half of Utah with waters up to 1,000 feet deep, making true islands out of the mountains. As the Great Basin turned drier Bonneville shrank. Today, we are left with the Great Salt Lake, but countless reminders of Bonneville abound, including Little Sahara. The sands that four-wheelers ride across were originally deposits left by the Sevier River where it flowed out of the Wasatch Plateau into the lake. The Sevier (pronounced like 'severe') today drains a huge area reaching all the way back to the Wasatch Plateau and Fishlake National Forest, where the peaks reach towards 11,000 feet. After the lake receded, prevailing southwesterly winds picked up the sand and gradually carried it towards the northeast. Sand Mountain, which has a base of hard rock, deflected the sand and now the roaming dunes have settled into this 124-square mile area. Though much smaller than it once was, the Sevier is still a major river by Utah standards. Major as it may be, however, it loses its gusto just past here. The river is siphoned by alfalfa and hay farms in the Delta area, just to the south, and it is only in wet years that any water in the Sevier even makes it to its terminus, the Sevier (Dry) Lake, a shimmering mirage bounded by desert mountains.
Those of you who can't stand off-road vehicles should be forewarned: Little Sahara has been given to them. The area is especially popular in fall and spring, and at Spring Break thousands of off-road riders crowd the dunes. Fortunately, the Bureau of Land Management, who manages Little Sahara, has set aside a vehicle-free zone called the Rockwell Natural Area, where hikers can roam in peace. Rockwell, which has been proposed for federally protected wilderness status, is on the northwest side of the park.
In the Rockwell unit of Little Sahara, away from the incessant whine of off-road vehicles, is where the dunes become special, I think. The sand dunes offer constantly changing forms and color, and have been identified by the Bureau of Land Management as an excellent place for photography, nature study, hunting, day hiking and hunting. I just like to wander out in them and role play, pretending perhaps I'm Jedediah Smith crossing the West in the 1830s, or someone in some great desert. Gnarled dead branches of juniper twist up against the sky. Small animal tracks titter across the dunes.
Tracks Erased by Wind
The next time my brother came to Utah was this July, and it was hot in the mountains again. But he didn't bring his truck. Instead, he drove all night from Texas in a tiny Honda — looked more like a speed bump — that he said belonged to a Dallas girl named Melissa, who by the way had sent him with a 12-pack of Shiner Bock for me. Shiner, the national beer of Texas, is my favorite. He was on his way to Oregon, and left after we went out for donuts. Driving a Honda sports car? I knew then that something was going on with my brother. In Little Sahara, I saw a yellow coyote run 50 yards in front of me and disappear into sage and sand. Driving in, I came across bald eagle sitting in the middle of the road, tearing viscera and ligament off a rabbit and throwing it back down its throat. Up on Sand Mountain, above where the four wheelers can go, Porter and I came across deer tracks in the frozen sand, and rabbit tracks traced the snow.
Though sand deserts appear devoid of life, if you hunker down close to the ground you find they are full of it. Besides the deer, eagles and coyotes, great horned owls and several species of hawks nest and hunt within Little Sahara. Antelope and mule deer and rabbits have staked out territory for themselves. The Desert whipsnake and eight other species of reptiles call the area home, too. Utah juniper, that sweetest of trees, makes do in sandy breaks, sagebrush and grasses hang out in drier areas, and an extremely rare species of saltbrush, Atriplex canescens gigantea live in the dunes. The Atriplex, better known as the giant four-winged saltbrush, uses rapid root growth and its huge size to make do in the moving sand when other grasses give up and the ghost.
Atop Sand Mountain, gusts of wind toss sand and snow into the air. The snow sublimates into the dry air. I can hear a train call in the valley below, 10 miles away. The buzz from the off-roaders, who tend to stay close to their cars, fades into the background noise of wind and the ringing in my ears. Porter stretches out on a soft patch of snow. On the other high point on Sand Mountain, across a short bowl, melting snow steams in the sun. Birds circle below. A jet flies overhead — Southwest Airlines, I can tell by the orange underbelly — beginning its descent into Salt Lake City. Another one, much higher, leaves contrails in the blue sky. I glissaded down the snowy slope on my boots, using old ski poles for balance. I slid once on ice and cut open my knuckle.
The first time I met Melissa was in the airport in Houston. I was on my way back from El Salvador and had a layover there and she and my brother, Charge, showed up with a bag full of Mexican food from my favorite restaurant which I ate while waiting for the flight. She didn't know it, but Charge was in Houston to get an engagement ring from my parents, and she had unwittingly come along for the weekend. She was beautiful and kind, and I knew it would be a great marriage.
At night in Little Sahara, when the off-road riders are snugly tucked into their beds or sleeping bags, the wind blows again across the dunes, erasing their tracks.
A special thanks to Best Western Motor Inn.
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