This Is The Sound Of Me Screaming
Please, Get Ahold of Yourself
One hand on the brake, one on the gas. I had forgotten the name of my guide, my two partners, my friendly host, the mountain I was on - just about everything. I had left behind any previous ideas about how to experience the mountains, about the pace of exploration, about the right way to understand what it was that was around me. All of it. I was just screaming, and gunning the machine as fast as it would go on the flats, and catching air, too. Around me, the afternoon world blurred.
Well, for a snail's pace hiker like myself, this is certainly a novel way of getting around in the backcountry - by snowmobiles, across the wide open sage hills of Daniels Summit, with winter sun in my face and nothing to do until Monday.
Ahem. Allow me a moment to compose myself.
Ahhh. That's better.
Room to Roam
The Daniels Summit-Strawberry Lake area has become one of Utah's most popular snowmobiling areas, but you wouldn't necessarily know it once you're out on the trails. Weekend mornings hundreds of cars and trucks line the road and its many plowed pullouts. Snowmobiles swarm like bees around the parking areas, and locals unload huge trailers holding their machines. Dogs bark, kids run around, the sun rises over the mountains.
What they have come here for are the over 200 miles of groomed snowmobile trails which start out along the pass and climb in either direction to lofty peaks with wistful views. Despite the trailhead clutter the machines quickly get spaced out in the immense terrain.
Here's the thing: the Wasatch, which are the sexy jagged mountains over by Salt Lake City and Park City, are great for skiing but offer limited snowmobiling terrain. Cut off by steep mountains or wilderness areas, where the machines are prohibited, 'biling terrain is spotty and limited. When you've got something that can easily go 60 miles an hour, well, what you need is some room to jet around. That room can be found, as locals would say, back from the Wasatch, along the Wasatch Plateau or here, along Daniels Summit, in the succulent foothills of the Uinta Mountains. Here, the plowed road reaches up to 8,000 feet and the peaks rumble in around 9,500 feet. Tons of snow and hundreds of square miles of mostly open, mostly gentle terrain equals snowmobiler heaven.
Surrounded By Mountains
I finally remembered the name of my guide. It is Bob. He is showing me under the hood of my machine because I asked how snowmobiles break. (It has something to do with the clutch, I think. I knew it, but then forgot on the way down.) We're up atop Strawberry Ridge, which is the highest point around. When Bob closes the hood we amble on a bit further and look out from the very top of the peak. All around are huge mountains, much bigger than the one we are on. There is Timpanogos, Mt. Nebo, Clayton Peak, the Wasatch Plateau far to the south. To the east, the high peaks of the Uintas, the highest mountains in the state, are lost in snow showers. Down below to the east is the flat white expanse of Strawberry Lake--a reservoir, actually. The majority of the snowmobile terrain lies to our north, along the snowed-under summer roads and amongst the sagebrush flats closer to the road. I ask Bob how much snow he thinks we are standing on top of. He says about 15 feet. (Yup, it's gonna be a looooong spring.)
Lots More Than 'Biling
'In winter, all we have to do is be here,' says Deanne Hill, my beautiful hostess and a former college classmate, as we eat honey chicken salad down in the Daniels Summit General Store. 'The snowmobilers find us. But what a lot of people don't know is how much there is to do here in the summer.' She's probably right. Once the snow melts off the lower slopes and out from around the lodge and store, Daniels Summit takes on a completely different look. Yellow wildflowers carpet the meadows. Sage takes on that aureal gray-green tone. Baby deer paw down on tender grass. (I know, it sounds too damn cute, but it really happens here in the mountains.) Of course, you have to put away the snowmobiles, which doesn't make Bob, the guide, too happy. But what it does mean is that you can get out and see the country in different, albeit slower and quieter, ways. The lodge keeps about 20 horses corralled for riders, and the snowmobile trails turn into lazy mountain roads, hiking trails, and mountain biking trails.
I didn't tell this to Deanne, but I was here in the summer once. A few Septembers ago my friend Jill and I rode our bikes from Heber City all the way up Daniels Canyon to the summit, past the lake, and down to Fruitland. Hours later, beat sore, wonderfully sunburned and dangerously dehydrated, we stumbled into the general store - this was in the days before the lodge was built, and drank about a gallon of cold spring water each, then sprawled out on the grass in front of the store, much to the wonderment of the poor tourists who were trooping inside to have an early dinner. We made it back to Heber - 100 miles on the bike in one day - but if it hadn't been for the general store we probably would have been reduced to roadside water begging.
But like I said, that was in the days before the lodge was built. The Daniels Summit Lodge, just a year old, is the real cornerstone of operations here, and with good reason. It is a masterpiece, a real classic. Built of massive hand-hewn logs, trimmed with sculpted rock, graced with a masterful common area, furnished by what appears to furniture straight out of the Sundance catalog (the wooden furniture, actually, is Indonesian antique) and adorned with countless hand-made works of art, the lodge is reason enough to take up snowmobiling. With snow piled up outside higher than the first floor windows, it really is a special winter retreat.
But perhaps you can't fully appreciate the lodge until your duff has been rubbed sore on a snowmachine. At night, I drank my bedtime coffee on my bedroom's balcony, looking off at the snowy moonlit mountains along the pass, remembering the afternoon and the noise. Of course, no one could hear me screaming. Who knows, maybe the rest of them, back there somewhere behind my rooster tail, maybe they were screaming too. Maybe they were only smiling. Maybe they were holding tightly on to the handlebars, at once scared and enraptured with the power beneath them.
A special thanks to Daniels Summit Lodge.
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