Dust, Sun and Endless Mountains

The West Desert, Part 2

Jay Banta Jay Banta says he wouldn't be surprised if his two kids, one a freshman at the University of Utah and the other a sophomore at West Desert High School, grow up to be 'city people.' Both grew up, essentially, here on the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge, an 18,000-acre expanse of ponds and wetlands in one of the driest and most isolated parts of America, but the one is in living in Salt Lake City and the other spent last summer in Virginia and 'loved it.'

Indeed, Virginia is a long, very long way from Fish Springs, which sits in Utah's West Desert about 120 miles west and south of Salt Lake City. How do you describe the aridity here? You could express it in trees - the closest trees to Fish Springs are in Callao going one direction (25 miles) or in Simpson Springs (about 50 miles) going the other, and who knows how far in the other two directions - or in water - the nearest sizable open water is 60 air miles - or in evapotranspiration - of the 25,000 acre-feet per year that flow from the Fish Springs, allow of it evaporates after flowing just seven linear miles.

Fish Springs Pretty damn dry.

And how remote? It's 96 miles to Tooele, which has all services, or about the same distance to Wendover, a border town of about 8,000.

The water and the trees, of course, not to mention the dearth of people and homes and freeways, attract hordes of birds. Thousands. Tens of thousands. During peak migration times in autumn there can be 25,000 birds moving through the refuge on their way south. The birds are drawn like a dog to biscuits by the trees and the water - one volunteer here told me the birds literally fall out of the sky to be in the small forest of bony trees that surround the refuge's administration complex.

Far From Home

There is no paved road to Fish Springs - you gotta take the dusty Pony Express Trail. There are also no services once you get here (excepting one soda machine, which seems to be hidden, and the potable water, which most people don't really consider a service). There is no campground, no fireside ranger chatter, no gift shop. What you get by coming to Fish Springs is the birds and the isolation - which is also what brought Banta.

He was about 15, he says, when he visited a refuge in southern California (he told me the name of it and I forgot it) and he knew right then that he wanted to be a refuge manager. He went to college, did all that stuff, and was stationed at a wildlife refuge near Lake Havasu, on the Arizona-California border. There, Banta says, he was occupied more with law-breaking personal watercraft riders than wildlife. When the job at Fish Springs opened, he and his wife, Frances, jumped at the chance. In that respect, the Bantas are not unlike their scattered neighbors in the Snake Valley, all of who appear to be here by choice. Those that leave spend much of their time trying to come back.

I have always been curious about people who live in out-of-the-way places. Though I may have spent a lot of time in faraway places, I am a relentlessly urban person. I just look to remote places for certain necessities - solitude, recreation, time, space. And in the same way, as I have come to find out, people like Banta and the other residents here look to cities to take care of necessities - shopping, movies, culture, maybe a little recreation. But while necessary, few can spend too much time in the city.

West Desert High School Indeed, a look into the communities of the West Desert - places like Callao, Partoun, Trout Creek, Ibapah or Pleasant Valley, places where homes are spread out according to the Homestead Act, not urban sprawl - offer a fascinating glimpse into the basic foundations of community itself.


Jay Banta calls his existence in Fish Springs insulated, not isolated, though he notes that phone lines did not come to Fish Springs until the early 80s and electricity only a few years before that. When life is whittled down to the basics, he says, one finds the needs are simpler, less demanding. Whereas in the city 'community' might mean an apartment building, a block, a neighbor hood, or even one side of town, Banta said his community stretches from Dugway in one direction - where the family gets mail and attends church - to Trout Creek on the other, a distance of almost 100 miles. In this distance, home to a few hundred, the residents of the West Desert find what is necessary from each other. In the West Desert, space defines people, land shapes community. Here, you find evidence, as Craig Denton wrote in People of the West Desert: Finding Common Ground, of community forming as a response to an outside threat, community serving as refuge, community forming as a way to organize society, or even community forming as convenience.

Many of these people would likely say they are living out Jefferson's agrarian ideal, Denton pointed out - close to the land, close to life itself. That's a hard thing to claim, I think. And it is worthy to note that most homes here have satellite dishes, and tiny West Desert High School, in Trout Creek, is connected with district headquarters in Eureka (itself pretty small) by video conferencing and the Internet. What you can say is that many of these people are wary, if not resentful, of the federal government. They are self-sufficient. They are living the sort of existence that doesn't allow for much error. And they are in what is certainly the quintessential West. This is one of America's forgotten frontiers.

What is important to note, however, is that in the West Desert you also have community forming because the law is far away. America's remote places have always been havens for those who just don't fit in with society, or those who think 'society' could use some tweaking. Those groups abound in the West Desert - in many places, they are the West Desert. I'm speaking of polygamists, primarily, though if you look from the border of Idaho to the border of Arizona you find a startling cross section of those looking for their own Zion. Besides the polygamists - at least one group of which lives in their own 'town' - there are also back-to-the-land groups, anti-government groups, medium-scale experiments in Socialism, big-time isolationists, united orders, and groups of people you really can't put a name to. I'm not going to bother to point them out to you, since they don't need to become tourist attractions, but knowing they are out here is important, I think. Anyway, if you poke around enough, you'll find them yourselves.

Home Is Where You Land

Banding SongbirdsI am not too good at getting close to the birds. I always seem to do something - crunch on dry grass, sniffle, trip, slam the door too loud - and just as I am about to get in place for a real nice close up, the dadgum thing flies away. I am better, though, than the family in front of me. Their entire reason for being here, it seems, is to inadvertently chase off the waterfowl before I get the chance to. They are ahead of me in an auto-caravan tour we are taking at Fish Springs. It is mid-May and like usual the refuge - a collection of diked ponds on a nearly flat alkaline valley - is humming with waterfowl here from Central and South America on their way north. This migration, same as the one I witnessed a few weeks back at the Layton Wetlands Preserve, is so intense and visible here in western Utah because the birds get funneled into this flight pattern by the Rocky Mountains on one side and the Great Basin on the other. The birds skip along (in the spring it is at a leisurely pace; in the fall they are more purposeful) from wet spot to wet spot. Many tend to arrive at Fish Springs rather exhausted, said the leader of my tour, whose name I never learned. They stay for a day or two, maybe more, maybe less, relaxing in the water and eating the little bugs that swim around.

It was only relatively recently that we have begun to understand both the scope of this migration and the importance wetlands across North America plays in it. I mentioned this two weeks ago but I'll do it again: Wetlands like Fish Springs play host to the waterfowl who live in Central or South America in the winter and Canada and Alaska in the summer. It'll be April or so in, say Honduras, and all these birds will be getting fat, well, fat for a bird anyway. The fat produces energy and the energy produces a sort of electric charge in the air - if you've been around a lot of birds you know what I mean by electric charge - and then one bird will start to sail around higher in the air and in a moment thousands of birds are fluttering in the air and taking off and heading north, towards cooler weather, in droves. In the West, where watering holes are few and far between, this migration tends to be more pronounced since the birds will congregate at certain water holes.

Here at Fish Springs, five springs produce a water flow of about 30 cubic feet per second. In the dry very flat valley here, the Fish and Wildlife Service has diked the springs to create ponds (they did this in the early 1960s), some several feet deep and some only inches deep. The ponds, which extend for about seven miles north and slightly east of the refuge headquarters, provide greater habitat for birds who either live here or migrate on through. Much of Banta's job centers on controlling the flow of water from one pond to another, or burning some dry ponds to release nutrients. From May to September, when evaporation far exceeds precipitation, Banta allows some ponds to dry up in order to keep the core of the refuge wet.

Be Prepared Who comes? It's quite an astounding list, and I'll go through a few names for you (if for no other reason then since the names are so nice): Pied-billed grebes, American white pelican, Snowy egret, Canada goose, Northern pintail, Mallard, Green-winged teal, Northern shoveler, Cinnamon teal, American wigeon, Redhead, Red-tailed hawk, American coot, American avocet, Black-necked stilt, Marbled godwit, Wilson's phalarope, Ring-billed gull, Horned lark, Barn swallow, common raven, Marsh wren, European starling, Common yellowthroat, Savannah sparrow, Red-winged blackbird, Western meadowlark, American goldfinch, and Brewer's blackbird.


Long Way To The Seven-11

I didn't see all those, of course. I'm not much of a bird identifier, so I can't even say for sure what it is I did see. I love them, though, the shorebirds with long legs and long beaks and beautiful names. After the tour was over I made the loop around the ponds once more and saw more - without the car convoy more birds seemed to stick along the road. After, I went back to the headquarters and watched refuge volunteers catch (by net) and band songbirds, who are also migrating north, then had a talk with Jay Banta in his office. I wanted to hear him say something about how faraway this place is, but he never even got close. He said if an offering came to work in an even more remote place, he and his wife would go. I mention that I was at Johnston Atoll - 800 miles southwest of Hawaii - in February. He said French Frigate Shoals might be more like it. (Now that's far.)

'I love the pace here,' he said. 'When we go to the city it's - we leave at 7 a.m. and get back at 9 p.m. the next day and its one stop after another. I go with a list of 15 or 20 things to do - buying parts, nuts and bolts, going to meetings, getting something to fix the shower. And then I love it when I get back out here.'

"One of the hardest things about living out here is keeping enough cars running to get to school," Banta continued. West Desert High School, where their daughter goes and his wife works as a counselor, is 41 miles away. The bus stop itself is 29 miles. The Volvo has 269,000 miles - and never an engine or transmission rebuild. (For some reason, they sold their LandCruiser last week. As a former LandCruiser owner I wanted to ask Why, why? but refrained.) "My daughter wants us to get something new, but I always tell here there will come a day when she will hope, when all she can do is hope she owns a car that is that good."

I think about the dusty road ahead. I agree with him all the way.

Part 1

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