In The Sunset, Big Lazy Loops

The West Desert, Part 1

Bonneville Salt Flats June 24th (1827) N E 40 Miles. I started verry early in hopes of soon finding water. But ascending a high point of a hill I could discover nothing but sandy plains of dry Rocky hills with the Exception of a snowy mountain off to the N E at the distance of 50 or 60 Miles. When I came down I durst not tell my men of the desolate prospect ahead. I told them I saw something black at a distance near which no doubt we would find water. While I had been up on the one of the horses gave out and had been left a short distance behind. I sent the men back to take the best of his flesh for our supply was again nearly exhausted whilst I would push forward in search of water - They were much discouraged with the gloomy prospect but I said all I could to enliven their hopes and told them in all probability we would soon find water. But the view ahead was almost hopeless (sic) Jedediah Strong Smith, The Southwest Expedition of Jedediah Smith

Nicole and I make lazy circles on the salt. Lazy, big loops. Circling. Our shadows reach 50, 700, 100 feet, maybe more behind us, reaching back towards Floating Island. It's November and we are wearing sweaters, riding our mountain bikes on the salt flats with our eyes closed. Our dogs chase us.

South of us, maybe a mile or two, the interstate hums with twilight traffic. Big trucks gearing down for the border. Cars of vacationers, or businessmen, or people traveling to Elko, Reno, San Francisco or Wendover. Their headlights streak. But out on the salt it's much brighter, bright enough to read. I take pictures of Nicole sitting on the salt, or of Porter running. At the rest stop along the freeway I can see travelers, just tiny dots, who have climbed the observation tower and are looking off in our direction and at the last bit of alpenglow above Silver Island. South of here, about 50 miles away, is where Jedediah Smith and his men endured their desperate search for water. These days, you can get water at the rest area. Drivers toss cans of beer and soda alongside the road. Things are different.

In 1822, when Smith joined the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company, he was 22. Within just a few years, though, he was in charge of a party of trappers heading into uncharted territory in southern Wyoming and northeastern Utah. They found fabulous numbers of beaver, but Smith decided to see what lay west and with his party skirted the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats. The only humans he passed along the way were, as Marc Reisner called them, numbingly primitive - and reflections of their surroundings, as Mark Twain added. Smith went to Oregon and came back in time for the 1925 rendezvous on the Green River. At the rendezvous Smith and two of his partners, David Jackson and William Sublette took over the Missouri Fur Trading Company. Smith immediately set out again, this time through southwestern Utah, across the Mojave and into Los Angeles, where the Spanish governor there chased him out. He went north, trapping along the way. In the spring he took his two toughest men and hundreds of pelts and set off across the Sierra Nevada to make the summer rendezvous in the Cache Valley.

Of all the routes across Nevada, Smith chose the hottest, driest, most fearsome one, roughly following what is now U.S. Highway 6, dubbed the 'Loneliest Road in America.' His party fought starvation, dehydration and insurmountable odds, and that they survived at all is a miracle. 'My arrival caused a considerable bustle in camp,' he wrote upon arrival in the Cache. Whatever, but within two weeks he and 18 others were again on their way to California, again crossing the Mojave. This time, near what would become Las Vegas, Indians attacked the group and 10 men were killed. He dropped off three wounded men in San Bernardino, went back north and found his party (how he found them in the vast wilderness of central California is a feat he treats lightly in his journal) and headed everyone into Monterey for supplies. He was promptly thrown in jail and bail was set at $30,000, an amount meant to ensure he never got out. But, as Smith's luck would have it, a wealthy New England sea merchant docked in the bay was so impressed by Smith's stories that he posted the entire amount. Smith and men worked north into Oregon then, ho hum, across the Cascades and the Snake River Basin to Jackson Hole.

Things Change, Sort Of

June 25th At about 4 O Clock we were obliged to stop on the side of a sand hill under the shade of a small Cedar. We dug holes in the sand and laid down in them for the purpose of cooling our heated bodies - Our sleep was not repose for tormented nature made us dream of things we had not and for the want of which it then seemed possible and even probably we might perish in the desert unheard of and unpitied. After a short rest we continued our march and traveled all night. The murmur of falling waters still sound in our ears and the apprehension that we might never live to hear that sound in reality weighed heavily upon us. (sic) - Smith

Lookout Pass U.S. 6, as I said, is the Loneliest Road in America. Interstate 80, which crosses 40 miles of the Bonneville Salt Flats with a speed limit of 75, might be the Straightest Road in America - not a bend in those 40 miles. But both of these pale in comparison to the Lincoln Highway, little-known but actually America's first transcontinental highway. Stretching 3,400 miles from sea and operational by 1913, the Lincoln Highway became the model for many transcontinental routes including I-10 and I-90 and, perhaps most notable, I-80, which roughly parallels it. From where Nicole and I do our sunset bike dance the Lincoln lies about 30 miles south, on the other end of the salt flats.

The Lincoln Highway then was a major factor in guiding travelers from coast to coast, but even in the mid-1920s it was more adventure than true Point A to Point B driving. Lincoln Highway travelers had to deal with the scarcity of fuel across places like Utah and rough, rough roads. A highway guide from the period mentioned a particularly bad spot about 25 miles west of Fish Springs. If the driver becomes stuck in mud, the guide said, simply build a smoky fire so the station tender in Fish Springs would know to come out and help you. Things are different these days, though not immensely.

A Road, But To Where?

June 27th North 10 Miles along a valley in which there were many salt springs. Coming to the point of the ridge which formed the Eastern boundary of the valley I saw an expanse of water. Extending far to the North and East. The Salt Lake a joyful sight was spread before us. Is it possible said the companions of my suffering that we are so near the end of our troubles. For myself I durst scarcely believe that it was really the Big Salt Lake that I saw. It was indeed a most cheering view for although we were some distance from the depo yet we knew we would soon be in a country where we would find game and water which were to us objects of the greatest importance and those we which would contribute more than any other to our comfort and happiness. Those who may chance to read this at a distance from the scene may perhaps be surprised that the sight of this lake surrounded by a wilderness of more than 2000 miles diameter excited in me these feelings known to the traveler who after long and perilous journeying comes again in view of his home. But so it was with me for I had traveled so much in the vicinity of the Salt Lake that it had become my home in the wilderness. (sic) - Smith

Like the Pony Express Route, traces of the Lincoln Highway can still be seen, though today the two roads are essentially one in the same. Parts of the original road can still be seen in places like Big Mountain Pass, Adobe Rock, Timpie Point, Dugway, and between Callao and Fish Springs. Part of the road crosses what is now the Utah Test and Training Range - and off-limits Air Force bombing range west of Dugway. I had the opportunity to travel this route once while with a group from the Lincoln Highway Association. We went to Callao then turned east and headed across the salt flats, under guard both by sheriff's deputies and Air Force and Army security forces. The road today, like then, is simply dirt piled up a foot or two higher than the surrounding muck. Leave the road and you immediately sink up to your axles. In the heart of the bombing range were half-sunk missiles and old trucks used as targets.

Lincoln Hwy But of course travelers on the Lincoln Highway, like travelers on the Pony Express, were not simply in a hurry to get to California. Like those today who drive the route, camp in the mountains, and stare off into the void, the West Desert is as much a state of mind as it is a place to see. Rarely to you go there with the intention of getting anywhere, just like Nicole and I and our dogs were just circling on the geometric levelness of the salt flats. And what about Jedediah Strong Smith? He went in strong, on horseback, with well-armed men and came out near the end of his senses having eaten his horses, abandoned all hope. Then he sold everything he had and dove right back in. A state of mind.

Epilogue

I pulled out of the Deep Creek Mountains that Sunday afternoon after I had met Susan Claridge, shook in low range over the rocks and through the creek, and came down to the Callao-Baker road. I had planned on turning north, dropping through Gold Hill on the way to Wendover. But it was early; I decided instead to turn south towards Trout Creek. It was a clear, spectacular morning with the snowcapped mountains etched sharply against the sky. The road was good - I went 60 much of the way - and I only passed on car. Past Partoun I took a right and headed west into the Pleasant Valley. The road, still pretty good, gradually climbed up into the southern foothills of the Deep Creek Mountains. I stopped at one point to climb a rocky bluff to get my bearings. The occasional green spot in the Snake Valley east - a ranch - and the hot white line of the salt flats to the north.

This was new territory for me. After two days in the backcountry I was headed not towards civilization but instead away from it. I eyed the gas gauge warily. At the border with Nevada I passed an eerily vacant polygamist community and stopped in the middle of the road to add gas. Five gallons - it had been a while since I've had to fill the tank up while in the backcountry. They trickled in preciously. It turned cloudy. I could look up to Red Mountain that I climbed with Chip Ward three autumns ago. Snow was strung along the top of it. Past the border the road climbed more sharply then leveled off and I looked up and dirty snow clung to ridges on both sides above the road, then the road disappeared into swirling dervishes of dust and spotty rain. This road was headed for Ely, a place I didn't want to be at 4 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon (nice place, but far from home) so I took a primitive track, not on the map, north. The track crossed the Pony Express Trail and climbed a rocky bluff and entered Goshute tribal land then followed a dry stream bed, went through a sort of ghost town, and plopped me out, after 187 miles of dirt road, on a paved road. I was in the stunning community of Ibapah, familiar territory, and on my way home.

Where Am I? In the weeks following our trip to the mountains, the Deep Creeks stayed on my mind almost constantly. Winter was coming, and I was stricken with the idea of returning for a weekend ski trip (something I still have not done). They were on Chip Ward's mind, too, because in those weeks he called twice and once I saw him at a public hearing, something the Army was presenting and I had to cover for the newspaper. Each time he said something to the effect of, The real world sure is annoying. Wouldn't it be nice to be back in the Deep Creeks? I told him it would be nice, but that this is not the real world. This is the make believe world. Back in the Deep Creeks and in the West Desert - that is where life is really taking place. And so I was again struck with the notion of returning, maybe just for a day, like I am now, daydreaming at work, thinking about the trees along Indian Farm Creek, Aspen buds so tender and green they even look golden -

... and a last love, which, being last, will be like looking up and seeing the parachute dissolving in a shower of gold.
- Galway Kinnell

Part 2

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