The Widening Spell of the Leaves
The Cache Valley
To travel alone is risky business. To not follow one's dreams is even riskier. So I took my good friend Laura on my long-anticipated bike tour of northern Utah's Cache Valley, and was all the better for it.
Our simple trip covered two days and perhaps the most stunning of the valley's scenery and picturesque small towns, picturesque and tidy almost in a New England sort of way. But here they are surrounded by imposing mountains, and this weekend they feel empty and restless with the approach of winter.
I have long maintained that bike travel, being relatively slow and ponderous, is a superior way to see landscapes, those both familiar and unfamiliar. You are out with the elements, not segregated from nature by steel and glass. Bike travel is especially luxurious when you've got time and a bit of preparation under your belt. We had both, and in two days covered nearly 60 miles of rural farmland and river bottom in the valley.
The exploration and settlement of the West, as Marc Reisner noted in 'Cadillac Desert,' owes itself, as much as anything, to a hat. That hat was the beaver felt hat, which was all the rage in the 1820s and 1830s in cities on the East coast, and its popularity forced ever more expeditious travels into the interior west in search of the beaver. This quest put in place an entirely new market economy in a landscape where only years earlier humans had had little reason to enter and even fewer reasons to poke around.
The quest for beaver sent hundreds of men, most of them young and American, into the West, trapping its rivers and exploring its mountains, deserts and valleys. But for those who accumulated pelts, the distance from the rivers to the market was prohibitively far. Rather than cart their wares east for sale, the mountain men and their trading companies developed an ingenious floating market, the rendezous, where trappers and pelt purchasers met for a few weeks each summer to trade their wares, consume prodigious amounts of alcohol, fornicate, and commit carnage. Trappers came from hundreds of miles around to trade their pelts for ammunition, Indian girls, and whiskey brought overland from St. Louis.
Among the most famous and successful of the rendezous sites - after only a few years the entire industry was usurped by the decline of the beaver hat market, among other factors - was the Cache Valley site on the Bear River.
'Cache,' of course, is the French word meaning 'to hide,' and today the area is marked by the names of the trappers who first made the place famous: Jedediah Smith, Peter Skene Ogden, and Ephraim Logan. In fact, this corner of northern Utah is often called 'Bridgerland,' in reference to the famous mountain man Jim Bridger. Once in the valley, the trappers would dig holes in the ground and 'cache' their hides until they could be sold.
The exact sites of the Cache Valley rendezvous are difficult to determine, but some historians believe the event was held near the present day site of Wellsville and the American West Heritage Center.
The first white settlers wandered into the valley in the summer of 1855. They were Mormons, sent by church leader Brigham Young to establish a cattle ranch; later settlers grew wheat and other crops as well as took lumber from the local canyons. All of them benefited from the relative proximity to Salt Lake City, about 90 miles south, as well as the multi-channeled Bear River and shimmering blue Bear Lake, which is just on the other side of the Bear River Mountains.
Today, the valley is still known for its pristine beauty, its land-grant college, Utah State University, for its proximity to the mountains and the opportunities there for downhill and cross country skiing as well as rock climbing, cave exploration, birdwatching, snowmobiling and mountain biking, and camping, among other activities. Logan, meanwhile, has evolved into a pleasant mid-sized town surrounded by farmland.
Laura and I rolled into town on a Friday night after an excruciating week of work and last-minute training. After checking into the unique Anniversary Inn, we strolled through the compact and quaint downtown, ate dinner in a café that could have been a time capsule from the 1950s, and were up early enough the next morning to see frost on the grass and catch a good portion of the university's Homecoming parade.
We used a small bike trail pamphlet put out by the Bridgerland Travel Council and the Wasatch-Cache National Forest to plan our rides. The pamphlet, called 'Northern Utah's Bridgerland Mountain and Roadbike Trails,' contained some excellent loop ride suggestions but had woefully inadequate route directions and farcically incorrect mileage totals. We made do using it and our own intuition.
Setting out west from Logan on Saturday, we soon left the city and traversed flat farmland and marshes on our way to the Logan and Little Bear rivers, then climbed the hill into Mendon. By this time we had warmed up - next it was a great long downhill stretch to Wellsville, where we took a brief break at a lovely old chapel now bordered by a dozen tall trees bright yellow with autumn. Next, we climbed up on our way south, passed a farm where we saw a calf being born, saw a number of hawks, and cruised on into Hyrum, where we got some Mexican food to go and peddled with it to Hyrum Reservoir State Park. The lake was low, but we ate our lunch then sacked out for a while in the shade as boats crisscrossed the shallow water. After a brief break to fix the one and only flat of the trip, we headed north to Nibley and back to Logan.
Sunday dawned entirely fall-like, with cool temperatures and a north breeze that shook the leaves from the trees. We opted for a shorter ride, dallied the morning in town, and by noon were pulling the bikes off the truck and ready to ride again.
This second leg was quieter and even more remote than the first. It started in Richmond, a small town about 20 miles north of Logan, close to the Idaho border. We climbed out of town into a colorful hillside of ranches and farms and sequestered homes, each with long views out over the valley, west to the Wellsville Mountains and north to Idaho. To the west, the Bear River Mountains - an extension of the Wasatch Range - tumbled down to where we biked. Hidden creeks crossed under the road, and antique barns held themselves under the weight of accumulating leaves.
Leaving the mouintains, we pedaled west through Lewiston to Cornish, took a break in that town's immaculate park, then headed south to Trenton, east again across the Bear River, and up a short hill back to Richmond.
What our trip did not show us, unfortunately, was Bear Lake, dubbed the 'Caribbean of the Rockies' for its turquoise-colored waters. While not in the Cache Valley, it is closely associated with the area and is just a half-hour drive up Logan Canyon. We also missed the grave of Old Ephraim - reported to be an 11-foot tall grizzly - and the site of a 1,500 year old juniper.
Like so many of my trips, this one had begun in my mind as much larger, but then some things got in the way. Laura and I had planned to see the Cache Valley in September, but other trips kept coming up. By the time we were ready to go in late October, the days were shorter and colder and the cooperation of the weather became a primary factor.
We could have seen the valley by car, and if we had maybe we could have gotten up to Bear Lake, but then we would have not seen the million other details, the kinds of which you only see by bike. That's not to say that to see the valley by car is boring, it's just to say that when I get a chance, I prefer to pedal my way around.
After all, what is important is go get out and see the world. To not follow one's dreams, in deed, is risky.
A Great Place to Stay:
Try Logan's Anniversary Inn, which has 19 individually-tailored suites in a group of historic buildings, one of them a mansion on Logan's quaint Center Street, just two blocks from downtown.
Not necessarily for anniversaries, the Inn's themed rooms recreate such wonders as a rain forest, an arctic journey, a Caribbean sea cave, an imperial palace, King Arthur's Castle, Swiss Family Robinson, the Pyramids of Egypt, and a presidential suite. All rooms offer a large-screen TV, a stereo with surround sound, free DVD and video movies, jetted tubs, triple sheeting, and complimentary cheesecake and Martinelli's sparkling cider upon arrival. In the morning you get a fresh-baked breakfast brought to your door. The service is utterly professional and discreet.
A note to careful readers:
The title of this story is also the title of a book of poems by the late Utah poet, Larry Levis.
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