History, Returning as Art

San Pete County, Part One of Two

There was this dog chasing me.

He started the chase when I, on bike, rounded a corner by his house, leaving relatively busy state Route 132 for state Route 117, a quiet country lane that swept up a broad hill toward the hamlet of Wales. The dog started his chase like many dogs begin theirs - here's this bike, and I need to pursue. His home was one of about a dozen in the crossroads village of Chester and pretty soon we were out in cow pasture and valley scrub. I was already at a pretty good clip, maybe 22 mph, and I just sort of kept it up, keeping an eye on the dog but not letting him bother me. A mile later I looked around, and he was still there. After two miles the road ran into a steep hill, and I slowed to 10 mph or less. The dog was now beside or in front of me, looking around in the ditch alongside the road, taking a drink of water, and running to catch up to me when I got too far ahead. The sun drew low, casting 20-mile long shadows across San Pete County.

After about 20 minutes of hard biking I made it to the to of the hill and Wales. The road made a sharp right turn and leveled out and I slowed town to take in the three blocks of Main Street. It was a Friday afternoon in October, and a few people were out raking leaves or putting gardens into winter mode. The dog followed me now as though we'd been friends all our lives, even though the whole time he'd been with me the only thing I said to him was to get out of the way of an oncoming pickup. On Main Street Mountain Fuel crews were digging up the road to put in a new gas line, and orange barricades had been set up. The dog followed me to the barricade, stopped and looked on, then turned around and trotted back down the hill.

Friendly introduction to Utah's great San Pete County? Typical Friday afternoon in Wales? Both I guess, and either way a landmark part of the charm of this great swath of mountains, valley, historic towns, superb artisans and friendly folks.

The valley, mile by mile

The San Pete Valley, one part of a broad and very long valley which stretches north to south through the heart of Utah, has long been a crossroads of culture and humanity. American Indians spent winters and summers here, protected from the deserts of the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau by two great mountain ranges. Though chilly in the winter, the weather was generally agreeable and the water plentiful. When Mormons showed up in the 1840s, church prophet Brigham Young almost immediately sent exploring parties and settlers here; towns like Manti were settled by the 1850s, providing contact with the Indians and a supply route for travelers headed south. Typical of the settlement of Utah, towns were a convenient day's ride apart and soon church members had built a castle-like temple in Manti. Later, up-the-road Ephraim added a college, Snow College (named for a church authority, not the precipitation, though the place does get winter-like).

Though settlement was complicated by the area's comparative remoteness, harsh winters and increasingly unhappy Indians, the Mormons persevered along with a growing contingent of European settlers. While the valley did not have mining and therefor a much smaller population of Asians and eastern Europeans, towns like Wales, Manti, Mayfield and Mt. Pleasant attracted a multi-cultural mix of mostly northern Europeans who, as converts to the Mormon church, followed Young's orders to settle Utah's periphery.

Today, the valley is a rural mix of farmers, ranchers and the normal accoutrements of small town life with, increasingly, a healthy mix of painters, pottery artists (is that a word? You know what I mean) and specialty artisans. Only an hour or so from the big cities of the Wasatch Front, residents enjoy bucolic small town charm with cosmopolitan amenities. I love the San Pete Valley for its hayfields, historic homes and big mountains. Long a passer-through, I finally set aside a weekend back in October to see the valley, mile by mile and town by town in the best way I know how: on a bicycle.

History, Returning as Art

As I pedaled out of Wales the valley dipped and rose, then held steady in the falling sun and plummeting temperatures. Luckily, I had picked the last good weekend of weather for such a bike ride - temperatures in the 30s in the morning (cold enough to add an extra zip and urgency to pedalling) and 60s in the clear, deep-blue afternoon (warm enough to laze around, but not so warm that I overheated). I'd biked all summer long, getting ready for this trip, and things could not have gone better.

The charm of the valley is in its small distinct towns, I think, and I used them as goals to reach while out on the lonely spaces between stops. That Friday night, after my 25-mile hop through the northern part of the valley, I met back up with my truck, loaded the bike back on, and drive south to Manti, where the good folks at the Manti House Bed and Breakfast took care of me.

Essentially across the street from the Manti LDS temple, the Manti House B&B has long been a pivotal stopping point. Paintings in the inn attest to the church figures who have spent the night here. Originally, the home served as a resting spot for men helping to build the temple. Later it fell into disrepair but a few years ago a new family bought the place and restored it to a bed and breakfast. Now it serves as accommodations during the yearly Mormon Miracle Pageant, which celebrates the settling of the area by Mormons and the construction of the temple, and to tourists like me who come to see the area's charms.

Manti House is just one of a phalanx of restored homes and buildings in Manti, which serves as a hub of business and commerce in the central part of the county. Manti is a very tidy and neat place, largely devoid of chain restaurants and hotels and shopping centers. (A 'Super' Wal-Mart opened up the road in Ephraim a few years ago and has really shaken up the local economy.) I spent the night warm in cotton sheets, falling asleep to the sounds of traffic outside my window.

If there is a common thread to culture in the valley, it is slowly changing from an agriculture-based economy to one much more diverse. Though ranching and turkey raising and farming are still present and the beds of many a pickup carry a bale of hay, the area is becoming a refuge for artists and artisans of many types. Much of U.S. Highway 89, which runs the length of Utah and through the heart of this great valley, was recently designated Utah's Heritage Highway and these potters, painters, wine makers, violin makers and jewelry makers have been spotlighted.

Specifically, the Heritage Highway begins in Fairview, which is close to the geographic center of the state, and runs south to Manti, Salina, Richfield, Panguitch and Kanab, with a side loop through Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument thrown in for good measure.

I realize this has been a rather robotic story . that's just the way it came out. I promise that next week, part two of this story, will be more exciting!

For a nice place to stay in Salina, check out cozy Henry's Hideaway Motel at (435) 529-7467. They are right in downtown Salina, and have a pool, hot tub and in-room coffee.

Sanpete County, Part Two

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