Days 200-205/ Sep 22nd-27th – Winnemucca, NV to Fernley, NV: Just deserts

September 27, 2010

‘It is death to every one of you… to travel a distance so great as that through a trackless desert.’ – William Sublette, 1842

‘This is, I think, one of the most detestable countries God ever made, to say nothing of its sterility and barrenness.’ – James Wilkins in the Nevada desert, August 20th 1849

‘Here indeed was a picture of misery… dead horses and oxen, in great numbers… and men, without a morsel to eat, were… offering all they had for a little dry bread.’ – John Clapp in the Forty-Mile Desert in Nevada, July 15th 1850

‘The desert!  You must see it and feel it on in a August day… to realise it in all its horrors.  But heaven save you from the experience.’ – Eleazar Ingalls, August 5th 1850

Track across the Nevada desert

Sally on the dustiest track in America

It was the third dead cow that really gave us pause.  We followed a faint track through the sagebrush beside the Southern Pacific railway line for most of a hot, dusty day, kicking balls of dry tumbleweed out of our way.  The first cow carcass we passed was still bloated and fly-blown; the next one a sunken, shrivelled skin; the last a bare, bleached skeleton.  Everything that grew along the track was viciously thorny and seemed to want to scratch or prick us, especially the tiny, mace-like burrs that attached themselves to our socks and calves and detached sharp spikes into our fingers, like cluster bombs deploying.  It was fiercely hot, as it had been all week, and we had no signal on our phone.  This would be a poor place, we reflected, to break an ankle.

Cow skeleton in Nevada desert

America's worst rib restaurant

We had stiffened our resolve and set out into the desert after a day off in Winnemucca, a small town that was equal parts interstate stop, mining boomtown, casino strip and brothel district, and not without a certain rough charm.  Many of the Chinese labourers who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad subsequently settled here.  They were visited in 1911by Sun Yat-Sen, just before he became president of the new Chinese republic, surely the only Chinese premier ever to visit Nevada (with the exception, of course, of Chairman Mao’s infamous ‘lost weekend’ with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the Sands in Las Vegas  in 1964).

Casino mural in Winnemucca, Nevada

Casino mural in Winnemucca

For three days we followed ranch-tracks across the scrub, setting off at dawn in near-freezing temperatures, and enjoying a single hour of equable temperatures between nine o’clock, when we took off our woollen hats, and ten, when we put on our sun-hats.  The tracks often degenerated into dust, several inches thick, as fine and yielding as flour, which we sank down into up to our ankles.  It seemed impossible that they didn’t simply blow away.

For three days we didn’t see a car, or, for that matter, a human being, though we weren’t alone: just after dawn one morning, a herd of nine antelope clattered slowly across the road just thirty yards ahead of us, close enough for us to see the steam rising off their backs.  Later on, we walked through a herd of Holstein cows, which considered us gravely for a full minute before deciding that their best course of action was a full-blown, panicked stampede.  And just outside Mill City, we came over a gentle rise to find a pale, silvery snake, perhaps two feet long, curled up in the middle of the road.  It reared and struck at my poles, and after a Mexican stand-off lasting a full minute, flowed away into the undergrowth and vanished.

Snake in the Nevada desert

Snake is 1/100th actual size

For most of our route through Nevada we had been following the course of the Humboldt River, which rises in lush pastures near Wells and winds for 300 miles across the north of the state.  The first European to see it was Peter Ogden in 1828, who named it ‘Unknown River’.  Unsurprisingly, this name didn’t stick, and the Humboldt was known as ‘Paul’s River’, ‘Mary’s River’, ‘Swampy River’ and even ‘Ogden’s River’ before in 1848 the great explorer John Fremont named it, rather quixotically, after a German naturalist who had never even set foot in the American West.  Barely known even in America, the Humboldt provided a viable route for some of the hardest stages of the California Trail, the transcontinental railroad and, more recently, I-80.

Truth to tell, though, it was decidedly unimpressive to look at, meandering in a shallow channel across the gravelly plain, and occasionally crossing beneath the road in a sluggish trickle that we could easily have waded across without getting our knees wet.  Just beyond Lovelock, it finally gave up the unequal struggle against the desert and expired in a featureless, salty pan called the Humboldt Sink.

Moonset in the Nevada desert

Moonset in the desert

Lovelock lay at the edge of the Big Meadows, a near-miraculous oasis of canals, horse-ranches and hay-fields, where the early emigrants would stop to rest and water themselves and their animals before tackling the horrors of the Forty-Mile Desert.  Despite its efforts to promote the ‘Lover’s Lock Plaza’, where couples are encouraged to buy and affix padlocks proclaiming their love, the town is more infamous today as the involuntary residence of O. J. Simpson, serving a 33-year sentence at the local prison.

Two Stiffs Gasoline in Lovelock, Nevada

Two Stiffs Gasoline in Lovelock

A historical marker beside exit 83 of the interstate described the Forty-Mile Desert as ‘a barren stretch of waterless alkali wasteland… the single most dreaded section of the entire California Trail.’  Not much has changed in the last 150 years.  Our usual strategy for interstate walking on hot days is to rest underneath exit bridges, but here there was only a single one along a thirty-mile stretch of otherwise utterly shadeless road.  The driver of a breakdown truck attending to a pick-up on the shoulder looked at us dubiously as we walked past him.

“You guys got enough water?  It’s a long way into town.  Gonna be about 96 today.”

Big Meadows haystacks near Lovelock

Haystacks in Big Meadows

We passed the 3,000-mile mark on our walk in the middle of a salty plain, reeking both of the sulphur hissing from geothermal vents in the ground and the outflow from the vents of the Olam onion processing plant.  We sweated out liquid as fast as we could drink it, and, under a pale white sky pouring out heat, apparently in sympathy with the early pioneers, our camera expired.

We were visited often by the ever-friendly highway patrol.

“I’m just checkin’ you’re here because you wanna be, not because you hafta be,” said one officer.

Walking on the interstate in Nevada

The scale of America can make you feel very small

A few hours later, we were stopped again by Officer Harrison, a strikingly pretty young blonde.  Halfway through our conversation, her radio crackled, and she shot us an apologetic look and drove off at speed down I-80, sirens blaring.  A mile down the road, we found out why.  A crushed, dusty little car was lying on the slip-road that ran under the interstate near a rest stop, surrounded by a small circle of police cars and an ambulance.  On the road next to the car was a pale blue sheet covering a body.  Another body was being lifted into one of the ambulances on a stretcher, and a young woman was lying behind the back wheels, a knot of paramedics crouched over her.

A retired couple from Idaho, standing next to their RV, had seen it all.

 “She come off there really fast, I guess,” said the woman.  “It just went end over end.  You can’t imagine the dirt.  The one girl died, and I think there’s two others.”

Her husband came over, evidently badly shaken by what he’d seen.

“She died.  I was tryin’ to keep her alive.  It were horrible.  I seen ‘em flyin’ out the winders.  I din’t know if it were luggage or people or what flyin’ out.”

Even after 3,000 miles walked in their wake, the relatively short distance across the Forty-Mile Desert had given us a renewed respect for the toughness of the early westward emigrants.  In 1850, when the California Trail was barely five years old, a survey found no fewer than 953 graves along this stretch of the route.  It was then, as it still is now, a very easy place to die.

Days 194-199/ Sep 16th-21st – Elko, NV to Winnemucca, NV: A scorpion in the slot machine

September 21, 2010

‘Nevada attracts people who have trouble fitting in anywhere else, and… the ones who have trouble fitting in in Nevada go to small towns like Battle Mountain.’ – Lorrie Baumann, editor, Battle Mountain Bugle

The desert outside Winnemucca, Nevada

The Nevada desert just outside Winnemucca

Long before you ever see the small towns of northern Nevada, you can tell where they are from the single white letters, a hundred feet high, painted onto the beige mountains that rear up above them.  As we walked across the desert collecting a full Scrabble rack of them – ‘E’ for Elko, ‘C’ for Carlin, ‘BM’ for Battle Mountain, ‘W’ for Winnemucca – it occurred to us that as well as expressing civic pride, the letters perform the useful function of helping visitors tell the towns apart.

Inez's brothel in Elko

Dancing and diddling at Inez's brothel

Most of them share a hard, utilitarian architecture, with all the charm of a remote Arctic research station (there are entire towns with, as far as we could tell, no stairs).  They share a similar history, too, getting their start with the construction of the Central Pacific railroad across Nevada in 1868, and relying since then on a combination of mining, ranching, casinos and brothels for survival.

And most of them seemed to be having a pretty good recession.  Elko, in particular, was a cheerful, bustling place, thronged on the evening we arrived with visitors to a hotrod convention and drunken revellers, all sporting glowing wristbands, leaving a music festival in the main square.  Tucked into a curl of the Ruby Mountains, it’s about as handsome as towns in northern Nevada get, and, halfway between Salt Lake City and Reno, it’s a popular interstate stop for truckers and long-distance drivers.

Pipeline workers at the Star in Elko, Nevada

Miners and pipeliners at The Star in Elko

But Elko’s current affluence isn’t down to truck-stops or music festivals.  Just west of town is one of the world’s largest gold-mining regions, the Carlin Trend, which to date has produced a scarcely comprehensible 2,000 tons of gold.  And as a map in the excellent Northeast Nevada Museum made clear, more or less every metal in the periodic table was mined in the hills surrounding Elko.  If you should ever go down to the shed and discover that you’ve run out of molybdenum, this is the place to come.

“The average wage for a mine job is $62,000,” explained Ted, a burly photographer on the local paper.  “Having them here really jacks the prices up.  But it’s hellish dangerous, especially down in the pit.  These young kids who go into mining usually only stick it for half a year.”

Nevada desert near Carlin, Nevada

The sagebrush and the mountains near Carlin

We met Ted during an interview about our walk with the Elko Daily Free Press, which led to another with a local radio station, KWNA in Winnemucca (‘Richard Ambrose and Sally Gould are joinin’ us; they’re walkin’ across America – and they’re almost there!’).  Together, they gave us a small measure of northern Nevadan notoriety.  Near Carlin, Mike, a contractor in Carhartt dungarees, pulled over in his pick-up to wish us well.

“I saw you guys in Salt Lake!  Like a week ago.  Then I passed you in Wells.  I saw you in the paper.  And here you are now!  I can’t believe it.”

And on the interstate twenty miles outside Battle Mountain, Rebecca, a young lawyer for a mining company in Elko, pulled over and ran along the shoulder to catch up with us.

“I know you’re gonna be walking through Reno,” she panted, “so I wanted to give you some restaurant recommendations.”

I-80 near Battle Mountain, Nevada

Unfortunately, this is a very typical stretch of Nevada interstate

We weren’t expecting much from Battle Mountain, and it didn’t disappoint.  Almost a decade ago, the town achieved national infamy when the Washington Post declared it ‘The Armpit of America’, and while we had no quarrel with its essential conclusion, we took a perverse pride in noting that we’d walked through at least two places – Wells and Wamsutter – that were much worse.  The town came into view from fifteen miles away, a hazy line of dark trees and pale water-towers, and we walked towards it along a desert service road for most of an irksomely hot day.  A billboard for the El Aguila Real Mexican restaurant promised ‘The Best Seafood in Town’, which seemed a flimsy boast given that we were at least 500 miles from the nearest body of water.

Battle Mountain was an unprepossessing place, a grid of prefab bungalows and trailers on the edge of a thousand square miles of brushy scrub, but, like Elko, it had dodged the economic angel of death that had passed over Nevada thanks to a gold-mining boom.  The motels were full, and so too, presumably, was Donna’s Ranch, a licensed brothel (‘Branches in Wells and Battle Mountain’) across the tracks at the edge of town.  The noticeboard outside the Owl Club Casino was crowded with eye-catching ads for local businesses: ‘Troy’s Tractor Service – Can Do Any Job You Need Done: Brush, Hog-Mowing of Sagebrush, Greasewood’ and ‘Horseshoer, 26 Years Experience – Now Accepting New Clients’.

“Are you guys the London walkers?” asked a Paiute woman, shyly, while we were perusing the board.  “I was stationed at Lakenheath for two years.”

The Humboldt River in Carlin Canyon, Nevada

The Humboldt River in Carlin Canyon

Everyone we spoke to in northern Nevada was unanimous about why they loved living there.

“The wide open spaces,” said Ross, a faraway look in his eyes.  “I can drive my truck eight hours north on a little two-rut road and not see anyone else.”

He wasn’t kidding.  We walked for days between towns on desert roads and tracks empty save for panicked, sprinting jack-rabbits and the occasional dry carcass of a dead coyote.  The stretch of I-80 through Eureka County carried signs announcing ‘Patrolled by Aircraft’, suggesting that the police on the ground had recognised the futility of patrolling somewhere so utterly remote.  There were no people in sight, but from time to time we could hear the pop and clack of gunfire echoing across the sagebrush and knew that there must be hunters nearby.

The isolation sometimes got to the local citizenry: during the 1870s in Palisade, a long-abandoned railroad town, the inhabitants used to perpetrate an elaborate hoax, apparently out of sheer boredom, staging city-wide gun-fights and bank robberies whenever a train arrived to persuade new arrivals that they had arrived in a town in a state of anarchy.

Nevada passports notice in Battle Mountain

Although probably not to illegal immigrants

A mock battle would have been a welcome distraction during the ten lonely, windy miles along a gravel track into Valmy, a village of trailers off the interstate.  A mile before we reached it, a fading sign in a field enumerated its charms: ‘Deli – Grill – Cafe – Bar – Ice – ATM – Groceries – Cold Beer – Laundromat – US Post Office – Slots – Fax’.  In the petrol station, the young girl behind the counter was emptying a slot machine of quarters when she jumped back in sudden alarm.

“Holy shit!” she exclaimed.

“What is it?” I asked.  “A mouse?”

“No,” she said.  “A scorpion.”  And she pointed to a tiny, yellowish, translucent creature, before sending it down the sink with a well-aimed blast from the washer hose.  “Darn ’em.  They’re always tryin’ ta find a cool place to rest.”

Elko Daily Free Press front cover

World-famous in Elko

Days 187-193/ Sep 9th-15th – Wendover, UT to Elko, NV: A tale of two cities

September 15, 2010

‘It would be difficult to conceive of a more remote and cheerless state than Nevada.’ – Bill Bryson, The Lost Continent

The Ruby Mountains near Elko, Nevada

Nevada. Magnificent. Who knew?

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.  In Wendover, Utah, it was mostly the worst of times.  A single street of cheap, empty motels and faded pastel trailers, it resembled a hundred other struggling small towns we’d seen in the West.  But Wendover lay directly on the border with Nevada, and though the state line was marked by nothing more than a flaking white stripe of paint across the road, it was impossible to miss the moment we stepped into West Wendover, its sister city.  All of eighteen inches into Nevada, the biscuit-coloured towers of the Wendover Nugget and the sleek neon ziggurat of the Montego Bay Casino rose over the twin towns, announcing that we’d left behind the world of Mormon moderation and entered a state of sin.

Inside the Montego Bay Casino in West Wendover, Nevada

The subtly understated interior of the Montego Bay Casino

On the morning we arrived, KENV News in Elko reported that 1 in 7 Nevadans were without a job – the worst unemployment rate in the country.  But that statistic conceals a sharp divide in the state.  The small towns in the north are enjoying a mining boom (almost 10% of the world’s gold comes from Nevada), while the gambling metropolises of Vegas and Reno further south are re-adjusting to an America that can no longer afford to drop a thousand dollars on hedonistic weekends on the Strip.

The Utah-Nevada border in Wendover

Stepping into a different world in Wendover

It’s scant consolation to its modern residents that Nevada was once a byword for wealth, a territory whose silver financed the Union side in the Civil War, and which was fast-tracked to statehood in 1864 by a Republican Party keen to use its votes to re-elect Lincoln.  After the Depression and the decline of the mining industry, Nevada hit on an ingenious strategy to revive its flagging fortunes, systematically introducing laws to permit behaviour forbidden in California – gambling, easy divorce, 24-hour drinking, prostitution – with the aim of luring a new wave of emigrants, this time from the west.

Or tourists, from the north.  Fleets of charter coaches were disgorging pasty Idaho pensioners into the Nugget and the Montego Bay in West Wendover, where oxygen cylinders jostled for space with mobility scooters under the neon-lit mirrored ceilings inside.  It may not have been everyone’s idea of the best of times, but it was good enough that Wendover, the poor relation across the border in Utah, had voted in 2002 to separate from its own state and merge with its brother in Nevada.  The proposal was eventually vetoed by Nevada senators, worried that Wendover might build its own casinos to compete with the ones already here.

West Wendover, Nevada

Bidding farewell to West Wendover

The stretch of I-80 west of the Wendovers was as pleasant as interstate walking can be.  There was a wide shoulder, traffic so scant that often a full minute elapsed between cars, and sweeping views across the bushy bowls of sagebrush over which the road rose and fell.  We entered the Pacific Time Zone just below Pilot Peak, Nevada’s answer to Mount Fuji, Mount Kilimanjaro and Mount Doom, a 10,000-foot snow-dusted cone with trailing wisps of cloud tugging at its summit.  It had been a key landmark for the Donner Party as they crossed the desert on their ill-fated journey west in 1846, and so it was for us, dominating our views north for two full days of walking.

Pilot Peak in Nevada from I-80

Few cars + great views = pleasant interstate walking

Although we’d already crossed Nebraska and Wyoming, the scale of Nevada was still capable of taking us by surprise.  For the next four days, we walked across Elko County, a patch of arid scrub larger than Switzerland.  At an interstate exit at the top of the pass over the Pequop Mountains, a faintly threatening sign declared ‘Next Rest Area: 114 Miles’.  Mercifully, it was grand country to walk in.  The interstate twisted down through narrow canyons before climbing again to the next pass, and as we approached the town of Elko, it ran alongside the snowy peaks of the Ruby Mountains.  In the mornings, we inhaled lungfuls of cold sagebrush-scented air, which reminded us that autumn was on the way. 

Ghost town near Oasis, Nevada
A ghost town near Oasis, Nevada

The grandeur ended abruptly at Wells.  Bill Bryson had described it in his tour of small-town America as ‘the sorriest, seediest, most raggedy-assed town I’ve ever seen’.  He wasn’t wrong (though he had clearly never been to Wamsutter, Wyoming).  It was the most obviously dying town we had seen on the whole of our walk, an over-sized truck-stop spread across a vast patch of brushy waste ground spotted with decrepit liquor stores, diners and motels.

McDonald's sign by the Ruby Mountains, Nevada

Burgers, gas and gambling. Who cares about the view?

Sixth Street was lined with independent motels – the Shellcrest, the Sage, the Crossroads, El Rancho – whose perky signs proclaimed the optimism of the Fifties and Sixties.  But today it was hard to tell which ones were closed and which were still in business.  A turf war between the neighbouring Sharon and Lone Star Motels – both offering rooms for $33.99 a night – had netted precisely four customers between them.  At the Big Pillar Motel, half of the roof had collapsed, and sagebrush, which surrounded Wells like a patient army, had already begun to invade the yard.

Storefront and trailers in Wells, Nevada

An unusual business model in a shop in Wells, Nevada

If there was any town that really didn’t need to be hit by a severe earthquake, Wells was it, but it had been, only two years ago.  It had done for the El Rancho, whose roof was covered by a mournful black plastic sheet, and for the Ranch House Casino, where half of the enormous plastic orange letters from the sign above its entrance lay shattered on the concrete of its forecourt.

But even without the quake, the decline of Wells was apparent wherever we looked.  There was hardly a building that appeared to have been constructed after the Seventies, and roughly every other house in town had been boarded up and abandoned.  The nicest part of Wells was its cemetery, a pleasant sward of lush lawn well away from the squalor of the town, overlooked by the snowy ridges of the Rubies.  It was, perhaps, the only place in America where death would take you to the top of the property ladder.

Days 182-186/ Sep 4th-8th – Salt Lake City, UT to Wendover, UT: Salted away

September 8, 2010


‘Coming to the point of the ridge…  I saw an expanse of water extending far to the north and east.  The Salt Lake, a joyful sight, was spread before us…  It was indeed a most cheering view…’ – Jedediah Smith, June 27th 1827

Tooele Valley, Utah

A freezing dawn start in the Tooele Valley

 You know the economy’s bad when even the quicklime factory thirty miles out in the desert isn’t hiring.  Outside the Lhoist North America plant, a maze of white vats and pipes standing among lightly steaming pools of brine, a red sign announced ‘Not Hiring: Apply Thru Utah’s Employment Center’, suggesting that the factory was fed up with job-seekers driving out across the salt plains to submit their resumés in person.

Only in the deserts west of Salt Lake City, though, would this count as an enticing job prospect.  The companies that locate themselves here seem to be engaged in a kind of bleak one-upmanship to see who can operate the grimmest and most dangerous business.  Some of them hide behind blandly upbeat names: during our four days’ walk to the Nevada border, the traffic along the I-80 service road was dominated by the white trucks of Energy Solutions, a nuclear waste processing plant, and Clean Harbors (‘the largest hazardous waste disposal company in North America’).  Others were more straightforwardly identifiable: the Morton Salt Factory was surrounded by blinding white icebergs of its product, as was the rather dashing-sounding Intrepid Potash.  And we grew used to seeing the bleary-eyed workers of US Magnesium, visible only as a smoking chimney on the horizon, zipping by us in the mornings at the end of their night shifts.

View from Tooele mountains, Utah

Sally scouts out the next phase of desert walking

None of them could hold a candle, though, to the Deseret Chemical Depot, tucked away at the far end of the Tooele Valley west of Salt Lake City.  Since the Second World War, half of America’s stockpile of chemical and biological weapons – including crowd-pleasers like VX, sarin and mustard gas – has been stored here.  Since the 1990s, it’s also housed a special facility where those weapons inconveniently outlawed by international treaties are being gradually destroyed.  No wonder they’re queueing up to make quicklime.

The desert began abruptly a few hours’ walk west from Salt Lake City, under interstates and over the Jordan River, which provides water for more than a million people, but which here was a sluggish stream that we could have jumped across with enough of a run-up.  Ahead of us were the pink Oquirrh Mountains, little known outside Utah or the mining industry, but the site of some of the richest deposits of precious metals on the planet.  The Bingham Canyon Mine, just over the hill, has been worked for almost 150 years, and has produced a higher value of gold and silver than all of the mines of the California Gold Rush, Comstock Lode and Klondike Gold Rush combined.

Skull Valley Road and salt flats in Utah

Refuelling on Skull Valley Road after a long afternoon on the salt flats

All traffic heading west into the desert has to pass through a tiny gap between these mountains and the southern shore of the Great Salt LakeRio Tinto, which owns the Bingham Mine, has helpfully fenced off all the roads that pass through this gap except I-80, forcing us for a few miles to break Utah state law and walk along the interstate shoulder until a service road presented itself.  We’ve experienced this privatisation of the commons repeatedly in the West, walking along remote roads and tracks that have been public for decades, only to find them petering out at fences bristling with the aggressive No Trespassing signs of ranches and mining companies.  No one seems to notice, or mind. 

Wal-Mart distribution centre in Salt Lake City, Utah

The most powerful force in the universe

The Great Salt Lake was utterly barren.  There were no settlements on its shores, no beach-huts, refineries or desalinisation plants, only arid, brown encircling hills that seemed, on the far side of the lake, by a trick of its haze and moisture, to be floating on a cushion of sky.  The lake is only, on average, 13 feet deep, so we were surprised to see, beyond the salty sandbars, the tiny white sails of yachts scattered across it, launched from a tiny marina that offered the only sign of human life on the lakeside.  (They must not need life-jackets, we reflected; it would be impossible to drown in the lake, even if you fell in.)

Huge as it is – some thirty miles by fifty – the Great Salt Lake is only a remnant of the prehistoric Lake Bonneville, which covered most of western Utah until 17,000 years ago.  For the next three days we walked across the parched plain that it had left behind, crunching over the cracked soil of the ancient lake-bed and breaking through the hard, salty mud as though walking across the surface of a gigantic crème brûlée.  To escape the worst of the desert sun, we began earlier and earlier, setting out in the bitter darkness before sunrise and walking in the cold shade until, at around half-past seven, sunlight suddenly spilled over the steep surrounding hilltops and into the valley, warming the air and conjuring our shadows into life on the road ahead of us.  

Shadows on salt flats in Utah

Early-morning shadows on the dry lake-bed

 The towns were few, and far between.  In Grantsville, to our astonishment, there were tractors cutting hay, sprinklers watering lawns and goats grazing behind chain-link fences between the houses.  But every building in town was closed for Sunday, and there was nowhere to get even a cold drink or a sandwich.  The only sustenance on offer was a sign outside a house reading ‘Miff’s Magic Worms – $1.50 a Dozen’, but things were not yet that bad, and we made do with what we had in our packs. 

Sally sunbathing on the Bonneville Salt Flats

Catching some rays (and some ZZs) on the Bonneville Salt Flats

From at least fifty miles away, we could see the pale blue wash of mountains that lay behind Wendover, a small town on the Nevada border that assumed mythic significance for us over these four days of walking.  To reach it, we had to cross the most perfect desert either of us had ever seen, the Bonneville Salt Flats, a white void thirty miles wide.  From a small rise, we could see the two carriageways of the interstate, like twin airport runways, stretching away over it to the horizon.  Running for so many miles directly alongside the great artery of I-80, the Flats had become a canvas on which the passing traffic of America could express itself, and the salt was speckled with dark stones or upended beer bottles spelling out names, greetings and declarations of love.  Some wild wag had even planted an occasional sapling in it.

Graffiti on the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah

Ty loves Lis - at least until the next heavy rainstorm

 We followed a cracked and forgotten service road – a causeway over the salt sea – between the interstate and long brine canals.  With no buildings or nearby hills for reference, we walked for hours with no sense of movement or progress; only a line of telegraph poles offered conclusive evidence that we weren’t walking on the spot.  Several times we abandoned the road for the surface of the salt itself, which was sometimes like damp icing, sometimes as smooth and translucent as porcelain, and at other times crusted into strange rings and plates.  Stretches of it were the pale grey of volcanic sand; other parts a dazzling, pristine white that made our eyes bloodshot and sore.

Brine canal on Bonneville Salt Flats, Utah

The ethereal beauty of a brine canal

It was the ultimate thoroughfare – you just pointed yourself at a point on the horizon and walked towards it – and we had a powerful urge to break into a run and to career across its infinite surface at speed.  We weren’t alone in this – the first car was driven on the Flats as early as 1907, and a few years later the first land speed record was set here.  This was the first place where cars were driven at 300, 400 and 600mph.  We progressed across the salt – and into Wendover – at a more sedate three miles per hour.

Walking on Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah

Sally keeps a sharp eye out for traffic on the Flats

Days 175-181/ Aug 28th-Sep 3rd – Salt Lake City, UT: Mormons Inc.

September 3, 2010

‘…there before us lay the valley we had come so far to see.  Some were moved to tears for thankfulness, others were so disappointed with the looks of the place, all sagebrush, dry, treeless plain.  I felt… as blue as blue could be, but we went on and down the little mountain and across… to the city.’ – Jonathan Ellis Layne, in Salt Lake City, September 1852

Salt Lake Bees at Spring Mobile Ballpark

The Salt Lake Bees at bat at Spring Mobile Ballpark

After an arduous three-month journey from Iowa to Utah in the summer of 1847, across land still barely visited, let alone settled, by Europeans, Brigham Young and the first company of Mormon pioneers arrived at the site of modern-day Salt Lake City on July 24th.  An advance party had already planted crops in the narrow, fertile valley between the High Plains to the east and the scorching desert to the west, and within a few days the city’s street plan had been laid out and a site selected for the Mormons’ new Temple, which they hoped would be the hub of their new state of Deseret.  By the time winter came, more than 1,600 people had arrived in the nascent city, which had already become, as it still is today, the largest place for more than 500 miles in every direction.

We arrived in Salt Lake City after thirteen hours of walking over the Wasatch Range, and so knew something of the relief of the Mormon pioneers, whose precise route we had followed from Iowa.  As we walked to our hotel through groups of catcalling Friday night revellers, we were thrown by Brigham Young’s street plan, which prescribed seven blocks to a mile rather than the more usual ten, and put down to exhaustion the fact that it seemed to be taking us so long to get across town.  The streets are wide, as well as widely-spaced – Young declared that wagons should be able to turn around ‘without resorting to profanity’ – giving them a curiously South American or Muscovite feel, as though designed to accommodate large parades of military matériel.

Street view in Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City streets: Just begging for a convoy of missiles and tanks

At the centre of the grid, the point from which all streets are numbered, the Ground Zero of Salt Lake City, Utah and the Mormon religion itself, is the Temple, a bright, white, neo-Gothic wedding cake standing out from the mirrored high-rises downtown.  It’s off-limits to non-Mormons, so we had to be content with a look around the Visitors’ Center, a domed building in which a smiling receptionist sat at a vast round desk surrounded by a substantial acreage of beige carpeting and some strikingly bad art.  It had the distinct feel of a corporate headquarters, albeit one with a rotunda containing a twelve-foot white statue of Christ standing, arms outstretched, beneath a fantastical turquoise starscape.

Salt Lake Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah

The Temple: HQ of a very American religion

On the far wall was a moodily-lit photograph of a smiling, distinguished-looking, elderly man, reminiscent of those founders’ portraits that you sometimes see in chain hotels.  Above the picture, raised lettering spelled out ‘The Living Prophet’.  This was Thomas Monson, the current President of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (you could spend a long time in Utah without hearing the word ‘Mormon’; the acronym ‘LDS’ seems to be preferred, much as ‘African-American’ sometimes is to ‘black’).

In many ways, he resembles nothing so much as a corporate CEO, presiding over the First Presidency, a governing body that meets annually – the board of directors, the AGM – in a sacrosanct chamber within the Temple, whose long oval table and oils of past Presidents around the walls recall precisely a company boardroom.  Annual increases in worldwide Church membership are tabulated and proudly published in pamphlets at the Center, like growing revenues in an annual report.  Where Monson differs from most company presidents, perhaps, is in the periodic revelations that he receives from God about how to run the Church – though cynics might say that there are more than a few CEOs who see themselves as having a direct and privileged link to the divine.

Statue of Christ at Salt Lake Temple visitor centre

The chairman of the board of the LDS Church

Like any successful corporation, the Mormons have changed their strategy – or rather, their doctrine – in significant ways during their short existence.  In its early days, the Church was militarised and belligerent; now, it passionately espouses pacifism.  Once infamous for their polygamy, the Mormons formally renounced the practice well over a century ago (even their first prophet, Joseph Smith, publicly repudiated it, though his thirty wives somewhat undermined the integrity of this message).  And despite a theology that for many years associated black people with ‘Cain’s seed’ and even with Satan, a new divine revelation received by the then President in the 1970s prompted the opening up of the priesthood to them at last.  Even God has to move with the times.

This corporate structure is hardly a surprise in this most American of religions.  At the heart of the Book of Mormon is the story of how a lost tribe of Israel navigated to North America in roughly the age of the ancient Greeks, and how, after his death and resurrection, Christ visited and preached to them there.  The nationalistic appeal is obvious – the land of the free becomes also the Holy Land – and so it’s surprising how successful Mormonism has been overseas; in fact, roughly half of its 13 million adherents live outside the United States.  Their visits and emigrations to Zion have made Salt Lake City among the most multicultural of American cities, the first place where we heard foreign languages – and the first place for a thousand miles where we saw black faces – in the street.

Adam and Eve statues in Salt Lake Temple

Adam and Eve in the Salt Lake Temple, during one of their frequent Eden toga parties

And yet, according to America’s census-takers and psephologists, Utah is at once both the youngest and the most conservative state in the Union.  There’s something powerfully depressing about that combination, and it’s made manifest in the parks and squares of Salt Lake City, where 24-year-old couples in chinos and dress shirts promenade in the evenings, each with several children in tow, apparently having progressed from high school to a nine-to-five nuclear family with nothing in between.

Much of the population dresses as though a Banana Republic warehouse has recently exploded over the city, but there’s also a sort of civically mandated non-conformity in operation.  Look at almost any group of young Utahns in their khakis and sensible shoes, and there’s always one of their number with bright pink hair, facial tattoos and a bone through his ear.  It’s as though a small cohort of brave volunteers has agreed to shoulder the burden of maintaining an acceptable quotient of quirkiness in the city’s population.

Panties licence plate in Utah

Utah: A bastion of Mormon rectitude

We took a long break in Salt Lake City, marvelling at almost-forgotten luxuries like lifts, asparagus and bookshops, and admiring the spectacular mountains that hem it in on three sides.  They appear without warning in almost every view, and contribute to occasional ‘inversions’ that foul  the city’s air and send its wealthier residents scurrying to their houses in the hills.  But on most days, the city sparkles under the hard, clean desert sunlight, a handsome and liveable place, for all its religious quirks.  There was no getting around the fact, though, that it was eight hundred miles from San Francisco, and so after a week of idle leisure that would have horrified the Mormon pioneers, we set out from Deseret and into the desert.

Days 172-174/ Aug 25th-27th – Coalville, UT to Salt Lake City, UT: Seeing the elephant

August 27, 2010

‘I think that I may without vanity affirm that I have ‘seen the elephant’’ – Louisa Clapp, letter from California, 1849 

Early emigrants struggling to convey the tribulations of their overland journey settled on the phrase ‘seeing the elephant’ as a shorthand for the horrors they had suffered on their way west.  To state that you had ‘seen the elephant’ was to say that you had experienced the very worst of the deserts, mountains, heat and disease that awaited travellers along the route to California.  ‘We began to get a glimpse of the posterior parts of the elephant,’ wrote Samuel Plummer as he crossed the grave-strewn Forty-Mile Desert in Nevada in 1850, ‘from this, he came rapidly in sight and we got view of him, tail and trunk.’  We’d heard the phrase several times at museums and monuments along our route, and it had struck us as little more than an interesting historical curio – until the day we came into Salt Lake City.

Fence of skis near Coalville, Utah

Garden fencing, Utah-style

Walking through the million-dollar chalets of Park City with small platoons of young mothers in lycra jogging past us behind their prams, it’s hard to believe that it was almost abandoned in the 1950s.  It had been a mining town for almost a century by then, but the Depression and a collapse in the value of silver prompted a bold reinvention as an upscale ski resort.  As early as the 1920s, silver-miners had been using their underground tunnels and trains to reach the upper slopes of the Wasatch Mountains to go skiing, and in 1963 they opened Park City’s first ski resort, Treasure Mountain, on land that they collectively owned.  The state government pitched in with a lavish marketing campaign (‘The Greatest Snow on Earth’) and the town boomed; Park City hosted the Winter Olympics in 2002, and now gets well over half a million visitors a year.

Ski jump above Park City, Utah

The Olympic ski-jump above Park City

The boom is still going on: we walked through suburban developments so new that the yards of the triple-garaged, 4,000-square-foot houses were still only roughly levelled patches of nettly scrub, their property lines marked by low banks of pinkish rubble.  Outside one house, an enormous orange moving van with Virginia plates pulled up as we passed by and began unloading mattresses and boxes of toys.  There were expensive SUVs, jeeps and pick-ups in the driveways, but nothing so outré as an actual car.  We were – of course – the only people on foot, and had a series of near misses with passing drivers evidently unaccustomed to the sight of human bipeds on their quiet streets.  We thought back to our last thousand miles across Nebraska and Wyoming, and decided that we vastly preferred the slack-jawed stares of ranch-hands in their battered trucks to the supercilious smirks of brittle suburban hausfraus, with the steering-wheel of their black Escalades in one hand and a skinny soy latte in the other.

Golf course near I-80 in Park City, Utah

Drivers - and putters - by I-80 in Park City

Park City ended abruptly at a final new development, Parley’s Lane (‘Welcome! You Are Just Seconds from the Lifestyle You Have Always Dreamed Of’), where we tutted at the trailing preposition and stepped onto a rutted dirt road leading into the hills.  It was immediately and astonishingly steep, and we climbed towards a radio tower high on the ridge above us, bent double under our packs, sweat trickling down our backs.  At the top, a faint path led west along the ridge into a dense birch forest.  We’d taken perhaps five steps into it when I felt a soft skein of web brush against my legs and then a hard, sharp stab of pain in my thigh.  I reacted with my customary sang froid.

“Fuuucccckk!” I screamed.  “I’ve been bitten by a fucking spider!”  I jumped backwards, nearly knocking Sally over, then sat down by the side of the path to inspect my leg.  A numb, plum-sized lump was already rising on my thigh.

The path wound on along the ridgeline through dense, prickly bush, barely wide enough for a person to pass through, dipping sharply into valleys and climbing steeply up the other side, and, worst of all, always running north when we desperately wanted to go west.  It dawned on us gradually over the next few hours that we’d gone very badly astray.  Several times we came out into clearings with spectacular views across the Wasatch Range, from which even the pale sprawl of Salt Lake City was visible in the far distance through gaps in the mountains.  But even after ten miles of walking, none of it came any closer.  Then, for the first time in a week, it began to rain.

Hiking track and I-80 in the Wasatch Mountains

The road not taken: The grassy track middle right would have saved us nine miles (and a spider bite)

Two lean, craggy mountain-bikers appeared over a ridge, and we practically fell on them in our relief to see other humans.

“How do we get to Salt Lake City from here?” we asked, feeling faintly foolish.

“Well,” said one, “just follow the Great Western Trail ’til you hit 65, then just follow that over to Emigration Canyon.”

“Great,” I said.  “Where’s the Great Western Trail?”  They looked perplexed.

“You’re on it.”

It was not our finest navigational hour.  The Trail runs for more than 4,000 miles between Canada and Mexico, and by the time we came out again onto the paved highway, we felt like we’d walked most of them.  We consoled ourselves that getting lost in these hills wasn’t entirely without precedent; the Donner Party took an astonishing three weeks to cover their final 36 miles through these canyons into the Salt Lake Valley, at one point resorting in desperation to driving their oxen straight up the sides of hills.  We’d planned to cover 27 miles today, but as we sheltered from the rain at a pit toilet by the trailhead, we calculated with horror that we’d added nine miles to that figure with our inadvertent detour.  Fit as we were, we’d never had to walk 36 miles in a day before, let alone on mountain tracks.  And we didn’t even have any oxen.

Wasatch Mountains near Salt Lake City

Lost, but with great views west over the Wasatch Mountains

Highway 65 was a crazily hairpinning road along the valley floor, where we could often see, a hundred yards below us, a stretch of road that was still a mile away on foot.  Signs by the roadside invited us into the forest to walk the original route of the Mormon Trail; although it ran much more directly west towards the city, we’d had more than enough woodland hiking for one day, and stuck to the road. High above us, we caught sight of the precise track we ought to have taken this morning, our error laid out on the hillside for our casual scrutiny during several more hours of walking.

Highway 65 in the Wasatch Mountains

Back on the road - but still 21 miles to go

By the time we descended into Emigration Canyon, the route Brigham Young and the Mormon pioneers had taken to reach the Salt Lake Valley in 1847, we still had 15 miles to walk.  A burst of grim mathematics told us that if we trudged on without pause, we could just reach the edge of the city before nightfall.  There were more cyclists and joggers along this single stretch of road than we had seen in the whole of the rest of America combined, so at least we had ample companionship in our physical suffering.

California Trail and Mormon Trail markers in Wasatch Mountains

Oh, now they tell us where the trail is

We walked the last mile out of the canyon and into the outskirts of Salt Lake City in soft evening sunlight.  The road widened into a city highway, and ahead we saw the monument that marked the spot where Brigham Young had turned to his party of pioneers and announced “This is the place.”  Across the road was the Hogle Zoo, and through the fence we could just make out in the gathering dusk the hindquarters of a huge, grey creature, shuffling across its enclosure to plunge its long trunk into its trough for a drink.  We looked at each other in astonishment, but there was no doubt that we had definitely seen it.

This is the Place monument in Salt Lake City

The 'This is the Place' monument at the edge of Salt Lake City

Day 171/ Aug 24th – Wahsatch, UT to Coalville, UT: Forgive us our trespasses

August 24, 2010

The most immediate practical effect of our passage from Wyoming into Utah was that we could no longer walk on the interstate.  A faultlessly polite operator for the Utah Highway Patrol recited to us with apparent relish the several and specific laws that had only recently been promulgated to curtail such unthinkable pedestrian liberties.  You may be forgiven for thinking that this is a good thing – walking close to speeding vehicles carries an element of danger – but Utah doesn’t exactly overwhelm the long-distance walker with alternative routes, and we were often compelled to take dusty ranch tracks to cover in twenty miles a distance that on I-80 we could have knocked off in ten.

Shadows on the path in the Wasatch Range, Utah

Dawn shadows on the path in eastern Utah

But being forced out into the wild wasn’t all bad.  As we set out into the pale grass and sagebrush hills, our breath visible on the air for the first time in months, the roar of the interstate in the valley below us slowly fading, we disturbed small families of antelope, which sprang away to a safe distance or crunched across the track only thirty yards ahead of us.  We swung ourselves over and wriggled under a series of barbed-wire fences that sliced the mountainside up into pastures, understanding for the first time the sentiment behind the song ‘Don’t Fence Me In’.  There cannot be a single one of the million-odd square miles of the American West that isn’t neatly enclosed behind spiky strings of metal.

Hiking in Heiner Canyon, Utah

Just another anonymous Utah canyon

After three hours of this dusty progress, we became convinced that we were lost – no trivial concern in a region where we could have carried on north over these hills into Idaho for several hundred miles without seeing so much as an outhouse – but our path decanted us, as we had hoped it would, into Heiner Canyon.  Anywhere else but Utah, this would be a remarkable natural landmark; here, it’s just one of dozens of spectacular clefts that score the Wasatch Mountains, a tunnel of pale, tall grass hemmed in by vast sandstone slabs, pockmarked by erosion and stained with ore, which rose easily two hundred yards above the canyon floor.  Locusts reared up off the path at us as we walked, their wingbeats magnified by the surrounding cliffs so that they sounded like garden sprinklers.  Resting in the shade of a cottonwood tree, we watched a coyote trot past down the valley, moving with the purposeful gait you see in stray dogs walking through a bad part of town.  After five hours of walking, we saw our first people – a young mum on a quad-bike, tearing along the track, her two toddlers clinging to her in panicked glee.

Coyote in Utah

The Day of the, er, Coyote

Even more than the remote kookiness of Alaska or the self-mythologising belligerence of Texas, Utah is a state apart.  It was settled, of course, by the Mormons, in a disquieting echo of America’s own foundation myth of a people driven by intolerance to travel to a remote new land where they could practice their religion freely.

When the first Mormons arrived it was still, technically, Mexico, the land not being ceded to the United States until the end of the Mexican-American War in 1848.  The following year, Brigham Young applied for statehood for Deseret, as the Mormons called it, a massive area comprising modern Utah, Nevada and Arizona as well as chunks of Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and California.  Congress, not minded to grant a fifth of the nation to a group of polygamous religious crackpots with a track record of seditious violence, turned down the request with, one imagines, something approaching a snicker.  The Mormons had to be content with the much smaller Utah Territory, which, as relations with the federal government continued to fester, was chopped up to create other territories and states until, after the Mormons formally renounced polygamy, Utah itself became one of the last states to join the Union, in 1896.

Heiner Canyon in the Wasatch Mountains of Utah

A rare patch of green at the entrance to Echo Canyon

In a patch of sagebrush at the end of Heiner Canyon a board announced ‘Warning!  No Trespassing!  Violators Will Be Prosecuted!  Private Property from This Point to the Wyoming Border’.  The land of the free is plastered from coast to coast with signs like this, pinned to fences, tree-trunks and gateposts, and had we not decided a couple of thousand miles ago to start ignoring them  – very politely, you understand – we’d have had no hope of walking across America.  In this case, it was twenty miles too late for us to take notice of the notice, so we turned instead into Echo Canyon.

The cliffs of Echo Canyon, Utah

The cliffs of Echo Canyon (echo not guaranteed)

There can hardly be a more historic strip of land in America.  The Canyon was traversed by the Donner Party, the Mormon pioneers, the Pony Express, the transcontinental telegraph, Union Pacific railroad, Lincoln Highway and now I-80.  The roar of the interstate drowned out what one of the early pioneers, William Clayton, had described as a ‘very singular echo in this ravine’, and no matter how loudly we shouted at the pink sandstone bluffs, no echo came back to us. 

We followed an old rail-trail around the edge of Echo Reservoir, filled with speedboats, wake-boarders and fishermen out enjoying the afternoon sun.  Coalville, at the reservoir’s southern tip, was a small town of modest bungalows with chickens in the yard, a cheerfully faded and scruffy resort coming to the end of the season.  It was the seat of Summit County, something of an anomaly in Utah, a liberal, atheist enclave – one of only two counties in the state to vote against banning same-sex marriage – in one of the reddest and most religious states in the country.  Not that it was a hub of metropolitan sophistication; the local Summit County News noted that three sheep had been found up Weber Canyon and invited their owners to come forward and claim them, and in its food section published a recipe for ‘cheeseburger soup’.  We came into town past the State Liquor Agency, part of a system used to control the sale of spirits in Utah, and the Polar King Diner, where a sign in the window offered ‘Envios de Dinero Aqui’.

Echo Reservoir near Coalville in Utah

A hard day's fishing at Echo Reservoir

The pioneers heading west in the 1840s had been faced with a simple choice between Oregon and California, and so it was for us now.  At the head of Echo Canyon, the interstate forked, with I-80 heading to San Francisco and I-84 turning north-west towards Portland – the California and Oregon Trails of the 21st century.  We paused, checked the map one last time, and chose California.

Cliffs in Heiner Canyon in Utah

Utah: Magnificent views, lousy skiing so far

Days 167-170/ Aug 20th-23rd– Lyman, WY to Wahsatch, UT: Thank you for purchasing my steer

August 23, 2010

‘Made sixteen miles, encamped at Fort Bridger.  This is a pretty place to see in such a barren country… a thousand acres of level land covered with grass, interspersed with beautiful stony brooks, with plenty of timber…’ – Diary of Elizabeth Dixon Smith, August 9th 1847

Wind-turbines in southern Wyoming

Southern Wyoming: Rich in oil, gas... and wind

If we were walking across America during the early 19th century rather than the early 21st, we could have done a lot worse than hire Jim Bridger as a guide.  One of the great explorers, scouts and mountain-men of the American West, by the age of 26 in 1830 he had discovered South Pass in Wyoming (the key to the overland route across the Rockies), become one of the first Europeans to see Yellowstone, and discovered the Great Salt Lake (which he believed for many years, erroneously, to be part of the Pacific Ocean).  Bridger was a leading light of the western fur trade, and acted as a guide for the early surveyors of the transcontinental railroad as well as for the US army on their campaigns against restless Indians and truculent Mormons alike.  On top of all this, he found the time to marry women from the Flathead, Ute and Shoshone tribes, all of whom he managed to outlive.

Barbed wire exhibit at Fort Bridger State Historic Site

No museum in the West is complete without a barbed wire exhibit

Today, Jim Bridger is commemorated in the names of mountain ranges, forests, passes and towns across the West, not least at Fort Bridger in the Bridger Valley, a belt of lush meadows scattered with hay bales, black cows and piebald horses.  After hundreds of miles across the brushy scrub of the High Plains, it felt like we’d arrived in heaven.  Lyman, at the east end of the valley, was clearly within the orbit of Utah.  Just across the road from TJ’s ice-cream parlour, where we had breakfast, was the smart brick Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, resembling a smart doctor’s office, and the Bridger Valley Pioneer was filled with small pieces about local Mormon boys leaving on their evangelical missions.  Elder Brandon Bud Taylor (who looked barely old enough to shave) was about to begin a mission in Seoul, and we wondered at the idea of these children, whose life experience amounted to little more than helping with the hay harvest and playing high-school football, being parachuted into one of the world’s most sophisticated metropolises with instructions to save its inhabitants’ souls.

Lyman Eagles practice in Lyman, Wyoming

The Lyman Eagles are put through their paces

We’d seen the school team, the Lyman Eagles, in the middle of their first football practice of the summer as we’d walked into town yesterday evening.  According to the Pioneer, they had won only two of their nine games last season, possibly, we felt, because they were coached by a screaming man standing on top of a stepladder in the middle of the field.  This wasn’t the only summer activity for the youth of Bridger Valley: we had arrived just too late to catch the Uinta County Junior Livestock Sale, but the paper was filled with appreciative small ads from local children who had sold their first cows there – ‘Thank you to Ernie and Mary-Lynn Georgis at Boot Hill Feed for purchasing my steer – McKell Hadlock’.

There were only 150 people in Fort Bridger, a short walk west down the valley, but they supported between them two churches, a large trailer park and the Jim Bridger Club bar and liquor store.  Jim Bridger had founded a fur-trading outpost here in 1842, just in time to catch the collapse of the industry, but the town flourished instead as a brilliantly placed staging-post on the Oregon, California, Mormon and Overland Trails.  ‘I have established a small fort, with blacksmith shop and a supply of iron in the road of the emigrants,’ he wrote to potential investors.  ‘By the time they get here they are in need of all kinds of supplies.’

Old store at Fort Bridger State Historic Site

Stocking up on walking provisions at the Fort Bridger State Historic Site

Wilford Woodruff, a member of the first group of Mormon pioneers bound for Utah, grumbled that ‘the articles at Bridger’s fort were at least one-third or one-half higher than at any other post in America that I ever saw.’  It was the start of a fractious relationship with the Mormons, who tried to have Bridger arrested for selling alcohol and guns to the Indians  and later purchased the fort from him, only to burn it down in 1857 to stop it falling into the hands of an advancing federal army.  An early pioneer described Fort Bridger in 1845 as ‘a shabby concern… built of poles and dogwood mud’, but its site today is a pleasant place, with more of the feel of a peaceful public park than a rugged frontier fort.

Sally by sign to Evanston, Wyoming

Dawn: and the grim task ahead of us is spelled out

After following it all the way from its starting-point in western Missouri, outside Fort Bridger we bid farewell to the Oregon Trail, which turned north-west here towards, well, Oregon.  Whatever other privations they suffered, at least the early emigrants who took it avoided the day that greeted us next; a series of six-mile climbs over the ‘Three Sisters’, a range of steep olive hills that separated us from Evanston, accompanied by howling winds and the scream of truck engines on the interstate beside us.

I-80 running over the Three Sisters near Evanston, Wyoming

Tackling the first of the Three Sisters outside Evanston

We took refuge in a service station, where we met Mike, a burly forty-something trucker on a run to Oregon with his two-year-old daughter.  He had only been driving for three months, but had already reached the same conclusion as we had after our 2,000 miles across America.

“These truckers, I tell you, they could shut the country down like that.”

We asked him how he was enjoying the life.

“It’s fun.  America’s big.  I’m used to gettin’ across it in two days with my team-mate.  But it’s rough.  I prefer solo driving, ‘cos I can get some good sleep at night.”

Mike’s team-mate today was his little girl, who was pressing her face longingly against the glass of a stuffed-toy machine.

“She’s sposed to ride behind the safety net in the back.  But I put her on my lap out in the country and let her drive.”  We made a mental note to walk further away from the shoulder in future.

Like almost everywhere in southern Wyoming, Evanston had been a railway and a mining town; unlike almost everywhere in southern Wyoming, it was quietly charming.  The wide, sunny pavements of Main Street were lined with planters ablaze with pink and red geraniums, and there was a quiet little square with several places – The Scoop ice-cream parlour, the Main Street Artisans Cafe, Kate’s (‘A Place for Libations and Conversations’) – that looked like fine spots to while away an hour with a newspaper.  We ate dinner at a Mexican restaurant with cactus chandeliers, and marvelled at the first pedestrian crossings we’d seen for several hundred miles.

Main Street in Evanston, Wyoming

Main Street in Evanston, Wyoming

At the cluster of motels on the edge of Evanston, only the Dunmar Inn stood out, with its baffling promise of ‘World-Famous Pillows’.  By the interstate, a huge billboard advertised an indoor shooting-range, with a catchy name – Get Some Guns – and an arrestingly simple marketing slogan: ‘Shoot Machine Guns’.  The last house in Wyoming was a mock Tudor mansion, complete with a stone-clad medieval turret that rose above the sagebrush.

Just over the Utah state line we were picked up by Brian, a goateed young Puerto Rican who had moved to Wyoming only a few months ago.  We asked him what he thought of Evanston.

“Boring.  I just sometimes don’t know what to do there.  I wanna go out with my wife, and go to places, but there’s nothing to do here.  I just bust my ass workin’.  I pick up people from bars.  That’s the business right there, man.  I got people throwin’ up, I got people fightin’ inside the car.  It’s crazy, you know?  It’s crazy.  Wyoming is very crazy.”

Utah-Wyoming state line

Entering Utah... already equipped with 'ski-poles'

Days 163-166/ Aug 16th-19th – Rock Springs, WY to Lyman, WY: Mine, all mine

August 19, 2010

“I am now writing in a country, dreary and desolate and from appearance, waterless at a great distance, but whilst I write a number of mosquitoes are singing around…” – William Quesenbury, journalist, in Sweetwater County, WY, July 2nd 1850

Mountain bluffs in Wyoming

Wyoming: Bluffs, buttes, mesas and sagebrush. And sagebrush.

When it was announced in 1994 that the newly-discovered Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 would collide with Jupiter, there was little excitement outside the astronomical community.  One small town in south-western Wyoming, however, felt compelled to act.  The Green River city council passed a resolution ‘allowing any citizens of Jupiter to take sanctuary in their town’ and encouraging residents to ‘prepare themselves to make welcome any refugees who might cast themselves upon our mercy’.  (Who says America has turned its back on immigrants?  At least, those from Jupiter rather than from Mexico.)  Green River changed the name of its dusty little hilltop airstrip to the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport, and so it now appears on maps, in atlases and on interstate signs, hinting at a town of charm and quirk.

Wild Horse Canyon and Flaming Gorge Road in Wyoming

They don't mess about with place-names in Wyoming

The reality of Green River was a little more prosaic: it’s a small mining town, lying between two low mountain ridges and split down the middle by a railway line that separates Main Street from the leafier suburbs.  Postcards of the town tend to ignore all of this, though, and instead depict the Twin Tunnels at the edge of town, where I-80 vanishes abruptly into two holes in a cliff-face.  But after days in the grim oil, meth and sagebrush corridor of central Wyoming, we had no objection to the lack of excitement.  It was a delight simply to be back in a town where homes were constructed from neither corrugated metal nor plastic, and where smart little houses sat on neat lawns instead of endless ranks of trailers in scrubby yards.  Green River also had public buildings that were neither diners nor Wal-Marts: there was a sleek, modernist county library, a fine little museum in a thriving historical district and a cosy second-hand bookstore selling ‘Experienced Books & Espresso’.

“Green River thinks they’re better than us,” our taxi-driver Christine had complained to us a few days ago in Rock Springs.  “They call us oil-field trash.”

Pioneer monument in Green River, Wyoming

Another day, another pioneer trail

We had left Rock Springs on a bone-dry morning, with air that cracked our lips and snapped with so much static that we could barely pick up a spoon at breakfast without getting an electric shock.  We walked out of town through a depressing stretch of industrial yards and trailer parks, and came to Green River along the old Lincoln Highway, here little more than a stony track through chalky hills, running alongside I-80 and the Union Pacific railroad.

Sally sitting above I-80 in Wyoming

Resting on the cliffs above I-80 outside Rock Springs

The town is named, of course, after the Green River, which flows from the Wind River Range in western Wyoming and into Utah, where it falls into the Colorado River in a spectacular canyon landscape.  Almost every part of its length is magnificent, except, of course, for this stretch across the plains, where we crossed it.  It was the epicentre of the early 19th-century fur-trade, the engine of western American exploration; six of the trading ‘rendez-vous’ that were held between 1825 and 1840 took place on the Green River.

We left Green River through the bar district on Railroad Avenue.  A poster in the window of the Green Gander bar was advertising the River Festival this weekend, which promised a Cajun shrimp-boil and ‘dog-fetching contest’.  But it wasn’t all fun and games: the door of the local police station was plastered with posters displaying the photographs and addresses of local sex offenders, laid out as matter-of-factly as houses in the window of an estate agent.

Sex offender mugshots in Green River, Wyoming

Not the men to bring home to meet your mother

Green River was built on coal-mining and the railroad, but today depends heavily on the mining of trona, a crushingly dull but essential mineral of the kind much beloved by the makers of educational science videos.  To cut a long story short, trona is important in glass-making, and 90% of the world’s supply of it (roughly 100 billion tons, give or take the odd ton) is to be found around Green River, giving the town’s sons steady – if very dangerous and unpleasant – jobs for the foreseeable future.  The next morning at James Town, a dusty straggle of sheds and trailers spread out along a curve in the river, we passed minibuses slowly filling up with trona miners, who stared at us groggily through the windows while they waited to be driven off to start their shifts.

Dawn over Green River in Wyoming

Dawn over Green River

We were ready for some creature comforts, and we found them at Little America, one of the oddest places we’ve stayed on our walk.  It’s as though someone took a large truck-stop – in this case, one slapped down on the high plains of western Wyoming, thirty miles from anywhere in every direction – and said to themselves, ‘You know, this would make a wonderful family resort.’  For tired cross-country drivers, it must be a pleasant surprise – rooms more reminiscent of English country B&Bs than an American motel, neat lawns and playgrounds for the children.  For two long-distance walkers who have just hauled themselves across two days of parched sagebrush scrub, it was heaven.

It’s a commonplace observation that many US states are the size of entire countries, but in Wyoming, we were discovering, even their counties could be too.  Sweetwater County, which we were leaving at last, was a monstrous patch of brushy desert roughly the size of Belgium, studded with gas tanks and the tiny white stems of distant wind-turbines.  We walked out of it in pelting rain, sheltering occasionally under interstate bridges, from which we peered out across the bleak plains to a lone chimney stack on the horizon, flaming like the eye of Sauron under a canopy of glowering cloud.  If Purgatory exists, Wyomingers are going to feel right at home there.

Plains in western Wyoming

Welcome to Sweetwater County

Days 159-162/ Aug 12th-15th – Red Desert, WY to Rock Springs, WY: Another fine meth

August 15, 2010

 “They tell people that we’re runnin’ outta oil.  It’s a lie.  They just found another well, offa the Gulf coast of Texas, that will heat the entire United States – I mean cars, houses, everything – for the next 160 years.  And that’s just one well.  Period.  End of discussion.”

We hadn’t even realised that we were having a discussion.  After another 25-mile day across the sagebrush plains of central Wyoming, we were driving into Rock Springs with Christine, a former oil-field worker, whose decade of employment with Halliburton had left her a confused but vocal advocate of the virtues of fossil fuels.  She sustained an uninterrupted monologue on the topic for the full half-hour of the drive into town.

Oil terminal in central Wyoming

Oil and sagebrush, symbols of central Wyoming

“If you go down 191 towards Vernal, Utah, there’s actually a natural formation in the land that holds oil, and that will hold somewhere in the neighbourhood of three million years’ [sic] worth of oil.  There’s a few things that people really don’t know.  Honestly – and this is no joke – cows produce more methane and do more damage to the ozone than the oil-fields ever could even attempt.  We spent ten million dollars to figure that out.  They lie so much to people about fossil fuels, it’s not even funny.”

Empty I-80 in central Wyoming

The interstate stays largely empty for an hour or two after dawn

Christine had worked as a safety officer in the oil-fields, and despite being a card-carrying believer in the infallibility of the industry, favoured us with a fund of fantastical anecdotes about accidents she had been involved in.

“I been life-flighted off a rig twice, I’ve had my fingers crushed,” she said, holding out an utterly unblemished hand for us to inspect.  “Last year, I got life-flighted off a rig, they thought I had a massive head-injury, but I didn’t.  I was in a medically-induced coma for six days.  Then I went back to work, like, 24 hours later.”

That would explain a lot, we thought to ourselves – perhaps the injury had damaged the part of Christine’s brain that distinguished fact from fiction.

“I’ve been on location when a guy got his arm ripped off, and I kept him from bleeding to death.  Watched a 19-year-old lose his head – literally.  Leaned over the drilling hole, the pipe slipped.  Took us three days to fish his head out.”

There was a snort from the back seat, and I turned around to see Sally shaking with silent mirth, struggling to suppress the urge to laugh.  I shot her a warning look, but Christine was in full flow, and utterly oblivious.

SO2 gas – you take one whiff of it, you’re dead.  In a second.  I’ve seen my friends die, I’ve come onto a rig, told my crew to back off, put on my full-face respirator, everybody on the rig was dead.  SO2 gas – by the time the alarm goes off, you’re dead.”

Union Pacific train outside Rock Springs, Wyoming

The 2:15 from Omaha comes winding through the bluffs

As she dropped us off at our motel, we asked Christine what Rock Springs was like.

“It’s an oil-field town,” she said.  “And there’s mining.  It’s a boom-town.”

To be fair, it wasn’t much of a boom-town.  Rock Springs sits on a shallow plain, overlooked by the pale massif of White Mountain to the west, and split by steep ridges into three or four distinct districts, each cut off from and largely invisible to the others.  The mansions of oil and mining executives are scattered along the clifftops, but their double-height panoramic windows look down onto a charmless town of dingy trailers, Sixties motels, petrol stations and bars seedy even by Wyoming’s high standards.  Although it was barely seven in the evening, the streets were almost empty save for a few battered pick-ups, cruising the town in steady circles, each carrying two or three wolfish teenage boys who gave us slow, predatory stares as they passed.

Crushed police car in Rock Springs, Wyoming

Rock Springs: A tough place to be a cop

Rock Springs has always had a bad reputation.  Coal-mining began here as early as the 1860s, even before the railroad arrived.  The original white miners were steadily replaced by cheaper Chinese labourers, fomenting anti-immigrant feeling that eventually erupted on September 2nd 1885, when its Chinatown was burned down and 28 Chinese inhabitants massacred.  No one was ever convicted of the murders, and it remains one of the worst race-riots in America’s history.

Nearly a century later, Rock Springs achieved infamy again, in a Sixty Minutes expose in 1970 called ‘Sin City’, which detailed corruption in its police force and local government.  Eight years later, the town’s police chief, Ed Cantrell, eloquently confirmed the essential accuracy of this portrayal by shooting dead one of his own undercover officers, who was about to blow the whistle on corruption in the force.

Religious truck in Wyoming

... insured by AIG

We were driven back out to our finishing-point the next morning by Kayla, a pretty, hard-faced girl, who had the great advantage in our eyes of not being Christine.

“I think this is the second most meth-filled town per capita in the United States.  There’s a lot of rude people, there’s a lottuv conniving people, a lotta thieves,” she said.

Candidly confessional, Kayla told us about her childhood, drifting with her mother between twenty-odd towns in a dozen different states.  She had recently bought her own trailer in Rock Springs, using compensation money she had received after her brother had been killed by a drunk driver.

“My mom got fifty grand, but she went crazy after my brother died.  She just went on a meth binge.  Within four months we were broke.  She got busted for the fifth time, and she finally quit.  But every time she comes to this town, it’s so toxic, she messes up, she drinks.  She can’t come to this town sober.”

Far from being a boom-town, Kayla told us, Rock Springs was going through a period of bust.

“We had a big oil-field boom, but it went away about two years ago.  Now it’s a ghost town.  Oil-field people, they were making thirty, thirty-five an hour, they had a lottuv money to blow, and a lottuv it went on meth.”

Kayla was still only nineteen, but very clear about her priorities.

“My number one goal is just to get outta here.  ‘Cos it just makes me feel depressed.”

Telegraph pole by railroad in Wyoming

Old-fashioned glass resistors on a railroad telegraph pole


Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.