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

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

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