Archive for the ‘Utah’ Category

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'