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Desert can make you feel like a kid

20 Mar

The following originally appeared in the March 19, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

John Orgill leaps over a bonfire in Skull Valley in 1993, while on a four-day adventure with columnist Clint Thomsen. The Horseshoe Knolls Recreation Area in Skull Valley is a place where anyone can feel like a kid again. - photography / Chan Blake

John Orgill leaps over a bonfire in Skull Valley in 1993, while on a four-day adventure with columnist Clint Thomsen. The Horseshoe Knolls Recreation Area in Skull Valley is a place where anyone can feel like a kid again. - photography / Chan Blake

by Clint Thomsen

Dog it, Andy!” Dayland screamed, as Andy aimed his Dodge Ram toward another gaping dip in the dirt road. “Dog it!” Andy smiled, locked his hubs, and hit the gas.

Wild-haired and volatile, Dayland looked like a teenage Christopher Walken with the voice and demeanor of that know-it-all kid in “The Polar Express” movie. Nobody’s sure why he called the retrospectively unwise act of rushing dips “dogging.” Come to think of it, I’m not exactly sure how he ended up camping with us in the first place.

No matter. Dayland was just another amusing element in what may have been the seminal exploit of our lives to that point — a four-day west desert safari.

I recalled that trip from 16 years ago as I drove west toward Skull Valley last weekend with my 3-year-old son Coulter. He sat in his car seat eating Swedish Fish and staring inquisitively at the salt swamps and sunken fence posts along I-80. I wondered what thoughts were churning in his head as he nodded off at the Dugway exit.

At 9.5 miles south of the exit, the Horseshoe Knolls Recreation Area isn’t a pretty place by most standards. It’s a barren, hilly area overlaid by a network of well-trod dirt roads and heavily used camp sites. Every father, scoutmaster, and shotgun enthusiast knows about the knolls. Growing up, I must have camped there eight times a year.

But as highly trafficked as the central area is, comparatively few people take time to explore the ridges and castle-like buttes that lie to the east. It was at the base of one of these unnamed ridges that our rag-tag group made camp 16 years ago.

There were 13 of us, give or take. Some of us were buds already. Others, like Dayland, were acquaintances or friends of friends who happened to show up. This wasn’t our first foray into the great western wilderness, but for many of us it was our first extended camping trip sans an adult presence.

That meant four full days of wandering aimlessly through the hills and lounging beside a round-the-clock campfire.

My supplies were scant. I brought a sleeping bag, a machete, a pack of Little Smokies, and a few cans of beef stew. There may have been a tent or two in camp, but most of us laid our sleeping bags out on ground tarps.

Our days involved heroic feats and various rites of passage, each day playing out like a chapter of a Homeric poem. We caught snakes. We swam in Horseshoe Springs. We drove to Wendover for a buffet dinner because, as we reasoned, “It’s so close — aren’t we about halfway there already?” For the record, Wendover is exactly 87.6 miles from our campsite — nearly twice the distance back to our homes in West Valley (a slight miscalculation on our part).

The BLM prefers to call the playa west of Lone Rock “the mud flats.” True, you can’t set land speed records on them, and you won’t cauterize your eye sockets if you look at them without sunglasses. But if you’ve ever played tackle football there, you can’t help but notice the thick salt surface. We scrimmaged one afternoon until we were sufficiently battered. Then we cruised the flats in dune buggies.

The bonfire was the centerpiece of evening activity. Chan and Tyler would log the day’s activities in their journals. John would repeatedly leap over the fire. The rest of us would follow suit. As the evenings wore on, we’d talk about girls we liked and lay out game plans for wooing them.

I remember lying under the stars listening to a U2 cassette on my Walkman. I’d nod off happily after the first song, the lyrics of which captured the spirit of our adventure perfectly:

“I want to run — I want to hide. I want to tear down the walls that hold me inside. I want to reach out and touch the flame, where the streets have no name.”

I happened to have some U2 on my iPod Saturday, which I cranked up as we turned onto the dirt road at Horseshoe Knolls. I worried about mud and clearance, but the roads were surprisingly solid. I drove out toward the ridge and parked before the road got rough. This was the family van, after all, not Andy’s Ram. We’d have to hike the rest of the way.

Coulter woke up when I lifted him out of his seat. “Daddy, what this place is?” he asked, ambling around to get his bearings. The still, warm air smelled of juniper and dirt. The temperature was spring-like — perfect weather for a hike. I helped Coulter up the steep path that led toward my old stomping grounds. “Son, this is where your daddy became a man.”

The campsite looked much the same as it did the last time we were there. It seemed in better shape than in recent years, when it was overrun and littered with glass bottles and shotgun shells. There was our fire ring, the tree John would hang his hammock from, the trail leading to the top of the ridge.

We hiked past odd rock formations and faux caves to the top, where we stopped. Had we more daylight, we could have continued along the ridge and back down toward the mouths of North and South Broons canyons.

Coulter stopped and selected two sizable boulders and handed them to me. “Daddy, you hold these giant rocks.” Like his older brothers, Coulter saves rocks from each trip to remember them by.

By the time our van was back in view, I was carrying the boulders and Coulter along with them. It’s been 16 years since the camp that sealed friendships and fostered a deep love for this desert. I have four children now. I no longer leap through fires or catch snakes, and I tend to over-pack for camping trips. Yet I still feel like a kid when I’m in the desert. Some things never change.

 

2 responses to “Desert can make you feel like a kid

  1. Blessed

    March 20, 2009 at 6:24 pm

    This is a good story about a great memory. It seems like we all have moments like that to look back on – memories we will always cherish.

     
  2. Kristine Shreve

    March 20, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Isn’t it funny how being in a certain place can bring back memories and they’re as clear as if the event happened yesterday? Sounds like you had a good group of friends and you had some good times.

     

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