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Category Archives: Wendover

It’s fall, so bring on the desert!

Temperatures here in Utah have been nice so far, but they’ll be dropping soon.  Summer’s officially over, and with snow soon to fall in the higher elevations (could happen as soon as Wednesday), my outdoors focus shifts from the mountains to the deserts.

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Floating Island-- photograph's don't do the mirage justice. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

I took this picture on Saturday.  It’s a mountain appropriately called Floating Island, and it’s one of the coolest optical illusions I’ve ever seen.  Floating Island is part of the Silver Island Range.  While driving either direction on I-80 near mile marker 20, the range appears to part like Moses’ Red Sea, with Floating Island drifting eastward until it seems to hover a good distance from the rest of the solid range.

The “floating” effect is created by a combination of empty distance and flat land nearly perfectly aligned with the curvature of the planet. From the vantage point of highway, Floating Island’s base is behind the curve and thus is not visible.

I visited this island once a couple years ago and wrote about it here.

The desert is a strange, wonderful place.  Here’s to a new season of exploring it!

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2009 in Outdoor Adventure, Wendover, West Desert

 

Weekly Run-Down: Sara Watkins, Frantic Peace, and new life for the Enola Gay Hangar

Enjoy bluegrass newgrass music? Check out Sara Watkins.
If you’ve read my music-related posts here, you can probably tell that my musical tastes run the gamut. My shameless worship of U2 aside, I mostly try to steer clear of megastars and big names. I don’t know whether country radio stations are playing Sara Watkins, but if they are I might consider tuning back in.

Country fans may be familiar with a youthful trio by the name of Nickel Creek, who stole the scene in 2000 with stunning acoustics and a fresh take on bluegrass and folk. The band, who preferred the “progressive acoustic” label to “bluegrass”, has been on indefinite hiatus since 2007.

My favorite member of the trio, fiddler and vocalist Sara Watkins, released a self-titled debut album earlier this month. The 14 song set is a delightful journey into the multifaceted world of newgrass. My favorite track is “Long Hot Summer Day”, which proves definitively that when it comes to vocals, delicate does not equal weak. The John Hartford Cover showcases the range and nuance of Watkins’ voice between bluesy, increasingly layered instrumental hooks. If you only buy one track from this album, make it this one.

Other favorites are “Any Old Time” and the instrumental “Freiderick.” If you’ve a hankering for southern roots-laced progressive acoustic—or if you’re simply looking for some fresh new tunes to help you start the summer right—check out my girl Sara Watkins.

For you Mom’s out there: Frantic Peace
My wife and I often joke that our home is a three ring circus. As a rapt witness of the phenomenon that is motherhood, I enjoyed a recent post on one of my daily reads, A Blessed Crazy Life.  “Frantic Peace – In free verse.” provides a breathless look at the utterly frazzled, yet ultimately fulfilling life of a young mother.   Which reminds me, Mothers Day is right around the corner…

‘Endangered’ designation may breathe new life into WWII relic.
I’ve written quite a bit about Wendover, a sleepy casino community on the Utah/Nevada border. It’s main draw for me is the partially intact airfield that was the operational headquarters for “Project Silverplate”, the nuclear mission that ended World War II. Recently I wrote about the deteriorating hangar that housed the B-29 Superfortress bombers that trained for and carried out that mission.

On Tuesday, the “Enola Gay Hangar” was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 2009 list of the nation’s most endangered historic places, making it much more likely to recieve funding needed for stabilization and restoration. Excellent.

 
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Posted by on April 30, 2009 in Music, Weekly Run-Down, Wendover

 

Desert can make you feel like a kid

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.

 

From Tyler’s journal: Echoes from an Odyssey

This post and its title will make a lot more sense when you read tonight’s Tooele Transcript article, which I’ll post here tomorrow.  The following is the text of a journal entry scrawled by flashlight one dark desert night in 1993.  It’s not from my journal, but Tyler Slack’s.  He’s kept a pretty detailed journal as far back as I can remember.  When we’d go camping, he’d ask everybody there to make a short entry after his.  The following is my blurb from that night (spelling and grammatical errors preserved, uber-embarrassing parts removed):

10/1/93, 9:11PM Clint Thomsen
We’re in the car so my handwriting isn’t very great.  Well, it’s been quite the adveturous camp.  We got up here Wednesday night right after Brandy-o- hurt her neck.  We came and sang to Dayland.  We  went to bed on the ground at about 3:00 AM.  We woke up when Lott and Tanner came up.  We went 4 wheelin.  We, at that point, palyed football at the salt flats.  Me and Chan climbed lone rock.  We then proceeded to Horseshoe springs where we swamin the sludge and scum.  Tyler ate a snake.  Kelly talked about guns and such.  Our good buddy Rob Osborne came and we sat by the fire some more.  MOst of us left and ran through the wilderness screaming.  Some idiot in bare feet came after us with a club.  We came to Nevada and almost got our cameras confiscated when we had Juan and Trujillo take our picture with fries up our noses.  Oh, yeah (NEXT PAGE PLEASE) I forgot, we swam in the grime again.  Where was I?  Oh, Wendover!  We walked through the skywalk and then down the street to Nevada Crossing where we stuffed ourselves with food.  MM, good.  We, at that point, came back and now we are in the car.  I am looking forward to another fun-filled night here in the wilderness.  Remember, Anaqu la mona se vista de seda, mona se queda.  Anyway, I love the Buds and I love camping.

Tonight’s article won’t address everything in that odd little essay, so here’s a few points of explanation just for fun:

-Brandy-o was a a high school friend who hurt her neck in a cheerleading accident during a football game the night we left.  She’s feeling much better now.

-Horseshoe Springs is actually a really clean warm spring in Skull Valley, Utah.  But a vomit inducing layer of mossy vegetation almost completely covers its surface at times, hence the “sludge and scum.”

-You’ll have to ask Tyler about eating the snake.  To simply say there’s more to that story would be the understatement of the year.

-The barefoot guy with the club?  Eh, it’s better left unsaid.

-Juan and Trujillo were waiters in the restaurant that night.  The restaurant is inside a casino.  Casinos don’t appreciate cameras (or their employees taking pictures of high school kids with fries up their noses).  Apparently Juan and Trujillo didn’t get that memo.

 

Hangar is gateway to another Epoch

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

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The south wall of the Enola Gay Hangar shows the decaying structure that housed the atomic mission that ended World War II. - photography / Clint Thomsen

by Clint Thomsen

The air inside the old maintenance hangar was musty and still — and much colder than I had expected. The sun shone through gaps in the roof and rows of broken windows, flooding the structure with a sort of inert light. I followed Jim Peterson across a sweeping concrete floor, past a hodgepodge of military and industrial relics, toward the hangar’s east end.

“Over here,” said the soft-spoken airport director, pointing toward the bare timbers of the north annex. “This was the prop shop.”

The old Wendover airbase has fascinated me since my grandpa took me there for an airshow in the ’80s. Since then, I’ve rarely passed through town without detouring through the decaying collection of World War II-era buildings. Finally seeing the interior of the famed “Enola Gay Hangar” was at once exciting and sad. As I gazed up at the rusty trusses, I wondered what this place looked like the better part of a century ago.

Tooele County’s vast open spaces set it apart from its metropolitan neighbor to the east. While Tooele Valley has seen exponential growth in recent years, most of the rest of the county remains blissfully undeveloped and underexplored. And even though time, weather and vandals have marred the region’s historical sites, the county is still a fusion of wilderness and visible history.

When snow chokes mountain trails and renders the canyons impassable, my mind focuses more on the desert floor and its vestiges of the past. Many of my road trips and camping adventures in Tooele County’s wilds have been paired with historical research. Defining this hobby is difficult, since the term that best describes it — “urban exploration” — has been tainted by the very culture that coined it.

Colloquial dictionaries define urban exploration, or “hacking,” as the examination of normally unseen places and other abandonments. But the term has become associated with secretive trespassing.

Many self-described “urbexers” do it less for historic curiosity and more for the thrill of “infiltrating” private property. They consider it a harmless activity, claiming to adhere to a strict destroy-nothing, take-nothing policy. Still, the moniker appropriately carries a negative connotation for property owners and those who explore history legally.

So since they’ve hijacked the term, I’ll take this opportunity to coin one of my own: “epoch hacking” — or the tapping into the essence of a historical era by legally visiting associated sites. That’s an overly technical definition, but fascination with the past and the appeal of visiting abandoned places is quite widespread. It’s why the ghost town articles on my Web site are the most highly trafficked pieces there. It’s also why so many visitors to the annual Wendover Air Show find themselves peering curiously at the row of vintage hangars lining the airfield’s apron.

Just under 100 of the 668 original buildings still stand at the old base — an impressive number given the time elapsed and the fact that many were built for temporary use. The base housed more than 20 bomber groups during World War II. At its apex, 17,000 soldiers and 2,500 civilians called it home. It’s personnel component was reduced to just a few thousand after Col. Paul Tibbets chose Wendover Airfield as the training point for “Project Silverplate,” the atomic mission that would end the war and change the course of history.

During the 509th Composite Group’s stay, the base housed up to 15 B-29 SuperFortresses, which were tweaked and modified for mission training. Construction on “Building 1841” began in late 1944 and was completed in early 1945. The hangar was large enough to park two B-29s inside at once. The two-story “side-buildings” housed various maintenance areas and office space.

In later years, the hangar became known locally as the “Enola Gay Hangar,” after the B-29 bomber commanded by Tibbets on the Hiroshima mission. The famed aircraft now resides at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force took over the base and used it sparsely until 1976. Writer and photographer Richard Menzies visited the base in 1971 while it was maintained by a skeleton crew, whose presence deterred vandalism.

“The various buildings were in excellent shape,” Menzies told me. “Frozen in time since the ’40s. You could still smell the oil and carb cleaner from heavy bombers that had once occupied the hangars.”

The Enola Gay Hangar was next occupied by engineer Robert Golka, who used the space to experiment with ball lightning. Menzies visited Golka on several occasions, later profiling him in his 2005 book “Passing Through: An Existential Journey Across America’s Outback.”

“He filled the place up with esoteric electrical machinery,” Menzies recalled. “Including what he dubbed ‘the world’s largest Tesla coil.’”

The hangar remained largely intact until the base was deeded to the City of Wendover in 1977. It was subsequently abandoned and stripped by looters. I realized what Jim Peterson was showing me was but a ghost of its former self, a fact punctuated by the tattered sheets of white cloth, which shrouded both of the annexes. Still, the profundity of gazing into the offices where Tibbets and crew planned their mission is difficult to describe.

We paused near the dusty fuselage of an old T-33 to look up at the original light fixtures and some leftover wires from Golka’s experiments. Peterson’s lament at the building’s state of disrepair was obvious.

Fortunately, the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation recently secured a $440,000 federal grant to begin an exterior restoration of the legendary hangar. Work on the roof and side walls will begin later this year.

What motivates Peterson’s work to preserve the airfield’s heritage?

“There’s no place like it,” he said. “Where else can you go that has six hangars right on the front line and so many original structures?”

Whatever your view on the atomic mission and its aftermath, the experience of exploring the base is poignant and arresting. “Hacking” this epoch is well worth the drive.

TRIP TIPS
Until restoration is complete, the Enola Gay Hangar will remain off-limits to the public.  Paid tours of the base area by local guides are authorized to give visitors a close look at the hangar’s exterior and several other interesting parts of the base.  A map and guide to  a self-guided driving tour of the base are available at its operations building.  For more information, call 435-665-2308.

Stay tuned for more pics of the old hangar and base this weekend…

 
 
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