MORE THAN THE DESTINATION
I’m not a huge fan of November. Don’t get me wrong- I appreciate Thanksgiving as much as the next guy, but November is a strange month. No longer warm but not yet real cold, it’s an awkward transition between the Halloween and Christmas seasons. It’s too late to listen to the Beach Boys, yet still too early to break out the Mannheim Steamroller.
So when a sun-drenched November day like last Saturday comes along, I’d be crazy not to drive west and climb a mountain.
Tooele County is the second largest county in Utah. With an area of over 7,000 square miles, it spans at least a dozen mountain ranges, hundreds of canyons, and over 44,000 acres of salt flats. It’s an explorer’s paradise. The Stansbury range alone is 30 miles of creeks, peaks, lakes, and trails- all ripe for adventure.
It was just me and my boys- 6, 4, and 2 years old. After a quick stop in Grantsville for beef jerky and gas, we headed west on I-80 toward beautiful barren Skull Valley. I had heard stories about petroglyphs carved into a slab somewhere above the old Iosepa ghost town site, and while I’ve explored the areas a few miles northward extensively, I’ve never climbed Salt Mountain to look for them.
The approach to the mountain is hilly and peppered with small limestone outcroppings, with several small canyons leading up to its 6,020-foot summit. The terrain is tame until the timberline, where grasses and sparse juniper give way to vast fields of loose rubble and cliffs. Several narrow trails wind upward through the foothills. We parked near the pavilion and took the steepest and straightest route, walking in the footsteps of the Polynesians who settled this place over a century ago.
The desert has always been a refuge for me. As a Boy Scout, I spent the weekends walking dusty trails and swimming beneath the mossy surface of Horseshoe Springs. Even now, I often head west with some high school buds to spin yarns by a campfire and sleep under a bowl of stars. There are few stresses that a little U2 and a short drive west can’t remedy.
“Don’t worry, West,” Bridger assured his little brother as we paced up the first steep hill. “It’s only really steep for a little while at first. I came up here with Kekoa once to look for lizards.” The boy was in his element. A natural born hiker, he enthusiastically assumed the task of keeping the normally trail-shy Weston encouraged. 2 year old Coulter was just happy to be along for the ride, strapped snug against my back in his baby backpack. I figured we’d go until we found the petroglyphs or the boys got tired- whichever happened first.
The going was faster than I expected, even with all the stops to point out “snake holes” and examine fossils. Eventually the trail faded away and we followed three mule deer up a creek bed, all the while discussing the mysteries of life and pondering questions like “Dad, are there driver ants in America?” and “Why did Jesus make cactuses have pokies?” Before we knew it we were two thirds of the way to the summit. We rounded the top of what I thought would be the last big hill before the steeper boulder fields, only to find ourselves at the base of another big hill. I offered to carry Weston if he needed me to. “No thanks, dadda. I can took care of my selp.”
We stopped to let the boys rest and throw rocks while I scrambled through a rubble slope and scaled a rock face to take in the view. Skull Valley looks much like I imagine Tooele valley would look like without the marks of civilization. In the spring, the valley is blanketed in a lush green. By late summer the entire valley is a lurid khaki, interspersed with juniper and the occasional groomed field. This wilderness is harsh, and the journals of many an explorer attests to that fact. Yet something about it lures me in and drives me with an uncontrollable urge to keep hiking further and climbing higher. As I scanned the valley below us, I recalled a quote from Edward Abbey:
“Despite its clarity and simplicity…the desert wears at the same time, paradoxically, a veil of mystery. Motionless and silent it evokes in us an elusive hint of something unknown, unknowable, about to be revealed.”
My epiphany was interrupted by the chirp of the two-way radio and another profound quote- this time from Bridger:
“Dad, you look like you’re made out of Legos.”
I climbed back down and we made our way northward over a canyon, checking every rock face that looked like it could possibly have petroglyphs on it. No luck. Despite the boys’ insistences that they were not yet tired, I decided it was time to make our way back down to the car. We looped south and back toward toward the ghost town. We’d have to find the petroglyphs another day.
Maybe we were on the wrong mountain. Maybe the stories are unfounded. Then again, perhaps the carvings really exist up there, hidden somewhere in the dancing shadows- elusive mirages flickering in and out of human vision in this paradoxical landscape. It would have been nice to find them, but in the end I came away with something more precious than pictures engraved on a rock- an afternoon of wide-eyed delight with my three closest pals. Perhaps that’s what I was looking for all along.