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Winter camp on Pony Express trail full of history and adventure for all ages

24 Jan

Simpson Springs Pony Express Station
(photo by Clint Thomsen)

“You warm enough, pal?” I asked Bridger as an earthshine crescent moon sank slowly behind the Thomas Mountains. “Yep,” came the reply from somewhere inside the bundle of blankets sitting on my lap. Our small campfire crackled a few feet away, casting an eerie orange glow on the snow-covered desert floor around it. My brother Tyler sat next to us, stirring a pot of “chilghetti” on his propane stove.
It was ten-something PM and twenty-something Fahrenheit in the high desert. Several hours of side road exploration had taken their toll, and the cold was sapping the day’s remaining energy. Tired and happy, we stared into the flames in contented silence the way campers have for millennia. This was 6 year old Bridger’s first winter camp- and my first since he was born.

Earlier that afternoon, we had driven south to the old Pony Express road. Tyler had never seen the trail and I figured it was time to show him the eastern portion of the Tooele/Juab County stretch. The road was a patchwork of dirt and snow, the snow increasing as we climbed toward Lookout Pass. Porter Rockwell’s brother Horace lived here in a small log cabin with his wife, Libby, and her beloved dogs. The little cemetery just south of the old station site was built by the Rockwells and contains the graves of Libby’s dogs and possibly three emigrants.

We walked to the small stone enclosure to pay our respects to the Rockwell dogs. The cemetery was overgrown with brush and filled with snow. Fresh scattered tracks of some small animal decorated the surface. Back in the jeep, we continued on, rounding the southern tip of Skull Valley to Simpson Springs, where a finely restored station house overlooks the Great Salt Lake Desert to the northeast. Night fell as we walked among the many ruins of the Civilian Conservation Corps camp, and we decided to return and explore this place in the morning.

Before the Pony Express, the dusty road was a stage route. The modern road was built parallel to the original trail, which is marked by 3-foot tall carsonite posts. Decades of stagecoach travel established a well-worn trail, some stretches of which are still markedly visible in Google Earth satellite imagery.

Before William H. Russell and his partners established the Pony Express in 1860, most mail travelled to California by stage via the more southerly Butterfield Route or by ship via the Isthmus of Panama. By using mounted riders to relay mail between “home” and “swing” stations, the partners hoped to speed up circulation and thereby win an exclusive government mail contract.

Existing stage stations were converted and additional stations were built to give relief along the nearly 2000 mile route connecting St. Joseph, Missouri, and Sacramento, California. Riders averaged about 75 miles per day, and a good rider could deliver the mail between the two points in as little as 8 or 9 days. Braving severe whether and ambush by Indians and bandits, these sturdy horsemen rode night and day.

We crossed the famed Old River Bed, driving through sporadic 10-12 inch snow drifts toward the historically hazardous Dugway Pass. We had planned to camp somewhere on the pass, but settled for a flat spot on the valley floor just west of it. We set up our dome tent, lit a small fire, and started dinner.

Tyler opened cans of chili and spaghettios with a hammer and screwdriver, as I had forgotten my Leatherman. “I can’t wait to see what this place looks like in the day.” Though the sky was brilliantly lit with stars, the absence of any man-made light source made the night seem amazingly dark.

After dinner, Bridger climbed onto my lap to watch the fire. It’s difficult to translate into words the deep, intrinsic bond between man and fire. The pop and flicker of dancing flames zeros in on any rightly constructed boy like a hypnotist’s watch, warming the soul and sparking the mind as it mesmerizes.

Having poured through old memoirs and journals in preparation for this trip, I asked Bridger to record for posterity a modern observation of the moment:

“It’s dark all around us and it’s really dark right in front of us- pitch black.  There’s flat snow everywhere around our fire and some little geode pieces. In the sky there are lots of stars some places and not so many in other places, but still more than we have at home.”

If the campfire is the best part of camping, sleeping on the snow in sub-zero temperatures is hands-down the worst. We were as prepared as we could possibly be, but still the icy air pervaded every square inch of the tent. Bridger was toasty warm in my best mummy bag, but my feet remained frozen no matter how many foot warmer packets I stuffed into my socks.

At sunrise, we packed up and headed east to see everything that was hidden by darkness the night before. Tyler’s comments on this stretch of road reminded me of Mark Twain’s thoughts on the same area nearly 150 years ago:

“Imagine a vast, waveless ocean stricken dead and turned to ashes…Imagine the lifeless silence and solitude that belong to such a place; imagine a coach, creeping like a bug through the midst of this shoreless level.”

The road is as dreary now as it was then, but where stage drivers and pony riders saw a menacing path fraught with real dangers, modern adventurers have the luxury of riding the road in the comfort of an SUV. I’ll take the SUV any day, but I still wonder how it would feel traveling this lonely road with just a Bible and a gun atop an express rider’s saddle.

TRIP TIPS

To get to The Pony Express Road, drive 25 miles south from Tooele on SR-36 to the marked turnoff just south of Faust. The National Park Service (wwwnps.gov) provides free maps and information. Check www.blm.gov for camping guidelines and fire restrictions.

Dugway Pass looking eastward (photo by Clint Thomsen)
Stairs to nowhere: remains of the CCC camp at Simpson Springs
(photo by Clint Thomsen)
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