Outdoorsman gets stuck at a bar in Stockton with two kids

14 Nov

Sounds like the intro to a bad joke, doesn’t it?  I wasn’t laughing at the time, but I find it pretty hilarious now.  The following article was published in the Thursday, November 13 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.


Railroad tracks pass through a notch in the Stockton Bar known as "The Cut." The area is a well-known wind tunnel driven by warmer air from Tooele Valley moving into colder Rush Valley (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“Dang the Stockton Bar!” I thought as my minivan’s front tire whipped sand into my face at 60 mph. Or maybe I actually said it. And maybe “dang” wasn’t the exact word I used.

I was angry — angry at the prehistoric sandbar that separates Tooele and Rush Valleys, at the ancient pluvial lake that created it, at the annoying AM radio commercial that must have distracted me, causing me to inch just a little too far onto the road’s sandy shoulder.

I got out of the van to assess the situation. The front end was buried up to the axle in perfect khaki sand — the kind you see in sand dune pictures on motivational posters about overcoming adversity. It was one of those moments every tough outdoorsman tries desperately to avoid: when he realizes he is either lost or stranded. I was quite aware of my location — 40.462688, -112.363642 — only a mile from SR-36. But if I was ever going to get out of there, I was going to need some help.

I turned off the radio, hoping the quiet would inspire some kind of last-ditch MacGyver-esque solution to my predicament — our predicament. I suppose I should mention the babies in the back seat. Three-year-old Coulter sat content in his car seat singing pirate shanties, completely unaware of our dilemma. Ella, his 1-year-old sister and polar opposite, knew something was up. She threw me that crooked, uneasy smile, which I knew from experience meant, “I believe in you, Daddy, but I’m a little concerned.”

I took inventory of our surroundings. To the east and around a long spit was downtown Stockton, a sleepy little town that you could miss if you blinked, but that you wouldn’t miss because you’d be too focused on making sure you’re at or below the posted speed limit as you drive through. South Mountain loomed to the west, and below it the north-south notch called “The Cut.”

Ah yes, The Cut. Dang The Cut!

The Cut is the main reason we had climbed this giant mound of sand and gravel in the first place, and why managers of Peak Construction Materials had granted me one-time access to the area. But let me back up a bit.

While researching the area for a recent article, I became interested in the landmark that early geologist G.K. Gilbert in 1877 dubbed “The Great Bar at Stockton.” Like the wave-cut platforms still visible along our mountain ranges, the bar is a larger-than-life relic of Lake Bonneville. The formation — known in laconic modern times as the “Stockton Bar” — was created as southbound currents deposited sediments in the 1.5-mile-wide strait between South Mountain and the Oquirrhs.

Gilbert was the first to recognize it as a lake-formed sandbar. The Pleistocene pile of unconsolidated conglomerate amazed him enough that he halted the entire expedition to study it. The bar has been a valued as a “geoantiquity” ever since.

What did Gilbert see in his “Great Bar at Stockton?” History, say geologists. The sandbar happens to be the largest and best-preserved of its kind. Its layered sediments provide a near continuous record of current patterns and coastal processes during the last ice age.

What did I see in the Stockton Bar? Something to explore — perhaps a nice way to burn off those extra calories from the Halloween candy I’ve been snitching from the kids — or an opportunity to stand upon a geologic marvel that is in the process of a massive disappearing act.

Piquing my interest was the narrow slot carved through the bar by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1902. Engineers originally planned to tunnel through the bar, but its loose composition made constructing a stable tunnel impossible with the day’s technology. Instead, they sliced straight through it.

The Cut, as it has been known since, created a precise wind tunnel and a unique microclimate in the vicinity. Depending on the season, gusts funneled through The Cut are either a blessing or a curse.

The dirt road we had turned on eventually became a track of packed sand abutted on both sides by sandpits that could swallow a monster truck. I had been cautiously executing a 25-point turnabout when I inched my front tires a little too far off the track. Twenty seconds and a few regrettable accelerations later, my bumper was even with the road.

After cursing the sandbar and reassuring my aware-beyond-her-months daughter, I grabbed the baby backpack and set off on foot. Coulter decided he was tired after roughly 10 yards, so I picked him up and walked a mile into town. The quaint cemetery and old jailhouse along the road almost made me forget that I had beached my minivan and that Coulter had gained some serious weight since the last time I carried him for a mile.

I didn’t need another reason to love small towns, but Cassie Hatch gave me one anyway. She was manning the counter at the town gas station when I walked in, sand-blasted and sweating.

She called her husband, Grant, who arrived with his truck a few minutes later. “We’ll get you out,” he assured me, though I didn’t need assurance. This was Stockton. There are worse places to be stranded.

Back on the sandbar, Grant looped a tow rope around my trailer hitch and tugged me out of the sinkhole as fast as I had dug myself in. The van relatively safe back on packed sand, we said goodbye to Grant and hiked to the edge of The Cut.

After the prior drama, walking onto the railroad bed was sort of anticlimactic. But the view was fantastic and occasional wind gusts whirred eerily past us. I was glad I had seen the bar and The Cut, and that we had escaped the 200 foot deep sandpit. When I strapped the babies back in their car seats, Coulter said he was hungry.

Ella threw me a crooked, relieved smile, which I hoped meant “You’re pretty OK, daddy.”

Clint Thomsen is a Stansbury Park resident who grew up climbing mountains, wandering desert paths and exploring Utah’s wilds. He may be contacted via his Web site at


One response to “Outdoorsman gets stuck at a bar in Stockton with two kids

  1. Kristine Shreve

    November 17, 2008 at 2:47 pm

    Well, I’m glad it all worked out. We don’t have much of the sand problem here, but we do have snow. Same idea when your car gets buried in it, just colder.


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