Category Archives: American West

A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

A Glimpse into the Past: Investigating Tooele Valley’s Most Visible Pioneer Relic

Ruins of the Grantsville Woolen Factory near Lake Point, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the October 9, 2012 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

If you drive the northern stretch of SR-36 with any regularity, you’ve seen the remains of that old stone building. That’s right, the picturesque, castle-like edifice off the highway’s west side, about a mile north of Stansbury Park. Chances are it catches your eye most every time you pass it. And even if you’re not a history buff, chances are you spend at least a moment of your commute wondering about it.

It’s got to be old, you tell yourself — pioneer era probably. But what was it? Who built it? And why was it abandoned?

Every old building has its story, and the Grantsville Woolen Factory is certainly no exception. Situated near the Benson Grist Mill in the historic heart of Tooele Valley, the 143-year-old building is one of the county’s most significant cultural treasures. But like the structure itself, the factory’s story isn’t completely intact.

The factory was a product of pioneer ingenuity in an era of extreme independence, when Mormon leaders encouraged pioneer communities to become as self-sufficient as possible. In the early 1850s, LDS Church President Brigham Young began counseling towns to build woolen factories. By 1857, several factories had been established in Salt Lake and Utah valleys. The most notable was the Provo factory, which was the largest woolen factory west of the Mississippi River.

Young brought the same counsel to Tooele Valley in 1867 when he encouraged a Grantsville congregation to improve their sheep breeds by building a factory of their own. Construction of the Grantsville Woolen Factory began the next year, financed by several prominent Tooele County citizens. The building was located in old E.T. City along Adobe Rock Creek, a sizable waterway fed by a network of brackish springs.

View southwest from the Grantsville Woolen Factory toward Adobe Rock Creek and Lone Rock Ranch (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Bishop John Rowberry was president of the company, with James Wrathall as factory superintendent and John Forsyth as machinery consultant. Various staff, including Forsyth, settled at the adjacent Lone Rock Ranch across from Adobe Rock.

The one and a half story factory measured 49-by-89 feet. Its walls were constructed of fitted blue limestone boulders cut from the nearby Oquirrh Mountains. Its upper room featured louvered windows and was supported with thick beams hewn from Oquirrh timber. It was accessed via two outside staircases. Twenty-five large windows on the lower story facilitated natural lighting, and machinery would be powered by a dam built across the creek.

The Deseret Evening News reported that the building’s completion was marked on Aug. 20, 1869 by an epic, all-night party featuring talks from local leaders, a substantial supper and dancing. Music of excellent quality and in any desired quantity was provided by bands from Tooele and Grantsville.

The factory was officially dedicated on April 29, 1870 by Elder John Taylor of the LDS Church’s Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. In the highlight of the event, the factory’s 350 spindles were briefly set in motion. The future of the Grantsville Woolen Factory couldn’t have looked brighter.

Grantsville Woolen Factory ruins, view toward northeast (photo by Clint Thomsen)

But according to the 1961 publication of the “History of Tooele County” by the Daughters of the Utah Pioneers, the factory operated only 10 months before closing. That’s also when the details get sketchy.

Some blamed a scarcity of raw materials for the factory’s failure. Some blamed the muskrats that constantly bored through the dam, hindering water wheel operation. Others, including Forsyth, said parts of the structure were built on quicksand. Each of these factors seems plausible. The “History of Tooele County” notes that pioneer sheep flocks were indeed small and their fleece light. Muskrats still menace the waterway today, and the soil along the entire channel is generally loose.

Whatever the reason for the decline in production, it was the quicksand that ultimately proved fatal. It happened, of all times, during a visit by the LDS church’s first presidency and other church leaders in late 1870. According to the book, the dam gave way as the men were feeding their horses, unleashing an “avalanche of water, seething, boiling, foaming and lashing with terrible fury from either bank of the yielding dam, in its rapid passage down the heavy grade.”

The dam was never rebuilt, and the factory’s machinery was transported to the Provo factory in 1872. Little is documented about the history of the factory after it closed. The “History of Tooele County” briefly mentions that the structure was later repurposed as a fishery, a dairy, a factory manufacturing overalls and even apartments.

Eventually the structure was completely abandoned. The roof was removed and used to remodel the historical adobe house still standing at Lone Rock Ranch. The wooden columns gave way and the narrower tops of the walls began to crumble. The Forsyth cabin was moved to the Benson Grist Mill complex in 1986, and E.T. City itself was eventually absorbed into Lake Point.

Adobe house at Lone Rock Ranch, built around 1909 (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The entire area, including the factory, the ranch, and Adobe Rock, is believed to have been acquired by Kennecott Utah Copper in the 1960s, although the exact acquisition date is unknown. Erda resident DeLaun Blake and his wife Wilhelmena said they leased the ranch to Kennecott from approximately that time to the mid-1990s. They were the last occupants of the adobe ranch house. Blake, 91, has fond memories of living next to the factory and is still amazed at the design.

“[The walls] are beautifully straight,” he said. “The amazing thing about it is they didn’t even have a cement foundation. They put mortar on the ground, put rocks in a maze with mortar that wasn’t straight cement. You look at it today and its absolutely straight walls—no bends or bows in them at all. You’ve never seen such great walls in your whole life.”

Blake recalled planting rainbow trout in the springs, lending credence to the creek’s viability as a fishery.

“It seems like they grew an inch per month,” said Blake. “I used to throw the line in the morning, catch about a 12-inch trout and eat it for breakfast. Boy, it was nice.”

Kennecott — now Rio Tinto — continues to lease the land for agricultural purposes. While the company has no specific plans for the factory ruins, Kennecott Asset Manager Jeff Lachowski said the company is mindful of history and is interested in preserving the site. Public access to the ranch and factory site is restricted. However, the restored Forsyth cabin at the Benson Grist Mill is publicly accessible.

Large carp have now taken over Adobe Creek. On a clear afternoon last week, dozens of them cruised the shallows on both sides of the broken dam. The factory’s vacuous rectangle was empty, save for the fallen beams. Wooden frames lined many of the glassless windows. Walking along the thick stone perimeter, one laments the factory’s premature demise.

Would the factory have continued to operate had the dam not broken? Would it be occupied by some other enterprise? Would there be more of it left? No one will ever know, but one thing is certain. The stately skeleton of the Grantsville Woolen Factory remains a solid testament to Tooele County’s pioneer spirit.

Stay tuned next week for a video tour of the ruins.

Photo by Clint Thomsen


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Snow on the beach: Tahoe’s Zephyr Cove

The last few days have found me at Lake Tahoe.  Well, they’ve found me mostly in Carson City, the sort of podunk capitol of Nevada.  But Tahoe is a short drive up the canyon, so I got up there as much as I could.  Of the limited terrain I was able to cover, my favorite place was Zephyr Cove on the lake’s eastern shore, just a couple miles from the California Border.  These pictures don’t do the place justice, but they’ll give you a sample:

The beach at Zephyr Cove. Not pictured are the faux palm frond cabanas covered in snow. Lake Tahoe, America's largest alpine lake, never freezes.

Looking down the pier with the riverboat M.S. Dixie II in the distance

A view from the end of the pier

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Posted by on February 26, 2010 in American West, Trip Reports


More photos from Camp Floyd

Here are some more pics from our recent trip to Camp Floyd and the Stagecoach Inn.  If you missed the write-up on that trip, check it out here.

A view of the commissary from the creaky balcony of the Stagecoach Inn (Clint Thomsen)

CSI: Camp Floyd - This is a shot of two aligning bullet holes in the guest room area of the Stagecoach Inn. A guest in the back room was cleaning his shotgun when it accidentally discharged, sending shot through his wall, across the hall, and through the wall of the front room-- much to the surprise of its guest, who had just laid down to sleep. (Clint Thomsen)

The old Fairfield District School, built in 1898 (Clint Thomsen)

The bell tower (Clint Thomsen)

Boo, West, and Coulter stand in front of the Commissary in this 1860's newsprint photo-- pay no attention to the Hot Wheels hoody or the vehicle headlight at the left edge of the photo. (Clint Thomsen)


Ghosts of the Utah War still roam charming Camp Floyd

The “Utah War” never saw an organized battle.  In fact, Johnston’s Army became an economic salvation for the very people it had intended to suppress.  400 buildings were constructed near the small community of Fairfield, igniting what was perhaps the biggest single boom in Utah history.  Fairfield transformed from quaint farm town to bustling Wild West hub almost overnight.

The old Stagecoach Inn at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Five Mile Pass was unusually quiet last weekend.  The cold afternoon saw only two ATV trailers at staging points along highway.  Snow deposited by recent storms still coated the north faces of hills, setting the natural and man-made contours in sharp relief.   At the southernmost tip of the Oquirrhs, ATV-cut paths looped up and down steep slopes.  Other roads hugged knolls before winding away into canyons.

I spent many a winter’s night camping in these hills as a youth.  Care free and often bored, my friends and I would wander the arbitrary network of dirt roads, just to see what adventure might be waiting for us around the next bend.  We’d stash trinket caches in the nooks and crannies of the higher ridges, then gaze down at Rush Valley below, never realizing the likelihood that at least a few of these trails were  blazed some 150 years before by the exploratory—and often bored—soldiers based at nearby Camp Floyd.

Though the storied base made significant contributions to Tooele County’s mining history and economy, I had never visited before.  Heavy fog had doomed a west desert camping trip last Friday, and Saturday morning presented the perfect opportunity to finally check the place out.

Camp Floyd’s story is filled with irony.  Today, its visible remains are scant.  Only a small cemetery and one original structure, the camp commissary, are left to represent what once was the largest military installation in the United States.

The garrison was established in 1858 by General Albert Sydney Johnston, who had been dispatched to Utah by President James Buchanan to “subdue the rebellious Mormons.”  Johnston’s detachment consisted of 3,500 troops and civilian support staff—nearly one third of the entire U.S. Army.  They spent several months of what would be later called “The Utah War” camped on the shores of Rush Lake before moving near Fairfield to build the post.

Recently unearthed artifacts at Camp Floyd (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Historians suggest that while the U.S. government was genuinely concerned about rumors of an imminent Mormon rebellion, the reasons for sending such a large contingency to Utah were primarily political.  With tensions rising between northern and southern states over the issues of states’ rights and slavery, the newly inaugurated Buchanan hoped that a united effort to restore order to far west Utah would help defuse the conflict back home.  Polygamy, after all, was a practice scorned on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

Secretary of War John B. Floyd, the post’s namesake and a known Southern sympathizer, may have had his own agenda.   The costs of establishing and maintaining such a remote base were significant, and rumor had it that the operation was an attempt by Floyd to drain the Federal treasury.

The “war” itself never saw an organized battle and was resolved through negotiation.  But whatever the motives behind the conflict, Johnston’s Army became an economic salvation for the very people it had intended to suppress.  400 buildings were constructed near the small community of Fairfield.  The new and substantial demand for goods and services ignited what was perhaps the biggest single boom in Utah history.  Fairfield transformed from quaint farm town to bustling Wild West hub almost overnight.  Its population skyrocketed from dozens to 7,000—nearly half the population of Salt Lake City at the time.

Camp Floyd’s troops led a mostly idyllic life.  Soldiers were relegated to transport protection, mapping, and surveying.  Some later took up prospecting in the nearby mountains, establishing the Camp Floyd Mining District and creating the mining camp of Ophir.

In 1861, the army sent in part to divert attention from North-South hostilities was recalled to participate in them.  The camp was abandoned, its buildings dismantled.  Fairfield became a de facto ghost town.  Nearly $4 million worth of supplies were sold to locals for $100,000, and the entire detachment moved east to fight on both sides of the Civil War.  In another ironic, though tangential twist, the first two generals to fight each other at Gettysburg had been comrades at Camp Floyd.

Today, the site is maintained as a State Park by the Utah Department of Natural Resources with the commissary building housing the small museum and an administrative office.  Also protected are the charming Stagecoach Inn and the one-room Fairfield District School.  Both are preserved in excellent condition and merit their own separate articles.

My sons and I arrived at the commissary building early in the afternoon and met park manager Mark Trotter, who was dressed in a Camp Floyd-era uniform for an event at the schoolhouse.  A meager fee gave us unlimited access to all three buildings.  We started with the museum, which features an exhibit of artifacts unearthed by a recent Brigham Young University archaeological dig.  Relics showcased include dishes, silverware, pipes, bottles, and other small items.

The two-story Stagecoach Inn sits across the street from the museum.  Built by the Carson family the same year as Camp Floyd, it was the first Overland Stage service stop south of Salt Lake City.  It was also a Pony Express stop beginning in 1860.  The restored inn is especially impressive considering the decreasing number of intact structures at ghost towns and other historic sites, and the fact that the likes of General Johnston and Porter Rockwell were frequent guests.

See that chair? Look close-- it's also a toilet. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

We stopped to tour the schoolhouse where costumed park staff members were teaching young girls about 19th century life.  “Are those people real?” 6 year old Weston asked, keeping a safe distance from the crowd.  “Cause shouldn’t they be dead by now?  I mean, 150 years…”

The question brought a smile to one staff member’s face, though she didn’t answer it.  She showed the boys to the belfry and allowed them each to ring the bell.  Then it was time to head back toward Five Mile Pass—we had some old dirt roads to wander.


Camp Floyd/Stagecoach Inn State Park is an excellent and accessible winter outing.  It’s located 33 miles southeast of Tooele along SR-73.  A small fee is required for access to the museum and other buildings.  For more information, call 801-768-8932.


The horse gentler:

Erda horseman trains mustangs and prepares living symbols of the West for adoption

The eye of a survivor: a close-up of Reno, a mustang I rode last spring.

The following originally appeared in the November 10, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Cliff Tipton stands beside a fence on the north end of his 5 acre ranch in Erda, taking in a crisp November morning.  Chickens promenade about a tall stack of hay bales.  A calico cat tiptoes toward a row of stalls where a collection of horses silently look on.   The setting couldn’t be more serene.

The 52 year old cowboy isn’t a man of many words—until the conversation finds focus on those horses.  Unshod and intrinsically rugged, these aren’t the average domesticated horse.  That’s why the fences are 7 feet high.  They’re wild horses—mustangs.  And for Tipton, each one represents a labor of love.

Tipton and his wife, Janet, founded the Intermountain Wild Horse and Burro Advisors in 2003.  The non-profit organization promotes the Bureau of Land Management’s wild horse and burro adoption program and works to prepare mustangs for adoption.  Cliff and Janet volunteer about 1,500 hours apiece each year assisting the program.

“It’s their eagerness, their survival instinct,” Tipton said when asked about the mustang’s appeal.  “They’re a clean-slate horse.  There’s no interbreeding.  Once they understand something, they’ve got it.”

The American mustang descends from once-domesticated horses that strayed or escaped from ranches in the late 1800’s.  Those free-roaming feral horses banded together into herds and have roamed the West ever since.  The BLM estimates that 29,500 mustangs roam public rangelands in 10 Western states.

The mustang’s frayed appearance and regal gait are the personification of independence.  In 1971, Congress declared mustangs “Living symbols of the historic and pioneer spirit of the West.”

“Mustangs have a survival instinct,” Tipton explained.  “They’ve had to struggle and fight for their food and water all their life.”

Tipton has always loved horses.  A native of New Mexico, he’s worked with them on ranches all his life.  After living in various parts of the Intermountain West, Tipton finally settled in Tooele County in 1996, when he met and married Janet.  Together they operate Flying T Acres Ranch in eastern Erda.

The vocabulary of the horseman reflects his unique view of his relationship with the horse.  Horses are trained, but they’re not tamed.  They’re “gentled.”   Tipton doesn’t call himself a horse whisperer, per se, though he studies and employs natural horsemanship techniques.  “Horse gentler” is the term he prefers.

“When you train a mustang you’re not domesticating him, you’re becoming his partner.  You’re creating a bond.  I’m not his superior, I’m his friend.  I want my horse to want to be with me, not feel like he’s forced to be with me.”

Tipton gentled his first mustang a decade ago.  He says working with a mustang as opposed to a domesticated horse involves a definite learning curve.

“A mustang’s thought process is totally different,” he said.  “The basics are the same, but you have to break it down a little better for a mustang.  It took me time to learn that.”

Approaching a mustang for the first time is a challenging task.  After all, he’s lived his entire life to that point in survival mode.  He’s keenly aware of his surroundings and is exceptionally cautious.  Acclimation to human presence is the first step in forming the relationship.

Tipton uses a bamboo pole to touch the horse while maintaining a safe distance.  He inches closer as the horse’s natural fears gradually give way to trust.  Working on the horse’s own timetable is paramount; he does everything on his own terms.  Once the distance is closed, Tipton reaches out to give the horse its first human touch.  The partnership begins.

“I get a halter on him, then we start the leading process and it all takes off from there.”

Tipton then works on trailer loading, saddling, and riding.  He still remembers his first ride on that first mustang.

“We didn’t quite know what to expect from each other,” Tipton recalled.  “But there was a definite point when it clicked, and it was just like somebody handed me a million dollar bill.”

That joy wasn’t Tipton’s alone.

“The horse was same way,” Tipton said.  “His eyes were big.  His whole demeanor changed.  He moved lighter—he was happier.”

Thus began a long and fulfilling career of mustang volunteerism.  The BLM sends Tipton about 30 mustangs per year to be gentled.  He and IWHBA’s 85 member volunteer force train each mustang as much as time will allow before they’re adopted out.

“We have adopted out over 130 horses in the last 5 years,” Tipton said.  “We want to instill a partnership with the rider.  It doesn’t make a difference if you’re inexperienced or if you’re the most advanced rider out there—you listen to each other to do what needs to be done.”

Training mustangs to the halter point can take anywhere from a few minutes to two weeks, depending on the horse.  On average, Tipton halters a mustang within 4 days, and he’s proud of his work.  In 2007, he was selected from a pool of 220 horse trainers from across the United States to compete in the Mustang Heritage Foundation’s Extreme Mustang Makeover in Fort Worth, Texas.  The completion allows horsemen to showcase the results of their gentling techniques.

For the completion, Tipton was assigned a 4 year old bay named Hercules from the Warm Springs Herd in Nevada.  Tipton and Hercules were given 100 days to form a partnership and train before performing in Fort Worth.  They placed 17th overall.  Hercules accompanied Tipton back to Erda after the competition and has called the Flying T home ever since.

Last weekend, Tipton served on the organizing board for the Mountain Valley Mustang Makeover in Heber.

“We had an awesome course up in Heber.  We had mountains, trees, running waterfalls, and other obstacles.  It was a very unique trail,” he said.

While he specializes in mustangs, Tipton works with all breeds.  He creates courses similar to the competition courses for his summer training series, which is geared toward helping horses gain the trust of their handlers.

“It’s a passion,” Tipton summed up.  “I love all horses and I love the mustang because they’re just a clean pure slate.  It’s their purity, their heart.”


Ghosts in the desert? Past and paranormal meet in Old River Bed

The Old River Bed haunted?  Not likely.  But what were those strange rumbling sounds that seemed to echo through the prehistoric corridor?  Why were the hairs on my neck suddenly rising?  And who was behind the wheel of that truck that was slowly rolling through the brush toward me?


My daughter, Ella, stands in the middle of the Old River Bed along the Pony Express Trail in 2009 (photo: Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the October 29, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

They said the Old River Bed was haunted.  They said that’s why stagecoach passengers were uneasy about stopping at the station there—especially overnight—and why Riverbed Station could never keep a manager for more than a few months at a time.  They were adamant.

I was skeptical.  Is the place mildly eerie?  Of course.  You’d be hard pressed to find a remote desert spot that isn’t.  But haunted?  No way.  “They” were delusional.  And I had driven 70 miles at dusk on the weekend before Halloween to prove it.  The mind has a tendency, when stifled by darkness, to tap imagination to fill the visual voids.  This must have been the case at the Old River Bed.  Yes, that was it.

Still, I couldn’t help but notice how unnervingly lonesome it was out there in the dark, with no cell phone reception, far from my car, at the bottom of a massive ancient river bed.  Haunted?  Not likely.  But what were those strange rumbling sounds that seemed to echo through the prehistoric corridor?  Why were the hairs on my neck suddenly rising?  And who was behind the wheel of that truck that was slowly rolling through the brush toward me?



The Pony Express Trail snakes up the eastern lip of the Old River Bed (photo by Clint Thomsen)


Dropping abruptly below the desert plain eight miles west of Simpson Springs in southern Tooele County, the Old River Bed is a naturally vulnerable place.  It’s a naturally strange place, too: a clear-cut channel as broad as the Mississippi at its greatest width, in the middle of this dry no-man’s-land.  The ancient watercourse owes its existence to Lake Bonneville.

As Bonneville shrank, water in the Sevier Basin drained northward via a low channel into the Great Salt Lake Desert, carving a mile-wide, 100 foot deep gorge as it went.  This river flowed for roughly 3,000 years.  Evidence of early human activity has been discovered in its delta.

The Central Overland trail crossed the river bed in the 1850’s and served as a major transportation artery until 1869.  The famed but short-lived Pony Express used the road from 1860 to 1861.  Riverbed Station was almost certainly built in 1862—too late to serve the Pony Express.

Drivers and riders hated the Old River Bed because although it’s wide and deep, it’s completely hidden from view until you’re right on its lip.  Bandits or hostile Indians could easily ambush a rider as he popped into or out of the channel.

The constant fear of ambush aside, there was always the chance of flash flooding.  Major Howard Egan recorded one nail-biting event in his diary about a Pony Express rider who heard a heavy rushing sound upon entering the channel.  Realizing something was horribly wrong, the rider “put spurs to the pony” and narrowly escaped a fifteen foot wall of water that surged through the river bed and washed out the road.



This concrete post marks the old Riverbed stagecoach station site. Note that while the words “Pony Express” are etched into the concrete, Riverbed Station never served the Pony Express– it wasn’t built until 1962 (photo by Clint Thomsen).

One rightly questions the rationale of building a stagecoach station in the dead center of the Old River Bed.   Perhaps it eased the fear of ambush or made ground water more accessible.  The station is gone now; flash floods eventually washed its ruins away.  All that’s left are a concrete post marking the station site and a few scattered rocks that may have been part of a foundation.  A Civilian Conservation Corps monument stands nearby.

Station keepers could deal with the natural and human threats.  It was the paranormal that kept them awake at night.  They– the managers, stock tenders, the stage drivers and their passengers– swore the place was haunted, specifically by “desert fairies.”

Former station operators claimed the fairies were the ghosts of two young girls who fell from a wagon in the area and died.  No records of the deaths have ever been found.  There are no individual accounts, no well-documented haunting.  University of Utah professor David Jabusch spent the night there while researching the site in the early 1990’s.  Of the desert fairies he wrote, “During our overnight sojourn, while mapping the site, we were not visited.”

Yet the story still lives on in journals and lore.  And though I’m a skeptic, there’s something about being in the Old River Bed at night.  Is it haunted? It’s hard to say.  As I walked along the river bed I wondered about those deep rumbling sounds.  I was convincing myself they were thunder or aircraft from Dugway, when the pair of dim headlights on the road that I had been carefully watching paused beside my car.

Then they turned and started out toward me.  I knew they weren’t there for the monument.  The old Chevy passed it and pulled off the double track toward me.  A chill went up my spine.  What could I do but introduce myself?

Two men sat in the truck.  They reminded me of a hermit version of illusionist duo Penn and Teller.  The thin driver remained silent, letting his larger passenger do the talking.  “We saw your car, then we saw your light out there,” said Penn.  “We wondered what was up.”

It turns out the two live in the area—Penn in an old trailer and Teller on a nearby ranch.  Sometimes they drive around helping people change flat tires (the Old River Bed is a notorious flat-maker).  “You’re tires looked fine,” Penn assured me.

“I’m Clint, and I’m hunting ghosts,” I declared, a bit surprised at my own whimsy.  “Do you believe this place is haunted?”

“Of course it’s haunted,” Penn said.  “When I first moved out here I was scared to death.  I thought maybe monsters would come up on me at night and tear me apart.”

We chatted for a while before they turned and left me alone again in the Old River Bed.  I was relieved that my new friends weren’t madmen, but my enthusiasm about this place had given way to discordant unease.   I glanced once more down the blackened corridor, just to give the desert fairies one last chance to show.  Then I was more than ready to leave.

They said the Old River Bed is haunted.  Who am I to argue?


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.


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


UPDATED: Weekly Run-Down: Little D, my column, and the real Four Corners

Boy, it’s been a while since I posted a Weekly Run-Down! I guess some new responsibilities at my paying job and a brand new baby boy have discouraged regular blogging as of late. But the dust is settling now and I should be able to be post more regularly now.

Speaking of the new baby…
Aside from some early reflux-related projectile vomiting and his downright insistence on sleeping in our bed with us, the little fella is doing quite well.

Poor Mommy is another story, though she’s still tickled pink that the pregnancy from hell is finally over. She just wishes she didn’t have to feed him every two hours (because of the afore-mentioned reflux), something that, by nature of my male gender, I cannot help her with. There must be a special place in heaven for mommies like her.

Several readers have asked me to post pictures of Little D, which I’ve been hesitant to do. Not exactly sure why, since he’s virtually indistinguishable at this point from most other babies in the world (except much, much more adorable than most other babies in the world). But I still don’t love the idea. I have yet to post even one picture of his older sister, Miss Ella. Overprotective? Maybe. Wise? Likely.

New online subscription for the Tooele Transcript Bulletin
So I’ve been told that my column in the Tooele Transcript Bulletin—at least the online version—is now part of the newspaper’s fee-based content. I’ve always been wary of paid online news content as a business model. Personally, when I click a link that requires a subscription, I skip it altogether. Small town newspapers operate on a different dynamic, so it may yet end up being profitable for the TTB.

Still, it poses a problem for non-local readers. But since I’m a freelancer, I own my own material, and I’ll continue to post my column in full here the day after it’s published in the newspaper.

Discovered: The Real Four Corners
If you’ve ever visited Four Corners monument and took pride in standing in 4 states at once (or urinating in 4 states at once), the joke’s on you. This From AP:

National Geodetic Survey officials say the Four Corners marker showing the intersection of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah is about 2.5 miles west of where it should be.

The only place in the United States where four state boundaries come together was first surveyed by the government in 1868 during the initial survey of Colorado’s southern boundary. The survey was inaccurate.

I’ve never been to the monument, but it’s nice to know that when I do visit Four Corners with my little toy Garmin, it’ll be the real deal.

UPDATE: I had originally embedded a Google Map of the area showing the Four Corners monument 2.5 miles west of the border lines. When I previewed my draft, however, the map wouldn’t show up. Thinking my embed code was somehow bad, I opened up a new browser and searched the location again. This time, an entirely new map appeared, sans monument location and place marker. I’m not a Google Maps buff, but I’m guessing Google updated their map when the news came out, and the map and embed code I pulled this morning were cached versions.

UPDATE AGAIN: Now I’m not sure. I zoomed on the current map and switched to sat view, which clearly shows the border convergence overlaying the monument. So unless they’ve been able to pick up and move the monument, its road and parking lot 2.5 miles west, Google Maps is displaying inaccurate state borders.

MSN has them wrong too. I wonder if they’ll correct this on future maps or simply leave it as it is.

FINAL UPDATE: Finally found a report that didn’t just copy and paste from the AP story. Lynne Arave at the Deseret News writes a satisfyingly detailed account of how this all went down. I’ve got to go to Costco for baby wipes and lunch-time samples, so I’ll let Mr. Arave take it from here.


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.