Category Archives: BUDS

Desert therapy starts with a good campfire

‘The sound he made when he hit the rock is a sound I never want to hear again,’ John recalled. ‘Sitting for hours on the side of a cold windy mountain with my life-long friend lying on my lap, bleeding from the head and ear, puking furiously over and over… So much uncertainty staring you in the face affects you in a funny way.’

One of our bonfires back in the day

The following originally appeared in the June 24, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Sometimes you just need a trip to the desert.

Not just any old desert, mind you, and not just any old time of day. Sometimes you need a need a trip to the mud flats west of Skull Valley’s Lone Rock—at midnight—with a case of Dr. Pepper, a bundle of scrap wood, and a package of bratwurst.

That last item is crucial. It’s okay if you forget the Dr. Pepper (although you wouldn’t). It’s even okay if you forget the scrap wood (tumbleweeds burn too). But under no circumstance should you ever forget the bratwurst, because not only is flame-roasted bratwurst delicious—it’s tradition. Serious tradition.

The guys and I have made these midnight desert runs since we were in high school. They lasted longer back then, but the formula was the same, and so was the location. We’d spend our nights solving the world’s problems, vowing some day to take over the world. Matt and Brett’s one-liner duels would escalate into a full comedy act. John would leap repeatedly over the fire because he enjoyed leaping over dangerous obstacles and we enjoyed watching him do it.

Nowadays we use the spot mostly for special occasions—like when one of us hits a milestone or is looking for some clarity, or just needs a few fireside hours with the guys. Or when one of us has cracked his skull in a recent rock climbing fall and is scheduled for surgery in a few days.

If anybody needed a trip to the desert this time, it was Tyler. It had been only a few weeks since that ill-fated night in no-man’s-land, Nevada. Ten minutes into his climb, Tyler went for a quickdraw and slipped, falling backward and slamming his head against the rock.

Matt and John were with him that night. They bandaged his head and kept him warm before the rescue crew arrived, then helped carry him down the mountain to the emergency helicopter. It was a night none of them will soon forget.

“The sound he made when he hit the rock is a sound I never want to hear again,” John later recalled. “Sitting for hours on the side of a cold windy mountain with my life-long friend lying on my lap, bleeding from the head and ear, puking furiously over and over… So much uncertainty staring you in the face affects you in a funny way.”

Correction: If anybody needed a trip to the desert this time, it was Matt and John. They hadn’t seen Tyler since that night and the ordeal still haunted them. It didn’t help that after seeing Tyler off and bidding farewell to the rescue crew, they were stranded in the desert with a blown head gasket. There was plenty of time to kill, but not enough to properly process what had happened that night.

Chan, Brett and I weren’t present for the drama, but it haunted us too. It was time to confront what John described as a “bad dream with a weird, lingering feeling.” And that meant heading west in the dark of night to laugh and reminisce and stare for hours into a bonfire.

As Chan’s scrap wood burned, we rehashed the details of Tyler’s fall and its fortunate aftermath. Were it not for the skull fracture, there would have been no CT scan. Were there no CT scan, doctors would not have noticed the tumor on his kidney. The experience on that mountain was harrowing, but a blessing in disguise. As Tyler saw it, he owes his life to that rock slab.

“If I have one regret,” he said about the aborted climbing camp, “It’s that we never enjoyed a single fire.”
Tyler was in good spirits as our modest scrap wood fire burned low and hot. We laughed about the various patches of hair we had accidently burned off in past fires. We laughed about the canned chicken we had intended to boil over the fire, but that ended up exploding instead.

“We need a chicken,” Matt said. “Why didn’t we think of that?”

“We were more prepared in those days,” John said.

We’ve also come to realize that exploding food wasn’t the most efficient way of preparing it—no matter how fun it was. At some point Tyler began bringing bratwurst, which he’d grill or roast over the fire. It quickly became a staple of these outings. Still somewhat dizzy from his fall, he realized he had one more regret: Not only were they robbed of their campfire that night, they never go to eat their bratwurst.
“I found them in my cooler later,” he lamented. “It wasn’t a pretty sight.”

But tonight’s brats were already sizzling on a makeshift grill that John had set up between two planks of firewood. Not having bothered to pack utensils, we used sticks as skewers. It was a simple, grand, cathartic meal.

At one point the conversation faded and our gaze defaulted again to the fire ring. Somehow the night was still incomplete. Before long, Brett voiced our collective thoughts:

“Jump over it, John.”

It didn’t take too much convincing. I took out my phone and filmed the jump, then told John I didn’t quite get it so he would jump again. We stood by the fire for a good long time, solving the world’s problems and growing tired enough to seriously consider staying there until morning. Air temperature was dropping. A stiff breeze blew across the flat desert floor and against the dying fire’s still impressive heat, creating a strange, contrasting sensation.

As the last columns of smoke rose toward the bowl of stars overhead, we began gathering our scant gear. One more day and Tyler would go under the knife. We were glad we had pulled ourselves away from our beds to make this trip. There’s not much a good desert bonfire with the guys won’t cure. And when the need arises again, we’ll be there—scrap wood, Dr. Pepper, and bratwurst in hand.


‘There’s a body in there’

‘Clint — run! Don’t stop!’

I had Tyler by half a football field, but he had easily closed the gap by the time I reached the mine’s entrance. What had he seen back there? What motivated him to sprint over rock-strewn rail tracks in total darkness?

‘What did you see?’ I huffed once outside.

‘This is horrible, Clint.’

He was white with terror.

‘There’s a body in there.’

This mine is one of many abandoned mines that remain in remote corners of Western Utah.  This one is similar to the mine I discuss in this true story.

This mine is one of many abandoned mines that remain in remote corners of Western Utah. This one is similar to the mine I discuss in this true story.

The preceding story is an adaptation of an article I wrote last October for the Tooele Transcript Bulletin, and is first in this year’s Halloweentime series here at

I nervously balanced on a rail track that ran from the tunnel’s entrance and past me into the darkness. The adit had curved enough over the distance that only a few dusty rays of light were still visible from its mouth. I checked my watch, as if I had any way to gauge the minutes — as if I had even bothered to note the time when we entered the abandoned mine.

Only one thing was certain: Tyler should have been back by now.

I’ve always wanted my own scary story — one fit for Halloween and the spookiest campfires. For years, I had listened to my inordinately danger-prone aunts spin horrifying yarns at our annual family camp out. Each year I would sit petrified by the fire as Sandra recalled a threatening phone call she received while she was baby-sitting in a house at the end of a long, dark street, and about being stranded in the mountains and stalked by a group of drunken men.

Aunt Kim would follow suit with her story of discovering something that looked a lot like a shallow grave near her campsite, which curiously coincided with a blanket going missing from her tent and news sightings of an infamous serial killer. None of this could be verified, of course.

Still, my young siblings and I were always terrified to walk back to our tents after the embers cooled.

Aside from a few dicey climbs and getting briefly lost once in the Uintas, I never had a scary tale of my own. That thought crossed my mind momentarily in the tunnel — sometime between being anxious and worrying that Tyler was dead. I stood on the tracks looking into the darkness. Panic hadn’t yet set in, but it was close.

It happened years ago, before we realized that flippantly walking into abandoned mines was an amazingly dumb idea — and at a time when I thought there was a decent chance that my friend Tyler might be insane.

We were somewhere — no need to specify exactly where— in the west desert. The allure of the dark opening on the hillside was just too powerful. We stopped to inspect the exterior, but rushed inside to escape an ambush mosquito attack. We had already walked 20 yards into the mine before we actually made the conscious decision to do so.

The adit, or horizontal shaft, stretched on immeasurably before us, and the path was clear as far as we could see. Neither of us had a flashlight at hand — we hadn’t planned to enter the mine, after all. Except for an ominous musty smell and the fact that several sections of the adit looked to be entirely supported by flimsy wooden braces, the mine seemed safe enough for a quick peek.

I stopped at about 50 yards, just under a wooden portal of sorts. The mine’s spell on me was broken when the tunnel’s curve nearly extinguished the daylight.

I was done, but my resolute friend vowed to continue, and I knew there was nothing I could do to stop him. Tyler was the most determined person I had ever known — often to the point of irrationality and even in the face of potential disaster. I knew he wouldn’t stop until he either reached the end or was crushed by falling rock.

He trudged forward, using his video camera’s viewfinder for light. I watched its red LED as he disappeared ahead of me. It glowed for another minute, then it too was gone. For several long minutes, the tunnel was still and silent.

I paced the rail tracks, becoming anxious, then seriously worried, with fleeting thoughts of Sandra and Kim and the scary story I might be able to tell at next year’s campfire — should we survive.

Tyler was also the most fearless person I had ever known, which is why my heart jumped when I heard him screaming in the distance and saw the camera light reappear and shake as he ran toward me.

“Clint — run! Don’t stop!” I had him by half a football field but he closed the gap by the time I reached the mine’s entrance. We were safe, and I was glad for that. But what had he seen back there? What motivated him to sprint over rock-strewn rail tracks in total darkness?

“What did you see?” I huffed once outside.

“This is horrible, Clint.”

He was white with terror.

“There’s a body in there,” he said.

I might not have believed him had he not filmed the whole thing.  Tyler took acting and practical jokes to near obsessive levels. But this time his expression was horrifically genuine. There was a body in that tunnel, and now we had to figure out what to do.

He breathlessly described the scene in unusual detail, then rewound the tape and played it for me from the point he left me. Darkness, breathing, and footsteps, continuing to the end, where a panicked Tyler whispered, “Oh my gosh!” and started yelling.

That’s when I finally caught on, and that’s when his voice cracked.

I should have seen it coming from a mile away. I’d witnessed many of his stunts like this– like when he wandered off at  2 am into a ghost town graveyard to scare a friend’s little brother, or when he bit a dead rattlesnake in half to make a couple young guys at camp think he was crazy.

But I was rarely the butt of his pranks. Ironically, Tyler’s stunt had given me the scary story I was looking for, sans tragedy — the kind my kids ask me to tell — “scary but with a happy ending.”

Tyler’s no longer insane, I don’t think. The pranks faded as we got real jobs and started raising families. But I’ll never forget the very real terror I felt as I dashed from that mine, and the delight as my terrified nieces and nephews tensely listen to the story every year.

There’s still one thing I wonder about, though.  Something that dogs me to this day.  Something drove my friend to walk in darkness to the end of a potentially deadly mine shaft.  The dead body thing was a joke, but Tyler never told me what was really at the end of that adit.  And every fall, I start to wonder.

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Posted by on October 8, 2009 in BUDS, Holiday Related


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.


Youth and snow are all that’s required for winter fun

This article originally appeared in the January 9, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.


Chandler Blake (left) and Tyler Slack (right) pose next to their masterpiece snow sculpture back in the day

by Clint Thomsen

It was my favorite flashlight. A top-of-the-line, military-grade submersible Pelican. The box it came in said it was built to take a beating. Apparently Pelican’s gear testers never dropped one while barreling at 20 mph down the side of a snowy mountain.

I didn’t see its shaft snap against the trunk of a large pine tree after flying from my coat pocket. I only heard it. And I couldn’t have stopped to retrieve its cracked remains if I tried. In fact, attempting any kind of self-arrest at that point was probably the worst thing I could do. The best plan of action now was to focus on dodging trees myself and finishing the run in one piece.

I’m not sure which of my friends first came up with the idea to go garbage bag sledding down Broads Fork in Big Cottonwood Canyon. But it was a favorite pastime in our late teens and early 20s, a time when little mattered to me aside from climbing mountains and nurturing a moderate-to-severe obsession with flashlights.

No lifts, protective gear or groomed treeless slopes — just a box of Glad bags and a snowy forest. We’d hike a mile or so up the ridge, don our trash bags, then hurl ourselves onto the slope. We’d weave through the trees shouting manly and triumphant things until we slid to a stop in the paved parking lot.

That day, Matt, Chan and I had synchronized our launch. We slid together for the first 20 yards or so until a felled tree split us up. I veered uncontrollably onto a steeper and more densely forested section of the slope.

After a few close calls, I was able to correct my trajectory enough to avoid landing in Big Cottonwood Creek. Aside from a bruised ego and a scratched up leg, I made it to the bottom none worse for the wear. I was sad about losing my flashlight, but eager to hike back up the mountain and make another run.

The blizzard during this past Christmas brought that perilous run back to mind. By the time my family and I left Grandma’s house in Magna late Christmas night, the storm had deposited nearly a foot of snow and was still raging. The few cars that dared venture onto the streets were ambling along, trying desperately to avoid sliding into curbs and each other. SR-201 looked like it hadn’t seen a plow all evening.

I lamented the fact that the snow had started too late to take the kids on a Christmas sledding adventure. “Well,” my wife, Meadow, reasoned sarcastically, “Aren’t we technically sledding now?”

Yes, we technically were. But I played it cool. The family needed a confident leader to steer us safely home. I navigated the narrowing corridor, straining to see through the relentless rush of powder. Visibility at some points was zero, and if my heart wasn’t physically beating faster, it sure seemed like it was.

The thought that my sister had totaled her car on an icy freeway a few weeks ago wasn’t helping. Neither was my driver-side windshield wiper, which cleaned the top and bottom of the window nicely but left a wide streak of salt and ice right at eye level. The babies slept while the older boys played their Nintendo DS games that Santa had brought them, completely unaware of the dicey situation.

As I tried to follow a pair of fading ruts, I couldn’t help but recall those snow adventures of the old days and how my perspective has evolved since then. The fact that I now have a family and responsibilities probably accounts for the added anxiety and caution.

But there’s something else. Back then I loved the snow. I lived for it. I used to dream of a white Christmas. Nowadays I’m more of a “Mele Kalikimaka” kind of guy. Age — or something — has tempered my enthusiasm for winter weather. Outdoor activities are still a blast during the cold months — it just takes me a bit longer these days to warm up to the season.

The blizzard continued as we rounded the Oquirrhs and turned on to I-80. The freeway was clearer, but slicker too, and the Tooele exit couldn’t come soon enough. My blood pressure began to drop again once we exited and passed the truck stops.

Appropriately enough, the storm let up just as we pulled onto our street. One neighbor was still out pulling kids on a sled behind his ATV. I nodded toward the church parking lot and asked my wife if she was up for pulling a few donuts before we pulled in for the night. “I’m kidding,” I said before she could respond.

Only I wasn’t. Something about the ATV and the sledders — and possibly the relief of having survived one the worst storm I’ve ever seen on those roads — awakened a long dormant sense of snowy adventure in me.

We pulled into our driveway, breaching a field of untouched snow that stretched seamlessly over the yards of several houses on our street. When the van was parked, the boys looked up from their video games. Their eyes lit up at the sight.

“Sweet!” said Bridger, 7. “Can we eat this stuff? It looks pretty clean.”

They opened the door and dashed through the drifts in their pajamas, giving no thought to the cold. I grabbed our snow shovel to clear a path from the van to our front door and watched them pluck icicles from the rain gutter chute.

As I walked in the house, I peeked into the garage to spot our sleds. Tomorrow, hundreds of kids would crowd the Millpond gulch in Stansbury Park with their tubes and sleds. We’d be there too. No fancy lifts, high tech gear, or groomed slopes — just a snowy hill and a couple of Wal-Mart sleds.

After a lukewarm, so-so start, winter has officially taken the stage. And the boys and I are ready to take it on.


Posted by on January 13, 2009 in BUDS, Tooele Transcript Bulletin


There’s a body in there: Abandoned mine provides setting for spookiest campfire stories

“Clint — run! Don’t stop!” I had Tyler by half a football field but he easily closed the gap by the time I reached the mine’s entrance. What had he seen back there? What motivated him to sprint over rock-laden rail tracks in total darkness?

“What did you see?” I huffed once outside.

“This is horrible, Clint.”

He was white with terror.

“There’s a body in there”

I might not have believed him had he not filmed the whole thing. After all, this was the guy who once bit a rattlesnake in half for the pure fun of scaring a couple young guys at camp. Tyler took acting and practical jokes to near obsessive levels. But this time his expression was horrifically genuine. There was a body in that tunnel, and now we had to figure out what to do.

Click here to read the full story.


Rarest find in the wilderness is a good night’s sleep

Most people keep mental lists of some kind — best television shows, favorite ice cream flavors, dream vacations. I keep a mental list of good nights of sleep. Strange, I know. But sleep for me was hard to come by, even back then. And a good night’s sleep while camping is always a rare and memorable occasion.

If there was a set of Murphy’s laws for sleeping outdoors, the first would state that “the attempt to slumber triggers a physiological sharpening of the ‘uncomfortability’ sensory receptors.” The little rock that seemed negligible when I first lay down will grow into an enormous boulder as the night wears on. The slight depression in the ground beneath my left shoulder will gradually feel like a massive crater. And that Gatorade I had by the fire an hour earlier? Yeah, that’ll come back to haunt me too. But only after I have already overcome the boulders and craters and am finally comfortable enough to nod off.

The above is an excerpt.  Click over to the Transcript Bulletin to read the full story.


Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

This article originally appeared in the July 31, 2008, edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Poignant petroglyphs carved in stone at Story Rock by the Polynesian settlers of Iosepa include (clockwise) the sun, a sea turtle — a Hawaiian symbol of longevity, peace and humility — an island with palm trees and seabirds, and a family circle or ohana. -photography / Clint Thomsen - montage / Troy Boman

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery

by Clint Thomsen

Tyler parked his car near the old Iosepa cemetery. After the half-hour ride, the engine’s abrupt hush amplified a profound silence. A crescent moon hung over the Stansburys and the stars began to fade with the morning’s twilight. The range’s western slopes still hid from the half-light, stifling any attempt to visualize our unmarked route. Even by this early hour, a diffuse heat had rested upon the valley.

We stopped on a foothill and gazed down at the abandoned Hawaiian town site, where overgrown sidewalks fade to dust and a lone, tall tree marks the corner of a vanished town square. The buildings themselves are gone, but a certain inscrutable feeling lingers. It’s a feeling characteristic of historically rich places — but in this case it’s mixed with reverent undertones of aloha.

I fell in love with Iosepa a decade ago. Curious at an unexpected cluster of vehicles on the hillside, some friends and I investigated. We were greeted warmly by a man wearing a Hawaiian shirt and lei who told us how his Mormon ancestors came from Hawaii and built a town there called Iosepa.

He talked about the town — the traditions, the hardships. And though the tidy community died out in 1917, its spirit lived on it its settlers’ family lines. We had stumbled upon their annual celebration, and they invited us to stay for dinner.

Attempting to grasp the irony of a tropical, sea-loving people settling an arid, landlocked desert, I queried our hosts long into the evening. One mentioned a rock high in the mountains, into which Iosepa’s settlers had carved images of boats, turtles and palm trees in memory of their homeland.

The paradise/desert contrast is literary gold, and most writers mine it liberally when addressing Iosepa. But our mountains and Great Salt Lake sunsets actually reminded at least one Hawaiian of his island home: “It’s the pseudo-ocean, the islands on the lake,” my friend Alan Serrao once told me. “The clouds that hang low and heavy on the mountains with peaks popping through them — it looks a lot like home. The Hawaiians that came here must have noticed this.”

Early Hawaiian Latter-day Saints weren’t unfamiliar with arid mountains and remote locales. Iosepa, Utah, is actually the second LDS Hawaiian settlement to bear the name. The original Iosepa, located on the Hawaiian island of Lanai, was the first gathering place for Hawaiian LDS in 1854. The isle is much more desert-like than its lush neighbors. It’s still only sparsely populated today.

Like Utah’s Iosepa, the Lanai settlement faced many hardships. Water scarcity and crop failures contributed to the eventual decision to abandon Lanai for Laie, Oahu. Some of Lanai’s settlers also ended up in Skull Valley.

But as similar as some aspects are, a pseudo ocean isn’t an ocean, and Skull Valley isn’t Hawaii. So wistful tales of ocean-scene petroglyphs didn’t surprise me. I had to find that rock.

“Unless you’ve been there before, it’s hard to find,” a man at Iosepa once told me. “But it’s there.”

I’ve recalled that first statement many times since that evening, as I’ve sometimes casually, sometimes seriously tried to locate what he called “Story Rock.” My quest to find the elusive rock art was the subject of my first column in this newspaper. I spent a day scouring the mountainside, but my search proved fruitless.

Eight months later, I sat in a hotel lobby with Dr. Benjamin Pykles, an archaeologist from the State University of New York at Potsdam, who was conducting a field study of the Iosepa town site. I had stopped in to help him wash some of the artifacts he had unearthed that day. Pykles handed me a toothbrush and a bag full of glass shards, then joined me at a water basin.

On the floor were several crates filled with artifacts. To Pykles and team, each glass fragment was a priceless clue into Iosepa’s past.

“Ah, the tedium of archaeology,” Pykles remarked, hoping that brushing clay off glass wasn’t boring me. It wasn’t.

Pykles and I had discussed Story Rock at the Iosepa celebration last May. He had heard the stories but hadn’t yet gone looking. I had all but given up. Then after a luau, a familiar face greeted me and scrawled a crude map on a scrap of paper.

It would be July before I would have time to test out that map. Tyler had been with me there 10 years ago and was eager to share the discovery. The sun was starting to peek over the Stansburys and our route was becoming clear. So far, my unpretentious little map had been dead-on.

A few ridges and a couple cheatgrass fields later, it stood before us. Walking toward the limestone slab, the petroglyphs seemed to jump right out at us. First an island scene complete with a palm tree and birds. Then a sun. Then a circle of figures holding hands. And those were just the obvious examples. Nearby was a figure in a boat, a jellyfish, and what looked like whales or sea lions. Even further were a deer, a lizard and a picture-perfect sea turtle.

The carvings had a definite turn-of-the-century look, and were carved several centimeters deep into some of the sharpest, hardest rock I’ve ever felt. The complicated locations of some of the petroglyphs had us puzzled over how the artists could have positioned themselves to make the etchings. We waited for the sun to fully rise, then I photographed each figure, hardly able to contain my elation.

Scanning our surroundings, it was easy to see why I hadn’t found this spot before. I thought of the Hawaiian pioneers who trekked to the top of this mountain to carve their island memories in this rock. Did they do it in memoriam? Or was it more like when I carve my wife’s name on a tree trunk? We may never know.

All I know is that unless you’ve been there before, Story Rock is hard to find.

But it’s there.


Author’s note:  I receive several emails every week from geocachers and explorers who have read this article and want directions or waypoints to Story Rock.  For various reasons, including anthropologic and cultural concerns, I am not at liberty to disclose the location of the Iosepa petroglyphs.

I’m certain that at some point, word will trickle out to the public.  Sadly, once this happens, I give this site a year, tops, until it’s tagged, otherwise defaced,  or completely destroyed.

I know there are many respectful and responsible people who would love to see the petroglyphs.  But don’t ask me– I’m not going to tell you.  No offense intended.  If you do happen to locate the petroglyphs in your own travels, do me a favor:  keep the details to yourself.  Thanks for understanding.  –ct


Recreating childhood’s happiest memories means passing on details from father to son

Left to right: Uncle Josh, Uncle Tom, Cousin Tommy, Dad;
Front: me, circa who knows when.

“The ‘good old days’ of outdoor adventure are often defined in my mind by very specific images — the shag carpet and felt curtains in our old camping van, Richard’s blue early-model dome tent arching with a sharp wind in the west desert, Poppy’s wise old smile as he cracks a joke by a campfire.

“Sometimes they’re expressed in sounds, like bacon frying, the leaves of a quaking aspen tinkling in the breeze, or a fish fighting as somebody — usually not me — pulls it from the water.

“More often, however, those times are defined by random but meaningful moments, like the time I was sleeping in our van along the Mirror Lake Highway. I woke up sometime during the night, opened a window and spent at least an hour listening to the powerful Upper Provo River course down the canyon.”

The above is an excerpt.  Click over to the Transcript Bulletin to read the full story.

Campin’ Cousins, circa a long time ago. I’m the toddler on Josh’s lap.

Iosepa ghost town finally sees much deserved media attention

Iosepa cemetery, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)

I’ve written several pieces about the Skull Valley ghost town named for LDS leader Joseph F. Smith and settled by Mormon Hawaiians from 1889-1917. Five years ago, a Google search on the term ‘Iosepa’ would return scant results- my early (and frankly, crappy) writings being the first two or three on the list. That was back when the ghost town- along with it’s history, it’s location, and annual celebration- was one of Tooele County’s best-kept secrets.

The north end of Skull Valley is heavily visited by campers, ATV-riders, and people who shoot cows for fun. But few people venture far enough south to the old town site, which is pretty barren 361 days of the year, and has been for almost a century. Passing by, the only readily visible evidence of Iosepa is the cemetery and pavilion area, which lie 2/3 mile east of the road at the base of Salt Mountain.

Had a couple of the BUDS and I not been passing by on Memorial Day weekend 9 years ago, we would have never given the place a second glance. Curious about the swath of parked cars, trailers, and tents on the hill (an extremely unusual sight in Skull Valley), we turned off on the ranch road to investigate.

We parked and walked right into what turned out to be a huge Hawaiian luau. We were greeted warmly and invited to join the crowd for dinner later that evening. The people there, we discovered, were descendants of the town’s original Hawaiian settlers, and we had stumbled upon their yearly celebration.

Few outsiders attended the festivities that day, and I saw no journalists there. In subsequent days I found only one brief mention of the 4-day celebration in the Deseret News. Those of us that returned for dinner that night and were treated so kindly that we came back the next year. My family has attended the celebration almost every year since.

But only recently, it seems, has the local media discovered this special place. In fact, an archive search of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin returns only 13 results since 1997 (I’ve written two of them). Only one mention pre-dates 2006. I was surprised Monday evening when I saw a story about Iosepa on the KSL news.

I suspect the ghost town owes some of its new found media popularity to the recent announcement of a thorough archaeological study of the site. Dr. Benjamin Pykles of the State University of New York at Potsdam and his team began studying the site last summer, and will spend the month of July tracing the town’s streets and water system, and investigating as many buried remnants as possible.

Sidewalk to nowhere, Iosepa, UT (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Dr. Pykles addressed the gathering last weekend to outline the study and ask Iosepa descendants to help record oral histories. I spoke briefly with him about the project, and I’m excited to see what he uncovers. Expect to see more pieces on Iosepa in the greater Salt Lake area media this summer. Locally, my colleague Sarah Miley will be on top of the news developments, and I’ll bring you the outdoor adventure and deep history angles.

Previous Iosepa stories on