Category Archives: Outdoor Adventure

Elusive crawdads provide good sport at Grantsville reservoir

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

Weston, 7, wades into the choppy waters of Grantsville Reservoir during a windstorm on Aug. 7 while fishing for crawdads.

The following originally appeared in the August 12, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“Anything, Dad?” asked 8 year old Bridger as I lifted my crayfish trap from the shallows of Grantsville Reservoir last Saturday.

“Empty again, pal,” I shook my head in disbelief. “Sheesh!”

A stiff wind swept northward across the lake’s geometric surface, sending white-capped waves tumbling erratically toward shore.  This was somewhat expected—Grantsville Reservoir’s location makes it a perpetually windy place.  But that evening’s winds came on the tail of a thunderstorm and were unusually harsh.

The normal weekend crowd had apparently taken note.  Our closest neighbors were a lone fisherman about 20 yards down shore and a black gull that hovered above us in passive flight.  I sunk the box-shaped trap again, too frustrated to notice the pleasant marriage of breeze and humidity, or to contemplate the way the both the lake and the distant Oquirrh Mountains reflected nearly the same deep blue hue.  The clock was ticking, after all.  There was no time for contemplation.

The sense of urgency reminded me of the Discovery Channel’s reality series, Deadliest Catch, which documents crab fishing in Alaska.  The show features scene after scene of cranes hoisting box-shaped traps called “pots” from the depths of the Bering Sea onto the decks of various crab boats.  Sometimes the pots emerge chock full of king crab.  Other times they’re nearly empty.  In the case of the latter, footage of the skipper’s disappointed grimace is accompanied with a somber narration from voice artist Mike Rowe.

“For Captain Clint and crew,” Rowe might have read from Saturday evening’s script, “Harvesting the elusive Orconectes virilis has proven especially difficult.”

Empty. Again.

Unlike Deadliest’s skippers, I wasn’t facing rogue waves, frigid subarctic overspray, or even foul-mouthed deckhands.  But what loomed for me was no less terrifying: the prospect of writing yet another column about getting skunked at Grantsville Reservoir.

Call it musings of a failed outdoorsman, I thought.

The boys and I had come to the lake hoping to net a bucketful of Northern Crayfish for some shore-side surf and turf.  That may seem odd, considering that ninety-eight percent of all crayfish harvested in the United States come from Louisiana bayous.  But the Cajun delicacy flourishes here too.

Crayfish—or crawdads, as I grew up calling them—can be found in many Utah lakes and rivers that don’t freeze to the bottom during winter.  The buggy crustacean prefers rocky, clear water bodies at elevations lower than 8,000 feet.  If I didn’t know better, I might say Grantsville Reservoir was created especially for its crawdad population.

But I do know better.  The Utah Division of Wildlife Resources considers crawdads an Aquatic Invasive Species because they eat fish eggs, displace native organisms, and otherwise wreak havoc the lake’s natural ecosystem.  As an eco-minded outdoorsman, subtracting a bucketful of the pesky crustacean from the habitat every now and then is the least I can do.

And I’m not alone.  Hordes of eager harvesters descend on the lake each summer to net the “poor man’s lobster.”  Most people catch them by combing the rocky shallows with fishing nets or angling for them with raw chicken parts tied to a string.  The box trap method is less prolific, but it’s catching on.  Most people boil them on the spot, since it’s illegal to remove live crawdads from the vicinity and dead crawdads only keep for about 10 minutes.

A wildly successful outing last summer left the boys and me with high expectations, so I was especially bewildered when we pulled into a nearly empty parking lot Saturday.  I stuffed the trap with plenty of chicken and a hot dog for good measure, then sank it in last year’s hot spot.  Bridger and Weston, 7, walked the shoreline.  4 year old Coulter pretended to be a pirate, as he normally does when he’s around water.  1 year old Dillon threw rocks.

Crawdads scurried visibly from crag to crag but were too deep to reach with nets.  Closer to shore, aggressive wave action blurred our view of the bottom, making the chase maddening and near impossible.  Bridger dove at a large crawdad and grabbed it with his hand, only to lose it with an incoming wave.  It was becoming quickly apparent why the usual crowd had stayed away.  Our last hope was the trap, which was consistently coming up empty.

“I saw a bunch of people here last week catching those things like crazy,” the lone fisherman commented as he reeled in for the evening.  The gull, having danced on the wind for two straight hours, decided to call it a day, too.

“I say we get the hot dogs started,” Recommended Weston.

Cue the soundtrack’s dramatic measures.  The hot dogs were supposed to be the last resort.  To break them out now was to essentially admit defeat.  I resisted, but Coulter and Dillon seconded Weston’s motion, and it wasn’t long before First Mate Bridger joined his mutinous brothers.  I caved and lit the stove.

“As night falls,” I could almost hear Mike Rowe say, “Captain Clint raises the white flag.”

Ironically, that was the moment my spirits began to rise.  With the burden of the catch lifted, I was free to notice the water’s darkening blue, and that it actually felt warmer than a swimming pool.  My pace slowed.  I smiled.  Perhaps I wasn’t a failed outdoorsman after all.

Naturally I hadn’t thought to pack buns or condiments, so we devoured our hot dogs plain.  After dinner, Weston waded down the boat ramp until he was in waist-deep—sweats, shoes, and all—then he stood and let the waves wash around him.  Bridger fashioned a makeshift fishing pole from discarded parts he had scavenged from the banks.  Coulter continued his pirate ways.  Dillon threw more rocks.

As the sun dipped behind the Stansbury Mountains, I pulled my trap for the last time.  Nothing.

“Those were the best hot dogs I ever had, Dad,” said Coulter, breaking character just long enough to reassure the ol’ skipper.  “And it’s ok—we can catch plenty of crop-dads tomorrow.”

Best hot dogs ever.


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A hike in the Uintas

The family and I spent some time last week in the Uinta Mountains.  Here are some video highlights from a hike between Washington and Haystack Lakes that I took with Boo, West, and Deedle (the hefty mancub rode on my back).

A storm turned us around just shy of Haystack, but you’ll see some decent footage of Washington, Tail, and Shadow Lakes.  Ever wonder why fathers and sons need these kinds of hikes?  Listen closely to West talking about his “best dream ever” in the final clip (transcript below the video box).


WESTON: Once I had a best dream ever.

DAD: Tell me about it, West

WESTON: There were these kids that- they didn’t have a house or a mom and they had to cry themselves to sleep.  And I came walking along and saw them, and then in a couple of days I helped them out.


Here’s  a map of the Washington-Haystack area:

Click to see interactive map of the area on ACME Mapper

By the way, I shot this video with a refurbished Flip Ultra HD camcorder that I bought cheap online.  Video quality is pretty good, though the editing tool for it leaves quite a bit to be desired.  I have yet to figure out how to convert mp4 to a format I can edit with real software.  Until I do, you’ll have to live with the oversized titles and simple cuts.


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Skull Valley springs spout from marvel of desert geology

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

A tributary runs through Skull Valley near Horseshoe Springs. Looking down on Skull Valley from the Stansbury Mountains shows a secret water world in the desert (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the July 27, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Nothing says “desert” like a mouthful of dust.  Or an eyeful or a couple nostrils full, for that matter.  You might say I should have known better than to get out of my car so soon after stopping along a dirt road in the dead of summer—that I should have considered the mile-long dust wall that was cresting behind me like a giant breaking ocean wave.  I blame the lapse in judgment on curiosity.  Curiosity and the genius who posted a road sign typed in an 8-point font.

The sun had barely risen above the Stansbury Mountains and Skull Valley was awash with soft light.  I was about a mile out on the road that bisects the valley and leads to a place called 8 Mile Spring on the flanks of the Cedar Range.  No sooner had I shut my car door than the raging wall of alkaline particulate swallowed me whole.

Call it evidence of the desert’s endless ability to overwhelm the senses—a poignant reminder that out here things are rarely as they seem.

Take the landscape, for example.  At first glance, Skull Valley can appear to be completely desolate.    But a closer look reveals an array of natural oases where unorthodox fauna abound.

The scale of Skull Valley’s secret water world is quite evident when viewed from the Stansbury foothills.  It’s much less apparent at ground level, where sporadic mirror-like surfaces visible from the highway are often the only hints of its existence.  The closure of most recreation roads on the east side of the highway for post-wildfire restoration offers an excellent opportunity to pay this unique ecosystem the attention it deserves.

At the heart of Skull Valley’s wetland system is a collection of geothermal springs that issue warm, brackish water.  Though understated, these springs are a major component of Skull Valley’s geology.  They’re also the source of the valley’s original namesake—Spring Valley.

Historians haven’t definitively concluded on the reason for the name change, but it’s possible that “Skull Valley” also derives from the springs.  According to legend, Spring Valley became Skull Valley upon the discovery of an inordinate amount of buffalo skulls on the valley floor near the springs.  Local historian Don Rosenberg thinks an unusually harsh winter was to blame.

Rosenberg theorizes that heavy snows drew herds away from the mountains and down to the springs, whose warm surrounding terrain remains snow-free all year.  Once the all the exposed grass around the springs was eaten, the herds had nowhere else to turn and died where they stood.

Understanding the science behind these springs can be daunting—especially since no exhaustive study has been conducted on them.  Worse yet, geology is yet another facet of real life where my Political Science degree has proven less than useful.  Terms like “forced convection” and “Quaternary fault scarps” make me quake in my boots.

An unnamed pool near Iosepa. Look past the moss lining the pool-- that's crystal clear brackish heaven in there (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Fortunately, the guys at the Utah Geological Survey regularly make painstaking efforts to demystify these concepts for me.  UGS geothermal expert Robert Blackett described the recharge/discharge cycle to me as a function of precipitation, gravity and pressure.

The process begins in the mountains with rain or snow melt.  While much of this precipitation travels down toward the valley in streams, Blackett said a certain percentage percolates into the ground and seeps slowly downward through the bedrock via fractures.  When the water hits a geologic dead end, it’s forced back upward and is discharged from the ground as a spring.

In the case of thermal springs, water is heated by the earth’s interior as it travels.  A thermal spring’s discharge temperature depends on distance traveled and obstacles encountered along the way.  Deep-reaching water that rise quickly without mixing with cooler water discharges as a hot spring.

The Skull Valley springs are believed to mix with cool ground water before discharging as warm springs.  The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) defines a warm spring as any spring ranging in temperature between 68 and 122 degrees Fahrenheit.  The average temperature of the Skull Valley springs is 70 degrees Fahrenheit—about 8 degrees cooler than the average swimming pool.

The temperature and water chemistry differ slightly from spring to spring, but some are probably interconnected and all are brackish from the minerals they’ve picked up along the way.  Several support populations of planted fish.

According to UGS documents, Skull Valley’s 8 major thermal springs collectively discharge 30,000 to 50,000 acre-feet of water per year.  Discharge flows northward and eventually drains into the Great Salt Lake.  Blackett said the recharge cycle for thermal springs tends to much longer than that of cool springs.  Citing the lack of study of the area as a caveat, Blackett said it’s possible that the warm water discharged from the Skull Valley springs fell as precipitation as far back as the last Ice Age.

If you’ve been to Skull Valley, you’ve probably stopped at the twin Horseshoe Springs, which flow together to form a distinctive inverted “U.”  I grew up swimming in the deeper north spring.  Diving to the source with goggles was always an eerie endeavor, as it very literally is a portal to another world.

The Horseshoe Springs were designated a Federal Wildlife Management area in 1990.  The pools sustain a small population of carp and largemouth bass.  Fishing is permitted, but good luck catching anything.  This hole is famous for its belligerent fish.  Many an angler wonders if the bass there haven’t simply caught on to our hook-and-bait scam.

On my way home that morning, I stopped at Horseshoe Springs to pay regards to the elusive bass.  I considered jumping in for old time’s sake, but didn’t.  Hearing the gurgle of water against this barren backdrop was satisfying enough.


Some of Skull Valley’s springs are visible on the valley floor west of SR-196.  Some are located on private property, others on BLM land.  Horseshoe Springs is publically accessible year-round.  Bug repellent is a must. For more information, contact the BLM at (801) 977-4300.


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Fear, curiosity mingle when snakes and humans cross paths

Wildlife expert Jim Dix holds up a Great Basin rattlesnake (left) and a Great Basin gopher snake (right) for comparison (photo by Clint Thomsen).

The following originally appeared in the July 15, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

First you hear the rattle—that hollow, paralyzing oscillation that your brain seems wired to dread. Your eyes dart frantically in every direction, sweeping the terrain around you for the coiled serpent. If you’re lucky, you’ve caught the rattler’s warning in time. If you’re not, you’ll feel the sting—like two tiny, red-hot pokers—as the snake sinks its fangs deep into your foot.

I’ve played this scenario out a thousand times in my head, and most recently during a hike with my young sons. We were bushwhacking through an overgrown field near our Stansbury Park home when 8 year old Bridger stopped to pick up a large, intact snake skin.

“It’s gotta be a rattlesnake,” exclaimed the young reptile lover. “Check out the head shape. I’m sure he’s still around here somewhere!”

“Well that’s just awesome,” I muttered to myself sarcastically. The translucent casing Bridger carried proudly with him made me wonder what I’d do if we ever encountered a rattlesnake still in its skin. Would I be able to identify it if its rattler wasn’t visible? What should we do? The Great Basin rattlesnake is the only species in our neck of the desert, and it was time to re-acquaint myself with the elusive pit viper.

Local wildlife experts referred me to Jim Dix of Reptile Rescue Service, a Salt Lake City based removal operation that serves the entire state. Jim and I agreed—the best way for me to learn about the rattlesnake was to meet one face to face.

“You can get right up here,” Dix reassured me after lifting the serpent from a bucket with a hook and pinching its mouth shut between his thumb and forefinger. “He’s not going anywhere.”

Bridger and his younger brothers Weston, 7, and Coulter, 4, stepped up without hesitation. Apparently the instinctual fear of snakes that anthropologists believe humans developed for survival purposes and retained through millennia doesn’t apply to them.

The boys eagerly accepted Dix’s offer to pet the creature, which curled slowly as he gripped it with ridiculous ease. I reluctantly followed suit. Dix had briefed us thoroughly on the snake before showing it to us, but no amount of factual knowledge about Crotalus oreganus lutosus can compare to the experience of actually running your fingers down its spine.

The Great Basin rattlesnake’s layered scales are hardy and reminiscent of sunflower seed shells. Its olive-brown base coloration is accentuated by a prominent line of dark, oval-like dorsal blotches. Its head is uniquely triangular, its tail tipped by series of nested buttons that form the legendary rattle.

Even more interesting than its appearance is its sensory system. The rattlesnake is extremely sensitive to ground vibrations created by other animals. It has no olfactory sense, but it “smells” by collecting molecules on its tongue and transferring them to an dedicated receptor on the roof of its mouth. Depressions below its nostrils detect radiant heat, allowing the rattler to accurately sense and target vulnerable parts of its prey.

Simply put, it’s one cool snake. So cool, in fact, that its innocuous relative, the Great Basin gopher snake, seems to have made rattlesnake impersonation the very purpose of its existence. The gopher snake is skinnier and has a smaller, bullet-shaped head, but it sports a dorsal blotch pattern that’s strikingly similar to that of the rattlesnake. And although lacks a rattle, it has learned to mimic the rattlesnake by vibrating its tail when it feels threatened.

Dix said that most of the rattlesnake calls he gets from Tooele County turn out to be gopher snakes. One of his goals is to educate the public on the differences between them. He also believes increased awareness of the rattlesnake’s nature will benefit both man and snake. Most bites, he said, can be avoided. In fact, avoidance is the rattlesnake’s primary goal.

So what should you do if you encounter one? Different sources offer similar advice, but Dix actually handles rattlers on a daily basis, so I put more stock in his. First, determine the snake’s location and distance from you. According to Dix, the average strike zone is 3 feet. Outside of that radius, it’s safe to slowly back away, keeping in mind that other rattlers may be close nearby.

Within a 3 foot radius of the snake, stay put. Wait for the snake to uncoil and back away on its own.
“They don’t want to have an encounter where they bite you,” Dix explained. The rattle is a generous warning. When bites do occur, Dix said one third of them are venomless “dry hits.” The rest inject some percentage of hemotoxin, which causes massive tissue damage.

“[There’s] hemorrhaging, your blood cells explode—stuff like that,” Dix explained.

Bites from baby rattlesnakes can be even more serious since they haven’t grown rattles yet and their venom isn’t regulated.

In the case of any bite, Dix warned against popularized treatment methods like tourniquets, snake bite kits, and sucking venom from the wound. Skip those and call 9-11, then get to a hospital quickly. Restrict movement, and if possible, keep the bite area below the chest. Rattlesnake anti-venom can take up to 45 minutes to prepare and administer.

Dix said most bite cases are the result of naiveté or intentional provocation, and are still a rare occurrence. Still, one would be wise to keep an eye out for them. They’ll spend evenings basking on the sides of roads. Dix said Skull Valley tends to be a rattlesnake hotspot. Having emerged from hibernation later in the spring than usual, our rattlers are now settling into feeding mode. As “sit and wait” hunters, they’re more likely to be spotted under rocks or wrapped around sagebrush. Mid-summer sightings are more common between 8:00 – 11:30 in the morning.

The boys and I bid farewell to our new scaly friend as Dix set it gently back in the bucket. My fear had evolved into more of a healthy respect. If we ever see him on the trail, I hope that respect is mutual.


Lake Point concrete arrow points back to early days of aviation

Glare from the rising sun had botched my photo efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to fly in close.  Really close.

A Western Air Express Douglas M-2 bi-plane used for Airmail in 1926 (source unknown).

The following originally appeared in the July 8, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“How’s your head?”  Brian Staheli asked as he piloted the Cessna Super Skylane in a low loop over the Great Salt Lake’s southern shore.

“All good!” I lied.

I figured my airsickness was the last thing Brian needed to worry about as he executed a highly technical maneuver.  Moreover, we both had jobs to do.  His was to safely position the aircraft over the extreme northwest tip of the mountain range; mine was to spot our target on the ground and snap a decent photo.

Glare from the rising sun had botched my efforts on the first two passes.  This would be our third and final pass.  If we were going to escape the glare we’d need to creep within the mountain’s shadow– and that meant we’d have to come in close.  Really close.

Brian made a tight turn over Lake Point and flew northward, hugging the Oquirrh flanks.  I popped my ears and steadied my camera.

“Just to let you know,” he warned, “this might feel kind of weird.”

Salt Lake City Air Mail Radio Station, March 1925 (photo courtesy FAA).

Many private aircraft owners fly for recreation.  Far fewer, I imagine, take to the skies for historical reconnaissance.  Our target that morning was a rare piece of aviation history—a 60 foot array of concrete slabs situated atop an Oquirrh bench in the Lake Point area and arranged in the shape of a double-tailed arrow.   Aside from a certain mystique, the large northeastward-pointing arrow shares another characteristic with phenomena like crop circles or the ancient Nazca lines of Peru:   it was meant to be viewed from the sky.

Brian brought this fascinating structure to my attention in 2008.  A corporate pilot and a flight instructor, he had noticed the arrow while flying around the Oquirrhs.  We did some research and identified the structure as a relic of an era less celebrated, but every bit as adventurous as the Pony Express.

The story begins in the early days of powered flight, when open-cockpit airplanes were equipped with only a compass and an altimeter, and pilots used railroad maps as navigational charts.  Seeking to speed up delivery service, U.S. Postal Department introduced the U.S. Air Mail system in 1918. This new class of delivery service had a definite cool factor, but it was wildly inefficient—mostly due to the fact that flight was restricted to daylight hours.

That changed after an experimental flight in 1921, when pilot Jack Knight completed a night flight from Chicago from North Platte, Nebraska, guided by bonfires lit along the way by Postal Department employees and helpful farmers.  Beginning in 1923, a system of tower-mounted light beacons was installed along the Transcontinental Air Mail Route, which connected New York and San Francisco via airfields that included Salt Lake City.

Airway beacons were placed at 10 mile intervals and featured rotating million candlepower lights (photo courtesy FAA).

The 51 foot tall towers were placed at 10 mile intervals and each was topped by a 1 million candlepower rotating lamp that was visible within a 40 mile radius.  Two additional color-coded course lights pointed up and down the airway and flashed a Morse code letter that identified the beacon.

To enhance daytime navigation, most beacon towers were built atop large concrete arrows, which pointed in the direction of the next beacon.  This arrow/beacon system grew exponentially when the Air Mail Act of 1925 required that Air Mail service be contracted out to various commercial airlines.

Contract Air Mail (CAM) routes were established along the Transcontinental backbone.   Salt Lake City became a major terminal field along five CAM routes, with 11 beacons housed in Tooele County.  Information on our Lake Point beacon site was scant—not even the Smithsonian Institute’s National Postal Museum could track down a construction date, though they estimate it was placed sometime between 1923 and 1925.

Sadly, all we know about the beacon is its official designation of “Airway Beacon 61A,” which it probably received during a 1934 revamp of the routes.  61A is unique in that it marked the junction of two CAM routes to Salt Lake City from San Diego and San Francisco—hence the arrow’s double tail.

The arrow is located on property owned by Rio Tinto.  Van King, a Rio Tinto asset manager, accompanied Brian and I to the site last month.  There we noted the tower’s four steel footings set at each corner of the center slab.  The tower itself had been cut away with a torch at some point, and its twisted remains lay beside the concrete array.  Traces of orange paint on both the concrete and steel provided an idea of coloration.  There were no signs of the beacon itself.

A standard airway beacon setup. When possible, beacons were powered by a small generator shack built at the arrow's tail (photo courtesy FAA).

The anatomy of Airway Beacon 61A. There is no evidence of a generator shack (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Airway Beacon 61A's arrow from the ground with the remains of its beacon tower visible just to its right (photo by Clint Thomsen).

Just how long Airway Beacon 61A serviced the routes is unknown, but most of the network’s 1,550 plus beacons had been phased out and dismantled by the early 1970’s.   Walking along the concrete “Y” shape was like stepping back in time.  And while it was satisfying to see the structure up close, the adventure wouldn’t be complete without experiencing it the way the original air mail pilots did—low and slow from the air.

I tried to picture the Cessna with primitive controls and an open cockpit as we climbed from the runway in Erda.  We explored the Great Salt Lake and the Saltair area before the sun rose high enough to illuminate the beacon site.  My head didn’t start seriously spinning until our third pass, but it was mind over body when it came to the mission at hand.

One of the last surviving airway beacons stands in the Smithsonian's National Air & Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“I’m going to put you right over it,” Brian said before executing an uncoordinated flight aptly referred to as a “slip,” which rapidly dropped us to 50 feet above ground level and gave me a square-on view of 61A.  Whether I got the shot or not, it was time to pull out and touch back down in Erda.

King says Rio-Tinto is intrigued by the history of the arrow and is reviewing ways to protect its cultural value.  61A may be just a concrete slab, but it’s a slab pilots like Brian hope to fly over for decades to come.


Special thanks to Rio Tinto/Kennecott and Brian Staheli.


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Adventure = (Air + Concrete + Steel)

Tonight’s TTB column addresses a little-known period in postal history.  I know what you’re thinking– what could possibly be more riveting than postal history?

Well, what if I told you this story about little-known period in postal history has all the elements of a grand adventure?

  • A fascinating backstory that stumped even the Smithsonian? Check.
  • The discovery of forgotten historical artifacts? Check.
  • A hike? Check.
  • An acrobatic airplane flight? Check-o-rama.

Here’s a hint:

Check tonight’s Transcript Bulletin for the story.  I’ll repost here on Monday.


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.