Category Archives: West Desert

Iosepa back in the news as archaeological team returns to sift through the past

Welcome to Iosepa! (photo by Clint Thomsen)

As I mentioned in my Tooele Transcript Bulletin report on this year’s Iosepa festivities, The archaeological team that began digging at the old Iosepa townsite in 2008 is back again this year.

The study is led by Benjamin Pykles, a professor at the State University of New York at Potsdam. Pykles and a group of anthropology students spent a month in 2008 digging on a lot that was owned by one of Iosepa’s original settlers. I spent some time with Pykles and crew in ’08 and look forward to spending some time with them again this week.

Just like it did in 2008, Pykles’ current study has caught the eye of a few major Utah media outlets. While it’s nice to see the Big Boys actually acknowledge Tooele County’s existence once in a while, I find their coverage somewhat lacking.

That’s not entirely their fault. Iosepa is too significant a topic to completely ignore, yet too far distant (physically and historically) to devote any real time or resource to. The result is usually a quick run-down of the Hawaiian ghost town’s high-level history laced with a few quotes from Pykles.  Often more interesting than the stories themselves are the comments they garner on their websites.  It’s clear that familiarity with Iosepa’s purpose and history is not widespread– at least among the commenting masses.

If you’d like a good run-down of what’s going on with the dig, check out this piece by the Transcript Bulletin’s Sarah Miley.  Later this week I’ll post a Iosepa FAQ of sorts here that will address a number of misconceptions about the old place that seem to spread through news media comment boards every time Iosepa is mentioned.  And later this month I’ll be writing about another Iosepa adventure.

In the meantime, here’s some primer material:

Search for Hawaiian petroglyphs in Skull Valley ends in discovery
At Iosepa, a few pictures are worth thousands of words
Iosepa becomes Polynesia in desert – if only for a weekend
Images of Iosepa
Immersion in Iosepa’s past requires imagination, good shoes



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.


Iosepa becomes Polynesia in desert – if only for a weekend

The sun had begun to sink behind the Cedar Mountains, its burnt orange rays reflecting on the surfaces of Skull Valley’s normally unseen network of springs. The scents of smoke and juniper hung in the air as the last groups of hikers trickled back along the wishbone trails that lead down from Salt Mountain. The day was waning, but the atmosphere pulsated with the spirit of aloha.

Jacob Mulivai twirls a pair of flaming machetes in a traditional ailao warrior dance during this year's Iosepa celebration (photo by Clint Thomsen)

The following originally appeared in the June 3, 2010 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“Talofa!” Josh Mulivai called as he walked on stage waving a ceremonial war knife that flamed audibly at both ends.

“Talofa!” Came the crowd’s retort, though with less gusto than the warrior-garbed 14 year old had hoped.
“You can do better than that!” He yelled before repeating the Samoan greeting.

This time the response was sufficiently enthusiastic. Mulivai began twirling the burning machete to the beat of a single tribal drum as he and his brother, Jacob, ramped up a jaw-dropping performance of a traditional Ailao warrior dance.

The sun had begun to sink behind the Cedar Mountains, its burnt orange rays reflecting on the surfaces of Skull Valley’s normally unseen network of springs. The scents of smoke and juniper hung in the air as the last groups of hikers trickled back along the wishbone trails that lead down from Salt Mountain. The day was waning, but the atmosphere in the old Hawaiian ghost town, accompanied by Mulivai’s drum, pulsated with the spirit of aloha.

I have no genetic ties to Polynesian peoples, which makes my bond with the culture a challenge to explain. Whatever its roots, it runs much deeper than the allure of exotic locales and the much coveted “island mindset” we mainlanders tend to attribute to them.

Less difficult to define is my interest in Iosepa, the Skull Valley town settled by Hawaiian converts to the LDS Church in 1889. The town’s story is punctuated by faith, hardship, and its unique position at the crossroads of extremes—tropics and desert, gathering and seclusion, joy in desolation. Few places speak to the history-minded adventurer like Iosepa.

The contrast with their island home was certainly not lost on the Hawaiian pioneers as they set about carving a new life in the desert. Hawaii it was not, but faith was the impetus for their migration, not greener pastures. The town—named in Hawaiian for LDS leader Joseph F. Smith— became well known for its industrious attitude, being designated in 1911 by Utah as the “best kept and most progressive city in the state.”

Iosepa’s history spanned a relatively brief 28 years, ending in 1917 when the bulk of its settlers returned to Hawaii to support the newly announced temple there. Iosepa was sold off, its buildings dismantled. Only the town’s small cemetery remained, along with overgrown sidewalks and images of sharks, sea turtles and palm trees carved in nearby rock outcroppings.

A photo of Iosepa residents (courtesy the Iosepa Historical Association)

A resurgence of interest in Iosepa several decades later resulted in the 1971 placement of the cemetery on the National Registry of Historic Places. In 1980, a collection of Iosepa descendents and other Polynesian families began a tradition of beautifying the graveyard annually on Memorial Day. Then LDS apostle Gordon B. Hinckley dedicated a monument on the site in 1989.

The Iosepa Historical Association was organized the same year. A pavilion was constructed adjacent to the cemetery, and the annual Memorial Day activities evolved into a weekend-long celebration with additional emphasis on general Polynesian heritage.

On the historic front, an archaeological study of the old town site by a team from the State University of New York at Potsdam began in 2008 and is shedding some light on day-to-day life in Iosepa. After a year-long hiatus, the study will resume there next month. Iosepa is coming full circle, its story fleshed out little by little as stories are recorded and discoveries made.

I’ve been attending the Memorial Day weekend festivities at Iosepa since the late 90’s, when curiosity led some friends and me to the Saturday evening luau. We were greeted with open arms and filled plates, and I’ve only missed one year since.

The pot-luck dinner was under way when the kids and I arrived at the pavilion last Saturday evening. Opting not to wait in the hundreds-long food line, the boys headed for the hills. I placed our fruit platter on the serving table and sat with 1 year old Dillon beneath the pavilion. To my surprise, a friend who had seen us arrive set a food-packed plate before me. Dillon allowed me a few bites before commandeering the fork and clearing the plate.

After dinner, I walked up the mountain to meet the boys on their hike. 4 year old Coulter pointed toward a distant ridge. “Dad, I think the ocean is that way,” he surmised.

If he was referring to the Atlantic Ocean, I suppose he was technically correct. I played along. As far as he knew, we were really in Hawaii. And given the cheery air at the pavilion when we returned, we might as well have been.

Josh Mulivai plays with fire (photo by Clint Thomsen)

Children wearing flower leis danced to the music of various Polynesian performers. When two young boys decided to ride their skateboards across the stage, a woman wearing a traditional Hawaiian dress stepped to the microphone to chide them.

“You rascals riding skateboards—that’s something you do on the mainland, not here,” she scolded.

Her symbolic reference to the mainland sparked a thought: The Iosepa celebration to me is like the otherworldly portals you see in science fiction movies—there one precious moment and gone the next. For a short period each year, Iosepa becomes a window to a world where the past is lauded and the present enjoyed for what it is. Worries and cares are checked on the mainland. They have no place here.

Small American flags marking Iosepa’s graves waved gently as the Mulivai brothers finished their knife dance. Crowds began to disperse with the sunset. Silhouettes carrying bundles of wood made their way from the ridge into camp. Soon the darkened hillside was dotted with bonfires.

Many people would stay the night in tents and trailers and participate in more activities in the morning. Those less fortunate would say goodbye and make their way home. The boys and I walked back to our car. Soon we’d take our place in the long string of tail lights that wound slowly down the hill—away from Iosepa, and back to the mainland for another year.



County’s forgotten corner still holds suprises aplenty

Believe it or not, prehistoric Utah was a tropical place covered mostly by shallow seas.  The limestone bands on these hills were reefs on which huge populations of these invertebrate creatures lived and died.  The fossils are those of organisms that were covered with sediment shortly after death and were subsequently locked in the rock’s matrix.

From the top of the archipelego: Stepped hills curve outward. The limestone bands are prehistoric coral reefs.

The following originally appeared in the March 4, 2010 edition  of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

It was high noon when I crested the unnamed desert ridge and gazed toward the thin strip of blue to the east.  Strangely, the Great Salt Lake looked small from my vantage point—and much further away than Google Maps was telling me it really was.   Curious too was the sense of prominence of this low summit.

The vista to the southwest boasted every element of a perfect computer desktop wallpaper—the expansive Puddle Valley against a distant Cedar Mountains backdrop, the geometry of cascading step pyramid hills that diminished  as they curved outward to form a photogenic archipelago.

Looking down, I noticed that the limestone outcropping I stood on was peppered with fossilized horn coral, relics from this place’s pre-desert days.  I’ve written about fossils further south in the Lakeside Mountains, but these were a pleasant surprise—a satisfying reward for finally revisiting Tooele County’s Great Wide North.

Last weekend’s trip was inspired by a flight I took to Reno a few days prior.  I spent the short flight studying the terrain below from my north side window seat.  While I can usually recognize most of the topography south of I-80 from above, the landscape north of the highway between the Great Salt Lake and the Bonneville Salt Flats had me stumped.  Clearly I had neglected this region in my travels, and it was time to make things right.

So when I got back I loaded the boys up and we headed out.  Our destination: Puddle Valley and the Lakeside Mountains.  The Lakeside Range and other minor ranges in the area are replete with unique vistas, old mining camps and interesting geologic formations.  A person with extra gas containers and a good supply of Gatorade could spend weeks exploring everything out there.

I didn’t have weeks, so before we left I consulted the forums at Expedition Utah, an online community where desert rats like me, but with better four wheel drive vehicles than mine, gather to plan overland treks and shoot the breeze about roads less traveled.

Curt Hall, one of the site’s curators, suggested we explore the Delle area and make our way to the public road leading to the Air Force managed Utah Test and Training Range (UTTR)—a loose itinerary, and a liberating one.  When it comes to desert preparedness, overplanning is essential.  Itinerary-wise, not so much.  Too often, the desert’s finer corners are missed in the rush to make a prescribed destination.

The Monster Eyes at Delle

My only prescribed destination was the “Monster Eyes” at the Delle exit.  If you’ve ever driven past Skull Valley, you know what I’m talking about—the twin caves in the hillside that bear a disturbing resemblance to eye sockets.  Some clever prankster has taken the time to paint eyeballs on drum lids and secure them in the caves so that westbound travelers are met with a monstrous glare.  I always wondered whether they were really shooting targets.  As it turns out, those eyeballs may be the only man-made items in Skull Valley not riddled with bullet holes.

We caught the Puddle Valley Highway at the next exit and three pronghorn antelope stood clear as we and followed it north along the western flanks of the Lakesides.  Puddle Valley derives its name from its clay floor and lack of drainage.  Roads are often impassably muddy during the wet months.  They solidify nicely when they dry up.

Looking for a good dirt road to turn off on, I fired up my phone’s GPS and watched my little blue dot move across the satellite image as I drove.  The boys, whose Nintendo DS’s I had confiscated back home so they could enjoy the drive like real people, were quick to point out my double standard.

They were itching to get out for a hike, so we turned off on the road leading over Wrathall Pass and forked off toward a chain of fin-like hills that give rise to the 5,830 foot Jedediah Mountain.  We parked at the northern end of the curving archipelago and hiked to the ridge.

8 year old Bridger led the way with 6 year old Weston close at hand.  4 year old Coulter hung back, unloading imaginary bullets into ant hills with his toy gun.  Two large birds of prey flew separate routes above the pass while the occasional vehicle rolled by silently below.

Around the bend and up Monarch canyon would be the Monarch Mine, which was abandoned in the 1940’s and has hardly been touched since.  So far, the Monarch and the nearby Silver Queen have been spared reclamation by the BLM, thanks mostly to the protests of Gold Rush Expeditions, an organization dedicated to the preservation of historic mines and ghost towns.

We steered clear of the mines and stuck to the fossil-laden limestone outcroppings on the ridge.  The Lakesides are a hot spot for invertebrate fossils like crinoids, bi-valve seashells, and horn coral that date past Lake Bonneville to roughly to the Mississippian Period 350 million years ago, before the land that would one day be Utah rolled to its current position on the globe.

Believe it or not, prehistoric Utah was a tropical place covered mostly by shallow seas.  The limestone bands on these hills were reefs on which huge populations of these invertebrate creatures lived and died.  The fossils are those of organisms that were covered with sediment shortly after death and were subsequently locked in the rock’s matrix.

The fossils seem out of place in this now inert no-man’s land where clay and sagebrush rule.  The range’s sun-washed ridges and the and petrified coral were pleasant reminders that life’s more interesting things are often found along unnamed dirt roads and on limestone walls.

The Lakeside Mountains are accessible via the Delle and Lakeside I-80 exits.  Most area roads are dirt and pass through BLM and State lands.  Though many roads are passable by car during dry months, high-clearance or 4WD vehicles are recommended.  Small amounts of loose fossils can be collected on BLM lands.


Lakeside Mountains Road Trip

I took the boys out to the Lakeside Mountains last weekend.  The full report comes in tomorrow’s Transcript Bulletin, but here are a few pictures from the trip:

The Monster Eyes at Delle

A closer look

Fossilized coral in Utah??? Yep, horn coral. And shellfish. Loads of them.

The boys

No caption necessary.

This rock sits near the entrance of the Air Force test range. I guess it's some sort of hippie expression.


There’s meteorites in them there hills!

The adventure began just after midnight on November 18 when a bolide meteor– possibly a stray from the Leonid shower– streaked through the night sky over Tooele County and sparked a public frenzy.  The fireball, which was seen as far away as California, hit Earth’s atmosphere with such intensity that it had to be measured in terawatts.  Those fortunate enough to witness the event were treated to the light show of their lifetimes.

The above is a compilation of several clips from Salt Lake City area security cameras that captured the falling meteor.  The following originally appeared in the December 3, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

Silky clouds crept over the Stansbury Mountains and began spilling rapidly into the range’s western canyons.  An unrelenting wind tossed large tumbleweeds helplessly across Skull Valley.  The scene might have been ripped straight from an epic western film– one with a major science fiction twist.

My sons Bridger (8) and Weston (7) and I marched along a bare stretch of terrain, our eyes trained on the ground, scanning every inch of dirt for remnants of another world.  What would a meteorite look like?  We didn’t know exactly.  But the prospect of freshly fallen space rock was too appealing to pass up.

Our method wasn’t scientific.  Most of the technical legwork had already been completed by astronomers and devout meteorite hunters the country over.  Tap that mass collaboration, I thought, and we just might have a shot.

The adventure began just after midnight on November 18 when a bolide meteor– possibly a stray from the Leonid shower– streaked through the night sky over Tooele County and sparked a public frenzy.  The fireball, which was seen as far away as California, hit Earth’s atmosphere with such intensity that it had to be measured in terawatts.  Those fortunate enough to witness the event were treated to the light show of their lifetimes.

Regional seismograph stations recorded vibrations that seem to have been generated by the meteor’s sonic boom.  The event was captured by several Salt Lake area surveillance cameras.  Footage was given to media outlets, who promptly broadcasted it and posted it online.  Astronomers recognized the phenomenon and scrambled to calculate the details.  Local experts estimated that the meteor exploded at about 20 kilometers above the earth’s surface and its fragments dispersed somewhere over western Utah.

Like the fireball’s appearance, the response by meteorite hunting groups was both intense and brief.  News of the “witnessed fall” quickly reached Mike Bandli, founder of Historic Meteorites, a private meteorite collecting and hunting organization based in Washington State.  He immediately called his hunting partner, Rob Wesel, and told him to take some time off work.  In the last year Bandli and Wesel have recovered meteorites from three separate falls and were ready to spend their Thanksgiving scouring Tooele County’s deserts.  With the help of meteorite modeling expert Robert Matson, the team began to aggregate data.

Step one was crowdsourceing.  Bandli posted a request for eyewitness accounts in the comments section of a Salt Lake Tribune article about the event.  The team then turned to the video footage.  The flash lit up surrounding mountains, revealing the cameras’ angles in relation to them.

A fresh meteorite has a charcoal-like fusion crust with a chipped off portion revealing the bright interior (courtesy Mike Bandli,

The team used the camera locations available online to map each location in Google Earth.  Using five accurate camera angles, Bandli and crew determined that the meteorite distribution, or strewn field, was somewhere on Dugway Proving Ground.  Other groups arrived at this same conclusion, which one anonymous Internet poster called “statistically unfortunate.”

And so the effort screeched to a halt.  Fellow meteorite hunters that had been dispatched to Utah tried unsuccessfully to collect more information.  Seismic data gave only an expansive area where the fireball occurred, and the fall failed to register any usable Doppler radar data.

Bandli and Wesel, who were ready to fly into Salt Lake that day, contacted Dugway but were denied access.  Dugway spokeswoman Paula Nicholson confirmed that some groups had contacted the facility to gain access but were denied.  She said there’s no evidence yet that anything landed there, but promised to keep the public informed of any findings.

I came across Bandli’s Tribune comment while parsing media reports.  I contacted him and he was happy give me a peek at the complex world of meteorite hunting.

“We often work in small teams that consist of people we trust or work well with,” Bandli told me.“It is important that the data we collect and information we release be managed in a controlled manner. We don’t want irresponsible would-be hunters trespassing on people’s land or creating a spectacle.”

Once the team identifies a portion of the strewn field, the hard science takes a back seat to simple visual analysis.  “We rely heavily on our eyes,” Bandli said.

And instinct.  Some hunters carry magnetized canes to probe the ground (most meteorites attract magnets), but experienced hunters like Bandli can identify meteorites visually.

“They’re black, burned rocks that look out of place.  In many cases they are chipped or broken revealing a bright or grayish interior,” he said.  The team walks in a gridding pattern to accurately sample areas.  When meteorites are discovered, they begin to map the strewn field.  Smaller meteorite fragments lie toward the strewn field’s tail and grow in size toward its head.  Finds are meticulously detailed to maximize their scientific value.

“Dugway is a hunter’s dream,” Bandli lamented.  “Looking for black rocks on a flat and bright salt floor– it could have been a historic recovery.”

Still, Bandli understands the security situation at the facility and hopes the military can conduct its own successful search.  “There is good reason to keep people off that property,” he said.  “We respect whatever decision Dugway makes.”

But the meteorite hunting community may not be entirely out of luck.  Bandli said some data suggests that fragments may have broken off of the meteor early and landed in rugged terrain immediately northeast of Dugway.  Calculations proposed to Paula Nicholson by the Discovery Channel also place the strewn field northward.. Despite recent reports placing the termination point even further west, Bandli remains confident in his Dugway triangulation.

“Basically what we have is a huge search area,” he said.  “The only way we’ll know for sure is for somebody to find a piece.”

The boys and I had chosen a flat area on the flanks of the Cedar Mountains a safe distance north of the Proving Grounds.  We walked a criss-cross pattern, finding a few rocks looked out of place but that didn’t match Bandli’s description.  We left empty-handed but hopeful that somewhere in this no-man’s-land lies a trove of otherworldly fragments, waiting to be discovered.


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.”


Stargazing starts by seeking the dark

Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, was the first constellation in focus.  Then there were Sirius, Ursa Minor and the North Star, and a few planets I couldn’t identify.  Blinking earth-orbiting satellites zoomed across the celestial sphere.  As the minutes passed, the visible star field multiplied until the sky was filled with points of light.


La Luna (photo by Scott Crosby, Salt Lake Astronomical Society)

The following is a blog-friendly adaptation of my piece that appeared in the November 5, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

“You can’t study the darkness by flooding it with light,” wrote naturalist Edward Abbey on the folly of using a flashlight while exploring the wilderness at night.  It’s one of my favorite outdoor quotes.  Unfortunately, the concept’s profundity sometimes outweighs its practicality.  Take, for instance, my bumbling pre-dawn trek at Timpie Point last weekend.

I could chalk it up to the darkness or the abnormal terrain or the fact that I didn’t bother looking for a trail up to the large limestone outcropping.  Yes, I should have brought a light– or at least waited until my eyes adjusted.  Then I might have noticed that huge mud puddle just outside my car door.  I also might have caught on sooner that those two out-of-place looking boulders I was heading over to check out were really two nervous cows.

But there I was—my ankle twisted, my ears frozen, and my agitated bovine companions looking on—under an extraordinarily clear sky.  “Well, whaddya know,” I told told myself, “those Internet sky charts were right.”  Now to find a rock flat enough to lie on.

I’ve been thinking a lot about space lately.  It started with a visit to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C. last summer.  I love aviation history, but whenever I visit that museum I tend to spend most of my time in the space wings.  Nothing’s quite as exciting as seeing Buzz Aldrin’s space suit or studying the exterior of the actual Apollo 11 Command Module.  And my inner nerd doesn’t miss a chance to gawk at the original Star Trek production model of the USS Enterprise.

I tend to look up at the night sky with a little more contemplation after visiting that museum.  The fascination sparked by last summer’s trip has yet to wear off.  Perhaps it’s sheer curiosity about what’s beyond our world or the mysterious appeal of that cold, dark void.  Somehow in its mind-blowing infinity, the view of space from Earth always puts things into perspective.  Nothing’s quite as peaceful as looking up at the stars for a good, long time.


USS Enterprise original production model at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum (photo by Clint Thomsen)

“You’re a little late for stargazing season,” local pros told me a few days prior when I contacted them to ask for tips.  An entire astronomical viewing community is centered on the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (affectionately referred to as “SPOC”) where scores of pros and amateurs spend the warmer months examining the heavens through a collection of high powered telescopes.

My sons and I attended the last star party of the season there in October.  The boys thrilled at the opportunity to view nebulae and planets through the telescopes.  Equally captivating to me was watching the hushed crowd of stargazers politely line up to peek into deep space.

The area surrounding the complex is intentionally kept as dark as possible.  “Things that are interesting in the sky are very faint,” Salt Lake Astronomical Society (SLAS) member Scott Crosby told me.  “In order to see any detail [in an astronomical object], you have to intensify it using a telescope.  But the problem is when you do that, you also intensify sky glow.”

“Sky glow” is a type of light pollution.  Usually seen as a dome of light over population centers, it’s the brightening of the sky caused by excess artificial lighting.  Crosby chairs SLAS’s Dark Site Committee, a group that seeks out locations with low light pollution for optimal astronomical viewing.

The term “dark site” is more of a description than an official designation, though the International Dark Sky Association has established several International Dark Sky Parks throughout the world.  The first place to receive the designation was Utah’s Natural Bridges National Monument in the Four Corners area.  Light pollution prevents most places in our part of the state from competing for the label, but Crosby said there are several decent dark sky locations in Tooele County.  They include the mountain ranges and spots along the Pony Express Trail and in the Great Salt Lake Desert.

When online clear sky charts predicted excellent viewing conditions on Halloween Night, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for stargazing.  Since five kids plus five costumes plus five plastic pumpkins full of candy made for a rather exhausting Halloween night, early the next morning was the best I could do.

The goal was to isolate myself from Tooele Valley’s sky glow behind the Stansbury Mountains, so I drove to Big Springs at the north end of Skull Valley during what the kids call “early dark time.”  Eager to test out the night vision maximization tips I had read, I parked next to the spring and immediately started hiking, sans flashlight, toward the large rock outcroppings at Timpie Point.

SPOC sky chart

Clear sky chart for the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex (SPOC) (screen cap from

Dark vision adaptation involves a complex anatomical process wherein the rod and cone cells in the retina become more and more light sensitive.  It takes between 20 and 30 minutes for the eyes to completely adapt to dark surroundings.  With practice, dark acuity can become quite developed.

In hindsight, I would have been wise to stay by my car until my vision had fully adapted.  Instead, I adapted while boulder hopping (I’ve always been a multitasker).  I didn’t see the cows for what they were until I was almost face-to-face with them.  If I wasn’t fully awake before, I was now, and I perched on a cold slab nearby.

Ursa Major, the Big Dipper, was the first constellation in focus.  Then there were Sirius, Ursa Minor and the North Star, and a few planets I couldn’t identify.  Blinking earth-orbiting satellites zoomed across the celestial sphere.  As the minutes passed, the visible star field multiplied until the sky was filled with points of light.

I watched the sky until the sunrise upstaged the stars and cast a soft glow across the Great Salt Lake.  I hiked around for a while before driving back home, my space fix satisfied.  Satisfied enough to stop collecting Cheez-It proofs of purchase for that free Captain Kirk t-shirt?  I’m not making any promises.


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?


Why I’m thinking about space–reason #2: A spaceport in Wendover?

Man on the moon? Think again. This photo was shot by my friend Richard Menzies for an edition of The Salt Flat News that addressed Wendover's bid for a NASA spaceport. His editor, Richard Goldberger, is wearing the space suit. Said Menzies, "We were "recreating" Alan Shepard's lunar golfing stunt, except that his was a chip shot and ours was a short putt. Funny thing is, many people thought it was an authentic NASA photo."

MAN ON THE MOON? Think again. This photo was shot by my friend Richard Menzies on the salt flats. It appeared on the cover of a 1971 edition of The Salt Flat News. The issue addressed Wendover's bid for a NASA spaceport. Menzies' cohort, Richard Goldberger, is wearing the space suit. Said Menzies, "We were 'recreating' Alan Shepard's lunar golfing stunt, except that his was a chip shot and ours was a short putt. Funny thing is, many people thought it was an authentic NASA photo." (photo courtesy Richard Menzies)

Most anybody with a passing familiarity with Utah history is aware of Wendover’s role in Project Silverplate, the U.S. Army Air Force’s project to modify B-29 bombers to enable them to drop atomic weapons on Japan.

But few Utahns know that during the 60’s and early 70’s, the sleepy border town was poised to become a huge NASA hub.

Turns out NASA was seriously looking at basing at least part of its Space Shuttle program in the Wendover area.  I learned about this for the first time while conducting background research on the Silver Island Range for my latest TTB article.  Exactly which aspects of the shuttle program were to be based in Wendover are in question.  Some old newspaper articles claim that Wendover was to house the whole deal– engine production, launch, and landing/recovery.  Other sources (like the pictured pamphlet) mention simply a landing/recovery operation.


This 28-page color brochure promoted Utah's bid for the West Desert spaceport. Note the USAF quote: "The only site known to satisfy recovery of polar orbiting ballistic vehicles." (photo courtesy Richard Menzies)

Wendover was in contention with bases in New Mexico, California, and Florida.  Utah was serious enough about winning that it spent many millions of extra dollars to route I-80 through Wendover, something that wasn’t in UDOT’s original plan.

TANGENT: In fact, UDOT’s original plan was to route I-80 up and over the Silver Island Range and into the Pilot Valley.  Wendover was to be cut off completely.  The plan, according to its lead engineer, Roy Tea, would have saved travelers 6 miles and the state upwards of $50 million.

NESTED TANGENT: This same Roy Tea is the foremost authority on the Hastings Cutoff of the California Trail.  This guy is a fountain of knowledge about this piece of Utah history.

The new NASA base would have made Wendover a major Utah city.  Multiple other communities were also expected to be built in the area.  The Bonneville Salt Flats would have been utilized as a landing area or a closed buffer zone.

Needless to say, Wendover lost out to Cape Canaveral, which modified the existing Apollo infrastructure to house the project.  The salt flats went on to star in numerous movies and car commercials, and Wendover continued as an economically challenged border town.

But Utah didn’t give up on its space aspirations.   In 1998, several Utah counties bid to base the VentureStar reusable spaceship program.  The program failed and was canceled in 2001.


Simulated view of VentureStar in low Earth orbit (photo courtesy Lockheed Martin)

It’s hard to determine from the scant newspaper references I could dig up just how big a deal this was for Utahns at the time.  The best source of information on all of this was a 1971 issue of The Salt Flat News, a quirky little pub I’ve mentioned a few times on this blog.

I’m intrigued by all of this and I plan to put together a more conclusive piece for the Transcript Bulletin in the near future.  But, like my recent reacquaintance with Spock and Kirk, it got me to thinking about space.

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Posted by on October 14, 2009 in History, Random Musings, West Desert