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Category Archives: West Desert

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.

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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.

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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.

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

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.

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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?

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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?

 

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

It’s fall, so bring on the desert!

Temperatures here in Utah have been nice so far, but they’ll be dropping soon.  Summer’s officially over, and with snow soon to fall in the higher elevations (could happen as soon as Wednesday), my outdoors focus shifts from the mountains to the deserts.

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Floating Island-- photograph's don't do the mirage justice. (photo by Clint Thomsen)

I took this picture on Saturday.  It’s a mountain appropriately called Floating Island, and it’s one of the coolest optical illusions I’ve ever seen.  Floating Island is part of the Silver Island Range.  While driving either direction on I-80 near mile marker 20, the range appears to part like Moses’ Red Sea, with Floating Island drifting eastward until it seems to hover a good distance from the rest of the solid range.

The “floating” effect is created by a combination of empty distance and flat land nearly perfectly aligned with the curvature of the planet. From the vantage point of highway, Floating Island’s base is behind the curve and thus is not visible.

I visited this island once a couple years ago and wrote about it here.

The desert is a strange, wonderful place.  Here’s to a new season of exploring it!

 
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Posted by on September 28, 2009 in Outdoor Adventure, Wendover, West Desert

 

Remote Fish Springs appeals to wanderers and solitude seekers

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

A collection canal at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge in the absolute middle of nowhere, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

A collection canal at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge in the absolute middle of nowhere, Utah (photo by Clint Thomsen)

by Clint Thomsen

They say that in the desert, water is gold. I guess that makes Fish Springs a mother lode.

The marsh’s sprawling surfaces glinted as the sun rose over Castle Mountain. Were it not for the tall grasses surrounding it, it would have been difficult to distinguish real water from mirage. Panning northward, the marsh faded into a vast salt flat. The lonely Pony Express Route below my perch in the Fish Spring Mountains stretched westward, dodging a knob at the northern tip of the range before disappearing into Snake Valley.

I had made the 106 mile drive from Tooele to cover the 50th anniversary of the Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge. The events were to begin at 8AM and I had arrived rather early, so I continued past the refuge and explored the northern reaches of the Fish Springs Range. I climbed to the mouth of a large cave to take in the view, which is almost exactly the same now as it was during stagecoach and Pony Express days.

If one word could describe the spring-fed marsh and the Fish Springs Refuge, that word would be “oasis.” Perhaps satellite views of the region demonstrate it best—a teal and turquoise splotch against a vast, stark white playa at the southern edge of the Great Salt Lake Desert.

But to truly appreciate the haven that is Fish Springs, one must make the three hour drive—most of it along a callous gravel road—from either Tooele or Wendover.

Approaching the Fish Springs Range, the marshland looks like climatological anomaly. One minute you’re surrounded by scrub-speckled salt flat, the next you’re skirting wetlands choked with marsh cane and hardstem bulrush. Here, topography, geography, and geology have combined to form a truly unique environment.

It’s one thing to consider the remote situation of this oasis. It’s quite another to consider just how the 10,000 acre marsh is able to exist in such arid country. For one thing, it’s not new. The same springs that feed it now were gushing into Lake Bonneville over 16,800 years ago. Once that great inland sea retreated, the wetlands were a haven for numerous forms of wildlife. Humans have used the wetlands for up to 11,000 years.

Most of the water at Fish Springs originates as precipitation in eastern Nevada. It percolates into the ground and eventually makes its way into the Great Salt Lake groundwater flow system via carbonate aquifer. A fault at the Fish Springs Range creates artesian springs that allow water to seep upward and emanate, brackish and warm, at the surface.

Think of the Great Salt Lake flow system as a giant underground pipeline and Fish Springs as the surface site of a controlled leak. The 5 major and 6 lesser springs at the site generate 27,500 acre-feet of water per year.

The time involved in the aquifer recharge process is staggering. Radiocarbon dating indicates that the water flowing from the springs today fell as precipitation anywhere from 9,000 to 14,000 years ago. Incredibly, after spending so many thousands of year underground and emanating from the springs, most of it evaporates after just seven miles of free flow.

But before it does, spring output is collected and diverted via dredged canals to nine ponds, or impoundments, creating an ideal habitat for many local and migrant bird species. The Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge covers 17,992 acres and is a key point along the Pacific Flyway, a major bird migration route that extends from Alaska to Patagonia. During peak migration periods, up to 25,000 birds pass through the refuge.

Brian Allen, assistant Refuge Manager, drove me into the spring-marsh network to show me the habitats and several species of rare fish.

“Boy, that looks like it would be fun to swim in,” he remarked as we crossed one of the collection canals. Allen, 46, grew up in Washington State and is a recent transfer to Fish Springs. He’ll take over as Refuge Manager next year when current manager Jay Banta retires. In the meantime, he’s still discovering the wonders of the marsh.

Having worked in remote areas of Alaska and Hawaii, the Utah desert appealed to him. “Fish Springs is perfect for me,” he said of his new post. Fish Springs staff lives full time on site in a small complex of homes and apartments. “I’ve got a nice pickup and plenty of terrain to explore,” he continued. “An airport and hospital only three hours away– that’s pretty civilized in my book!”

We stopped at one of the major springs, whose waters were clear enough that I could see straight down to its sandy floor 10 feet below. Schools of small mosquito fish swam near the surface. Larger Utah chub swam deeper. The Utah chub, along with the least chub and specked dace that thrive in these waters, were native to Lake Bonneville.

Four American bullfrogs took me by surprise at another spring. This one was partially covered by moss, which provided perfect cover for their beady eyes. Wildlife in and around the impoundments weren’t so tough to spot. We spotted avocets, curlew, and several species of duck in their specially managed pools. The birds were the primary reason the refuge was established. So far, 285 different bird species have been recorded in the in and around the marsh.

I got out of the truck to photograph one of the pools against the backdrop of marsh cane and the Fish Springs Range before we returned to the office. Soon it would be back to the sagebrush and salt flats. Fish Springs staffers say they miss it when they’re away, and I can see their point. Lucky for them, they’re never more than a short 3 hour drive away from home sweet home.

TRIP TIPS
The Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge is located in northern Juab County, 106 miles from Tooele and 104 miles from Wendover. Getting there from any direction requires a long drive on gravel roads with no close gas stations. From Tooele, plan for a 3 hour drive. Camping, fishing, and swimming are not permitted. For more information, call 435-831-5353 or visit http://www.fws.gov/fishsprings.

 

Reluctant rider finally gets broken by a mustang

The following originally appeared in the March 4, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

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Janet Hancey, a member of the West Desert Chapter of Back Country Horsemen Utah, stands with Reno, a 15-year-old mustang mare, at the foot of the Oquirrh Mountains. - photography / Clint Thomsen

by Clint Thomsen

They came from nowhere — or at least it seemed that way. From somewhere in the near-vacant panorama, four wild horses on a distant ridge had become an entire herd. They all but surrounded us now, standing cautiously in cohesive calico-colored bands. It was an early spring evening in a remote section of the west desert — happy hour at the local watering hole.

Band by band, the rare creatures approached the trough, cautious but surprisingly tolerant of the three of us standing a mere 30 yards away. Behind us to the right, a pair of mustangs reared onto their hind legs, breaking the silence in a dusty clash of kicks and snorts.

The American mustang descends from domesticated horses that strayed or escaped from ranches in the late 1800s. Those free-roaming feral horses banded together into herds and have roamed the West ever since. Their 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.”

I’ll never forget our encounter with the Onaqui Herd, both because it was rare and because it marked the beginning of a long-overdue reconciliation. I’ve always loved horses, but a falling out began in my early 20s when I tried to impress a girl by proving I could ride her family’s horse bareback. The horse wasn’t game, and I ended up in the dirt with a sore shoulder and a bruised ego. That one was my fault.

A few years later, fate found me again with a girl and a horse. This time, even a healthy respect for the mare and my use of a saddle didn’t prevent her from throwing me to the ground. If I was ever going to impress a woman, I concluded, Equus ferus caballus was clearly not the vehicle. Since then, I’ve always admired horses from a distance.

That is, until I met Reno, a 15-year-old chestnut-colored mare.

“Every horse is born with a certain disposition,” Reno’s owner, Janet Hancey, told me. “Work and training can enhance and improve on this, but the underlying disposition remains. According to Janet, Reno’s disposition is one-in-a-million. “She’s sensible, sweet and dependable.”

Reno is also a mustang.

She came from a west desert herd near the Nevada border — hence the name. Janet and her husband, Craig, adopted her from the BLM in 1997, when she was three years old. Janet is the treasurer for the West Desert Chapter of Back Country Horsemen Utah, an organization dedicated to trail service projects and preserving access of stock animals to public lands. I had posted a question about the sport on the group’s online forum. She saw my message and decided that Reno was the perfect horse to reintroduce me to the world of horseback riding.

I met Janet at the top of Bates Canyon Road, where she was saddling Reno and Banner, an Arabian, also 15 years old. “The key is to be calm,” she said. “She needs to know you’re going to take care of her. Then she’ll take care of you.”

I reached out and patted Reno’s neck near her white U.S. Government brand. She responded by nudging me with her head. After some brief instruction, we saddled up and rode northward on one of the dirt roads that wind along the Oquirrh benches.

Reno seemed to understand I was a novice and she made things easy for me by following Janet on Banner. The differences in each horse’s disposition were immediately apparent. Unlike the Arabian, Reno’s movement was tactical. Sometimes Reno took a completely different route than Banner when it came to slopes. She seemed to calculate each step, analyzing the ruts and rock patterns in the road to plot her course. Janet believes this may have something to do with her days as a wild horse on callous topography.

Reno’s neck reigned easily, but I was content to let her do most of the steering. I opted to stay behind Janet and Banner so as not to embarrass myself if I did something wrong. Janet led Banner with very little visible effort — which didn’t surprise me, as she’s ridden horses most of her life. She talked about the relationship between human and horse, about trust and the rewards of devotion. She told me about the time two bulls charged her young children but were headed off by one of their horses.

“Being around horses helps me stay grounded to what is still good in the world,” she told me. Given the gloomy state of the world, this rang especially true.

As we crested the northern end of the bench, the Great Salt Lake’s azure blue spanned the horizon. Janet stopped to take in the view. “This is why I wanted to ride this way. When you ride a horse, you can actually enjoy nature without the sounds of a motor.”

On the return loop I decided to experiment with different control techniques. At times, Reno seemed confused by my directions, which at best were probably wildly mixed signals. But she played it cool. Sometimes she’d switch from a casual stroll to a quick trot. Whether or not that was at my direction, I haven’t a clue. I was just enjoying the ride, imagining what it must have been like to ride these same trails during pioneer times and wondering why I waited so long to give horseback riding a second chance.

As I dismounted, I rubbed Reno’s neck and told her thanks for the ride. Then I quickly realized that Janet hadn’t been kidding when she said I’d be sore. Two hours in the saddle working muscle groups I never even knew I had, and I could barely push my car’s clutch. It was a good sore, though — the kind that results from doing something worthwhile.

Not only had I reconciled with my equine friends, I had ridden a mustang. The feat may not have impressed my country-bred wife, but at least she pretended like it did.


Related Links

Back Country Horseman of Utah

 

Hangar is gateway to another Epoch

The following article originally appeared in the February 19, 2009 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

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The south wall of the Enola Gay Hangar shows the decaying structure that housed the atomic mission that ended World War II. - photography / Clint Thomsen

by Clint Thomsen

The air inside the old maintenance hangar was musty and still — and much colder than I had expected. The sun shone through gaps in the roof and rows of broken windows, flooding the structure with a sort of inert light. I followed Jim Peterson across a sweeping concrete floor, past a hodgepodge of military and industrial relics, toward the hangar’s east end.

“Over here,” said the soft-spoken airport director, pointing toward the bare timbers of the north annex. “This was the prop shop.”

The old Wendover airbase has fascinated me since my grandpa took me there for an airshow in the ’80s. Since then, I’ve rarely passed through town without detouring through the decaying collection of World War II-era buildings. Finally seeing the interior of the famed “Enola Gay Hangar” was at once exciting and sad. As I gazed up at the rusty trusses, I wondered what this place looked like the better part of a century ago.

Tooele County’s vast open spaces set it apart from its metropolitan neighbor to the east. While Tooele Valley has seen exponential growth in recent years, most of the rest of the county remains blissfully undeveloped and underexplored. And even though time, weather and vandals have marred the region’s historical sites, the county is still a fusion of wilderness and visible history.

When snow chokes mountain trails and renders the canyons impassable, my mind focuses more on the desert floor and its vestiges of the past. Many of my road trips and camping adventures in Tooele County’s wilds have been paired with historical research. Defining this hobby is difficult, since the term that best describes it — “urban exploration” — has been tainted by the very culture that coined it.

Colloquial dictionaries define urban exploration, or “hacking,” as the examination of normally unseen places and other abandonments. But the term has become associated with secretive trespassing.

Many self-described “urbexers” do it less for historic curiosity and more for the thrill of “infiltrating” private property. They consider it a harmless activity, claiming to adhere to a strict destroy-nothing, take-nothing policy. Still, the moniker appropriately carries a negative connotation for property owners and those who explore history legally.

So since they’ve hijacked the term, I’ll take this opportunity to coin one of my own: “epoch hacking” — or the tapping into the essence of a historical era by legally visiting associated sites. That’s an overly technical definition, but fascination with the past and the appeal of visiting abandoned places is quite widespread. It’s why the ghost town articles on my Web site are the most highly trafficked pieces there. It’s also why so many visitors to the annual Wendover Air Show find themselves peering curiously at the row of vintage hangars lining the airfield’s apron.

Just under 100 of the 668 original buildings still stand at the old base — an impressive number given the time elapsed and the fact that many were built for temporary use. The base housed more than 20 bomber groups during World War II. At its apex, 17,000 soldiers and 2,500 civilians called it home. It’s personnel component was reduced to just a few thousand after Col. Paul Tibbets chose Wendover Airfield as the training point for “Project Silverplate,” the atomic mission that would end the war and change the course of history.

During the 509th Composite Group’s stay, the base housed up to 15 B-29 SuperFortresses, which were tweaked and modified for mission training. Construction on “Building 1841” began in late 1944 and was completed in early 1945. The hangar was large enough to park two B-29s inside at once. The two-story “side-buildings” housed various maintenance areas and office space.

In later years, the hangar became known locally as the “Enola Gay Hangar,” after the B-29 bomber commanded by Tibbets on the Hiroshima mission. The famed aircraft now resides at the Smithsonian’s Udvar-Hazy Center in Virginia.

In 1947, the U.S. Air Force took over the base and used it sparsely until 1976. Writer and photographer Richard Menzies visited the base in 1971 while it was maintained by a skeleton crew, whose presence deterred vandalism.

“The various buildings were in excellent shape,” Menzies told me. “Frozen in time since the ’40s. You could still smell the oil and carb cleaner from heavy bombers that had once occupied the hangars.”

The Enola Gay Hangar was next occupied by engineer Robert Golka, who used the space to experiment with ball lightning. Menzies visited Golka on several occasions, later profiling him in his 2005 book “Passing Through: An Existential Journey Across America’s Outback.”

“He filled the place up with esoteric electrical machinery,” Menzies recalled. “Including what he dubbed ‘the world’s largest Tesla coil.’”

The hangar remained largely intact until the base was deeded to the City of Wendover in 1977. It was subsequently abandoned and stripped by looters. I realized what Jim Peterson was showing me was but a ghost of its former self, a fact punctuated by the tattered sheets of white cloth, which shrouded both of the annexes. Still, the profundity of gazing into the offices where Tibbets and crew planned their mission is difficult to describe.

We paused near the dusty fuselage of an old T-33 to look up at the original light fixtures and some leftover wires from Golka’s experiments. Peterson’s lament at the building’s state of disrepair was obvious.

Fortunately, the Historic Wendover Airfield Foundation recently secured a $440,000 federal grant to begin an exterior restoration of the legendary hangar. Work on the roof and side walls will begin later this year.

What motivates Peterson’s work to preserve the airfield’s heritage?

“There’s no place like it,” he said. “Where else can you go that has six hangars right on the front line and so many original structures?”

Whatever your view on the atomic mission and its aftermath, the experience of exploring the base is poignant and arresting. “Hacking” this epoch is well worth the drive.

TRIP TIPS
Until restoration is complete, the Enola Gay Hangar will remain off-limits to the public.  Paid tours of the base area by local guides are authorized to give visitors a close look at the hangar’s exterior and several other interesting parts of the base.  A map and guide to  a self-guided driving tour of the base are available at its operations building.  For more information, call 435-665-2308.

Stay tuned for more pics of the old hangar and base this weekend…