“If you free yourself from the conventional reaction to a quantity like a million years, you free yourself a bit from the boundaries of human time. And then in a way you do not live at all, but in another way you live forever.”
― John McPhee, Basin and Range
While traveling in Utah's West Desert one often has the feeling of simultaneously living forever and, therefore, strangely, not at all. The longer I remain in Utah the more I understand, and appreciate, the complexity of the geography; a complexity, it should be said, that is rivaled by the cultural and political matrices laid upon the earth in this most unusual state. There are vast swaths of the earth called "Utah" that seem to have been purged unexpurgated from some Dantean dream, and it seems a great volume of that violent and atrorubent land is found west of Salt Lake City, thus the "West Desert", in and around the massive dried out Pleistocene lake bed named after the Indian killer Benjamin Louie Eulalie de Bonneville. It is here in this lake bed that one finds the strip of dead flat earth on which men drive beyond the speed of sound from time to time, foolishly believing that this act means anything but the end of days (where does one go after traveling faster than the sound of the traveling?). It is here that one finds carved into every range tall enough the scars of ancient shorelines. It is here that one finds, under rapt unrelenting blue skies, abandoned communities of cutthroat trout who go about spawning each spring in headwaters that lead to nowhere but salt plains and rabbit brush. It is here that desert big horn sheep, the animal that fired Ellen Meloy's massive imagination, hang on by a sliver against not so much the swarms of mountain lions which feed off them, but against the humans that do not stay away (including me) from the great ranges that rise unaccountably from the salt flats more than 7000'. Big horns do not like to be looked at.
One such crumpled agglomeration of rock is the Deep Creek Range which straddles the latter day Nevada and Utah border south of Wendover. The Deep Creeks have more relief than the Teton Range in Wyoming and at their apex, on Ibapah Peak, rise higher than the famed Wahsatch Mountains one hundred miles to the east. It is, even now, a remote place to travel. Of the two main routes from Salt Lake City, the Eisenhower legacy highway is perhaps the easier one punching, as it does, straight across the Bonneville Salt Flats toward Wendover. Interstate 80, as it's called, like it's sister to the south Interstate 70, is a paean to American "know-how" which should not be, in any way, confused with "knowing" or "thinking". For the first 150 years of our Republic, if Mother Nature stood in the way Americans just blew it up and laid down asphalt or rails. If ever you've driven west from Green River toward the San Rafael Swell on I-70, the gigantic hole in the shark fin-shaped rocks called The Reef through which you drive was not done naturally.
The second way, which is the one I recommend, is the much slower Pony Express Trail. Though it is no different in the manner in which it was conceived, which was to cut across at any cost the vast "wasteland" of the desert between the Sierra Nevada and the Rocky Mountains, because the men were on horseback, they couldn't simply ride over the mountains in a straight line without committing suicide. Therefore the road, unpaved, meanders like a sine wave through the desert on its way to Sacramento. It's beautiful and ironic to travel this way passing Pony Express Stations every ten or fifteen miles that seem perversely huddled against the howling winds and overwhelming sun. Though it lasted for less than two years, the Pony Express system was, like Moby Dick and the poems of Walt Whitman and the coruscating intricacies of Miles Davis's trumpet, a supreme manifestation of a peculiar American psychosis - a violent kind of loneliness. Willful in the face of failure, unable to see shades of gray, Americanism has a certain crumpling suicidal tendency at its core. What is plangently called Individualism is actually a kind of emotional self-flagellation, a brutal binary of good and evil warped, like iron, around the soul. And thus, the Deep Creeks arise above the adiabiatic plains of violent salt toward the empyrean. From here, the sun sets behind Ibapah Peak, a glacier scoured half-dome of granite as out of place here as the little town of Callao (pronounced Call-ee-oo).
Whatever those men thought of themselves against the world, running their horses into the ground carrying $1000 per ounce mail through the wastes of White People's dreams, they had to have looked toward the Deep Creek Range with an awe reserved for things like seeing the Pacific for the first time or seeing one's betrothed after a year in the West. These things aren't repeatable. Here, if there ever was a nowhere, is a somewhere, a throne for high altitude Bristlecone pine, a seat at the table for humans to commune with what remained once the Pleistocene drained away an American state's worth of 500' deep water in a few months. The Deep Creeks are an island. We'll explore more of what that means in coming posts.