From Atop the World, the Crazy Shape of Things
Pony Express Route, Part 1
From the highest point in the Deep Creek Mountains the world falls away at weird angles. The air is cold like a trout stream but far off on the desert the Earth shimmers under heat waves - every indication so far says we are going to have a blistering summer here in northern Utah. Down below, five, six, seven even eight thousand vertical feet down everything looks flat and two-dimensional. To the west is the settlement of Ibapah, the Toana Mountains and points west into Nevada. To the north, mostly blocked by other peaks, is Pilot Peak, an imposing landmark. To the south the view is again blocked by mountains but to the east are the big mountains of northern Utah and in front of them the smaller ranges of the West Desert - the Thomas, the Dugway, the Fish Springs, the Swasey. Off to the northeast are the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake Desert.
From down there, these Deep Creek Mountains don't look like much. A few thin snowy peaks, some trees, maybe, a few canyons. But from there, the mountains look as two-dimensional as the desert appears from the mountains. I know this is going to sound old, because I seem to say this about every range I visit, but the Deep Creeks really are one of my favorite mountain ranges. Maybe it is because once in them they are not two-dimensional at all. They are as deep and complex as any range of mountains, really, as fascinating and wild.
Today I walk along Indian Farm Creek with Porter, bushwhacking through the stream then scrambling over rocks then diving through scratchy brush. There are only a handful of trails in the Deep Creeks. Even saying a handful probably gives the wrong impression. And even when you have a trail it is likely to just fade into brush. That is the way this trail is. It began as a jeep trail, narrowed into an off-road vehicle track, then went single-track then went into nothingness.
I was in here once before, with Chip Ward, a friend of mine from Grantsville. We came in on a Sunday afternoon after spending two days in Granite Canyon, several drainages south. We did not have a whole lot of time to spend but what I did see of the canyon was tantalizing. Smooth rock, mixed climax forest, no trace of cattle or really even of humans. Just the white noise of the creek and the sound of flies buzzing in the afternoon. Besides all the smooth rock and the verdant stream what I remember most was that the canyon, after about a mile, seemed impenetrable. Up top, several thousand feet higher, I could see gracious open slopes and aspen forests and green hillsides, but the middle of the canyon seemed to be choked by the stream, a thick forest, and the cliffs. But like I said we didn't look too hard before calling it a day. (Incidentally, we drove home on the Pony Express Route, somehow took a wrong turn, and nearly, I mean very nearly, ran out of gas in the desert. What saved us was smooth talking our way onto Dugway Proving Ground and buying gas at the C-store. Relying on Dugway for gas, by the way, is highly unrecommended.)
That weekend Chip and I had both come away impressed not just with the complexity of the Deep Creeks, but also their beauty, utter isolation, and brute strength. Tonight, as I sit here writing this, I can't help but wonder what it must be like to be back in them.
Today, with more time, I was hoping to find a way up the mountain. I didn't, but sure had a nice time trying. Actually, if I had had a partner I might have been able to get up the cliffs. They are really not too steep - you could probably chimney your way up some gaps or just get into some tough bouldering, but that's a dangerous thing to be doing alone. (Porter, nice as he is, could not drive the truck and summon help.) So I pronounce the canyon impenetrable (someone has to do it) and take the long way out, scanning down in front of me for rattle snakes and up along the cliffs for mountain lions (one I don't want to see, the other I do.) I don't see rattle snakes but at one point I do think I see a mountain lion - way up on a cliff, hunched down, watching me. I stood for five minutes looking up at it but it didn't move, and I began to suspect it wasn't a mountain lion but instead a ledgey-sort of rock resembling one. I've never seen a mountain lion in the wild, and I'll have to go at least one more day before I do.
I was watching for rattle snakes because Susan Claridge told me there were a lot out this spring. The fact that I am even in Indian Farm Canyon, actually, is because Susan Claridge mentioned it was a nice place to go and I thought I ought to go back. I had gone to Susan's house in Callao because I wanted to visit her husband Rex. The two of them have just opened a sort of dude ranch in Callao. Not only is it one of the only dude ranches in western Utah but it is also the first commercial business to open in Callao in decades. Callao is the tiny community - we're talking maybe two dozen live here - at the base of the Deep Creeks and along both the Pony Express Trail and the Lincoln Highway (more on these later).
(No, I don't know what the name means other than there is a city in South America named Callao; the Callao, Utah is pronounced Calh-E-O) is one of the most isolated communities in North America. The nearest paved road is 60 miles away, and from there it is another 45 miles at least before you get to anyplace where you could buy, say, a new pair of shoes or a faucet washer or a shovel. Of course, no one to my knowledge is being forced to live in Callao, so don't start feeling sorry for these folks. I mean, they live here for a reason, you know? Callao isn't the sort of place you wind up in on accident.
Anyway, Rex wasn't home but I spent an hour or so with Susan talking about the ranch and her efforts to get the operation on-line (try www.doublejranches.com if you want to see how it's coming, but just to warn you Susan said she is not exactly eager to have a bunch of people staying at the ranch) and then we shared a Pepsi and some fig newtons and just talked about things in general, which was extra nice, since I really don't even know her. One person we talked about briefly was Jay Banta, the refuge manager over at Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge - about 25 miles from here - where I had been photographing waterfowl earlier in the day. It was Jay who suggested I talk to Rex, actually, and Jay is a really cool dude, and in a week or two I'm going to tell you all about him. And if you get the feeling that this story is gyrating in one huge circle then ... then ... then ...
This story was really supposed to be about the Pony Express Route. Excuse me for digressing.
It seems unlikely William Russell had history in mind when in the late 1850s the Kansas stage and freight company owner went to Washington, D.C. and entered into negotiations with the federal government on the prospect of delivering mail overland from the East Coast to the West.
There were many factors coming into play at this time. For starters, gold had been discovered in California and a significant number of people were living there already. To get mail to them it had to be shipped down the Gulf of Mexico, by mule across Panama, and by ship again up to California. That journey took six weeks easily. But more than just the time factor, Washington wanted to establish a stronger connection with California at a time when states were being divvied up by the Civil War - Washington wanted California on their side, and supplying them with news and information as fast as possible was a way to do so.
Initially, the stage route included 50 coaches and went about 800 miles but by February, 1860 the line was extended from Salt Lake City across Utah and Nevada to California. The stage cut down on mail delivery time substantially but the financial losses were staggering and no government subsidies came through. Russell and his two partners needed something to promote their route and found it in the 80 or so riders who would eventually make up the Pony Express Route.
The idea behind the Pony Express was simple: hire young tough kids, put them on fast horses, set up a series of one-stop stations across the desert, and let 'em go.
The Pony Express Trail began, really, in Missouri, which at the time was still sort of on the frontier, and ran west up the Platte and Sweetwater rivers, through South Pass to Salt Lake City, out across the Utah and Nevada deserts, and up and over the Sierra Nevadas to California. Riders had to weight 120 pounds or less and were allows only 25 pounds of equipment including four mail pouches sewn in leather across the saddle, a light rifle, a Colt revolver and a Bible. Riders wore bright red shirts and blue pants and at first carried small brass horns to announce their arrival, though these were soon discarded. At its peak, the Pony Express used 420 horses to cover the 1,900 miles from St. Joseph to Sacramento. The ride took an average of ten days, went seven miles per hour, and each rider rode between 60 and 120 miles. Riders earned $120 to $125 per month. Home stations were 60 miles apart and swing stations about 12 miles apart. East station had two agents, one station keeper and one assistant.
One of the most important desert stations was at Simpson Springs, roughly halfway between Lehi and the Nevada border. This station was built not by Russell and his pals but by George Chorpenning, who was the first to use the Overland Route for mail delivery between Salt Lake and Sacramento. Chorpenning began the task of building stations along the route but his business never really got off the ground. Rather, after only a year, Russell and his company had purchased the stations and horses. But even under Russell, Simpson Springs remained important. Named for a government explorer who passed through here looking for an overland route, the springs were tapped and the water shipped to points west - stations which otherwise would have been dry. Later, during the Depression, the Civilian Conservation Corps used this site for barracks, a mess hall, a recreation hall and even a swimming pool for the young men who worked on the range and the road. Those buildings were removed when World War II began.
Though the Pony Express operated for less than two years, the glamour and romance of it still lives. In October, 1861 the Pony Express was officially terminated, made obsolete by the telegraph. Eight weeks by ship, ten days by Pony Express, four hours by telegraph. Even with the exorbitant prices - $4 an ounce at one point - the Pony Express never made a profit. It would be wrong to call it a failure though. Anything that has figured so prominently into American history and folklore could not be a failure. And anyway, California stayed in the Union.
Pony Express Oath of Employment:
I _____ do hereby swear, before the great and living God, that during my engagement, and while I am an employee of Russell, Majors & Waddell, I will, under no circumstances, use profane language. I will drink no intoxicating liquors; I will not quarrel or fight with any other employee of the firm, and that in every respect, I will conduct myself honestly, faithful to my duties, and so direct my acts as to win the confidence of my employers. So help me God.
Travelers with a trusty vehicle, a day or two, and a healthy appetite for dust can follow the Pony Express Route across western Utah. Begin in Lehi and travel west on state Route 73to Camp Floyd at Fairfield, then continue west into Tooele County and to Faust. West of Faust visit the Pony Express Trail visitor information site (just off the road) then continue west to Simpson Springs, a restored station, where there is also a campground and drinking water. More ruins dot the trail west from here including those at Fish Springs (a wildlife refuge), Boyd Station, Callao, and Canyon Station. Follow the trail (it is marked the entire way) to Ibapah and into Nevada.
Persons unfamiliar with desert driving may want to take some precautions. The condition of the road depends on your background. If you are from, say New York City, the road will probably appear atrocious. If you hail from a more rural area, it may seem just fine. You can maintain highway speeds along the graded dirt surface much of the way, though take care in the mountains, on curves, and during inclement weather. Though the majority of the time the weather in western Utah is clear, winter storms can be intense. Temperatures range from zero to 105 degrees. Services are available in Lehi, Tooele and Wendover. Gas can be purchased in Vernon, Stockton and Ibapah though during regular business hours only - and probably not on Sundays. There are now overnight accommodations available in Callao - ask around once you are in town. Camping is available at Simpson Springs and near Callao or anywhere on public lands. Carry extra water and food and understand that traffic on the route can be light and help a long ways off.
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