Monday, June 23, 2008

Road Trip: Central Utah & Nine Mile Canyon

A few weeks ago my wife and I went on a brief road trip—we took a three day weekend and drove into central Utah. We started on a Saturday morning with not much of an itinerary, except get out of the city. We took I-15 south from Salt Lake until we reached the small town of Nephi; then we continued on SR 28 into the heart of Utah. We ate at a tiny burger joint in Levan—a town that boasts a handful of residents and not much else—that served burgers the old fashioned way: plenty of meat, fresh and crisp lettuce, tomato and onion, and a slather of rich mayonnaise. And the shakes were fantastic. I had cookies and cream, with plenty of both.

We then took Chicken Creek Road east and were delighted with what we found. The road narrowed and changed from pavement to dirt and wound from the valley floor to the ridge-top of the San Pitch Mountains. There were several small campgrounds—each nearly empty—and a gently bubbling creek carrying run-off down to the valley flats. We found a wide-spot on the road and spent a few hours scrambling across the spring-green meadows and scrub oak hillsides.

The air smelled like it should; fresh, crisp, dry and heavy with pine and sage. The small animals rustled through the undergrowth and birds chirped and whistled. It was pure joy; the kind of peace that carries awhile. When work grates I can still close my eyes and remember the creek-gurgle, sweet smell mountain air, and the innocent rustle of animals.

The rest of the day was spent gliding down SR 28 through small towns I hadn’t seen since I was a boy—Gunnison, the home of a recently built prison, Centerfield, Axtell, Redmond, and Salina. Redmond holds a special place in my heart because my grandparents spent their retirement in a beat-up old trailer near the center of town. I can remember making the long drive three or four times a year with my mother at the wheel of her old car. In winter deer and antelope sprawled across the flat open meadows along the highway feeding. The high and majestic rise of mountain ranges as backdrop.

My grandparents; what can I say about them? They were special and sometimes scary people to a little boy who saw them only occasionally, but as an adult I have only warm memories. They spent the years prior to retirement herding sheep in the wild and dry backcountry of Utah. My grandfather was gruff, but in a warm and sincere manner that tended to draw people in rather than push them away. And damn if they weren’t in love. They would bicker and snipe at each other, but the way they looked at each other communicated nothing but kindness and admiration. They were comfortable with their lives and each other. Needless to say I couldn’t just drive through. We took the scenic route into Redmond and found my grandparents old trailer. It was there; older, and in disrepair, but still there.

In Salina we caught I-70 westbound and stopped for the night in the small town of Richfield—home to something like 7,500 people and by far the largest town in the area. We stayed in a Days Inn business suite and paid a scant $50. That evening we ate dinner at a small diner in town with an unusual smell. It was something like the chlorine from a swimming pool, and while the food wasn’t bad the feeling that I was eating off a diving board didn’t do much for the experience.

The following day we stole several dozen miles east on I-70 through the Fishlake National Forest before we caught SR 10 north towards Price. SR 10 is a scrawny highway that runs deep into Utah’s coal producing country—last summer a mine collapsed in Huntington, a small town not far removed from SR 10, that killed eight miners and proved the mine owner eccentric and maybe just a little peculiar (and that’s being nice). Our destination; an ancient canyon called Nine Mile.

The name is a misnomer because the canyon stretches some 40 miles and is filled with cattle ranches and endowed with vast reserves of natural gas. Nine Mile has been home to two distinct native tribes; the Fremont and Utes. Its isolation also made it an ideal spot as a haven for outlaws on the run and later, when the US Army opened Fort Duschene in the Uinta Basin, it was used as the primary freight line between the fort and railhead in Price. The canyon has a rich and varied history and much of it is still visible in the ruins and rock art scattered across the landscape.

The Fremont band had the longest tenure in Nine Mile Canyon. They arrived sometime in the tenth century and are comparable to the Anasazi from the four corners area. The major difference; the Fremont had a more sedentary lifestyle due to a type of maze they developed that was hardy and resistant to drought. The Fremont left a treasure trove of artifacts. Their homes and structures can be found along the canyon walls, as well as an impressive array of petroglyphs, much of it accessible from the dusty road.

We were in Nine Mile on a Sunday and it was relatively quiet. I’ve been told during the week when trucks are running up and down the canyon it is dusty and miserable, but we had a great time. We stopped at several locations and looked at the well-preserved rock art and hiked into the cliffs looking for treasure. We didn’t find any other than the hundreds-year-old writings and that was enough. It was impressive and humbling to see the writing of an ancient people; their hopes, dreams and very likely their fears chipped from the rocky surface. It is much like our own literature and no less important to their culture as literature is to ours.

Nine Mile Canyon is well worth the drive, and a place that I'll visit again, but next time I’ll give myself a few more days to explore its hidden treasures. And maybe bone up on its rich history, but I know it’ll be sometime in the early-Spring or late-Fall; the summer months are too hot and the winter is too damn cold.

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