“The places are still there — But to truly understand what happened, you have to get up in the Mountains, out on the plains and into the Desert and see for Yourself”
I’m sitting here at the edge of a large patch of sunflowers in the stillness of the desert twilight listening to occasional bird song and whoosh of the light wind through the grass. I’m at the southern foot of Davis Mountain on an ancient gravel swale, a ghostly fingerprint of Lake Bonneville, similar to the Stockton Bar and I am looking straight south at the Simpson Mountains and the Indian Peaks in particular. The scene through the sunflowers across Government Creek towards the base of the Indian Peaks is something that I could sit and stare at for quite a while. Back in the days of the Overland Stage and Pony Express these peaks were simply known as Indian Mountain and in my opinion, as you approach them from the east when crossing Skull Valley after emerging from Lookout Pass, they form one of the most wonderful mountain views along the Pony Express Trail.
Went for a walk along a desert two track and noticed a thick lone cedar stump that must have been cut long ago and wondered if old Peg Leg Davis chopped it off to feed his stove fire in the winter at his telegraph station that was located near here back in the 1860s. By the time I got back to my camp, it was completely dark. The stars have come out and I can hear a few groups of coyotes screaming awful calls to each other. Some are very faint and others much closer. Kind of disturbing to hear that out in the dark but the likelihood of any of them messing with me is very low so I’m not worried.
So I have an old green camp chair and a computer lap desk that I put my tablet on so I can write articles and things out in the middle of nowhere. Sitting in my front row seat at the theatre of the desert at night, I noticed the literally other worldly sight of the cloud like swath of stars that is the milky way galaxy stretching from one end of the horizon near Johnsons Pass all the way across the sky and terminating right into the pointed summit of Indian Mountain.
Kinda surreal close encounters of the 3rd kind type of scene. Imagine a completely still and silent desert where the flash of an aircraft beacon seems to shatter the silence with its strobe without making any sound. I looked around the sky and saw 3 or 4 other flashing strobes of far off aircraft and then watched a series of two dozen satellites marching across the sky in a row, Elon Musk’s Starlink no doubt, and I reflected on how much the world has changed and how much of that change you can notice even in the lonely desert if you stop and pay attention.
While pondering these things in the dark, I was startled to hear a horse blow air through its nose, and quite close. This shocked me because it is so quiet out here I should have heard that large animal approaching from a ways off but I heard nothing of its approach. It kinda creeped me out so I got up and walked out into the dark talking loudly and telling the horse to go away. I then got back to writing and about 15 minutes later, I heard the snort again and once again had to shoo that horse away. Kinda strange that there is a solitary horse wandering around the desert and one that is interested or mischievous enough to walk up on me more than once.
It’s only 9:34 p.m. now but it is completely dark. Amazing how quickly the seasons change and how the sunset comes much earlier in late summer and fall. Ghostly wandering horses, screaming coyotes and starlink satellites aside, the real thing I wanted to focus on in this article is Indian Mountain. I took a drive after work last week out into Skull Valley with the intent of heading towards the Indian Peaks in the Simpson Range because I wanted to see if there was any water still flowing in Government Creek. As I drove down Skull Valley towards the Pony Express Trail I noticed several Pronghorn Antelope off to the west and one beautiful buck in particular.
This animal was silhouetted against the backdrop of the Davis Mountain Round top pyramid and it made a scene worthy of a National Geographic Magazine. The colors of his brown and white coat were vivid in the stark clear atmosphere of the coming sunset and the last golden light was reflecting off his shiny black horns. He stood proud and statue-like looking towards me with a weary eye. What a magnificent animal.
A little bit further on, I noticed a small band of horses off to the east in the valley so I parked my vehicle and walked out across the flat through the desert shrubbery to the Horses. There was a charcoal colored stallion that looked like he had been rolling in the mud somewhere and he had numerous battle scars on his coat. He snorted, stamped his feet and took off across the desert at a run almost a quarter mile away and then came charging back around. This was his way of informing me that he was in charge and this was his band of horses. There were a few nice looking bays, a black colt and a gorgeous white and brown paint in the group. I got a great picture of a buckskin with Deseret Peak rising behind in the fading light. After a while the horses got tired of me and took off at a trot towards the Onaqui Mountains.
I then looked to the west and admired a brilliant golden sunset over the ranges of the west desert as I walked back to my vehicle and then continued on. I crossed over the Pony Express Trail and continued south towards Government Spring on the Erickson Pass road and then I stopped in my tracks dumbfounded by the scene before me to the west. The entire desert was seemingly covered with a dense carpet of yellow sunflowers. I always enjoy the battalions of sunflowers that line each side of the roads out in the desert in late summer and fall but I had never seen anything like this. The proliferation of these plants certainly has to do with the fact that the desert received a tremendous amount of precipitation this year. With the purple bulk of Indian Mountain as a backdrop, this made for a spellbinding scene.
I noticed a railroad rail historical marker and walked over to read it. These T-shaped markers have been placed at various points throughout the desert by the Oregon and California Trails Association and they have pioneer or early explorers observations and journal entries on metal plates tacked to them. These are amazing things to come upon in the desert and I applaud that group for putting them out here. This one read “This is Government Springs and it is several miles off the road but we were obliged to come here for water and it is a fine place to lay over and recruit before crossing the desert,” George Harter 1864.
I thought about those pioneers who crossed this wilderness back in the day and wondered what they thought of the silent beauty of the desert that I often gaze upon. I went a little bit past the Government Spring OCTA marker and then turned west and crossed the now dry bed of Government Creek on my way over to the base of the Indian Peaks. Typing here in the dark I just got buzzed by a giant moth. The whir of his wings was pretty loud and a very peculiar noise. Now there is a coyote calling and it is a bit closer … but I digress, back to the trip the other evening. I stopped my vehicle on the brow of a long ridge and got out of the truck and was shocked to hear the maddening loud noise of a thousand crickets. They were definitely living large on that ridge.
The two track I was on steadily climbed and then dropped into the large wide draw of Lee Canyon Creek. When I reached the culvert where the road crosses the creek, I stopped and shut down the truck to see if I could hear water in the stream because it was totally dark now. Sure enough, I heard the roiling churn of running water and it’s a noise that makes a person feel good in the silence of the desert. I decided that the meadow beyond the culvert was as good a place as any to camp so I stopped there and got out to have a look around. There were a few black cows in the area that didn’t appreciate sharing the area and they wandered off.
I think it is good that someone is somehow making use of these parts of the desert where there is not much other use but the trampling of plants, cow pies everywhere, dust and flies that come along with them is a bothersome and unpleasant thing. Looking north over the low ridge I could see the Big Dipper over Davis Mountain and feel the cool air coming down out of the canyon. Good thing about the high desert is that even on the hottest days, the night brings cool relief down from the mountain tops at the end of the day.
Before I went to sleep, I thought about how Col. Patrick Edward Connor and his troops cut the road over the Simpson Mountains that I was now camping beside in 1862 on their way to watch over or antagonize the Mormons – depending on how you look at it — during the Civil War. I also thought about how Porter Rockwell raised horses in this valley, Peg Leg Davis ran a Telegraph Station, the Pony Express Riders charged along the trail and Emigrants went out of their way to find the water the Simpson Mountains and Sheeprock provided before heading out on the desert.
In next week’s article we will dig into more of what happened back in the day out here at the southern end of Skull Valley in the shadow of Indian Mountain.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Desert with our readers. Jessop grew up exploring the mountains and deserts of Utah and has traveled to all 50 states, U.S. Territories and a dozen foreign countries. He can be followed on Facebook at “JD Jessop” and on his Facebook group “American Tales & Trails.” Jessop retains the rights to his writing and photographs. His permission is required for any republication.