“No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man”
Heraclitus – Greek Philosopher 544 BC
I wanted to take a break from the interesting but stuffy historical information we have been covering the last few weeks and talk about the landscape Captain Simpson explored and pioneers like George Chorpenning operated his “Jackass Mail” in our amazing West Desert.
I had the opportunity to go out into the desert for several days last week and just like the above quote…..the desert is always and never the same. It never shows you the same face each time you visit. The section of trail I chose to explore was from Government Creek in the west to Faust or Meadow Creek in the east as it is an easy thing for me to bolt out onto the trail after work at Dugway Proving Ground.
It was one of those summer afternoons where after a brutally hot afternoon, the clouds massed together over a certain area, grew ominously dark and then unleashed howling winds and rain driving in sheets that soaked the desert and created puddles and streams. It generally turned a large portion of the desert to mud. When this happens it’s as if you can sense and feel the desert and all of its plants and creatures collectively exhale a sigh of relief as they have been granted a short reprieve from the blistering dry summer heat.
Have you ever smelled sagebrush or juniper after the rain? They have their own distinct aromas but the water seems to bring them to life and intensify their essence. In the case of sagebrush, its wonderful smell fills the desert. This time of year, battalions of sunflowers stand tall in thick bunches on the edges of the road. When you look past them to the mountains it creates a beautiful scene.
I stopped for a while near the Erickson Pass Road/Pony Express Trail junction in the middle of Skull/ Porter Valley and admired how the orange sunlight burned through sheets of dark rain way off in the distance around Granite Mountain. I also looked at the rock slides on the cone of Davis Mountain and remembered one time in January many years ago when my wife and I climbed across them to the summit.
As I stood there, the sunlight then broke full through the clouds to the west but only enough to completely light up Red Pine Mountain in the Sheeprock Range behind me to the east. I thought about how fires over the last several years ravaged that mountain’s ancient island fir forests, burning trees that were possibly hundreds of years old and destroying a truly unique environment.
These were sad thoughts because I realized that these trees will never grow back in our lifetime. I then watched a few antelope grazing off towards the base of Davis Mountain for a while and then got back in my truck and drove towards Lookout Pass. As I approached I noticed a piece of a rainbow forming over the top of Rock Canyon Peak and Black Mountain. The dusty blue of the sage and bright green of the Junipers were intensified after the rain and together with the tan cheatgrass and light gray limestone, all the colors made a truly remarkable scene.
I continued on up to Lookout Pass and arrived just in time for a spectacular sunset across the desert. As darkness closed in the crickets started to chirp and some night birds were talking to each other. It was totally calm and windless up there. Back in 1860 this place was known as General Johnston’s Pass — so named by Captain James H. Simpson in honor of General Sidney Albert Johnston, Commander of Camp Floyd. The name however changed during the Pony Express time and the legend goes that the Pony Express Rider heading west passed the Express Rider heading east at the Western base of the pass and yelled “Lookout!” because he had just been attacked by Indians in the pass.
Up there in the pass, at an elevation of 6,192 feet, you have a great view down on the area where Lookout Station was located back in the day. There are several opportunities for primitive hiking here. First, if you head straight north up over the road embankment you will see a two track road that climbs the mountain a ways and then peters out. If you follow this road it will put you on track to reach the summit of the mountain above the pass and then you can ridge walk through juniper skeletons from a long ago fire across the limestone to the summit of Black Mountain. This mountain gets its name from the dense carpet of juniper trees that cover it from base to summit when viewed from the west.
Back down in the pass, a foot path leads through a few boulders past a decaying picnic table to an old two track road that heads over to the base of the mountain and then winds its way down the hills and comes out right behind the old pet cemetery near the Lookout Station Site. This trail used to be a lot more enjoyable as it passed through some dense juniper but a fire several years ago charred the mountainside bear here. It is still a nice walk in the evening time and if you visit the pet cemetery and Lookout Station site you can walk back up the road about a mile to the pass making a nice loop.
After sunset, I went back down to the station site and sat on the concrete edge of the pet cemetery for a while and thought about the history of the place. The name “Pet Cemetery’’ always bothers me because although it’s true, Aunt Libby Rockwell buried her dogs here, there are also 3 humans buried there too. Apparently two men and a child, emigrants in the 1860s, died while camped near Lookout Station and the family buried them here. I thought about this some more while looking up at the star filled sky and then I headed back down into Skull Valley for a night time hike.
I parked my truck near the junction of the Erickson Pass Road/Pony Express Trail, grabbed my rucksack and some water and headed west along the Pony Express Trail towards Government Creek. As always, the stars were incredible. There was no moon so they stood out brightly against the black like diamonds. The hazy mist like stripe of stars that is the milky way trended from the top of the sky down behind the Indian Peaks in the Simpson Range and it was a scene that made me just stop and stare in awe out there in the dark silence.
As I walked along, all was still. The sunflowers on the road side were unmoving and it seemed as if they were painted on the scene. There was no wind and the only sound in that desert was the crunch of gravel under my boot. Looking up at the sky I realized that thousands of those stars were simply ghost light from stars that burned out a billion years ago and their light is just now reaching us here on earth.
I walked down into Government Creek and along the way admired the bright conspicuous Ursa Major constellation which is better known as the “Big Dipper,” and how it was positioned in the heavens as if it would dump its contents onto the summit of Davis Mountain Round Top.
I thought about the ghosts of Native Americans, emigrants and others who perished in the desert in this area as I walked back to my truck through the dark night under the starry ghost light. I thought about how the Pony Express riders would charge through the dark on their Mustangs and wondered how they kept the trail in the black? It is likely that the Mustangs knew the route well and the rider let the horse have its head as it knew where the next stable was and was hell bent on getting “back to the barn” but who knows for sure. I arrived back at my truck at about 1 a.m., thankful for another amazing adventure in the desert.
If you ever go exploring out in the desert — day or night, make sure you are prepared with plenty of food and water. Make sure you review a map before you go and take one with you. Road signs in the desert are helpful but vandals knock ‘em down from time to time and they can’t be depended on.
Never go alone if you can help it and if you do, tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return. The desert is beautiful in every season. Get out there and enjoy it if you can but be safe.
Jaromy Jessop has been a frequent contributing writer to the Transcript Bulletin. He enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for the West Deseret 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.