Editor’s note: This is another installment in a multi-part series on exploring the Pony Express Trail through Tooele County. Last week’s article continued a review of Fish Springs National Wildlife Refuge.
“Experience is a hard teacher because she gives the test first, the lesson afterwards.”
—Vernon Sanders Law
I took a drive out to Fish Springs Wildlife Refuge the other evening to appreciate summer travel in the West Desert along the Pony Express Trail.
The air conditioner in my old pickup truck doesn’t work, so it quickly got hot in the cab. As I flew along the dirt road, a plume of chalky dust exploded behind my truck. When I stopped, there was fine dust all over my shell and bumper. It also was inside my cab, on my camera and in my mouth and nose.
Climate wise, not much has changed between now and 155 years ago when Samuel Clemens, otherwise known as “Mark Twain,” crossed our West Desert and visited Fish Springs. In his book “Roughing It,” Twain described the toils of traveling on the Overland Stage in 1862.
The “Concord” stage that he rode in was often packed full of people with more people and luggage packed on top. The contraption had leather strap springs that allowed the “Box” to sway back and forth to absorb shock while traveling along the bumpy trail. Just like my pickup truck, there was no air conditioning, only burlap flaps that covered the windows.
The following excerpt from “Roughing It” describes the journey to Fish Springs:
“The mules under violent swearing, coaxing and whip cracking, would make at stated intervals a “spurt” and drag the coach a hundred or maybe two hundred yards, stirring up a billowy cloud of dust that rolled back enveloping the vehicle to the wheel tops or higher, and making it seem afloat in a fog. Then a rest followed with the usual sneezing and bit chomping. Then another spurt of a hundred yards and another rest at the end of it. All day long we kept this up without water for the mules or ever changing the team. At least we kept it up for 10 hours, which I take it is a day, and a pretty honest one, in a alkali desert. It was from 4 in the morning till 2 in the afternoon. And it was so hot and so close, and our water canteens went dry in the middle of the day and we got so thirsty. It was so stupid and tiresome and dull.”
Twain stated in his recollections that our West Desert was known as the “Great American Desert.” He was excited to be there and to look upon a land that was completely different from anything he had ever seen.
He stated that this “Metropolis” of deserts was 68 miles of alkali with only one break in it (Fish Springs) 45 miles from the start (Simpson Springs) and 25 miles from the end of it (Willow Springs).
According to Twain, travel across the desert was easy enough by night, but when the sun rose, the novelty and all excitement withered under the baking sun.
He wrote: “It was so trying to give ones watch a good long undisturbed spell and then take it out and find it had been fooling away the time and not trying to get any ahead. The alkali dust cut through our lips, it persecuted our eyes, it ate through the delicate membranes and made our noses bleed. Imagine ash drifts roosting above mustaches and eyebrows like snow accumulation on boughs and bushes.”
Next, imagine how those stage coaches rumbled across the desert, or in the case of Twain’s mule-drawn coach, dragged, prodded and kicked 100 meters at a time. You never knew who would be on them either. Actors and actresses, federal judges, famous explorers, authors, congressmen, businessmen etc., would all be crammed in the box or on top of the stage. Passengers got to know each other quite well. Imagine how muggy it must have been in there and the awful smells. Those burlap windows would have likely been down to keep the dust out but they would have failed miserably at that task, succeeding only in raising the temperature inside and darkening the interior.
Travel discomfort aside, the passengers also had to worry about the threat of Indians on the trail or even worse, white bandits who wanted “The Box,” which was where the stage driver or messenger (guard) would keep the money, gold and other valuables that may be transported for individuals or businesses, such as Wells Fargo.
In his book “Humboldt High Road of the West,” Dale Morgan stated that sometimes stage drivers condescended to reassure nervous passengers stating: “Now don’t you worry, the stagecoach company is rich and responsible. If anything happens they’ll pay your heirs without sweating or bucking a hair.”
Morgan also said that most of the stagecoach drivers had no aversion to “throwing down the box” if a bandit wearing a handkerchief jumped out from behind a boulder, as many of them considered it not their fight.
Some brave pioneers worked as messengers for the Overland Mail Company in the West Desert and they likely weren’t cowards. Many of them pioneered the route the stage followed. One of them was George Washington Boyd. Boyd eventually established a stage station beyond Fish Springs. For several years, he had a contract to keep the West Desert stage stations supplied with water and wood for cooking fires and heat.
If you travel the Pony Express Trail today to Fish Springs, I hope your air conditioner works. When you get out there, be prepared because as Twain warned, you will be in the “middle” of the Great American Desert, 105 miles from Tooele and 104 miles from Wendover.
Also, make sure you have plenty of water, fuel, food and a medical kit. Don’t travel too fast or you risk losing control of your vehicle on the gravel road. Accidents out on the desert are catastrophic because there is no cell service and any emergency services, even if you could contact them, are hours away.
Also, I am always armed when I go that far out in the desert. I trust people generally, but I trust them a lot more when I am armed. This time of year snakes, black widow spiders and scorpions are encountered in the dirt, rocks and sage, so be careful.
The view of the sun-blasted Fish Springs Range, the area’s strange geology, and the unexpected oasis of Fish Springs Wildlife Refuge, make it all worth it. So get out there and enjoy the amazing anomaly that is our “Great American Desert.”
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 and his family live in Park.