It’s kooky how junk food can get you to think and feel sometimes, especially Peanut M&Ms and a Coke on a road trip. If you’re curious about where I’m headed with this, you’re not alone. I’d like to know, too.
So let’s see where this goes.
I often hear local residents praise the scenery and outdoor pursuits of Tooele County’s eastern half. The camping, horseback and ATV riding, and other quests of adventure found in the Stansbury and Oquirrh mountains, are truly four stars. If you’ve ever stood on the summit of 11,031 foot-high Deseret Peak, you’re likely nodding in agreement.
But a two-finger peace sign is the number of times over the past 32 years during which I recall hearing a local talk with zeal about Tooele County’s other half.
Other half? Actually, it’s more like the county’s other two-thirds. It’s that gargantuan place — some 4,000 square-miles big — between Delle and Wendover that is often referred to with contempt, disrespect or disinterest as the “West Desert.” Or as I once heard a local citizen articulate with rawhide elocution, “That good-fer-nothin,’ butt-ugly, dust ‘n’ mud hole.”
The first time I heard a local talk with passion about the West Desert was from Cozetta “Cozie” Castagno. She was a well-known and adored matriarch of Vernon, and former owner of the hamlet’s iconic Silver Sage Cafe. In an interview at her cafe before her retirement years ago, Castagno fondly reminisced about her life at the foot of the Sheeprock Mountains, and serving the cafe’s famous smothered burritos to hungry farmers, ranchers, hunters — and a few famous people, too. And while sharing her stories, she looked west, like she was trying to peer over the top of Lookout Pass, and said, “I love that old desert out there.”
The second time came last July at a lively Tooele County Planning Commission meeting. On the table was a proposed conditional use permit for Stericycle, the medical waste incineration company that is being forced by the state to relocate from North Salt Lake to the west side of Stansbury Bay near U.S. Magnesium.
During the meeting’s public comment period, a citizen said that Stericycle and other local hazardous waste and disposal companies were a good use of the county’s West Desert, which he described as “empty, useless land that is perfect for putting this kind of waste on.”
His words lit a fuse in planning commission member Lynn Butterfield. He looked at the citizen and said, “There is no worthless land in Tooele County, and shame on you for thinking our land is useless.”
Butterfield’s retort was an unexpected surprise. It also made me smile. Until that meeting, I had never heard or read such a public rebuke by an official to defend our West Desert. And how did the planning commission vote? Stericycle got its permit — but barely. The 3-2 decision suggests a change may be afoot in the county’s ethos toward waste disposal and treatment companies.
But does such a possible character shift in county culture also suggest that more citizens may someday begin to see the West Desert — or its proper name, the Great Salt Lake Desert — as a rare, geomorphic feature to praise instead of decry, to sanctify instead of desecrate? Rather than see it as “empty and useless,” and only suitable for humanity’s taboo industries and military operations that don’t quite fit in at the nearby business park, will locals someday exalt it for what the Great Salt Lake Desert truly is, and like Butterfield, scold anyone who says otherwise?
And what, just exactly, do I mean by is?
I recently drove to and from Wendover for a photo assignment. It was midday when I left the newsroom and early evening when I drove back. To make sure I didn’t get hungry, or do a post-lunch nap at 80 mph (don’t ignore those “No Drowsy Driver” signs on I-80), I bought a bag of Peanut M&Ms and a Coke.
I enjoyed the candy and pop for the 220-mile, round-trip jaunt, but I didn’t need the elixir of sugar and caffeine to stay alert. Although I’ve seen it countless times at eye-level and while airborne, the panorama that filled my windshield inspired a quiet, contemplative mood that I wish I could return to at will.
What for some if not most I-80 motorists is prosaic, sterile, coma-inducing landscape, the county’s Great Salt Lake Desert to me is a sublime tableau that illustrates the Earth’s quirks of placement and shape. But being a geological and geographical phenomenon is only part of its allure.
The Great Salt Lake Desert’s mostly flat, treeless realm is beguiling, yet it elicits truth. The flatness and heat mirage bends the earth — and one’s perspective, too. The Earth’s crust here seems to alter gravity, light and even time. It’s a place where one feels like they can skip off the Earth into oblivion.
Or where the horizon ends, simply teeter off.
In life wouldn’t it be nice at times to clearly see what lies ahead and behind? And even to the sides? That’s what the Great Salt Lake Desert does for me. Its open, endless expanse pulls at the senses, urging you to turn over those stones you’ve ignored for so long, and deprived your soul of reprieve and repair. No distractions. No white noise or nonsense. No trees to block the view. It’s just the Earth — and you.
For some, that may be the source of their aversion toward the Great Salt Lake Desert. It has nothing to do with its Great Basin region aesthetic, but has everything to do with what the land asks of the beholder. For many, such a journey inward is an unwelcome one.
But next time you make the drive to Wendover and back on I-80, look. Really look. Experience the flat, long view. Take in how the sunlight bends things. And know that not all wild, transformative places require pine trees, brooks and mountains. If anything, come and see what Lake Bonneville’s waves left behind.
Like Cozzie Castagno, I love that desert out there. I admire it and try not to take it for granted. I wish more locals did, too.