“No matter what our differences are, we all look up at the same moon.” —Katrina Mayer
Outdoor adventure doesn’t always work out the way you intend, but if you’re prepared, you can get through any situation and survive to explore another day.
I had such an adventure a few weeks ago that seemed like a great idea at the time, but I ended up getting more than I bargained for. One evening after work, I decided to go for a moonlit mountain bike ride on the Pony Express Trail, which is one of Tooele County’s most amazing historical and physical features. That night there was a full moon and I wanted to take advantage of it.
To get to my start point, I turned south off of SR-199 just before Dugway Proving Ground’s main gate and followed that gravel road for approximately 10 miles to the Pony Express Trail and the junction with Erickson Pass Road. I found a reasonable place to park my truck near a road condition warning sign and unhooked my mountain bike from the back of my truck. It was a warm, dry and clear night, so I took my lunch bag and threw in a couple apples, carrots, a can of ravioli, two bottles of water and a flashlight, and then headed west along the Pony Express Trail.
My goal was to ride from there to Simpson Springs and back, but because it was already 10 p.m., I instead decided to ride over to nearby Government Creek and explore that area. The road is rocky, bumpy and dusty. I have nicknamed the place “Flat Tire Alley” because I have gotten several flat tires there. I knew the road was taking a toll on my bike, so I stopped every half mile and checked things out with my flashlight.
I made good time and I arrived at Government Creek around 10:52 p.m. The wash’s dry creek bed and nearby hills looked larger in the moonlight. I found a spur road that headed south up a hill and offered a magnificent view of the 8,410-foot-high Indian Peaks of the Simpson Range.
I found a good spot, and because I was the only soul around for miles, I parked my bike in the middle of the road. I sat on a sand berm and opened my lunch box to eat. A few bites into my dinner, I got up and walked out onto a flat covered in cheatgrass and powdery dirt.
The sky was clear but for some fringe clouds on the western horizon. A light breeze blew intermittently and it was ghostly silent. I thought about the area’s known history and all of the unknown experiences that Indians, explorers, trappers, pioneers and Pony Express Trail riders must have had out here that were not written down. I thought about how the desert keeps its secrets. I also thought about the horrible massacre of Chief Peanum’s band by Capt. Samuel Smith and Company K that occurred somewhere in this area back in 1862.
The landscape all around was bathed in magical silvery moonlight. As I looked at the Indian Peaks and north to Davis Mountain, I thought about how the Pony Express Trail riders must have carried the mail at night to stay on schedule. There must have been pros and cons to riding through Indian country in the dark, far beyond civilization.
The night sky was stunning. Not even the brightest moon can wash out the stars of the desert sky. I noticed Ursa Major, commonly referred to as the “Big Dipper” and off to its right, Ursa Minor the “Little Dipper.” At the end of the Little Dipper is Polaris — the North Star, which due to its direct line with Earth’s axis above the North Pole, stands motionless while all the other stars of the northern sky rotate around it.
I am fascinated by the night sky and recently attended a Star Party at the Stansbury Park Observatory Complex. I got to see Saturn, Mars, star clusters and nebula through the array of telescopes there that belong to the Salt Lake Astronomical Society. I learned at the Star Party that it takes the lighted image of Saturn three hours to reach Earth.
As I observed the desert sky, I picked out Cassiopeia and then saw a shooting star. It reminded me of a time when I camped near this area and watched the Hale-Bopp Comet.
Even though I could see for miles in every direction, I often felt the need to look behind me. It seems like you’re not alone out there at night. Then I heard in the distance the crunch and grind of a vehicle’s wheels on the road, but I saw no headlights. That gave me an uncomfortable feeling. I quickly cleared my bike off the road into the bushes and I crouched behind a large saltbush to hide. It seemed like forever as a truck slowly got closer, finally appeared and then slowly continued east on the Pony Express Trail.
After the vehicle passed, I gathered my things and headed east on the trail back to my truck. After a few miles, I was sweating and saddlesore. Then I hit a bump and my handlebars rotated down. I wrongly manipulated my gears, which disconnected my bike chain and fouled things up. I tried to set things right for a few minutes, but realized it was pointless. I walked the remaining mile back to my truck, thankful that I had plenty of water and it was warm outside.
The walk back also gave me time to notice night birds, stands of sunflowers growing thickly on both sides of the trail, and a lonely, somewhat creepy coyote howl.
If you ever get the chance to head out on the Pony Express Trail at night, the stars and silence are something you will never forget. Just make sure you are prepared with plenty of water, food and a spare tire so you can be self-reliant. Cell phones don’t work out there.
For more information and trail conditions, contact the Bureau of Land Management — Salt Lake District Office at 801-977-4300 or go online to blm.gov/ut/st/en/fo/salt_lake.html.
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 Stansbury Park.