I tell anyone who cares to listen: The only way to really see Tooele County is never from the inside of a car. You have to get up and go out. You have to scuff the boots, crunch some dirt, taste some sweat.
Which means, of course, you have to stop sitting on the couch sucking air and engage with the land. Transcend from unconscious, docile viewer to curious, active doer, and Tooele County’s mix of mountains, valleys and desert will leave an indelible mark of wonderment on your soul.
But there is another way to see Tooele County that is good for the marrow, too. It’s akin to sitting still inside a car and staring out the window, yet the inertia is countermanded by a vantage point that pushes one’s awareness of landscape to higher mental turf. The rush of eye candy into the brain is like taking a sip of water from a gushing fire hose.
The vantage point I’m talking about is from the inside of a Cessna 172 cruising a couple thousand feet above the ground — like I did last month while shooting aerial photography for a project. With pilot Patrick Wiggins of Stansbury Park at the controls, I pointed my camera down and out from the open passenger door window.
My assignment was to photograph the Sheeprock Mountain Loop, which is a 73-mile OHV trail on county gravel roads that circumnavigate the range. But because dense cirrus clouds began to arrive after we took off from Tooele Valley Airport, the late afternoon sunlight became diffused and flat. The alliance between sunlight and deep shadows that accentuates landforms also began to fade and was replaced by a patina of soft gray.
And yet, the passing diorama below had me spellbound. From the ground, Tooele County’s 7,000 square miles look big and provide a visual treat for those who like to see mountains and desert with an endless boundary between earth and sky. But from the air all those square miles open even more to the horizon. What ancient Lake Bonneville’s depth and waves left behind thousands of years ago become more evident and defined. Long-dry beaches, escarpments, spits, bays and coves take on a life of their own. It’s like they’re saying, “Hey! You up there! So what do you think of me now?”
After flying over Vernon, Wiggins pointed the plane’s nose to take a clockwise route around the Sheeprocks. We flew over an ice-covered Vernon Reservoir and then followed Vernon Creek south. Soon we crossed into Juab County and then banked right for a northwesterly heading between the Sheeprock and Simpson mountains back into Tooele County.
To my right, the Sheeprocks’ southwestern flank was buried in snow. To my left, the view rolled deep into Juab County’s desert outback with Desert Mountain in the middle like a dollop of mashed potatoes on a dinner plate. While flying past Erickson Pass, I hoped the sun would break through to brighten the landscape and sky enough to give my camera’s lens something to bite into. The light, however, stayed flat.
But minutes later while flying over the intersection of Erickson Pass Road and the Pony Express Trail, one of Tooele County’s most remote places, the light gradually began to improve. Turning right, we followed the Pony Express Trail east to the top of Lookout Pass. Meanwhile, the sky and ground responded to the growing light. The patina of gray dissolved and was replaced by a warm, golden hue. Suspecting the light wouldn’t last, I worked fast to fill an 8- gigabyte memory card with photos hopefully worthy of publishing. One of them is published with this column.
After we flew over Lookout Pass, I put my camera in my lap and just looked. Below was a famous and historical trail of the American West, and certainly one of the most famous and historical in Tooele County. The pages of history that have been written about the gravel road below are numerous and remarkable.
The trail was reportedly first developed by Col. James H. Simpson of the US Corps of Topographical Engineers in 1859 while establishing a new route between Camp Floyd and Genoa, Nevada. The Pony Express Trail used it from 1860-1861, as did the first Transcontinental Telegraph. So too did stagecoach companies and other travelers bound for California.
And near the top of the pass, there’s Aunt Libby’s Dog Cemetery from Overland Stagecoach days, and legendary “Danite” Porter Rockwell reportedly had a cabin nearby. Such is the stuff that makes the American West so alluring — and it happened right here in Tooele County.
I don’t know about you, but I’m proud that such events happened here. Lookout Pass may not be one of America’s preeminent historical spots where the ground pulses with human history like Mesa Verde or Ellis Island. But it’s got plenty of soul for me.
If you ever get a chance to fly low and slow over Tooele County, do it. Just make sure to have lots of room for that indelible mark of wonderment.