Operation Oregon Trail, Part 2

I awoke the next morning at the hostel to a loud jackhammering sound coming from the alley next to my room. It seems the eager street repairmen of Salt Lake City were already hard at work paving the hill outside. No matter, it served as a well-timed alarm clock, and with about six hours of driving ahead, I thought it best to finally rise from my slumber. Outside, I met three young men clustered around a minivan with British Columbia license plates. This van contained an Aussie, a Brit, and a German, all headed from their university life in Vancouver to summer jobs at Yellowstone National Park. They’d been globe trotting for years, and had just begun to scratch the surface of the hugeness of North America. I empathized with them. With a beginning like this, the day held promise.

The hostel is located in a neighborhood in north Salt Lake called the Avenues. I had stayed in this part of town a few years prior when seeing a friend who lived there, and remembered a nearby cafe where I could find a strong cup of coffee. The inside was all comfy couches and studious cilentele, reminding me of the place I did most of my heavily caffeinated all-nighters in college. My memory served well, too: the coffee was still strong and delicious at the Cafe on 1st, and with a smile from the barista, I found a couch and settled in for breakfast and a little prep work. My plan was to book a hostel room outside of Boise for my next pit stop, but a call confirmed my fears: no vacancy. No matter, I moved on to finding a suitable place to crash for the night. Before long, the Internet had come up with a retro-looking motel near the city’s center. The price was right, and another quick phone call secured me a last minute room. With business done and breakfast down, only a few distractions remained before hitting the road.

I don’t consider myself to be an adherent to any particular organized religion, but regardless, I find religious architecture to be fascinating. Often, its intricacy is matched only by the devotion of those within. About a mile from the cafe, I snatched up a rare parking spot next to Temple Square. The Salt Lake Temple at the heart of the square is the holiest site in the Mormon religion, and is also the architectural centerpiece of SLC’s downtown.


Finally, all in one composite photograph: the Salt Lake Temple.

The throngs of glowing newlywed couples and their wedding parties on photo shoots crammed into Temple Square meant getting the whole building in a single picture was a bit more difficult, but with that done, I headed down John Stockton Drive and out of Utah’s capital.

About an hour north of Salt Lake City, I turned off of the highway to satisfy a curiosity I’ve had since I was in SLC the last time. During that previous adventure, I never actually got to see the city’s namesake lake. Unlike many large cities which directly adjoin their bodies of water, Salt Lake City is not even within sight of its lake. No doubt the lake’s brackish nature has a lot to do with this; as I drove out onto the long Antelope Island Causeway, an odd, salty odor penetrated the car’s cabin. This road is an anomaly; a long, straight suburban artery that hits the edge of the brine flats on the west edge of the Great Salt Lake and simply keeps going. This part of the lake is shallow enough that no difficult bridge building was necessary, simply a long, raised berm made of small rocks that the road sits on top of.


Esme strikes a pose on the Antelope Island Causeway.


The shores of the Great Salt Lake are bleached bright white by a combination of salt and sun.


Looking north from the causeway over the shallows of the eastern lake.

This road leads to the largest island in the Great Salt Lake. Called Antelope Island after its native population of Pronghorn, this 15 mi (24 km) long island separates the rest of the lake from Farmington Bay, a shallow arm of the lake that’s used as a wetland wildlife refuge. I headed up into the hills to see if I could reach the top of the ridge – after all, most of the lake was on the other side, and with a drought ongoing, Farmington Bay was more of a shallow salt flat than a lake. I wanted to see if there was any water left in the ‘Great’ Salt Lake.

The road that I found was a fantastic one, twisting across the eastern flank of the ridge which runs down the center of the island. It’s two lanes, with old, cracked blacktop worn smooth by big 4×4 tires and years of winter scrapings. This island was used as ranchland up until the late 1960s, when it began to be purchased in phases by the state of Utah in the interest of preservation. It’s now one of the largest state parks in the state, encompassing the whole island. These old roads date from before the state takeover, when they were used to access ranchland and mining claims on the island.

Farther down the road, I found a place to park and ascend higher up the ridge. Where this road ended, a trail climbed up the rocks behind the parking lot and into the hills. The end of the road simply meant a change in method; I grabbed a bottle of water and my tripod from the car and set off up the trail for an impromptu hike. The path led up the ridge, snaking around steep ledges and boulders, until it came finally to the top. From the summit, I finally saw it: the rest of the Great Salt Lake! From this summit, I could see as far as Nevada. Later research has said that the exposed rocks at the top of this ridge are some of the oldest on Earth – even older than the ancient rocks at the bottom of the Grand Canyon. It’s easy to see how, with the innumerable twists and folds of eons of pressure and heat inscribing the jagged rock at the summit.

Click to view larger!
A 180° panorama from the top of the ridge. At left (south) is Frary Peak, the highest point on Antelope Island at 6596 ft. (2010 m), nearly 2400 vertical feet from the shoreline below. To the right of the peak are the beaches at White Rock Bay (center) and Bridger Bay. Just above the beach to the right of center (north) are Fremont Island and the Promontory Mountains. Click to view this panorama larger.

Click to view larger!
This 180° view looks east toward the distant peaks of the Wasatch Range. This side of the lake is much drier at the moment, with the shallow salt flats of Farmington Bay on the edges of the remaining lake water. Barely visible at far right at the base of the mountains is Salt Lake City, and in the bottom right corner is the trail I used to come up the ridge. Far below, the lot at the trailhead is visible – Esme looks like a tiny dot from the top! Click to view larger.

I hiked back down the trail to the car, passed by a French-speaking couple on their way up who had come a lot farther than I to see the view. Back at the parking lot below, I checked my watch – taking the hike had been worth it, but had come at the price of almost two hours of daylight. With more than five hours still left to drive, the time had come to leave the island. I packed up and headed back across the causeway to the Interstate. From here, I had to head north, through Ogden and Brigham City to the Idaho state line. I pointed Esme down I-15 until it merged with Interstate 84, which I’d follow all the way to Portland. The race against the daylight was on.


Looking back the way I came – I-84 finally runs into the mountains at the edge of the Great Basin.


A quick pause at the desolate Idaho border before I push on to Boise.

Idaho is one state that had eluded me to this point; a place that I admittedly knew very little about. Besides the ‘Famous Potatoes’ advertised on the state’s license plates, I had no real expectations of this sparsely populated western state. As I sped northwest towards Twin Falls, I encountered miles upon miles of green, lush farmland. Exit after exit came with a disclaimer of ‘NO SERVICES’ as the Interstate connected to remote farm roads with no towns to pass through. The farms along the way weren’t just the agricultural kind, either, every so often huge numbers of wind turbines marked the tops of the hills nearby. Idaho has huge amounts of wind power resources, cultivated since the energy crises of the late 1970s forced a change in policy. The state also boasts one of the U.S.’ few online, commercially viable geothermal power stations, as well as huge amount of hydroelectric power – enough that the energy needs of the state are mostly met by these renewable sources.

Twin Falls was the next stop, a quick break for fuel and an opportunity to photograph the dramatic canyon of the Snake River. I swung off of I-84 and onto two lane highway headed south, and before long I came to the point at which the highway had to cross this huge gorge. In 1976, the original span built here was dismantled in favor of a new, truss arch style crossing: the I.B. Perrine Bridge. At 486 feet (148 m) above the river below, this bridge is a magnet for BASE jumpers – jumps are allowed here with no special permits required. Even Evel Knievel had a crack at the canyon, making it most of the way across in a steam-powered contraption called the ‘Skycycle X-2’ in 1974. I hiked down the hill to the bridge approach to investigate, while over my back, the beginnings of the sunset turned the bridge’s steel an orange hue. The evening colors extended into the canyon itself, contrasting the golden rocks with the blue-green of the Snake River in the gorge.


The Perrine Bridge and part of the Snake River Canyon that it spans. US Highway 91 uses the bridge to enter the city of Twin Falls, named for a series of nearby cascades.


A view from beneath the bridge, revealing the steel structure that supports the weight of four lanes of traffic high above the river.

The sun finally set as I left Twin Falls. Now, all that remained was the 135 mile stretch to Boise, the largest city in Idaho. The smell of wet earth and cows rolled into the cabin as I dropped the window for a moment. The road was arrow straight for the most part, allowing me to take certain liberties with my speed. Another beautiful sunset drive gave me the opportunity to reflect a bit on my location. Many Americans have little regard for what are sometimes pejoratively referred to as ‘flyover states’. These are the states between the massively urbanized coasts, those where America’s agricultural heart lies. Idaho is proud of this rural way of life, with grain elevators being far more common on this road than tall office or residential buildings. Every so often, a peculiar stand of trees would burst out of the fields of wheat, corn, and soy. After seeing a few of these micro forests, it dawned on me: even the trees were being farmed, planted in neat rows and grown for all of the tasty fruit that we find on our grocery shelves. In an age of growing disconnection with the food we eat, this drive was a stark reminder that no matter the distances between us, we are all dependent upon each other in this increasingly globalized world.


As Kerouac would say, I was balling that jack all the way to Boise.

I cruised into Boise well after dark, making my way past the Idaho state capitol building to the west side of town where my accommodations for the night were located. I rarely make stops at motels when traveling, preferring instead to enlist locals as hosts when possible. However, after hiking and driving for the better part of ten hours, I was ready for a break. Beckoning me towards it was the neon beacon of the Cabana Inn, a well-kept relic of the late 1960s just five minutes from the center of Boise. I rang the night bell, and a middle-aged woman appeared from the house behind the office where she and her family live. She was kind, if slightly groggy from the late hour of my arrival, and she handed over the keys to a second-floor room with my name on it. I still needed sustenance, so I left the Cabana to investigate downtown Boise. Near the heart of the city, I wandered into the Bittercreek Ale House, a restaurant with a fabulous beer selection and one of my favorite comfort foods on the menu – poutine. Beer, fries, and cheese curds were just what I needed after a long travel day. Boise was being kind to this newcomer. I returned to my bed satisfied and sleepy with a food coma. Sleep would come soon, and all the better, since I had longer ways to go in the morning.


The Cabana’s vintage neon sign lights up the night in Boise’s west end.

Next time: into Oregon and through the Columbia River Gorge to the Pacific!

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Operation Oregon Trail, Part 1

America is the land of the road trip. Since the dawn of the automobile age, Americans have turned to their cars to seek adventure on the open roads of this vast country. Generations of Americans, from the Beats to the Millenials, have made the road trip part of not only their popular culture, but their collective psyche. The experience of driving cross-country has a grip on America’s collective imagination, and for many including myself, the only way to quell the urge is to hit the road.

My previous experience with this phenomenon, my road trip resumé if you will, consists of a multitude of minivan journeys with my family back and forth to Chicago across America’s midwest. Although I’ve been behind the wheel for years, I had yet to drive long distance by myself. My longest stint behind the wheel thus far had been a 500 mile round trip to camp overnight in Colorado’s high country. This was about to change, however. I, too, would take on the journey of a long distance, interstate road trip. Not only that, but I would be doing it for the first time alone.

A few months ago, over a beer in Denver, a friend of mine who was in the process of moving to Oregon told me about a dilemma he faced. He and his girlfriend would be driving two cars, both hers, out to their new home from Colorado. My friend’s car would remain stranded in Denver, to be delivered at a later, unknown date. As an answer to his little problem, I volunteered to drive the Hyundai (which he had named Esmerelda) over 1,400 mi (2250 km) from Denver to McMinnville, the town about 40 minutes from Portland where they would be living. The one-way ticket from Portland would save my friend time and money, and given his dislike of driving long distances, it seemed like an obvious choice. Discussion over a few more tasty beers cemented the idea, and thus the gears of an adventure were set into motion.

The plan I came up with was to drive to the Pacific over three days. My first leg would normally take me north on Interstate 25 to Wyoming, where I would turn west and go over the easy grades of South Pass through the Rocky Mountains. Instead, I decided to punch straight through the spine of the Colorado Rockies, heading up Interstate 70 and over its high passes and deep gorges, across the vast desert of eastern Utah and up Price Canyon to Salt Lake City. Day two would lead me north, past the Great Salt Lake and up to Interstate 84 through the farmlands of southern Idaho to the state’s capitol, Boise. The third and final leg would be from Boise, across the Oregon border and through the Blue Mountains, up the Columbia River Gorge, and down the valley of the Willamette River to McMinnville. At the end of the road, I had most of a day to spend on the shore of the Pacific Ocean before heading back to Denver by air. It’d be a fast four days, but at the end would no doubt be worth it. It’s not often I get the chance to get my feet wet with salt water.

My route through the West to the Pacific. Four days, 1400 miles (2250 km).

One morning in May, the time had finally come to hit the road. I had all my supplies: a backpack full of trail mix and water bottles, some hiking gear in case I found something to climb, and of course my camera. All my gear had to fit in one small pack because of my return flight, so packing light was essential. Also on board were a whole road trip’s worth of WBEZ’s This American Life – my plan for the more tedious miles was to use Esme’s three 10″ subwoofers to boom Ira Glass’ soothing voice all over the western US. Today was the longest of the four, a little over eight hours’ of driving separating me from Salt Lake City. After grabbing one last dose of Denver green chile in burrito form, I headed up the hill on I-70 and into the Rocky Mountains.

The trip up from Denver, through the Eisenhower Tunnel, and over Vail Pass took the better part of two hours. I decided to stop for a bite to eat near the town of Minturn, about ten minutes from Vail on US Highway 24. Just off the highway, I found a pull off which led back to Minturn’s former rail yard. During the height of Colorado’s mining boom, the rails which pass through Minturn carried thousands of tons of ore, coal, and timber every day. Now, the railway line is only used by hikers and locals out walking their bandana-wearing mountain dogs. I decided to take a short hike up the grade myself, and just a few hundred yards from where I parked, I came across an unusual sight.

High above Minturn, a rock formation called the ‘Lionshead’ used to loom over the valley. One night in March of 2013, a huge chunk of rock broke free from the Lionshead, the result of natural geologic forces – eons of weathering and thermal expansion finally caused a crack large and deep enough to give way. With a tremendous crash that must have shaken the surrounding valley, the bus-sized rock tumbled down the side of the hill and smashed into the railway bed at the bottom. The boulder hit with such force that it dug itself a crater nearly five feet (1.5 m) deep and snapped the steel rails of the Tennessee Pass line like toothpicks. The wide shelf created by the railroad grade stopped the boulder just short of continuing its fall – directly into a few houses just down the hill!


Minturn resident George and his wife Claudia examine what he called ‘The Heart of the Lion’ along the abandoned railway grade just above this small mountain town.

I’ve lived in Colorado for the better part of my 27 years, and even though I’ve managed to see a fair amount of my home state, the sheer beauty of the Rocky Mountains never ceases to make me gawk. Interstate 70 is the largest, most direct transport corridor in the western half of the state, and it passes through some of the most scenic parts of the Colorado Rockies. Its designers took such pains that parts of this route weren’t completed until the 1990s, well after the Interstate Highway System was finished in the rest of the U.S. The civil engineering that went into this route is staggering; one only has to leave I-70 for mountain back roads for a few minutes to realize how hard a road must have been to build to accommodate four full lanes of 70 mph (110 km/h) traffic through some of the roughest terrain Earth has to offer. As I drove west, the character of the mountains themselves changed as well, with the craggy granite peaks of the central Rockies giving way to the reddish sandstone and limestone of the Western Slope.


Westbound through Eagle County, high in the Rockies.


About to pass through the Hanging Lake Tunnel in Glenwood Canyon.


A mountain storm brews just west of Rifle, CO.

The shadows cast by the flat-topped mountains of western Colorado began to get longer across the highway as I pushed across the spine of North America. Western Colorado is a constantly changing landscape; from the cutting action of the Colorado River, still digging deeper into its gorges, to the innumerable fracking rigs now dotting the landscape in the never ending search for natural gas deposits. Thanks to my detour to the Heart of the Lion, I was growing short on time, and I knew I still had the vast desert of eastern Utah to cross before finally stopping for the night in Salt Lake City. I put the Colorado Rockies in my rear view and ran for the border.

By the time I reached Grand Junction, the sun had set and the last rays of light were struggling to poke over the horizon. I paused briefly, taking a walk down by the Colorado River, swollen from the torrent of spring snowmelt coming from the high Rockies. This city of roughly 60,000 people is the last major settlement for roughly 250 miles. Despite the occasional wildfire, Junction has managed to reinvent itself from a former railroad town full of wild west ranchers into the cultural center of its region. It boasts a four-year university, two newspapers, and the mind-bending terrain of nearby Colorado National Monument.

I made my first fuel stop before leaving town, brimming the tank before continuing across the immense desert of eastern Utah. I have some experience with this route, but this time, I would be the driver for the crossing. Also, with the last daylight now snuffed out, I would have to make the entire 250 mile (400 km) drive in the dark. This drive is not one to be taken lightly – the nearest town of any size was 70 miles (112 km) away, across some of the most remote landscape on the planet. With one last look across the border of my native realm to the wildlands beyond, I set off across the desert to Salt Lake City.

The desert is a strange place, especially after the sun goes down. I found out quickly that with no moon out, one gets the impression of driving through an endless tunnel. The desert at night is, to put it bluntly, very dark. Impossibly dark. So incredibly pitch dark that when I pulled off of the road and turned my lights off, the only thing I could think to compare it to was being inside a mountain – cave darkness. A thin layer of overcast blocked out even the starlight, but with no manmade light coming from the ground to reflect, even the clouds were swallowed up by the warm desert night.

I finally found an oasis in the black, a cluster of lights shouting out into the night called Green River. With Salt Lake City still more than three hours away and the clock just past midnight, my body needed fuel to push through the fatigue I was now feeling. At this hour, the only restaurant open for business was a truck stop diner, that most noble of rural American kitchens.


A shining beacon in the night.

I ambled in amongst the late-night crowd; some locals that looked like they’d been there every night for weeks (for all I know, maybe they had been), a few bleary-eyed truckers working on piles of pancakes and eggs before hitting the road again. The lone waitress, Bridget, looked as if she had been there since the sun was high in the sky. For everyone in the diner, this was a strange sort of halfway point, and it seemed like everyone had the air of people in transit from one place to the next. After a few cups of coffee and a burger, I was ready to once again head out. Now, however, I would be leaving the hypnotizing arrow straightness of I-70 for the twists and bends of U.S. Highway 6, a two-lane road which would cut more than 60 miles off of my route to Salt Lake. I drove out of Green River with CCR on the stereo, past a lonely State Patrolman, and up the road towards Price.

In the daytime, the scenery outside the car would be distractingly beautiful. This route skirts the edge of a 250 mile (320 km) long desert mountain range called the Book Cliffs. These sandstone cliffs stretch all the way from the rim of a canyon near Grand Junction, and in the night, I had caught up to them again where they were finally cut into by the Price River. It is these weird and wonderful landforms, towering over the flatter earth below them, that gives this place its sort of stereotypical old west atmosphere. The terrain here also helps give this highway a fearsome reputation as one of the deadliest roads in the U.S. I was confident, though, after honing my driving skill for years in the mountains of Colorado. After a little more gas, I drove out of Price and settled in for the last stretch to my hostel bed in Salt Lake.

In the night, driving with the windows down, it was hard not to feel alone on this desolate road. I passed through the entrance to Price Canyon at what must have been near 1:30 A.M., Ira Glass’ voice bouncing off the canyon walls as I drove headlong into the twists and turns of the old highway. The desert darkness was back again, but now it allowed my high-beam headlights to occasionally illuminate a tantalizing edge of canyon wall. Though this route carries huge volumes of traffic during the daytime, at night it was nearly unused. Only the occasional big rig passed me by, a few cars trailing behind waiting to make a risky pass in the dark. After what seemed like hours, I emerged from the mountains, the last of the steep ridges giving way immediately to a strange sight: a small wind farm, turbine blades swaying ghostly white in the city lights that now stretched away from the mountains. I was close now; with Highway 6 behind me, I drove north on Interstate 15. The highway slowly grew from four lanes to six, then to eight as I passed through the fringes of Salt Lake’s urban sprawl. It was now early, nearly 3.30 A.M., and at this hour I had the interstate all to myself. I drove faster than I should have the rest of the way, taking a bit of a liberty on the huge, empty I-15 in the interest of sleeping as soon as possible. Around 4, I finally rolled down the off-ramp into downtown Salt Lake City, exhausted but elated to have finally made it. Sleep would be mine!


Finally! Early-morning arrival at the Avenues Hostel.

Next time: The Great Salt Lake (it really is salty) and a fast drive through the expanses of southern Idaho.

the promised land

Two AM arrived at my seat in the form of our car’s conductor rousing me awake just outside Salt Lake City. I hazily gathered my things, picked up my pack from the baggage compartment on the first floor of the car, and waited along with a few others for the train to squeak to a stop. The doors hissed open, and out into the warm summer air we went. Some of my fellow passengers paused here for a smoke break; the departing train itself was no exception.


The Zephyr waits for fuel and a fresh crew in Salt Lake City before crossing the desert.

My friend (and recent Denver transplant) Aierell was waiting nearby with a car, and off we drove into the lonely streets of Salt Lake. At this hour, even Denver still has life within it: night shift workers out for a smoke, bar patrons stumbling home, street vendors selling them tasty late-night burritos and tortas. Here, there was only the quiet, dark streets; it seemed all of SLC was already tucked into bed for the night.

The next day, I decided to take in some local culture, so we headed down to the city’s focal point: Temple Square. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (commonly referred to as Mormons) settled Salt Lake City in the 1840s, and this was one of the first plots laid out in their new city. In fact, three of the busiest streets in the city are all somewhat confusingly named Temple. The ten acre campus contains two visitors’ centres, a genealogy library, the Tabernacle (home to the world-famous choir of the same name), and the 1882 Assembly Hall among others. The square was full of large, well-dressed families, and a huge proportion of what appeared to be newly minted, smitten young couples. This is the holiest site in the Mormon religion; a temple which took forty years to construct. Entry into most of the buildings on the site is allowed to all visitors, but the temple itself requires both Mormon faith and a special church warrant. It is a fascinating place, to be sure.


The Salt Lake Temple from a nearby rooftop. The dome-shaped building behind it is the Tabernacle.


Temple Square during the capstone laying ceremony in 1892.

While impressive, Temple Square was also, frankly, a slightly weird place to be. Aierell and I were clearly outsiders, our relatively casual clothing and manner in contrast to the near black-tie attire worn by the masses of Mormon pilgrims. After learning about not only special Mormon underwear but Joseph Smith’s holy stones which allowed him to translate the Book of Mormon from a previously unknown ancient language, we frankly could use a drink. And, contrary to urban legend, there are actually bars in Salt Lake! It took us all of a block and a half down Main Street to find the cleverly named Beerhive (the beehive figures heavily in Utah’s symbology), where we encountered our first, albeit tiny, missionary at the bar’s icy rail.


I’d like to introduce you all to Elder George!

After tasting the fruit of the Beerhive, Aierell took me to feast my eyes upon a series of alleys near downtown which happen to contain some of Salt Lake’s finest graffiti art.


This elaborate mural of the Virgin Mary takes up the entire side of a four-story building.


Aierell poses in front of one of the graffiti walls.

We ventured south down State Street in the lengthening evening shadows until we arrived at a pub with a garage for a front door. The sign above said ‘The Republican’, and inside, the Irish flags draped on the walls left no doubt as to the theme – if ‘theme’ is the right word – of this bar. Yes, the beer and whiskey flows here in Salt Lake, although with some fairly arcane restrictions. The Mormon church, to which more than half of Utahns belong, preaches against the consumption of alcohol, and over time this belief was codified in Utah’s mind-bogglingly complex liquor laws.

For instance, every prospective bar patron’s ID is scanned with a handheld reader. If the ID is forged, the device informs the bartender immediately, and the wannabe drinker’s night is over in a hurry. Also, behind every bar is a small, black plastic donut with a hole the size of a bottleneck. When a mixed drink or a shot of hard liquor is ordered, the bartender takes the bottle down from the bar and fits the mouth of the bottle into the donut. Inside the donut is a tiny magnetic valve that meters out precisely one Utah shot – 1.5 fluid ounces (44.3 mL) of booze. This ensures that your friendly bartender can’t pour your drinks just a little stronger – to do so is illegal in Utah. So is serving a double: for example, it is legal to serve a whiskey sour with a shot of vodka on the side, but serving the same drink with a second shot of whiskey on the side is illegal. Happy hours and drink specials are illegal; prices must be fixed. Even outside the bar, liquor is heavily restricted. Booze, wine, and any beer stronger than 3.2% can only be purchased at state-owned stores – of which there are 44 in the whole of Utah. Also, if you’re having a party, you may want to plan ahead – most don’t stay open later than 7 P.M.

Aierell and I exited the Republican slightly more loopy than before, and headed to another bar in the Avenues, a part of town so called because of its street names – whereas most streets in SLC have somewhat cryptic numeric names (such as 300 East or 600 South), the Avenues have letters as well as numbers. This is one of the oldest parts of Salt Lake, and the bar was a relic, straight out of the late 60s lounge era. The clientele was anything but old however, mostly young hipsters out on a beautiful summer night. We closed the bar, made a few new friends in the neighbourhood, and called it a night. An apartment a few blocks away on K Street was our stop, and with the clock’s hands now well into the next day, I settled off to sleep. Tomorrow, I would head back across the Rockies to Denver the slow way – by bus.

The next morning came too early, and as the light began to creep across the city, Aierell and I made our way to the Greyhound station. Ahead of me lay 16 hours on Highway 40, almost all of it on two-lane mountain roads. I said my goodbyes to Aierell, and after one last tip of the hat, I was off, headed back to Colorado.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 2

As the train pulled out of Glenwood Springs, I noticed a reddish haze in the air. At first, it was barely perceptible, seen only when it turned the disk of the midday sun blood red. Soon, we left Glenwood Canyon and continued west, the haze thickening the partly cloudy sky into a roiling mixture of reddish-black and grey. The source of the haze had not been apparent, but as we rounded a bend in the track, it was suddenly clear: the miles-long plume of thick, black smoke before us left little doubt. We were headed straight for a Colorado wildfire.


Before long, Forest Service and fire trucks were frequent sights at grade crossings.

By the time we entered De Beque Canyon, through which both the rail line and Interstate 70 run, the fire was burning on the tops of the ridges next to us and down the canyon walls. The sky became completely obscured, save for a crimson sun, by a thick smoke that appeared to glow red at times from the reflected flame. I ran to the lower level vestibule of my car and began taking photographs and video out of the window – which, when I pressed my hand to it, was almost scorching hot to the touch. A few tense minutes later, we were clear of the canyon, and the dispatchers at Union Pacific (who currently own the line) shut it down – we were the last to pass. The adjoining Interstate was shut down as well, and the nearby communities of De Beque and Palisade were put on evacuation notice. The fire consumed more than 12,000 acres by the time it was extinguished – but fortunately, no lives were lost.

The Zephyr passes through the Pine Ridge Fire as myself and a fellow passenger look on. Click here for the BBC version.

After a few tense minutes, we cleared De Beque Canyon unscathed and headed into Grand Junction, a city at the far reaches of the Colorado Rockies. From here, we would set out across the desert for Salt Lake City, arriving there early in the morning. The sun had begun to set, still hazy red from the fire to the east. I disembarked, along with the train’s passengers stretching their legs as a fresh locomotive crew did their checks before setting off for the night. The city’s former depot, a grand turn-of-the-century building, sits dilapidated next to the current station. It was built in the early 1900s by the Rio Grande, and was meant to be the centerpiece of the town; a place that the citizens of Grand Junction (which essentially exists because of the railroads) could take pride in as a representation of their community. Inside were 22 foot high ceilings and arched stained glass windows. Now, Amtrak uses an unremarkable 70s-era building next door that originally served as a restaurant for the depot. In February of 2012, a Texas-based realtor purchased the dilapidated structure for just over $188,000, though with admittedly no real plans to start with. Time will tell what happens to this historic structure, one which has no doubt seen some interesting, if better, times.

Onward now, as the locomotives sounded their horns, and with fresh crews aboard, we headed out for the evening. As the sun began to set, I headed to the diner car for dinner and a smuggled pint. The car was surprisingly lively, with groups of passengers scooting closer to the window to see what the eastern reaches of Colorado held in store. The Mennonites had returned, settling in en masse to the swiveling chairs on a whole side of the car to watch the sun come down behind the flat-topped mesas that stood guard to either side of our route.


Passengers in the Zephyr’s lounge car socialize as the sun begins to set on the Colorado Plateau. Just ahead lay the Utah border – and about 260 miles of desert.


In motion – the Zephyr’s lounge car as we cross into Utah

Spray painted on the side of one of these weathered red sentinels were the words ‘UTAHCOLORADO’ – denoting the literal line in the sand where the border lay. Eastern Utah is where sci-fi directors go when they’re looking for an alien planet to film on. Before the sun set, it cast the bizarre landforms of the immense desert in an unearthly glow. The Zephyr was picking up the pace now, the track straightening out as we exited the heart of the Rockies. We wouldn’t stop until we hit the tiny oasis of Green River, seventy miles ahead.


This siding, at a place called Brendel, held a number of flat cars carrying half-length metal casks marked ‘RADIOACTIVE’ – as well as a similar number of unmarked black pick-ups. Turns out this location is used to hold lightly radioactive mine waste from a uranium mine near Moab before its burial nearby.

We hit Green River just as the sun set, our train stopping for no more than a breather before pushing off again into the night. Ahead, we would cross the rest of the desert under the stars, climbing the last, faraway range of the Rocky Mountains in the moonlight before descending into Salt Lake City around one in the morning.


Night owls in the Zephyr’s lounge car around midnight.

After sundown, I returned briefly to the vestibule of the car where I had witnessed the fire before. The magic window once again opened, and in the warm night air of the desert, I could see the distant lights of a power plant. They winked at me again and again as they passed behind ridge after mountain after canyon wall. Soon, the lights appeared just up the track, and swiftly flew past us into the night again.

I headed back to my seat, only to remember it had been given to part of a family before – sleeping bodies now occupied my whole row. I elected to become a nomad, and found myself a quiet corner of the car next door with a conveniently unoccupied row of seats. Across the aisle was a fellow traveler named Sam. I asked Sam if the seats were free, and in a Cockney accent, he replied “I dunno, I just sat down in this one!” Brilliant plan! I checked one more time above my seats for reservation slips, and, finding none, I settled off to sleep.

Julia tracked me down and roused me a few hours later, just short of 1.30AM. A few minutes later, I stepped off the Zephyr at my final destination, the promised land: Salt Lake City. The train squeaked to a stop and I disembarked under a star-filled sky.


Julia bids me farewell with one more dose of sass.

through the Rockies, not around them – pt. 1

Travel in today’s United States is mostly about two things: the automobile, which is a fixture in every part of America, and the airplane, which made the vast expanses of the U.S. easy to cross in mere hours. However, one form of transport that was so crucial to the history of the United States is often overlooked in favor of these two: the train. Even though train travel in the U.S. (at least outside of the Northeast) is often seen as the domain of families and retirees it can still be a perfectly viable means of travel for those seeking no more than transport in style.

One of the most well known of America’s modern passenger train routes is the California Zephyr, a named train that has its roots in the postwar 1940s. The route of the original Zephyr from Chicago to San Francisco was a cooperative hand-off effort of three American railroads, all now defunct. This relay race of sorts led passengers through some of the most beautiful parts of North America, including the headwaters of the Colorado River in the high Rockies, the strange desolation of the Utah desert, and the peaks of the Sierra Nevada. The most difficult portion for the Zephyr to traverse, from Denver through the Rockies to Salt Lake City, was the job of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad – and this was no small task.

The gold and silver rushes of the mid to late 1800s caused a huge amount of railroad expansion into the Rocky Mountains of Colorado in search of riches, and dozens of narrow and standard gauge railroad lines stretched between the unforgiving peaks. The engineering challenges were gargantuan; narrow, treacherous passages like the Black Canyon of the Gunnison proved almost impossible to build through, steep grades and treeless high mountain passes had to be negotiated, sometimes by blasting paths out of solid rock, and deadly winter blizzards forced shutdowns and stoppages again and again.


A map of the Denver and Rio Grande Western circa 1930, showing Colorado crisscrossed with rail lines originally built by at least a dozen companies. By 1930, the D&RGW had absorbed almost all of them into their dual gauge system – the lines in black are 3′ (90 cm) gauge while the red ones are standard 4′ 8½” (1.4 m).

The Rio Grande’s mountain routes have been famous since their inception for the staggering scenery along the way. Originally, mainline trains had to travel from Denver to Pueblo before turning west into the Rockies, then into the Royal Gorge of the Gunnison River and through the impossibly deep Black Canyon before climbing north over Tennessee Pass – the highest point on the entire US rail system. From the top of the pass, trains then descended the Eagle River valley (passing through Belden) and met the banks of the Colorado River, following it west again through Glenwood and De Beque Canyons before clearing the Rockies. This way of doing things was an ethos for ‘the Grande’; their motto was ‘Through the Rockies, Not Around Them’ – a bit of a jab at their competitors (and, ironically, their eventual owners) to the north, the Union Pacific Railroad. The UP used a much easier route through the gradual, easy grades of South Pass in Wyoming, whereas the Rio Grande went west the hard way – straight through the heart of the mountains.

However, as airplanes and automobiles took over for long-distance trains, the preferred way of crossing the Rockies changed – gone were the days of teams of locomotives shoving passengers over high passes and through smoky tunnels. In 1971, during the height of the Oil Crisis, all of America’s mainline railroads ceased passenger operations, handing them in bulk over to a hastily organized state corporation – Amtrak was born. However, the D&RGW, long known for its independent streak, shunned Amtrak and continued to operate its portion of the Zephyr route as the Rio Grande Zephyr until 24 April 1983, when further declines in passengers finally forced the Grande to hand the Zephyr route over to Amtrak.


The Rio Grande Zephyr waits for its final departure from Denver’s Union Station on 24 April 1983. Photo by Slideshow Bruce via Wikimedia.

Jump ahead now, if you will, to the present day. In the middle of summer, I decided that a friend in Salt Lake City was long overdue for a visit. I booked myself a train ticket, and on the appointed day, my California Zephyr showed up at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station backwards – and nearly two hours late. The backwards part is perfectly normal, with Denver’s Union Station resting on a long stub of track that requires the reverse move for access. Today, it was track maintenance and a few passing freight trains east of Denver that held Train #5 up, but no matter; soon we would head out of Denver for the high country and begin making that time back.


Passengers wait to board the Zephyr at Denver’s temporary Amtrak station. Union Station, the Zephyr’s stop since the 1930s, is being turned into a regional commuter rail terminal, and will reopen in 2014.

With a smooth push, the Zephyr pulled out and we were on our way. My car was overseen by conductor Julia Thompson-Johnson of Chicago, a capable professional traveler. Amtrak’s conductors do far more than simply taking tickets; they are the masters of the rails, seeing to everything from extra blankets for toddlers in transit to midnight wake-up calls. I found myself a seat and watched out the window of the café car as the train pulled out of Denver’s freight yards and headed for the Rockies.

As we ascended up the Front Range, I noticed a group of people who looked as if they were from another century. They sported bonnets, dresses, and long beards for the men – members of the Mennonite religious order, as it turns out. Mennonites are similar in dress to their more well-known Amish cousins, and like them eschew most modern technology. However, their order permits them to travel long distances using trains, allowing this group to leave their native Ohio for sunny California. To these people, Amtrak is their primary link to the rest of the country – an essential service indeed.

As the train pushes into the Rockies, the terrain gets much more dramatic.

As we approached the Continental Divide, the mountains seemed to swell around us, as if they were trying to outsmart us, trying to trap the train in some nameless alpine crevice. Originally, trains on this route had to make a tortuous ascent up a 4% grade to the summit of Rollins Pass, well above timberline at 11,660 ft (3,554 m). Winter was not a kind season to the railroad, with blizzards stranding passengers in tens of feet of snow, even after a series of tall sheds were built over the tracks to protect them. By the early 1900s, the need for an alternative was apparent; the railroad was spending more than forty percent of its money on fighting the snow. Denver entrepreneur David Moffat had entertained the idea of a tunnel here as early as 1902, but it would take twenty more years of political and financial wrangling to make it a reality. The resulting masterpiece of civil engineering that would bear Moffat’s name was a 6.2 mile (10.0 km) long tunnel – straight through the Continental Divide.

The Zephyr approaches the Moffat Tunnel. It takes the train about six minutes to pass through James Peak.


Train #5 calls at Winter Park station, former terminal of the Rio Grande’s Ski Train – the last of the Grande’s passenger trains. The idea was simple: a train leaves Denver full of skiers in the morning, takes them straight to the slopes, and returns them to the city the same evening. The route survived under various owners until 2009.


The Colorado River begins in this high mountain valley, and the route of the Zephyr follows it from here to the edge of the Utah desert.


This stretch of the Colorado River is popular among whitewater rafters and kayakers like these. It is a tradition in these parts for rafters to salute passing trains with their rear ends – this group chose to refrain!

Ahead lay one of the most isolated parts of Colorado: Gore Canyon, a roadless chasm that nearly ran the railroad out of business trying to build through it. This canyon is inaccessable by any other means; only the Zephyr, a few hiking trails, and the Colorado River below allow people passage. This stretch of track was (and still is) an engineering marvel, with sheer drops, tunnels, and miles upon miles of rockfall sensors and fences. Rockslides in particular are a hazard here; in 1942, a huge steam locomotive hit a large slide while entering a tunnel here and derailed – straight into the wall of the tunnel, causing it to collapse and bury the engine until crews could dig it free. Our locomotives, however, remained firmly attached to the rails as we continued our climb through the heart of the Rocky Mountains.


D&RGW steam locomotive #1800 pulls an express passenger train through Gore Canyon in the late 1940s.

From here, our train follows the Colorado River along a rail line known as the Dotsero Cutoff. This shortcut allowed more than 200 miles to be shaved off the trip from Denver to Salt Lake City by connecting the Rio Grande’s main line through the desert of eastern Utah to David Moffat’s direct, tunnel-equipped line from Denver. This combination of routes proved its worth through longevity – it still carries thousands of tons of freight and passengers through the Rockies every month. The terrain changes here, too, as the jagged peaks of the central Rockies change to the weathered reddish sandstone and limestone of eastern Colorado.


The Zephyr takes a long curve along the Colorado River.

There are few places I’ve been to so far that even come close to the natural beauty of Glenwood Canyon. This rugged chasm in the Earth was carved out of the surrounding rocks by the Colorado River over eons, leaving some of the most spectacular land forms I’ve ever encountered. Since its first run in the late 40s, the California Zephyr has been specifically timed to pass through the canyon during the day regardless of direction, always giving its passengers an eyeful of western Colorado. Our train was no exception to this rule, and as we approached the canyon’s mouth, I gave up my seat on the upper deck of the car and found myself a spot next to a window in the lower vestibule – a window that conveniently opened, allowing me to indulge my habit of sticking my head (and camera) out of moving vehicles.

The sedimentary rocks that make up Glenwood Canyon also make this route particularly susceptible to rockslides. To prevent the inevitable accidents and derailments, the railroad devised a system of rockslide fences meant to warn oncoming trains. An electric current is passed through the wires guarding the track, and when a rock slide breaks the wires, the broken circuit trips a signal warning of the danger.


Julia Thompson-Johnson and the rest of the conductors sound the ‘All Aboard!’ at the Zephyr’s stop in Glenwood Springs, a city of nearly 10,000 people nestled in the heart of the canyon.

Ahead: the strange Utah desert – and a hot surprise! To Be Continued in Part 2…