This weekend I cruised out to the seldom visited Snake Valley on the western edge of Utah. Snake Valley is special because unlike most of the basins in the great basins it has people in it. Not many, the high school (West Desert High) boasted 11 students last year, but people nonetheless if you know where to look. They are there because unlike many of the basins in the great western badlands this one had water. Not a lot, but water nonetheless if you knew where to look. The water is there because on the west side it is bordered by three large mountain ranges, each one towering up to 12,000 feet. One of them is a national park, one is named Mt Moriah, and one is in Utah and thus falls under the jurisdiction of the Central Region of the Utah Department of Natural Resources.
The water falls as snow in these mountains and bubbles up in springs in the valley floor (the creeks go dry before they reach the valley). The springs don’t go anywhere. On really wet years they might drain into the salt flats to the north or to the occasional terminal pond. Most of the time it flows only a few hundred meters before soaking back into the ground. These are desert springs, Oases. They are islands in the sand. And in them is the Least Chub: a rare species of fish that survives today because of the work of men like my boss and the absolute isolation of these island springs.
I spent two days trapping and counting fish in the 95 F September weather. The treasured minnows are doing well out there in their small isolated ponds surrounded by salt flats. The west desert has a certain flair for hiding rare beautiful secrets. I first knew it as a young boy when my dad and scout leaders would take us camping out there. (I suspect they were just avoiding snow in the prettier spots). It’s a land of empty space. Miles and miles of nothing. Nothing to burn, nothing the eat, nothing to block the bejeweled sky. Well, there are miles of salt, and sagebrush, with a pronghorn peppered in for good measure now and then.
Oh, and rocks.
One scout master, Jack Green, was a rock hound. He worked for the state of Utah the same way I do although I’m not sure in what capacity. He had spent a lifetime driving the dirt roads of the deserts looking for cool rocks. He showed us where to find geodes, and topaz, and Apache tears, and Vernon Wonder stone. He also showed us hours and hours of racing down dirt roads with no idea where we were going. Once he even nailed a turkey vulture at 70 mph because the bird wouldn’t let go of the rabbit it was eating. The extra weight slowed it down just enough to ram it into the right headlight of the suburban. He felt bad about that one.
With age and more freedom I spent less time in the west desert preferring to spend my time in the more wondrous red rock deserts to the south or the majestic peaks to the east. So a good decade past my boy scout years I found myself sent to those same desert roads and seeing them with new eyes. Eyes that now studied the maps, and guided the truck, and connected landscapes together across the vast plains. I saw whispers of names that echoed vaguely in my head; Topaz mountain, Dugway, Simpson Springs, Little Sahara.
Blasting down those dirt roads at 70 miles an hour I thought of how hard it is to see the magic in those dry dusty hills and endless salty deserts. Jack Green saw it and love it. Approaching Topaz Mountain I was jolted by the arrival of pavement and an intersection between the Weiss highway and the Brush highway. I flashed back across the years to that massive old suburban and that old scout leader standing at that intersection trying to decide where the other car was. Or which way we needed to go to find his secret topaz spot. I don’t think it was paved then but it was unquestionably the same intersection. An intersection in the fuzzy edges of lost where a rock hound tried to teach his trade and a little character on the side to a bunch of half asleep boys.
Jack died of cancer about a year ago. Something gets all of us eventually. I still think of him every time I head west into the great basin. I can see his wrinkled skin surrounding perceptive eyes that seem to see through the rocks and past the horizons to the secret treasures buried in the hills. A man that loved the earth. And loved sharing it with young people.
I turned right and followed the pavement towards civilization, my own mental map of the desert of wonders growing a little larger with the day’s exploration and a whisper of gratitude to the shadow I left at the crossroads.