Wet and Dry in Utah
Salt Lake City had been pictured to us since childhood as “the oasis of the Great American Desert, the world-famed city of the Mormons.” Situated near the southern end of the Great Salt Lake, with the Wasatch Mountains forming a huge protecting arc in the rear, the city and surrounding valleys represented what determination and fight, plus the marvels of irrigation, could do to the proverbial “howling desert.”
At last we were there, luxuriating in one of the best tourist camps on our trip so far, ready to start seeing the sights next day. But excitement didn’t wait until morning. During the night a blinding flare and a crash awakened us.
“What was that?” cried Win.
“The roof must’ve caved in,” I mumbled sleepily.
At that instant another flash nearly seared my eyes. I realized we weren’t sleeping in a building, with a roof above. We were on the ground, with an angry sky arching overhead, lit each few seconds by the wildest display of lightning we’d ever witnessed. Thunder followed each flash. Michigan had thunderstorms, but never like this. A colossal electric storm had swept down from the mountains and broken above the city. The calendar said this was mid-August. It seemed more like the Fourth of July.
We had laid out our blankets in the open. For an hour we literally “drank in” the grand yet scary spectacle. The lightning would shoot out from the mountains in ragged flares, then dart back again. In a second or so a voluminous roaring would begin. The intensity of the thunder increased as the echoes rumbled back from the mountains. The darkness was saturated with deafening noise.
Then the downpour started. Necessity forced us to pull our heads under our blankets and the beauties of the wild display were shut from view. But the crashes of thunder told us the storm was continuing unabated. Donner and Blitzen had taken up a homestead here by Salt Lake below the Wasatch Peaks.
We had never slept out in the open at night while a mountain storm was raging. The downpour created an incessant din on the blankets and poncho just above our ears. Pools of water collected under us so that we continually had to curl into tight balls to escape the invading water. Finally it was impossible to evade the little streams and we stretched out once more, totally unmindful of a soaking. The thunder seemed to come more suddenly because we were not able to see the lightning. This storm was a frightening “first” for us.
Next day was perfect. Having run low on money, we “sold” our way downtown, making five dollars on shoestrings while going from the camp to the center of the city. Here we purchased several more gross at wholesale, finding laces to be somewhat more expensive west of the Rockies. But we needed to carry some along in case of financial emergencies. Then, just as we had been drinking in the wonders of a mountain storm in the night, we began drinking in the wonders of this Mormon oasis on the desert.
A trolley took us to Saltair on the lake. “Look,” called Win, as he swam out to deep water. “I can’t sink. “
“Look at me,” I echoed a few minutes later, as I gave a demonstration of walking with mammoth strides in an upright position in water which was over my head. We tried the usual round of stunts, lying on our stomachs, curling our legs about our heads, trying to dive. Win quickly advised against this practice. For an hour his eyes and nose and throat were sore.
Our sight-seeing foray of the city included the magnificent capitol building, then the Mormon Temple. This had taken forty years to build at a cost of almost four million dollars. It was started before the time of railroads, and until they were put through, every block of granite used in its construction had been hauled from the mountains by teams of oxen.
The great Mormon Tabernacle next drew our attention. Its pipe organ was one of the famous instruments of the world. Erected at the front end of the huge room, with about fifty of its nearly 8,000 pipes visible, with seats in front for the choir of 250, it was a grand sight. The acoustics were equalled in few structures anywhere. A man demonstrated to the visitors that a pin dropped at the front of the room could be heard by people in the back, over 200 feet away. On the day of our visit some 1,500 transients had congregated to hear the free recitals which were given daily throughout the tourist season.
In leaving Salt Lake, Win stopped a man to ask a question.
“Why is fresh water running along the curbs on so many of the streets?” he began. “We’ve never seen that in any other city.”
The man explained. “By letting water flow constantly at the edges of the streets, it keeps them clean.” Then he added, with a note of pride, “Water’s something we have lots of.”
A couple of days later the memory of that clear, fresh flowing water along the streets of Salt Lake City taunted us like a tantalizing dream. Leaving Brigham City and Mendon, Utah on our way to Boise, Idaho we had decided on a shortcut, which looked perfectly logical on the map. The distance would be somewhat shorter and we thought this alternate route, across a small stretch of desert, would have a fair amount of travel. Desert traveling, we felt, might be exciting. So we took the cutoff trail.
By mid-afternoon at Snowville, Utah there were forty miles of sagebrush and sand behind us. We had ridden the entire distance. Snowville was a desert city of perhaps a hundred persons, the metropolis—for that matter, the only habitation except for two ranches—of the Curlew Valley. Before we left we were warned about conditions ahead by the storekeeper, postmaster, garage-man, notary, owner of the village meat market, and mayor. He was a weathered old fellow and his desert experiences had left their marks, along with the marks of his other offices.
“Don’t go beyond the Upton ranch tonight,” he warned, “unless you get a ride. That’s your last chance for water. The ranch is just seven miles up the road.”
Inexperienced, thinking thirst would not bother us, and still uninitiated in conditions of desert travel, we soon tired of walking in the intense heat and threw ourselves down by the roadside to write while waiting for a car. Suppertime came and went and still we wrote. Thirst made itself apparent and yet we continued to wait for a ride.
“Remember that nice cool water running beside Salt Lake City’s streets?” I said to Win.
“Forget it,” was his blunt reply. “I remember it only too well. It’ll be dark in a couple of hours. Maybe we better get going if we want to make that ranch house while it’s still light.”
Those seven miles were hard. Having become parched with thirst before starting, plagued by the dry desert air and hot sands, we made a poor go of it and were frantic with thirst when Mrs. Upton answered our knock at her ranch house door.
When we’d consumed as much water as seemed good for us in our heated and tired condition, Mrs. Upton brought out some milk. We drank two large pitcherfuls. She then invited us to eat supper which was soon prepared and on the table, the family having eaten long before. Spread before us were two prairie chickens, half a dozen fried eggs, more than a loaf of bread, various kinds of jams and sauces, and all the milk one could desire. Everything disappeared. We discovered later that milk was easier to come by, for drinking purposes, than water, which had to be hauled from Snowville. The cows drank irrigation well water, which was too hazardous for humans.
The Uptons were kindly, we wanted a brief rest from travel, so made arrangements to work there for several days in return for our board.
The ranch was located near the center of the Curlew Valley, a cup-shaped desert basin extending for twenty miles to a fringe of low mountains. Toward the southeast the hills were broken by a pass through which an old overland trail had gone. The doors of their old toolshed were scored with knife carvings and initials of early plainsmen. Win found an arrowhead nearby.
At the Upton ranch we made our first acquaintance with a new animal. That night, stretched out on our backs on a mammoth haystack, we had our first serenade from that matchless orchestra, a pack of desert coyotes. We had wondered about the origin of the phrase, “howling desert.” Maybe this was the answer.
The Uptons told us about their nearest neighbors, a man and wife without children, who lived several miles from them. The man had been as far away from home as Brigham City. The woman had never been out of this small valley. Win and I wondered what kind of lives they led. Were they lonesome? Did they know anything of the outside world? Did they read books or subscribe to magazines and newspapers? Travel, and curiosity about distant places, had been passed on to us from our parents and we found it hard to imagine staying in one place forever.
During the days at the Uptons we worked in the alfalfa, or lucerne, as it was called. But our real joy was in the nights, with our blankets spread on the crest of their haystack. The open, desert sky was above. Here, the loneliness of the surroundings, the clearness of the desert nights, and the panorama which we saw from our beds, caused us to stay awake long after the rest of the ranch was lost in slumber. It was August, the month of shooting stars. We counted them by the dozens until drowsiness drew a curtain before our eyes.