I’ve always been attracted to parts of Utah that others describe as being a whole lot of nothing, godforsaken or not-the-end-of-the-earth-but-you-can-see-it-from-there.
think our preference for landscapes can be just as trite as our
preference for beautiful people hawking products in magazines or
delivering the mundane news on television. We like pretty.
Not me. So-called ugly landscapes are just itching to be explored
and loved, and luckily, the West is littered with them. These are
the lands thought to be useless for cows and even most wildlife.
But they’re just right for military maneuvers and rocket
fire, the storage of wastes nobody else could tolerate, mining and
the messes that corporations leave behind, and secret polygamous
enclaves off roads too rutted for most of us to drive.
Utah’s West Desert is just such a place, and sitting like a
gate to this other world is Simpson Springs Campground. It lies at
the crossroads of the Old West and the bleached bones of the Cold
War. The gravel road leading to the campground was once part of the
Pony Express Trail, the first transcontinental highway, and near to
where the Donner party chose the worst short cut in history. The
campground also sits within a grenade’s throw of the Dugway
Dugway was made famous in sci-fi movies
for being the place were nasty biological weapons were made. In
real life, only anthrax, botulism and the plague have been tested
and stored here. Dugway is also where trainloads of nerve-gas bombs
were moved for storage and incineration, and it is near the place
where 6,000 sheep were allegedly killed by an accidental escape of
Not far from Dugway, you can also visit the
once-secret training site for the Enola Gay, which delivered the
first A-bomb. In keeping with the nuclear theme, you can take a
short side trip to Skull Valley, the aptly named proposed future
nuclear-storage site. If you look on the map, you’ll notice
that a large part of this area of the country cannot be flown over
or driven through, but that’s no problem, really. As I found
out, you can camp well within collateral damage distance.
It was 1 a m last summer, when most of us campers were snoozing,
that I was jolted awake by what seemed like a re-enactment of the
Star Spangled Banner: "The rocket’s red glare, the bombs
bursting in air…" During the next hour, I saw three giant
parachuting flares capable of lighting up several football
stadiums. Following the flares there were several echoing
Realizing that friendly fire has become a risk
in combat and that sometimes even the smartest bombs do dumb
things, sleep did not come back easily. For one thing, my ancient
truck could easily be mistaken for the derelict vehicles they use
for practice bombing runs. I thought of leaving, but figured that
driving might attract some sort of heat-seeking weapons.
So I put in my earplugs, drank another beer and ignored the show.
The next day, I woke to thanking more gods than a Rainbow Gathering
and shared a renewed zest for life with a Forest Service
He assured me that, "They do that sort of thing
all the time. They must have been on maneuvers last night. You get
used to it."
Later, while telling him that the mosquitoes
seemed especially bad, he added, "We're not sure these mosquitoes
are native to this area. The military used to do a lot of malaria
testing on troops out here. They'd give the troops extra weekend
passes for volunteering to get stung by a tent-full of mosquitoes.
Some of the test mosquitoes probably escaped and crossbred with the
B-movie horror images of mutated
mosquitoes sucking whole flocks of sheep dry flashed through my
head. He’s not done: "A whole bunch of sheep got killed out
there in some kind of nerve gas experiment," he continued. "They
don't let us take pictures of anything around here. I tell you
there is some scary stuff going on." He nodded a knowing smile and
wished me well.
I didn’t know if he was trying to
impress or scare me, but I got the message it was time to move on.
Next summer, I think I’ll head for a quieter though no less
remote place in the West: Area 51.