I 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 Proving Grounds.
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 nerve gas.
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 "ka-booms!"
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 ranger.
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 local mosquitoes…"
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.
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He works for Utah State University in Logan, Utah.
Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at email@example.com.