'Road warriors' spread out over Utah

  • Sierra Club volunteer Linda Wilburn wades a slot canyon

    Gordon Swenson

The pink line drawn on the topo map looks like a small finger poked into the close contour lines of Utah's Deep Creek Mountains.

My job as a "road warrior" for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance was to find this jeep road, if it still existed in the BLM wilderness study area, follow it as long as I could, then document it with photos, a compass and tape measure.

But just finding where the jeep road was supposed to be proved an adventure. Since maps tend to stop at state lines, I had to collect several topographical sections. That's when I realized that my Honda would not be up to the region's rigorous lack of pavement. So I recruited a friend with a similar sense of adventure and a four-wheel drive.

Then there was the weather. Early June thundershowers turned the salt flats west of Salt Lake City back into a lake, and low clouds obscured the peaks as we drove through twilight, forcing us to navigate with an altimeter and the larger topos.

But we found the Deep Creek Mountains and the dirt road that led to the jeep trail, where we slid and splashed through puddles. When junipers along the road closed in enough to scratch the paint, we parked and slept in the back of the truck.

Sunrise revealed a spring-green valley and snow-dusted mountains. While fog still lazed in the canyons, we consulted our maps and set out.

Documenting the track through Open A Canyon was easy, although it was overgrown with coral pink Indian paintbrush and purple penstemon. We hiked along, stopping every quarter-mile or so to measure the faded remains of the roadway, take photos and make notes. Since passing vehicles will scar an arid landscape for years, we could generally tell where the road had gone, though the abundant new growth indicated that no one had driven this way in a very long time.

Because our work could be used by the BLM and Utah Wilderness Coalition of 147 groups to determine the boundaries of wilderness areas, documentation had to be thorough, and it had to be fair. So even when the map said the road had ended, we went on until all traces were swallowed by the encroaching pines. Without a definitive destination or evidence of recent use, this sketchy remains of a road in Open A Canyon almost certainly won't qualify as a right-of-way.

Our second search was for the Road with No Name, where according to the 1979 topo map, a jeep track took off from a paved road. If it did 18 years ago, it doesn't now.

We followed other tracks, guessing they would lead to the unnamed canyon, but they did not. Finally, we got out of the truck and walked through tangles of sagebrush. Though we found the washes that were indicated on the map, as well as sego lilies and prickly pears, we found no road.

Heavy, rumbling clouds began to gather in the afternoon, but we didn't want to give up. We backtracked to another dirt road and headed overland again, using the compass and altimeter to gauge our direction through the sparse junipers. Then we found it: scrape marks on trees so tall you couldn't drive over them now.

We took photos, and like trackers on a cold trail, followed the old traces of the road more by intuition than by evidence. Before long the track dissolved into the junipers, and about the same instant the sky dropped rain thickened by hail.

The rain halted just as we reached the truck. Making final notes as we bounced and splashed back toward the pavement, we felt like explorers; because of our photos and measurements, neither Open A nor the Road with No Name was likely to disqualify an area for wilderness designation.

I felt a stronger connection to the cause of conservation, as well as to the region of Utah in which I live; and I felt that because I knew where the pink fingers of road went, or didn't go, as the case might be.

Cheryl Fox is a ski instructor and writer in Park City, Utah.

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