Story Time: Butterfield Canyon and Stansbury Island

It’s amazing to me how much confidence can be contained in a young, inexperienced male. I was once afflicted by this malady (okay… maybe I still am). In general, that confidence has enabled me to take on large projects I was probably unqualified for and manage to grow and learn enough in the process to succeed while building new skills and converting what was once unwarranted confidence into surety justified by knowledge. Occasionally, however, that confidence has a way of getting the practitioner of it into trouble.

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by machinery and vehicles.  Anything that was capable of moving under its own power was a source of fascination.  This fascination over time grew from lawnmower-powered mini-bikes and go-karts to motorcycles and automobiles.  The confidence of youth convinced me I could buy old motorcycles and get them running again.  It also convinced me that I could ride them through the wilderness and all through creation without any dangerous consequences.  It convinced me that I could find my way back home from wherever the trails led me without extensive study of the land, maps, or terrain.  In these regards, I was lucky.  Luck favors the prepared, but in these cases, luck favored the bold and stupid.

Looking back, I wonder how I made it through the things I did as a teenager.  The fact that I never had a real accident on my motorcycles, never got lost in the desert on my rides and drives, and managed to get my way free from whatever I got tangled in is more a testament to divine providence intervening than it is to my preparation and skill.   As I take a mental inventory of the various stories I tell, there is a common thread through them where I get committed to something I could or should have avoided and the story turns around what it took to wriggle my way free of whatever it was that caught me in the first place.

Two short stories from my late teens are illustrative…  One of the things I often did to get away and unwind was to climb in my small Chevrolet Luv equipped with noting more than street tires and with no more ground clearance than the average sedan, and make my way to the mountains or deserts to tackle an old mining trail or survey road.  I rarely ever thought hard about the isolation of the area I was in, difficulty of obtaining help in the event of an emergency, or mechanical frailty of the truck that was nearly as old as I and not particularly well suited for what I was doing,  None of these things prevented me from jumping at the chance to do something that should rightly be considered stupid.

One particular trip out of town my brother Tolon and I decided to drive up Butterfield canyon on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley and take an old mining trail up the side of the canyon looking for a good overlook to view the enormous copper mine that filled the next canyon over.  As I wound my way up the canyon looking for likely trails, I found one I had never attempted before and turned off the beaten path, starting the climb up the side of the canyon.  Neither Tolon nor I had told anyone where we had planned to go, nor had we any idea what the conditions were like further up the trail.  To make it worse, we hadn’t really planned on taking rough trails, expecting only to ride up moderately rough dirt roads.    As a result, we didn’t bring the come-along and other tools I usually carried when I thought there were good odds of getting stuck.

As we headed up the trail, things got progressively worse.  The trail went from dirt to slate, with loose chunks piled deep over bedrock.  The slate was slipping under my tires as I climbed, making it difficult to get enough traction to maintain control. In spite of the worsening conditions, I continued to climb, figuring gravity would make climbing traction a non-issue.  If I could climb up, I could certainly come back down.  As I crested a ridge, the trail turned to follow it, jogging abruptly downward before rising again and continuing to the top where I expected to find the overlook.  No sooner had we started down the trail than I realized I would have almost no traction trying to come back up that particular section.  Even a slight tap on the brakes would result in a slide of several feet.  There was no apparent way I was going to be able to get enough traction to make it back to the top.

Undeterred, and believing that going forward wouldn’t materially decrease my odds of getting back up that section of trail, I continued up the trail until we ran into a snowbank that hadn’t melted yet.  I wasn’t equipped for snow, seeing as how both Tolon and I were wearing nothing more than shorts and sandals.  However, there was a set of tracks through the snow that looked like they’d been made by a truck neither wider nor taller than mine, so I got a good run at it and plowed into the snow.  Unfortunately, my estimate of the depth was off by at least three inches, and I found myself stuck fast with hard-pack snow holding up every square inch of my truck, one wheel in the front spinning freely, and one in the back doing the same.

Tolon and I looked at each other, shrugged our shoulders, and got to work.  The only tool I had available was a small folding entrenching-tool, and if memory serves, Tolon had the use of it.  I had my hands.  Using those two limited tools, we spent well over an hour scraping, digging, and pushing snow; completely soaking ourselves and thoroughly freezing every part of our bodies.  By the time we got free of the snow bank, we were cold and exhausted.

As we made our way back down the hill, we reached the place where it turned back uphill and was covered in loose slate.  One attempt to get a run at the hill was enough to prove that I wouldn’t be able to use momentum and traction to cover that ground.  I was at a loss.  After a quick look around for things that might help, I saw there was dirt and grass covering the slate on either side of the trail that might provide enough traction if I could get on it.  However, there was a problem… both sides of the trail were blocked with saplings and young trees that were squarely in the middle of the area I would have to climb.

I had nothing with which to cut those saplings down, and using my bumper to slowly push them over was hopeless given the slope and poor traction conditions.  I decided the only chance I really had was to get a run at it, and try to just knock them over and drag them with me up the hill in one shot.  The truck I owned already had a bent bumper from a previous incident with an instructor at my university, and was rusted clear through in several places.  The prospect of adding a few new dents didn’t bother me particularly.  I backed up the opposite hill as far as I could go, and made a run for the dirt-covered side of the trail.   By miracle or mercy, the trees in front of me didn’t have particularly deep roots, and fell over on contact with my bumper.  I was able to claw my way to the top of the hill with saplings dragging along under my truck.  The new dents and dings were barely noticeable.

Were I wise, I would have learned from this experience and done a better job preparing before jumping into a situation like that.  I can’t say I did… at least not at first.  It wasn’t until years later that I stocked the toolbox of my truck with things like an ax, shovel, rope, come-along and machete.  In addition, the odds of somebody finding me in the place where I got stuck were pretty bad.  You’d think I would have learned, but I still have issues with telling folks where I am headed and when I plan on being back because the truth is that when I’m headed for some solitude and exploring, I rarely know the answers to either of those questions.

Another example where overconfidence and underpreparedness nearly cost me dearly was on Stansbury Island.  Not too long after the Butterfield canyon episode, I was with my other brother Bryce out on Stansbury Island in the Great Salt Lake.  We had been shooting, and decided to explore some of the trails in the area.  Unlike the previous episode in the canyon, I had told my parents where I was headed.  However, this was before the days when everyone had cell phones, and even had I owned one, the odds of it working that far from civilized society were slim to none.  If something went wrong, getting help would mean an 18 mile drive or hike along a deserted dirt road to the small town of Grantsville.

Something to note about Stansbury Island is that it is very much a desert.  While it’s surrounded by water, none of it is potable. In fact, the only place I’m aware of with saltier year-round standing water is the Dead Sea.  As you drive down the causeway to the island, you pass large evaporation ponds where the Morton Salt Company dries out the lake water to harvest salt.  If you want something to drink out there, you have to bring it with you.  I hadn’t planned on being there for more than an hour or so, and consequently hadn’t brought much by way of hydration fluids.  I might have had a Coke in the cab.

As we tooled along the trails, we found one climbing up the face of a steep hill that looked like an interesting challenge, so I pointed the front bumper that way and started to climb.  About the time I lost traction and had to start turning around, I felt the clutch pedal kick back at me.  I thought it was unusual, but was more concerned with getting back down the hill without rolling the truck than troubleshooting something I was only partly sure had happened.  However, as I rolled to the base of the hill and went to shift gears, it became clear something was wrong.  While the shifter switched cleanly between gears, the truck wouldn’t move when I went to let the clutch out.

I got out of the truck and crawled under it, looking into a small inspection port in the bell housing.  There were pieces of friction plate everywhere except for where it belonged.  The part of the clutch that actually connected the engine to the transmission had disintegrated.  I was stuck with no means of connecting power between the engine and the wheels 18 miles from help on an island that was unpopulated and infrequently visited.  To make matters worse, Bryce was quite young (I think he was about 10 or 11 at the time) and was starting to panic. With no other options, we started the walk towards Grantsville.

As we walked, Bryce was highly unhappy, claiming that he was sure we were going to die out there and our dead bodies eaten by the millions of sea gulls that called the lake home.  It was all I could do to keep him walking.  Luckily, only a few miles into the trek we ran across someone who was headed out to the northern tip of the island to shoot off illegal fireworks.  They seemed highly irritated when I flagged them down to ask for a ride into Grantsville, from which place I planned to call my dad to come get us and help me tow my truck home.  The offer of $20 for gas (all the cash I had at the time) only slightly improved their disposition, but they ultimately agreed.  Within two or three hours, my dad had arrived with his van and a tow-strap, we were on our way home, and I was about to start another enterprise I was unprepared for… fixing the clutch on my now broken truck.  But… that’s a story for another time.

Crookedly Straight

The dreams of the present viewed in sleep long ago
Bear no semblance to what I now see,
Wishes fervently made with the best of intent
Have passed by and never will be.

Looking back through the fog of memories past
I know now that the path I have trod,
Seeming crookedly bent, twisting this way and that
Has been mercifully guided by God.

The pitfalls and dangers I couldn't observe
Would have swallowed me up in their depths,
So wand'ring along the strange course of my life
I'm content to let Him guide my steps.

A Trip to Gettysburg

A while ago I decided to cash in a few of my hotel rewards points, secure a room somewhere near Gettysburg, PA, and make the sort drive north to go see the battlefield.

Now, I’m no civil war historian, so I’ll not bore anyone with a detailed description of the battle.  However, for those who need a quick refresher, with the strong caveat that anything I write is subject to fact-checking and errors…  The battle of Gettysburg was fought when the Army of Northern Virginia ventured north out of confederate territory.  Virginia was suffering from the effects of the previous fighting and needed a break to rebuild and resupply.  Moving the battle into Union territory would provide much needed breathing space and also enable rich foraging as the poorly supplied confederate army moved through previously untouched farmland.

Another factor in the decision to head north was the Union siege at Richmond that was taking a strong toll.  Some thought/hoped that a campaign in union territory would relieve that pressure as troops were pulled back to protect Washington and deal with the incursion.  Anti-war sentiment in the North was building, and General Lee believed taking the war to the doorsteps of the union civilians would strengthen that sentiment. General Lee had also been highly successful against frightening odds, and was confident his army could break down the Union army and threaten Washington sufficiently to put the Union in a position to sue for peace.

On the union side, leadership was aware that public perception of the war was turning as the Union suffered a string of embarrassing defeats at the hands of Lee.  Lincoln had struggled to get Army leadership to take the initiative, and the result had been turmoil in the top Union ranks as one general was relieved after another.  Other nations like Great Britain might become more willing to join on the Confederate side if the Union continued to flounder.  The Union desperately needed a win.

Cemetery Gate at Cemetary Ridge, essentially unchanged since the civil war. The national cemetery dedicated by Lincoln is just to the right of this gate.
Cannon on cemetery ridge looking north-east. This position was the fall-back position on the first day of the battle.
Looking up at little round top.
The monument at focal point of the Gettysburg National Cemetery. Lincoln gave the Gettysburg address near this spot during his dedicatory remarks.
The center of the union line on the east-end of the battlefield. Confederate lines advanced across the open field from the tree-line on the other end of the fields.
The “Angle” – the high-water mark of the confederate advance during Pickett’s charge. One of the bloodiest locations on the battlefield.
Confederate artillery just behind the tree-line. Artillery located here bombarded the union lines for two hours before Pickett’s charge in an attempt to soften up the defenses. It was largely ineffective.
Rocks of the Devil’s Den. Confederate sharpshooters harassed Union soldiers a few hundred yards away on little round top from here.
Another look at the confederate artillery emplacement
Me standing in one of the crags of Devil’s Den

Satan’s laugh

Hateful things in human thought
Twisted minds this sin have brought
Barking dogs pull at the chain
Howling shrieks and moans of pain
Mothers weep and infants cry
Above the gate - ARBEIT MACHT FREI
Shuffling feet of broken hearts
Pause for families torn apart
Wives and children stripped away
Screams and cries that cannot sway

One by one sent there and here
For some the end is very near
While others hear the orders barked
For brutal labor they were marked
The crack of whips and thud of fist
The whimpered hope you're on the list
Yet labor's toil halts not the end
It just delays the captive's friend
Released as smoke to float away
To rest in peace 'till judgement day

The aircraft's roar makes rain of steel
The rumbling tank with squeaking wheel
The cannon's bark and tongue of flame
Cackling guns no man can tame
Hateful shouts dehumanize
All morals lost to human eyes
Torture, torment, words of hate
Pain designed to grind and grate

Little children weaponized
With vacant stares and hollow eyes
Mothers, fathers, infants, kids
Thrashed and killed as leader bids
Allah's name they shout aloud
And purify by purge the town
They claim to be his army true
Do horrid things no saint could do

Hate and malice, selfishness
Idols finely shaped and dressed
Lure distract and lead away
Those who stumble on their way
To wanton riot, heinous deeds
Anything to feed their greed
Shattered lives and broken dreams
Whimpered cries and shouted screams
Calls for vengeance swift and sure
Find neither answer nor the cure

These horrid sounds assault the ears
Tender hearts sprout monstrous tears
But hardened souls cannot be moved
Though hell itself their deeds reprove
Rumbling, thundering waves of sound
O'er the earth reverb, rebound
Satan's laugh with mortal voice
Cackling glee at human's choice
Oh what fools these mortal souls 
who let me in to take control


DC at night

Spent a cold night wandering the national mall with a camera and tripod.  A brisk night, brisk walk, and some pretty cool pictures.

National WWII memorial looking north.
The capitol as seen looking down the national mall. If you look close, you can see the platform where the inauguration will take place January 20th.
One of many government office buildings off the national mall. I don’t recall what agencies call this one home.
Just watching traffic headed north.
The white house dressed up for Christmas
The Lincoln memorial viewed from just west of the Washington memorial
The National Christmas Tree in the “oval” just south of the white house
Another view of the WWII memorial
One of many random sculptures paid for with taxpayer dollars