…We continue our road trip from Aspen to San Francisco.
Weariness was striking as we headed for the Vernal city limits. Gaffer-taping eyelids to my Alison Jade brows seemed a real option.
“I need a proper coffee, we’ve got to stop,” quoth my diligent navigator, insensate with white line fever. “I’m fading fast.”
“Impossible,” I said. “It’ll taste like the bottom of a Pilbara tailings pond.” They never got their conks around the Arabica bean in the Land of the Fee. It’s called barista blindness, a terrible affliction.”
A slightly tense quiet filled the Selecta cabin, as it often does when even great lovers are trapped in a compact car for several hundred of clicks. I drove on.
“Look! A coffee place!” she blurted, indicting a minuscule roadside prefab that looked more like a potting shed. I grudgingly pulled over.
“Don’t say I didn’t warn you. I’m not having one, sorry.”
“Good for you.”
Five minutes later the co-pilot returned cradling a sizable paper cup with aromatic steam wafting from the lid.
“Delicious!” she squawked. Really good, yum.”
It did smell good, but pride anchored my talons to the wheel and liquid lead bled into my accelerator foot. We hurtled out of Vernal.
Travel tip: if you’re combing the lower 48 for passable wakey juice (as many visiting caffeine-addicted Australians do), I have it on good authority there’s a shed in Vernal, Utah, awaiting your custom.
About 16km north, curiosity and lassitude got the better of us both, and we pulled in at Red Fleet State Park for a break.
Many of the parks and recreation areas in this part of the country are unknown to outsiders, and one gets the distinct impression the locals like it that way. Red Fleet is teeming with good ol’ boys (Utah bogans), local yokels, frolicking families, and very few foreigners. Naturtally, they all drive giant pickup trucks.
Centrepiece is the reservoir, surrounded by impressive red rock formations. The park got its name from three large sandstone outcrops that look like ships jutting from the water.
There are also dinosaur footprints to be seen in the area. (At least, I think they’re dino prints; some local bipeds have similar podiatric proportions.)
We spotted an Indian tepee and popped in for a chat, hoping to catch a Shoshone or two pounding dough for the maize bread, smoking a peace pipe, or at least watching the Kardashians, but no such luck.
The faux abode was an honest, but weirdly kitsch, attempt to pay homage to the proud original owners of this rugged region. You get a lot of well-meant, but sometimes tactless, reprising and rejigging of history in the States.
I felt a powerful urge to blurt, “Don’t suppose any of you Utahns have seen a real Shoshone around here, have ya?” but it mightn’t have ended well.
Back on the macadam we pulled in at a lofty overlook and gazed back at the sweeping terrain. A giant phosphate mine occupies part of the vista, but with the blinkers adjusted, it was still striking in the late afternoon storm-light.
We continued north, climbing in elevation, winding through the luxuriant alpine Ashley National Forest, a green and leafy change from the desolate lowlands.
With the sun an apricot orb above the Uinta Mountains, we joyfully rolled into Dutch John Resort and the Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area – then grumpily rolled right out again, as we had arrived at the wrong place.
Following a fruitless attempt to extract directions from locals, we finally gained the lay of the land from a motel manager, who glumly pointed back up the gorge to his lodgings competition, before resuming a spat with a posse of peeved customers.
We drove back up the slope, re-crossing the impressive reservoir dam and Cart Creek Bridge already traversed, and swung into the Flaming Gorge Resort.
Once settled into our surprisingly spacious digs, we headed to the resort restaurant for a chilli burger and salad.
Michelin star eateries are scarce in that outback terrain, but the passable local nosh satiates ravenous outdoorsy types, and there are plenty of ‘em galumphing about ready for a feed.
A table of 10 Mormons (Utah being their blessed homeland) sat adjacent us. One particularly animated and boisterous chap regaled his yawning, Shirley Temple-sipping, brethren with his many stupendous triumphs as a Salt Lake City realtor.
It was intensely soporific claptrap, so we staggered off to rest, even though in summer it remains twilit in those parts far late into the eve.
While deceptively plain from the outside, we’d found super lodgings. The self-contained apartment was newly renovated, well equipped, clean as whistle and huge. It slept six people comfortably (perfect for multi-spousal Mormon betrothed) and was very reasonably priced by US summer standards. It would be a comfy couple of nights.
Geologically striking, this area was given the name Flaming Gorge by John Wesley Powell, during his1869 expedition down the Green River, due to the glowing red sandstone cliffs surrounding this part of the river.
The Flaming Gorge reservoir was created by the 1964 construction of the Flaming Gorge Dam and generates hydroelectric power for much of the region.
While the gorge is said to have been beautiful before the dam went in, it is now breathtaking due to the vast expanses of water. (One of those rare examples where meddling mankind may have even improved the scenery.)
The vistas rival the Grand Canyon in parts, but once again, the gorge remains pretty much a best-kept local secret. When we mentioned to Aspenites we were heading up through Flaming Gorge, the response was largely a vacuous stare and an uncomfortable, “Where’s that?”
Activities in the recreation area include camping, biking, hiking, rock climbing, boating, rafting and fishing. The area has set a number of national weight records for fish hooked in the gorge, although most of these are introduced species.
The next morning we drove around to the Red Canyon section of the gorge to check out the view and take a stroll along the forested canyon rim.
The overlook here, arguably the best viewpoint on the gorge, is quite spectacular. The red rocks and steely dark flat-water 450 metres below are striking. The reservoir is about 100 metres deep, so there is plenty of water pouring in via the mighty Green River.
Trekking along the canyon rim through ancient Ponderosa and bristlecone pines, Rocky Mountain Juniper, Spruce and Quaking Aspen, we spotted deer, marmot, chipmunks, squirrels, weasels and numerous majestic birds of prey circling on the updrafts.
National Parks has also reintroduced the iconic bighorn sheep. These woolly ones can sometimes be seen across the gorge clinging precariously to tiny ledges on sheer rock faces, right next to untethered human free-climbers doing exactly the same perilous thing.
This is a pristine place of great beauty, and even when it started to rain we kept on trundling, determined to see more of the gorge and the flora and fauna. But eventually the gentle drizzle reduced us to two drowned rats, and we beat a spirited, sopping retreat to lunch.
We found a hearty yet peculiar bowl of “beef soup” at nearby Red Canyon Lodge on Greens Lake. Outside the window, hummingbirds darted in and fed from sugar water dispensers, and the Lodge’s pesky resident marmot (he lurks under the deck, planning his raids) made forays out to pilfer birdseed from the feeder.
Marmots are peculiar critters. Kind of a ham-fisted God’s furry fusion of a rat and a wombat, and they appear oddly lugubrious and cheeky at the same time.
Later we visited the Fire Fighter’s Memorial near the resort. It is set in a lovely, contemplative location overlooking a side valley off the gorge. They get pretty severe wild fires through the thick pine forests, and lives have been lost fighting this increasing common scourge.
We later headed out to check out the Cedar Springs Marina on the reservoir.
The nearest ocean to Flaming Gorge is the Pacific, at about 1200kms due west as the crow flies – but no sane crow would try. Be this as it may, the landlocked location, well over a mile above real sea level, hasn’t stopped determined local “boaties” embracing a fascinating, nautical salty-seadog persona.
Most were dressed like a cross between the Skipper on Gilligan’s Island and Jimmy Buffet on a bad day; and waffled in fishy vernacular about where they might be bitin’ on the morrow.
In fact, sitting in the Snag Bar and Grill (well over a mile above real sea level) it feels as if you’ve been beamed to the docks at Key West or even plonked down at Cicerello’s, Freo, on a summer eve.
“What’s good?” we asked the waitress.
“I’m mighty partial to the fish tacos, nice ‘n’ spicy, real good.” They were, too.
During our US sojourn I’d been sampling a few of the better microbrewery beers, particularly the stouts. The global fad in trendy boutique ales is alive and well in the US, and some of the best are concocted in the western states.
Perusing the drinks menu, mine eyes screeched to a halt on an intriguing entry: Polygamy Porter.
“This any good?” I asked a grazing couple further down the bench.
“A great brew,” said the fellow, evidently a connoisseur of nut-brown libations. “They make it at the Wasatch Brewery in Salt Lake.” He peered wistfully at the label, winked saucily, and added, “Hey, you’re in Utah, man.”
Indeed. The label depicts what looks like a youthful Abe Lincoln circled be three Rubenesque, dreamily content, naked maidens. Abe’s arms are wrapped around one of them and he stares serenely into the middle distance, clearly thanking his Saviour for both his sect, and its bounteous sex.
The blurb on the can exalts:
“Why have just one? Polygamy Porter is a smooth, chocolaty, easy-drinkin’ brown porter that’s more than a little naughty. Take some home to the wives!”
We hear Polygamy is all the rage in this hub of Mormonism, and affords devote menfolk (and wives) a gentle, hopsy tranquiliser when juggling the day job, Tabernacle, a bustling boudoir and, presumably, magnified nagging.
The next morning, we popped into the resort foyer to pay the bill and took a squiz at the shop. It was the greatest tribute to hunting and fishing we’d witnessed so far, and that’s saying something.
A decorative card table held pride of place. It starred four stuffed racoons perched on stools playing five-stud. That’s four less rascally little masked bandits enriching the landscape or, closer to home, four less trash pandas pinching fruit-loops and mouldy cocktail sausages from your wheelie bin.
Vulgar though it was, the frightful tableau somehow seemed more dignified than ending up as millinery trophy pelts on crab-invested redneck noggins, like that ‘coon-skin enamoured frontiersman, Daniel Boone.
There was also the obligatory moose head protruded from a wall (‘twas as if the wretched beast had charged the building in a fury at the heartless humans, and ended up wedged halfway through the stucco); and 12-gauge shotgun shells were being peddled as key rings.
I considered snapping up some of the keepsake key rings (purely as evidence) to bring home as gifts. But it quickly dawned on me that if I tossed a few in the portmanteau, went through the Homeland Security scanner in San Francisco, the ghostly outline of scattered “ammunition” may result in a one way ticket to Quantanamo Bay, where I’d be put on a leash and made to bark like a Shih Tzu in the nude. Failing that, and I made it to Australia, I could be captured by Oberstleutnant Dutton’s Border Force Sturmtruppen, frog-marched into interrogation, and have my fifth-generation Australian citizenship ignominiously stripped, and have to live in Chad or even Poland.
We left that 12-gauge problem on the racks and hit the road.
Opting to go up the less-travelled west side of the gorge (which stretches about 100kms to the north), we jumped on SH-44 and headed west, then north through beautifully undulating and winding canyon country. Here we stopped at the Goat Creek Overlook, with sweeping views of the southwest corner of the gorge.
We passed through the sleepy little pueblo of Manila (the original’s got nothing on this place) and jumped on SH-530, crossed the Utah-Wyoming state line just northeast of town, and proceeded through the desolate, picturesque high country toward Green River. Behind us the snow-capped peaks of the Uinta Mountains slowly faded over the horizon. It was a little sad to be leaving this lovely part of the Rockies.
Green River started life as a ramshackle trading post, but has developed over the years into a major rail and road hub,with heavy freight moving back and forth, east and west through the mountains, servicing the big cities.
We stopped briefly in town, but needed to cover a lot of ground during the day so drove on. We had left the 191 back at Dutch John, and because we came up the west side of the gorge, had to reconnect with it 20kms east along Interstate 80 at Rock Springs.
Few experiences convey the fearsome properties of momentum and inertia quite like driving into the traffic flow on America’s great freight arteries. The I-80 can be a raging river of road-trains and semis, many skippered by long-haul berserker truckies, possum-eyed loons muttering gibberish, and grinding amphetamines and Modafinil between their terrible fangs.
Hence driving is all about timing and daring. Entering the eastbound ramp I floored the slater, the puny donk screamed like a food blender, and we gradually gained pace, desperately trying to match traffic flow velocity and bigger engines. (Darling, we really should have brought the Lamborghini.)
Entering the middle lane amid a fortissimo burst of angry toots, we were immediately hemmed in by four speeding road trains, their massive wheels whirling and humming all around us. “One twitch of the wheel and we’ll be squashed like a gooseberry,” I thought.
A cordon of hurtling pickup trucks then surrounded the big rigs like fighters in a bombing raid, and we were swept inexorably forward, the tinniest member of a thundering phalanx of rolling rubber and steel, all the way to Rock Springs.
Spying the 191 North sign through a rare opening in the penumbra of Macks, Kenworths and lunatics, we made our move.
Edging the slater toward the gap, I slammed down the hammer, hit escape velocity, burst through into the sunlight (truck horns blaring), swerved around several careening pickups, catapulted our crate into the exit lane, squashed 10 centrifugal Gs on the circular off-ramp, and sling shotted us into the tranquil flow of the 191 North.
We cruised through more sparsely populated plains and scrub terrain, passed through Eden, a hamlet not quite living up to its Utopian descriptor, and pulled up at Farson, about 70kms out of Rock Springs.
The Farson crossroads wasn’t a pit stop we’d planned, but the affable couple at the marina the night before (a duo clearly well-versed in regional sins) said we simply must go there to “taste the best ice cream in Wyoming, if not the whole damn world.” Big call, but strong incentive.
We pulled up outside a brick edifice called Farson Mercantile – Home of the Big Cone. Patrons coming and going had clearly absorbed a few cones in their day, not to mention the rest of the smorgasbord.
It turned out the boast “Home of the Big Cone” was manifestly false advertising. Home of the Colossal Cone may be more apposite.
“What size would you like?” asked the chirpy girl behind the counter.
“Dunno, how big are they?” we enquired.
“This is the baby size,” she said, struggling to drag out a tub akin to a hogshead.
“Jeeezus wept! That’s the baby size? How big are your freekin’ babies around here!?”
We had one anyway. She, a medicine ball monstrosity of rich, syrupy toffee-infused frosty cream; me a big boulder of rich dark chocolate chip, balancing atop a crumpling cone. Licking ‘em, we couldn’t even see each other’s heads across the table. It was a ghastly decadence.
The waistline impact was immediate. I’m glad I was wearing a tee-shirt and not a dress shirt. Buttons would’ve have shot off like rifle bullets and broken windows, or maybe even taken out an eye or two.
Mouths and cheeks smeared with the gloopy brown mark of sinful excess, we waddled to the getaway car; the suspension audibly creaked, as two guilty gluttons sped out of Farson Crossroads and disappeared into a summer mirage, bound for Jackson and the Tetons.
Next Starfish we visit the Grand Tetons and take the high road across Idaho.