Extending from Soldier Summit in the north to Interstate 70 in the south, the Wasatch Plateau is one of the great overlooked places of Utah despite its centralized location in the state. Much like its name suggests, this is more of a high-mountain plateau that rises 9,000-10,000 feet above sea level with eight peaks reaching above 11,000 feet. A rift fault created Joe’s Valley, which nearly bisects the entire range from the south. This famous feature boasts a massive concentration of challenging rock climbs among the boulder fields. The mountains to the east from the valley are shorter and covered mainly in Juniper while the mountains to the west hold Aspen and Fir forests extending into alpine environments on the peaks. There are hundreds of high-mountain lakes and reservoirs along its length.
The penultimate day of a three-week trip.
After crazy wandering in Canada, through Flaming Gorge, a dinosaur museum in Wyoming, an overnight cleanup and hot shower at a motel in Vernal, Utah, I had probably covered 4000 miles and was heading home when Timmy, my burly 90-pound mutt, started wagging his tail as if he expected another adventure. Damned if I know how the beast intuits what was in my mind even before I do, but he seemed to know whenever I decided to explore. He was always right.
Driving into Utah to get home in time to teach, we were east bordering the north end of the mountains that skiers know from the Park City Sundance Film Festival and Bear River Mountain resorts to the south, the Wasatch Plateau.
As Wallace Stegner put it, the Wasatch Plateau was “…the border of the Great Basin (all of Nevada), which geologically is a giant bowl with no water outlet. It contains all of Nevada, from the Sierra block west in California to the Wasatch Plateau east.”
Heading south, in Utah, I must have slowed seeing a road up to the plateau, which started Timmy’s tail thumping. What the hell, I had a couple of hours to kill.
It was worth it. The weather was sparkling, clear and sunny, not a cloud, the air brisk, and it was lovely at 11,000 feet near the treeline with meadows and the coniferous forest thinning in the higher altitudes. Timmy and I wandered for an hour. Looking at a map in my Hidden Utah book, I see a line indicating a dirt road meandering south along the crest, noting “some areas-difficult.” The entire Wasatch plateau is a bit over 11,000 feet, but only about 20 miles wide, with steep drop-offs both east and west.
A ranger tells me, “It’s only a jeep track; I never tried it.” Then, eyeing my all-wheel drive Subaru, “It’s probably okay. The weather is clear. The road is gravel.”
So, Timmy and I headed south on the narrow road on the narrow plateau into the unknown, much cooler and more interesting than the boring highway at the bottom. An adventure. But it turned out to be more adventure than I wanted.
An hour later, the sky darkened. Huh? What happened to the sunny day? About another hour later, it started raining and the gravel road narrowed to a jeep track on clay-like mud getting funky as it gets wet. Do I turn back? No. I figure I had gone too far, and it was only light rain. By another hour, high winds started jerking the car and the storm became more than just rain, with booming thunder and lightning near enough to make both Timmy and me nervous…and we’re in a full-on blizzard. Damn! On wet clay. The car slithers, so we crawl at no more than three to five miles an hour. Then, a sudden flash of blinding light and, simultaneously, thunder so loud I think the car is hit. Lightning strikes with a vengeance. Should we get out of the car? No. I remember—stay inside car. I remove Timmy’s tags and collar chain, my watch and belt buckle, just in case. No metal. But the whole car is metal.
Timmy half whines, perhaps reacting to me, saying, “Let’s get the hell off this mountain.” I agree with the dog; I have to find a way off the ridge. About three hours away from where we started, turning back didn’t make sense, but staying on the ridge in the ferocity of a terrifying electric storm doesn’t either. The windshield wipers were so overwhelmed by the downpour it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead. After creeping a few more miles, there appeared to be a track on our left, east, going down. It’s small, rough, but looks doable.
Stopping, I see in the book that the downslope east goes down 2500 feet. The road, if it is a road, is not on the map. In any case, I did not see a track to the west, which would have descended even further. Another lightning strike and deafening thunder convinced me I have to get off the high point, the ridge, so I take the track down, barely creeping.
In the muddy ground and the steepness of the downslope, even in lowest gear at a three mile-an-hour crawl, I have little control. The road traverses like a trail, and the car slithers at each turn. I’m thankful my Suburu is all-wheel drive and I have snow and mud tires. But coming to a hairpin curve to the left, as I turned the steering wheel, the car has a mind of its own—the tires don’t catch and…in slow motion, inexorably, we slide right into a deep ditch, looking out to nothingness on the right. It feels like we’re at a 30-40 percent angle. For a minute, I think we might flip. Timmy and I, luggage, day packs and snacks, everything, sail to the right, the passenger side. I hold my breath hoping we won’t tumble. A small berm holds us, but it was tricky. Damn! On my old ship in WW II, The Black, I’d say we have a severe list to starboard.
Although there is no cliff to our right, it’s a steep hill and the right side of the car is so much lower than the left. I climb out the high side in pounding rain. Gingerly. Check out the lay of the land. Three tires are still in contact with the ground, the left front hovers in air. I breathe a sigh of relief that we stay “afloat,” but then realize our predicament. We’re on a godforsaken jeep track on a serious slope, the car at a serious angle—we need a tow truck and I haven’t the slightest idea where we are. Who in hell would ever pass us on a road that even the ranger said he’s never taken? I’m glad I’m alone.
I talk slowly and comfortingly to the dog, telling him, “Hey, big boy, we’ll figure this out, don’t worry, let’s get out, sniff around, pee.” It comforts me as well.
Real outdoor types would know what to do. I’m a born-and-bred city slicker but I’m not stupid. I carry a small metal shovel, which might attract lightning, but we’re off the ridge, and other tall trees, etc., might act as lightning rods. So, I put on my rain gear and topside (Navy talk), I look for pebbles, rocks, branches, anything to cover the muck to give the tires traction. I get Timmy out in the rain, afraid if he stays in the car and thumps his 90 pounds to the right, goodbye car, Goodbye Timmy. Ears drooping and soaked, the beast looks forlorn.
The angle of the car is so scary, that just climbing in and out on the high side to avoid extra weight on the downside, is weird. We’re on the edge of sparse forest, so I find old branches, rocks, pebbles, bark, and pack as much gunk as I can find beneath the one tire in the air, fore and aft of the other three tires, and climb back into the car, slowly, holding my breath, still worried about tipping.
I tell Timmy “STAY” outside. He looks miserable, wet, smells doggy, holds his big head down as if he did something bad, and I’m going to desert him. I kick the engine in. Reverse slowly onto the goop, then forward, reverse, then forward, slowly, slowly, doing it several times by inches, and then, a minor miracle! Thank whatever gods for good luck and all-wheel drive.
Something grabs, and gingerly, super gingerly, I get traction, and maybe religion. The car grabs, moves inches forward, and a lucky break—it levels abruptly, the bottom scrapes, and we make it to the center of the track. I get Timmy back in the car, sit for a moment, catch my breath. It’s still hairy, chancy, but we keep going at a snail’s pace, knowing we could get stuck at any time. We slide several more times; the wheels get no traction. I repeat the twigs-and-pebbles performance and it works, proud that maybe I’m not the city slicker I think I am. However, the harrowing trip was so slow, it felt like it took hours as we descended into darkness. I guess we left about noon. It must have been eight or so when the rain slackened, the lightning abated.
Finally, it’s night, pitch black, no moon, no stars, but now only lightly raining. I realize we’re into the rain-shadow east of the mountains. The road straightens and becomes less steep, when ahead, about three or four miles, I see a light, a single isolated, dim light. Civilization! We descend slowly until, finally, on firm ground, though still on a jeep track, I reach the light.
On a short spur to the left there is a small, old, grey trailer and a lit window. Squatters? The trailer is old. Not much bigger than a room, sloping in back. I wonder, because there’s nothing around for miles, and the road is still no more than a track in the woods. But we made it. Tremendously relieved, I stop, get out, breathe a sigh of relief, and walk the ten feet or so to the trailer and knock.
Through the closed door, a frightened woman’s voice asks, “Wh- who are you? W-where’d you come from? What do you want? “
Through the door, I tell her. She opens the door, tentatively, peering through about three inches, and as she opens the door further, I see a thin, sallow-complected woman with pronounced cheekbones, wearing a faded cotton dress, holding a baby. Two more kids, a girl about three and a boy perhaps four or five, both wrapping their arms around her. A gaunt, hollow-cheeked man stands at her back, silent.
My first and lasting impression was that they looked like pictures from the thirties, from the dust bowl, or Appalachia. He doesn’t say anything, lets the woman speak. She welcomes me in, closes the door, and when she hears where I came from, they both shake their heads and she says how dangerous what I did was. I acknowledge that I was scared, the dog was scared, and tell them about sliding off the road.
The woman then says, “Stay for dinner, we’re having potatoes.”
I smell the cooking, a potato smell, feel the steamy moisture in the air, and on a small stove, see a large, banged aluminum kettle with potatoes, boiling. Four potatoes. Nothing else, neither on the table or stove. Just potatoes, no greens, no smoked oysters, crostini, seared ahi tuna, no nada—just potatoes. I was really impressed by their meal of nothing but potatoes.
I don’t remember clearly much more except for feeling relieved finding out that the dirt road several miles further becomes gravel, then several more miles, asphalt, and eventually, a Utah town and the highway. They were apparently squatters in this desolate, lonely place.
The rain was abating, and the wide-eyed kids wanted to come out to see Timmy, who stuck his face out the window that I opened so the kids could hug him. I thanked them for their kindness, offer of dinner, said we had a snack before the storm, and left.
Frankly, I didn’t consider those six hours as anything to write about until years later. A good friend, a brilliant woman, author and artist, Shirley Asano, sent me a quote from C.S. Lewis: “The man who is contented to be only himself is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through the eyes of others.” She encouraged me to tell about my life. The quote applies to the reader of stories, but in my telling about the family, it applies as well to me, the teller.
As I recall the storm, the family, and the invitation to dinner—“We’re having potatoes”—I realize I didn’t absorb deeply when it happened or what, in the telling, I suddenly realize. At the time, I felt relieved to find safety, but in the “telling,” something more occurred to me, something touching, something Christ-like about the family. Not Christ in the religious Son of God sense, but in what His philosophy was: human kindness, the altruism of people who, apparently destitute, with nothing but four potatoes to eat for two adults and three toddlers, offered me a share.
It’s as if I see through the eyes of a formerly unaware self to a newly aware self, reacting to my own story, that this poverty-stricken family invited me to share their dinner—potatoes—and I realized that it’s an antidote to the troubled times we live in.
Joe Blaustein, born in New York City (Manhattan) in 1923, was always an artist. He graduated high school at 16, enlisted in the Navy at 18, after Pearl Harbor was attacked. He spent four years in the Navy, two on a “tin can” Destroyer 666, as Combat Intelligence/Information Center (CIC) officer and saw heavy action. Home in L.A., he became an adjunct professor of studio art painting and drawing classes for 63 years at UCLA. Simultaneously, he was VP and advertising director of a national advertising firm for 35 years, retired at 65, and continued to teach at UCLA until 2018. During that time, he was named Teacher of the Year twice and Outstanding Professor in 2014. He continues to teach privately from his home in Topanga.