THOSE VACATION CRAVINGS
THE ONES THAT SQUIRM INSIDE FOR YEARS
Engine 119 of the Union Pacific railroad at the Golden Spike National Historical site in Promontory, Utah. The replica of the original runs regularly for tourists.
Sometimes you can satisfy
your longings & visit them
By JOYCE KIEFER
For no good reason, a geographic place can become a mind worm. Its name burrows deep in your imagination for years, maybe since childhood, and wont let go. The sound of the name haunts like a distant train whistle until you learn something about the place that saps its charm or you actually visit the place.
Going there also can drain away its imaginary charm. Or it can fill your soul with the thrill of an explorers conquest. In the latter case, disappointments cast only fleeting shadows. Nothing dims the joy of being confirmed that the place is as good as you always knew it was.
Im not thinking about Tashkent or Ulan Bator. Im talking Fossil Butte, Wyoming, and Promontory, Utah.
For almost 40 years, Ive wanted to see Fossil Butte. This summer, as we planned our trip to the Grand Tetons, also in Wyoming, I found the place within the same general direction that my husband and I would take. That isnt the way Bill saw it, but I convinced him that a couple of hours out of the way was worth the wondrous things wed see. How could this place fail to be on his must see list? Wasnt he fascinated by the collection of 50 million-year-old fish fossils we saw together about 40 years ago in a natural history museum? The origin was labeled Kemmerer Fossil Beds.
Thats when I developed my first dream of the place: I am holding a rock pick and standing on the shore of a parched lake bed filled with skeletons of ancient fish. They smile at me with mouthfuls of spiky prehistoric teeth. They are the arm-size descendents of the ichthyosaurs that wait for me at the end of a 50-mile dirt road in the Great Basin of Nevadaanother must-see that wormed its way into my mind when I saw a road sign pointing their way on Highway 50, the Loneliest Road in America.
In 1972 Kemmerer Fossil Beds became Fossil Beds National Monument. This upgrade honors the description of the place as one of the best fossil beds in the world. The bad news was that now Id have to leave the fish where they lay.
This July we were finally on our way. We followed the signs on I-80 and turned off at Evanston, Wyoming. The two-lane road through the sagebrush steppe made us feel part of the landscape different from the conveyor belt experience of the interstate. After some 60 miles we spotted the visitors center. It sat like a flying saucer at the foot of a large, gray butte. All the fossils wed see were displayed inside in glass cases--a spare but fascinating collection.
More could be seen outside in the research quarry but this was the wrong day. You can go only on a ranger-led tour and they are given only on weekends. This was a weekday.
I blinked away disappointment and settled for a picnic in an aspen grove filled with a rainbow of wildflowers. We wandered up the trail beyond the trees. Suddenly I found a pile of shale and the quarry itself, which was cordoned off. Would I let the wrong day of the week keep me from finding the fish of my dreams? I stepped carefully through the rubble andwas it imaginationspotted the imprint of a fan-like fin on a cracked rock.
A ranger had told me I could collect fossils on the surrounding Bureau of Land Management property, but not, of course, in the national monument. However, the BLM doesnt allow the collection of vertebrates. But the chamber of commerce in Kemmerer has a list of ranchers who allow digs on their property and dont fuss about backbones.
As my governor says, "Ill be back!"
A few weeks later I took a second fantasy trip, this one to Promontory, Utah, where the transcontinental railroad came together in 1869, and Leland Stanford hammered the golden spike.
My daughter Julie lives in Salt Lake City 1-1/2 hours away. During a recent visit Julie said she would take me out to Promontory. Bill preferred to spent a day at the Mormon Family History Center, researching dead relatives. She postponed a scheduled doctor visit to see ultrasound pictures of the face of her first child. As the babys granny, it was hard not to accompany Julie instead and bag Promontory, but that distant train whistle haunted my mind.
When Bill and I lived in Salt Lake City in the early-60s, I wanted to go see Promontory Point, as it was commonly called. I had a vision: It is 1869 and shiny locomotives from the Union and Central Pacific chuff up to each other amid great fanfare. Champagne spills forth as loud huzzahs arise from the throng of laborers and robber barons. Four years before, north and south were reunited after the Civil War; now east and west were joined together and America had truly become one country. Leland Stanford drives the golden spike into the ground.
Locals discouraged me by saying Theres nothing there, just an obelisk.
A year after we moved away, the National Park Service established Golden Spike National Historic Site. Since then, a visitors center went up and the obelisk was removed to the patio. Full-size replicas of the original Central and Union Pacific locomotives were built and brought to the site. They run daily during the summer.
But the golden spike is no longer there. It rests in the museum at Stanford University, just 12 miles from where I now live.
As Julie and I drove up to the visitors centera spot of life in the sere brown hillsI heard the whistle. From the vanishing point in the track, a brightly painted steam locomotive chugged toward us. Engine 119 of the Union Pacific had come to life in shiny, glorious color.
Usually the Jupiter of the Central Pacific also pulls in. But not today. It was having its monthly boiler wash. We learned that wed also miss the reenactment of the golden spike ceremony at annual Railroaders Festival because we were three days early.
But then, I thought, Leland Stanford had a near miss, too. He never did strike the Golden Spike. He tried, but he missed. Perhaps he was nervous because his sledge hammer was wired up to the telegraph. Someone more used to manual labor accomplished the job.
Julie and I bought a guide book and set out on the auto tour. The gravel road took us into total desolation. The marshlands and the Salt Lake stretched away in the distance, from the butte that is Promontory Point, - the same scene the railroad builders saw. I was fascinated by the terraced cuts made to bring the tracks up the grade. A sign marked the spot where 10 miles of track were laid by Chinese and Irish laborers for Central Pacific in one ambitious day. These workers had already blasted tunnels through the Sierras. Mounds of carefully piled rocks lay just as they were, a bit of grass growing through.
Well be back to walk the Big Fill when the weather is not so hot. Well bring our husbands and the new grandson. Promontory was a magic place with room for surprise.
A few places I dream of seeing still elude me. The Cleveland Dinosaur Quarryin Utah, not Ohio--is one. I spotted it on a National Geographic map. Years later I noticed a sign pointing the way from the highway near Price, Utah. We drive that country on the way to western Colorado where we visit Bills family. The side road to the quarry was clearly dug out for jeeps and mules, not passenger cars. A few years ago we bought an all-wheel drive. One day we explored the surrounding canyon country. A fork in the dust led to the quarry. Would we take the fork in the dust that led to the spot? We checked the skysomething you do a lot in canyon countryand noticed a menacing blue-black cloud. We left the dinosaurs behind and got out before the flash flood hit.
This time I thought wed catch them on our way back from a Kiefer reunion. I called ahead. In a prim voice the woman dashed my hopes. The quarry was closed for renovation. When we passed the road that led there, a black cloud sat over the spot. Just in case we were tempted.
Instead of shrinking from such setbacks, my collection of geographic mind worms continues to grow. Now I hear the call of The Wave, reputed to be the most incredible sight in the west. This striped sandstone formation sits deep in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. You need a permit to hike there, a six mile loop. But to get the permit you sign up a year in advance on the web or join a lottery at the park the day before you want to go. The whole arrangement might change to a lottery. The rules and the chances of both Bill and I getting into the place seem as capricious as a health care plan.
Even if we managed to obtain permits, a stormy cloud is sure to move over The Wave and crash our plans with a flash flood.
Or I might have the most gorgeous experience I could ever imagine.
©2005 by Joyce Kiefer. The photo is the property of the author. All rights reserved. This column first posted Aug. 22, 2005.
You can comment on this column online. Please address your message to either "The Editors" or Joyce Kiefer. To send an email, click here and mention Joyce's name: firstname.lastname@example.org
HOME About Us Index To
Talkback Contact Us