GREAT SALT DESERT
August 18 - 26
The remainder of Utah is an account of my trip across the Great Salt Desert. Because I always feared this section as the most dangerous of the journey, I asked a healthy male friend to accompany me as a safety back up. Ironically, he immediately succumbed to the desert rigors and the helper role switched to me. He rented a car and followed me as I completed the crossing easily.
Emerging disheartened and shaken from their ordeal in the Wahsatch, the Donner Party immediately ran into another cruel deception. The Great Salt Desert had been depicted loosely as a dry drive of forty miles. In reality the bad stretch was over eighty miles, much of it over a soggy salt mush impossible to drink and nearly impossible to pull through. To carry enough water for animals and people would have weighted the wagons to immovability anyway. The dilemma was insolvable and untellable suffering inevitable. The agony was all the more bitter as the thirst driven immigrants would strive half crazed again and again to the dot of the next ridge expecting water and finding none. Five wagons were abandoned on the salt flats when the thirst crazed oxen broke from the wagons and stampeded out of control in a futile search for water. It was from one of those abandoned wagon mounds that the bone and bit of wood had been taken in 1976 and eventually given to me.
While researching my trip I stumbled upon a picture of the Donner Trace  on the salt flats taken from a helicopter. Because of the peculiar nature of the water and mineral ecology of the salt desert, wheel marks, oxen prints and even human foot prints have been preserved vividly for over 100 years. The wheel marks are still visible and it is just within the past two decades that the footprints of the men, women and children have faded. The photograph that I found brought tears to my eyes. There on an eternity of featureless salt, there on the terrifying landscape of nothingness, there wavered the frail and feeble tracks of one lonely wagon. The sad little marks entered from the lower corner of the picture and wandered with a heart- breaking quaver off in the distance at the top of the photograph, coming from nowhere and going nowhere, endless.
I met Warren, an old family friend at the airport. He was recruited to add a measure of safety for the salt desert crossing.
Wind, sun, a peek at the Donner relics through the museum window and out into the desert, readjusting and redistributing weight on carts, dry jagged western mountains, brown, and brown valley with 20 Wells greenery. Warren, basking in relaxation, business stresses far behind, walking. Sun quickly became very warm, long rest in shade of a factory (Dolomite) relay station. Walking hours and lunch on I-80 in shade of fallen rock zone, cars whizzing close. Warren spotted a Conoco gas station sign, "even read the word "Conoco", he said, but it turned out to be merely a triangular tiny YIELD sign. It was the first indication of desert distortions in size and distance, of desert heat and mirage. We discovered a leak in our gallon water container. As the heat intensified I called a halt on a flat and we used Karen's mylar to rig a sun shade over the golf carts. I was vaguely puzzled at Warren's haphazard rigging of it. Shortly he said, "is that an outhouse over there on the railroad track?" I again faintly stirred with alarm; the "outhouse" was a railroad signal control, many miles from any  possible customers for an outhouse (except us!). Any worries I had were dispelled by my own physical well being. I was not tired or particularly hot although raising a hand into the sun brought a sobering oven-like blast. We mused and dozed in our meager shade and walked a few more miles at dusk to find a drier spot. The Great Salt Desert is brutally dry and hot, yet everywhere under a 1/4 inch crust of salt it is extremely wet, like a slick gray clay, amazing paradox.
We marveled at the other worldly atmosphere as the sun set, touching the pale bare landscape with deep blues and rosy picks. The I-80 traffic hummed and an occasional train roared, but the feeling was one of being on another planet and peaceful. At 11, I was awakened by moon rise, indeed one of the great spectacles of the trip, glowing dusky orange on the horizon and seemingly nearly as large as the earth itself. It was distorted, lop-sided with a knobby top. Hours later it awakened me again like a blinking white street light overhead, brilliant white and casting deep blue moon shadows by the salt sage.
Earlier the sun sank low giving a warm golden touch to the sands and flats with long blue shadows extending eastward from every clump of salt sage.
In the morning we pushed on to Delle eager to refill our water bottles, especially since the loss of one gallon. We were stupified to find the place totally closed down, even the gas stations, because of no water. The hauling truck was broken! It was a serious development but not disastrous since we had 2 gallons left and "only" 20 more miles to Knolls and water. Two miles beyond Delle, Warren discovered that he'd lost his sunglasses, a very serious loss with prospects of sun blindness on the white salt flats ahead. Warren decided to return to Delle to see if they'd fallen from his pocket when we climbed the fence. As he left I was horrified to see him  jogging, insane in the heat, and hoped he'd taken money to buy more. He hitched, thumb out, as he ran, and did NOT get a ride, a very, very disconcerting phenomenon since I had confidently relied on the humanity of travelers on I-80 as a final safety back up. This failure to pick him up, running on the heat of the desert, haunted me for days. Warren returned, no glasses, and he had not thought to see if Delle even had any. By now I began to wonder at his thinking processes.
We resumed walking, having lost a precious "coolish" morning hour yet pressed to continue by our water situation. We spread Desitin on half of his eye glasses to cut the glare and he pulled his hat low. We were prepared to break a flat whisky bottle as soon as we found one along the road, and clothespin clip the colored glass to Warren's glasses for makeshift sun glasses.
I felt fine, energetic, and not too hot, but Warren's face was terribly sunburned. He asked for a break and I was suddenly very alarmed, a sense that all was not well with him despite his protestations to the contrary. He admitted he was very hot, strange since I was reasonable comfortable. He agreed to stop in the shade of the next.sign, but we headed for a railroad underpass instead. We crawled and squeezed through the barbed wire and found ourselves in a dirty dusty gravel platform sharing the shady haven with a dead porcupine. The situation became clear. Warren was burning hot, as if in high fever, his face flushed from near heat stroke, not sunburn. Thank God for the underpass. We rigged Karen's mylar for a wind-break. The wind was funneling dirty dust at us and began the long process of cooling Warren, using water for drinking, not enough to spare for sponging. The breezy dryness of the desert kept sweat evaporated as we had drunk huge quantities of water and eaten salty beef jerky. I was amazed how seldom and little I urinated despite the water consumption. We noted  Warren's cooling skin with relief as the hours passed. I dozed but awoke feeling horrible. Something goes wrong with the body's cooling mechanism when one sleeps on a hot afternoon.
At one point we were rewarded by the rare sight of a badger wandering casually in a zig zag path long the railroad embankment. As with the mountain lion, I was struck by its relaxed movements and then I realized that the various Wild Kingdom type TV shows generally are filming nervous, tense or alarmed animals, giving a wrong impression of how animals generally behave in the wild state. The badger continued his content amble as we glanced at him now and then to check his progress. A few trains roared by, a powerful experience at such close range!
Warren had cooled completely by evening and we climbed out of the dirty little haven and continued. The mountain pass we emerged from opened into yet another broad valley, the very one the Donner Party had traversed. Again the setting sun an painted its magic light and we walked lightly down the 15 mile flat valley between mountain ridges. I recalled a half-forgotten phenomenon that the great West had taught me years ago. The human eye can perceive relative distances only a few miles. Beyond this, distances and positions appear to collapse so that 15 miles appears no farther than 4 miles, etc. The desert scene is particularly vulnerable to mistaken space perceptions, mountain ranges and ridges and broad plains and valleys constantly shift and collapse and expand as one's position changes. A mountain range behind another mountain range appears to be separated by 2 or 3 miles when in reality it may be 50. Sometimes the 2 may even appear as one, as the human eye cannot perceive any distance between the two. To be lost in this situation would be indeed terrifying since landmarks appear to shift position as one approaches. It is speculated that this phenomenon might have occurred to the Donner Party and they might have confused Silver  Mountain with Pilot Peak. It would not even take their exhaustion and thirst to confuse any easterner.
The sun set and the stars appeared and we walked in darkness. The moon had 2 hours before it would show itself. I experienced the pleasant sensation of gliding effortlessly on roller skates as faint images of salt sage loomed out of the darkness briefly and disappeared. We churned away the miles. I felt good enough to consider going all the way to Knolls - we would arrive about 5 AM, and we'd been told a motel was there. Warren looked terribly pale even by moonlight but I ignored this. Finally he said he wanted to stop and I agreed. We unrolled our bags on the flats, the salt bushes eerie clumps here and there, the warm wind faintly howling as if protesting the presence of humans on this alien land. The moon appeared and I fell asleep only to be awakened shortly by the sound of Warren vomiting from exhaustion. He said he felt as if he'd "run too far" and then lay down, confessing that even during the dark hours he'd been hot. Now it was borderline heat exhaustion.
Suddenly across the years I was touched by the similar utter horror that the Donner Party must have felt. I felt I could have reached out and touched them as they had struggled through the night, exhausted yet urgent in their need for water. The balmy warm breeze was a grotesque mask covering the endless miles, the pitiless empty stretches, the loneliness of their ordeal. The eerie soft moonlight masked the harshness of the situation. The land was a nightmare screaming "You are not welcome! Leave!" My horror was awesome but not panicky, amazed more than frightened. It was clear that Warren (without sunglasses) would have to make Knolls in the morning and walking the actual salt flats ahead would be doubtful for him.
In the morning Warren said he felt fine and would like to do the salt flats. I was amazed he could even say such a ridiculous thing and marveled  at his erratic thinking patterns. In a few miles he was pooped again.
As we finally approached Knolls, a terrific wind arose. We struggled mightily just to keep moving and passed through some dramatic desert dunes and sculptures as we bent forward. Knolls was an unspeakable disappointment. It was a decrepit outpost of hell. No motel, a junk yard of sagging paint peeled cabin as a gas station and a sour man who simply turned his back on my wave as we painfully dragged in through the wind and sand storm. Warren nearly spilled a tear as he said wistfully, “It's amazing how you get expectations built up in your mind...!” There was a diner or sorts (apparently unchanged since the 1930's depression) but the hamburger was surprisingly delicious.
We had emerged on foot hot and tired from the desert heat and winds yet the sour man was totally indifferent to my pleas for renting a shack or a corner of a garage or anything to let Warren recover. Obviously we'd have to return to Salt Lake City to rent a car for Warren for the salt flats ahead. I geared up and began begging a ride from every car that drove in for gas. Warren said, "My God, you have one hell of a nerve." I was beginning to get mad enough to feel everyone ELSE had one dell of a nerve for turning us down!
A middle aged couple drove up and I put them on the spot. The woman squirmed uncomfortably and looked afraid. When they emerged from the cafe they wavered and softened. We climbed into the car and all was well. The woman confessed that she had been afraid of us, but the husband had felt we were not to be feared. Our ride to Salt Lake City was pleasant. They were religious, their daughter on a church mission with the Indians in Salt Lake City. They did not know what tribe.
Spent the night in a cheap motel in Salt Lake City. The radiator leaked and the carpet was wet, garbage under the bed, shower stall a mass  of mold and gaping holes in the blanket and spread, but Warren on the floor and me in bed fell into an exhausted sleep. I could hardly remember even lying down.
Next day drove back to Knolls in evening and a brother of the family snarled at me with unbridled hostility, "There's a word for what you're doing, but I'm not going to say it."
Walked onto the real salt flats into the evening, Warren following in the car. We used the old abandoned road all the way. Eating the unrefined salt is a definite no no (arsenic and other poisons) but in spots the salt crystals were delicate and feathery and they tasted delicious, soft crystals that gave a softly satisfying crunchy crumble between the teeth. In the next day I ate more than a few!
The sunset was dramatic against the snow white flats. Warren took pictures gleefully. Walked far into the night, an occasional train shaking the ground as it passed. I saw an unusual shooting star, a reddish purplish bluish head with a purple pink tail streak. It looked similar to 4th of July fireworks.
Next morning walked again, squinting painfully even behind sunglasses. I marveled again at the distance deceptions. I remember how the Donner Party had seen mirages and I smugly remarked to Warren during a snack stop that I could easily see in the distance what must have looked like a lake with trees to exhausted pioneers. The heat waves made it look like shimmering waves braking on a beach with breeze blowing trees. Mountain peaks curled and lifted to horizon in points at each end and edges and appeared to make perfect reflections of themselves in the "water." A bunched row of dark shapes indeed looked like a line of people and vehicles. At one point a low section in a mountain range disappeared and became a pass, so much so that Warren took a picture showing what he assumed was a real pass. Imagine  this kind of confusion to thirst craved pioneers! I jeered at Warren's mistake and went on. I was mildly interested in a large truck and some jeeps to the southwest (Dugway Proving Ground?) and saw someone get out. A few miles later I realized the truck and jeeps and people were mirages! Tiny objects out on the flats cannot be judged for distance and my trucks were shadows of lumps. I was considerably humbled.
Then ahead I saw a huge white cascading fountain in the distance against the mountains. “Wow! There's Wendover! Well I'll be damned. Another mirage got me. That can't be a fountain because Wendover is still 20 miles away so that fountain would have to be a thousand feet high!” Another mile and a dark fringe of trees and tiny houses appeared around the fountain. “Holy smokes! That IS Wendover! What a joke. I thought the real fountain was a mirage!” In the end the white fountain was a building omni many miles from Wendover, and the dark green trees and houses were blades of grass no more than 6 inches high.
Pilot Peak really appeared at hand when still actually 50 miles away. The Bonneville flats seemed squeezed into an impossibly narrow strip at the foot of the mountains. One tries diligently to compensate for the known distortions, but the attempt is futile as distances and positions shift and objects assume vivid new forms. The sensation is one of being in another dimension, a dream world whose perceptual rules follow capricious whims. Only a fool could not respect the desert.
We spent the hours of intense sun in the shade of the car. I resumed walking in the evening. Wendover appeared “again” far ahead and I became tired. Warren spotted the rest area on I-80 and calculated mathematically by telephone pole count that it was 1/2 mile more. I agreed to meet him there. Fooled again. Even with the poles to count the distortion put it 2 1/2 miles ahead!  We decided to drive into town where I got an ice cream cone, a craving I'd had all day. An ice cream cone never before (or ever will) tasted so wonderfully cool, creamy and sensuous on my desert heated throat. It is surely one of those rare moments; the memory of its satisfaction will linger with me forever. (The Reed children had such a memory of their Christmas dinner while trapped and starving in the snowy Sierras.) (like the smell of my mother's spaghetti cooking as I rush off the school bus as a child.)
We drove back onto the flats, where I had stopped walking, and then backtracked a few more miles looking for dry salt. We ended up sleeping literally on the shoulder of the old road, the only dry spot. Next morning went into Wendover, where I was given a complimentary suite at the luxurious hotel casino. I reveled in the contrast, one night sleeping on the shoulder of an old road, the next in a silken sheeted king sized bed!
From the hotel window I looked out at Nevada ahead and recoiled in horror. Somehow I marked crossing the Great Salt Desert as the final hurdle, not even thinking beyond it. Now, before me stretched a brown landscape devoid of any human influence with mean mountains and hot, baked broad, treeless valleys 15 miles wide. I scrambled for the maps and began counting miles between towns, searching in vain for little black squares that would mean buildings. Warren looked at me with pity, and I burst into tears. Obviously the worst was yet to come. Nevada, lying quietly and overlooked, would get its revenge. It would be the biggest challenge yet? Sixty miles between towns and not a ranch or a shack anywhere between. I crumbled, demoralized. Then Warren said something true. He said “if I weren't here, you'd not be upset. You'd be sitting here figuring it out and getting ready, not be crying defeated." And immediately I knew it to be true. There are times when sympathy and pity are deadly debilitators. One had enough to  cope with without handling and defending against another’s sorrowful sympathy.
Another notion was begging to be recognized. Although my leg muscles were nearly as small and soft as before my 1,300 miles of walking, I was forced to entertain the notion that I was in superlative condition. In Wyoming, where I was horrified to learn I couldn't jog, I assumed that my body was unchanged much from pre trip days. Now I had to reconsider. I had easily outlasted and out walked 4 men (with the possible exception of my husband), all of whom were supposedly conditioned. Despite this obvious evidence and despite my women's orientation, I instinctively felt I needed a man to “help” me over the tough spots. Incredible!
To know I can walk probably 40 or 50 miles gives one a confident, even safe, feeling, a less vulnerable feeling than the flabbly soul-even in a Cadillac-must feel with 50 miles of emptiness ahead. In the latter case, one is dependent on the car machine, but in the former, one relies safely on one's self, a surer bet.
Sunday evening I had my wheels cotter-pinned at the Mobile station. A group of people had seen me walk in and poured around to say hello, the woman nudging her husband saying, “See, I told you I'd have the nerve to talk to her!” Three minutes before this I was standing mutely in a corner being rudely ignored by the attendant. The mechanic fixed my wheels. “If you're dumb enough to do this trip, I'll be dumb enough not to charge you.” And we all roared with ticklish laughter.