We stopped Rosie in a fishing preserve along the banks of the Provo River and fixed a large green salad while watching the yuppy fishermen come and go, troutless, from the river. I don’t much fish because the catch-and-release protocol seems silly to me. Why catch a fish and then let it go? To me, that’s akin to taking a bite of food and then spitting it out. Since I have not much frequented fishing spots for awhile, I was surprised at how it is done these days. You pull up in the parking lot in your shiny red Jeep, hop out in the latest styled Cabela camouflaged tailorings while sporting your shiny gold-plated Shakespeare reel. I probably do not have the latest fish-clothing designer labels spelled out here, but people do not go fishing here with a drug store spinning reel and a pair of tennis shoes. The main pursuit is for style, not size of fish.
We headed further east on I-40, having split away from I-80 near Park City. We stopped in Heber City to make an extra set of keys for the truck and camper, because I am forgetful enough to lose a pair, and Janis needed her own for convenience. The set I had made in Santa Cruz did not work. The local Ace hardware guy was open and ready, so I chatted with him for a few moments while he re-did my keys. He told me that Duchesne, our destiny for the day, was pretty bland country, with very little to do, and that Heber City had some marvelous back country and wild life right close by. I explained that it was about visiting cousins, not wild life, and we moved on east. Another hour and we’d be in Duchesne.
We skirted the edge of a large body of white-capped water–Strawberry Reservoir–just as a rain squall met us head-on from the south. Thunder and lightning in the middle of a late summer day! We never see this activity on the California coast on a summer day. Now I knew I was far from home, having driven beyond our common weather patterns. I had heard that the high desert lakes of Utah had strong wind. Windsurfing up and down the west coast for many years has given me this eye for ruffled waters, and Strawberry blew hard today. I wished that on another trip I could return to sail in this fierce, dry air.
Cousin Cheryl and husband Mark were ready for us when we pulled up onto their ranchette in the hills above Duchesne. It was my first visit here. Cheryl and I grew up in small-town America in eastern Washington in the 1950s. Our family heritage goes back to the early 1840s in Oregon, so we have been studying the ancestors and admiring their hardiness and perseverance for years. She had her house fixed up inside cowboy and Indian style and now lived out on the high desert prairie, so far from the California beach culture in which I have been immersed these past years. We ate together, although my sister and I have recently switched to a diet of whole-food, plant-based eating, and so wrestled with eating the meat and flour and other processed foods. Cheryl understood and was gracious enough to let us pick out of her dishes what we could eat in good conscience.
We picked dinosaur fossils out of the rock and dirt surrounding her home and bagged them up to take home for souvenirs. Utah is literally covered with dinosaur remains, as it was sea bed for these giant critters during a prehistoric age when the climate was ripe for their prosperity. The pieces I picked up look like knuckles or vertebrae or some sort of connective bone, but all fossilized and turned to stone.
We drove around on the six-thousand acre development of which my cousins own about two and a half, and looked at what other countrified people are building. Mostly large homes lived in by one or two people–I suspect retirees from Salt Lake City, some 140 miles away. At high noon when the colors of the desert are washed out, these dry and dusty hills around Duchesne seem uneventful, even forgettable. After a certain passage of the sun, however, the sage, juniper, and pinon pine, begin to light up and cast long purple and blue shadows over the rocky ground. To the north we could see the Duchesne River canyon also begin to pick up some intense color. We pulled back to the house just before sunset so that we could watch the falling color ball from Cheryl’s front porch.
I asked her if she prefers the heat of summer or the cold of winter here, and she quickly answered that when the snow falls the desert takes on a look of purity and awe that mesmerizes her all day long. Day time highs in mid-winter are about zero degrees, whereas in California, where I live, they are hardly any different than in summer–about sixty degrees.
At sunset we continued watching for antelope running by her house, but today they were shy. They probably saw my California license plates and were intimidated by out-of-towners. Cheryl and Mark had been out of town themselves for the past two years and were glad to be back where the antelope roam. They had been living in the Ukraine, performing their Latter Day Saints missionary work. We sat on the couch huddled around Mark’s laptop as he showed us hundreds of photos of life in the Ukraine, and explained how backwards and poor much of the country is. Lots of photos of babushkas out slogging their way through the snowy countryside to fetch a head of cabbage for dinner. Even that would seem romantic and quaint when compared with the dumpy, dirty apartment buildings where Cheryl and Mark lived, in one of the big cities. Everything about these cities looks rusted or busted, and beyond them lay radioactive hot zones created from the Chernobyl catastrophe, unreachable to humans unless you wear a lead suit.
I thought to myself that it is good that I am getting out and seeing some small slivers of America now, when I am able, and when the roads are passable, and nothing catastrophic hinders my travels. The countryside that I knew as a child has changed dramatically, but looks more familiar and friendly to me here in Utah than it does back home. I go to sleep that night outside in the camper, wondering to myself what might lie ahead in tomorrow’s leg of this adventure. Overhead a hoot owl lands on the peak corner of my cousin’s second-story roof and sings to me, as if welcoming me to his desert home. In the slight distance, a coyote chimes in on the owl’s midnight desert song.