A market analyst once told me about God’s plan for dirt. He said it’s all well and good to talk about how special land is when I’m in a spectacular red rock national park, like Arches — but, he asserted, “other places God just stuck dirt to keep the earth from falling apart.”
This wasn’t a general theology of soil science: he was talking about Uintah County, the hub of oil and gas in the West. What the market analyst was saying was: this land is already wasteland. Nothing here is worth protecting. Let us do fracking and pumping and strip-mining in peace, without interference from an idea like beauty.
So when I visited the place-that-keeps-the-earth-from-falling-apart this week, I expected a barren moonscape. Instead, I found forests and rivers and canyons worth writing home about. I talked to waitresses, river people, veterans, paleontologists, tar sands geologists, and even the guy who waves around the Honk If You Love Drilling sign to promote his juice bar and day spa (an essay in itself, for a different blog). Regardless their political leanings, all of them agreed: Uintah County is beautiful. This is not the site of haphazard mud-slinging from God — this place is special.
Here are eight reasons why:
The first thing I ever knew about Uintah County was that it was home to something wild. My dad, a conservative hunter, slapped a Save the Book Cliffs sticker on his bishopric binder, replete with an image of a bellowing elk. This is the land of mule deer, pronghorn, coyote, black bear, otters, porcupine, bison and the occasional moose. And even if they’re more properly labeled ‘feral’ than ‘wild’: when the wild horses of the Hill Creek herd race alongside your vehicle, you’ll consider leaving civilization for good.
The Ouray National Wildlife Refuge protects a ribbon of wetlands in the high desert, which harbors migratory birds and endangered fish (in addition to the charismatic mega-mammals). This is a place to see owls and raptors and shorebirds — like my favorite, the black-necked stilt, which walks along on fancy red legs, bobbing about its tiny head. The Refuge’s fish hatchery, working as part of the Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program, supports populations of some of the most wonderful endangered fish: razorback sucker, Colorado pikeminnow, bonytail, and humpback chub.
Some of the wildest life of all is found in the rocks here. Uintah County’s ancient layers of rock got turned on their side and manipulated like the slowest play-dough, so moving across the landscape means covering vast expanses of geologic time when this area was an occasional ocean-shore. Apatosaurus, Diplodocus, Allosaurus, Stegosaurus — this is the home of some of the best preserved dinosaur fossils in the country. Over 1,500 of them are exposed on the intact quarry wall at Dinosaur National Monument. But they’re all over — the area around Steinaker reservoir holds fossils of ancient squid and oysters.
And even the rocks that aren’t fossils can carry an eerie liveliness. I learned about Fantasy Canyon when a young waitress at the 7-11 Ranch Restaurant gave me her two-page summertime bucket list. Right at the top was Fantasy Canyon, a bit of BLM land about 27 miles south of Vernal. The wild rock formations of this place remind me of the exuberant gargoyles chiseled onto the corners of medieval cathedrals. (Also: ancient tortoise fossils!)
My first stop in the Vernal area was the home of river-running legend Herm Hoops. Herm is notoriously exuberant and outspoken, but when I asked what was best about this area he instantly answered “the silence.”
Herm explained that when they set out sound monitoring equipment in Dinosaur National Monument, they thought their equipment must be defective. It wasn’t picking up anything. They replaced it with state-of-the-art recording equipment and found the same problem. It wasn’t the fault of the equipment: it really is that quiet out there.
I heard this everywhere. The kind waitress at the King Tut and Dinosaur Cafe said her favorite thing was she could find quiet only ten minutes away. Even the man engineering the strip-mining of a beautiful ridge told me he loved this place because “you can go in any direction and find space to be quiet and isolated from people” (I didn’t mention that he’s turned one beautiful, formerly-quiet place into a roar of earth-movers).
After the constant chatter of earphones and minor-chord hum of refrigerators and air conditioners, real silence is startling.
Another endangered pleasure. Lights sprout from every street and alleyway like we’re still toddlers afraid of the dark. But as light pollution spreads, dark night skies become a special treat. The guiding lights that formed humanity’s common heritage are now only witnessed a few times in a person’s life.
Dinosaur National Monument is one of the darkest places remaining in the United States. Here the Milky Way is actually milky. So dark in fact, Holiday is running a “Dark-Sky” rafting trip through Lodore Canyon July 5-8th, during the new moon. Star experts will be toting along telescopes and tools to dive into the mystery and abyss of the night sky.
Forests and Flowers:
I’m normally not a fan of kids’ art, but the summertime display at the Vernal Library is the exception. Here a bunch of Vernal kids return again and again to their love of trees and flowers (and also kitty superheroes. Truly cute.).
Vernal is headquarters to the Ashley National Forest, 1.3 million acres of trees and streams, hiking trails and yurts. Uintah County’s bizarre geologic expanse is matched by its ecological diversity — from high, cold spruce and douglas fir, through lush aspen groves, and down to the dry pinon-juniper stands of the Colorado Plateau desert. The wildflowers match this diversity, and include two endangered beardtongues, a beautiful family of penstemon.
(And I’ll also admit: I’m a sucker for the massive bunches of petunias lining Vernal’s Main Street in the summer.)
Herm Hoops is adamant about this: “a guidebook takes away your right to discovery.” But in Uintah County, you still have the chance to get lost and find something unexpected.. Dinosaur National Monument has few marked paths, maintaining a sense of the importance of less-managed, wilder movement across the landscape. The vast expanses of the Book Cliffs hold a similar promise. Just remember: Don’t Bust the Crust!!!
In 1886, LDS church president Wilford Woodruff hid out in Uintah County to escape federal agents hunting down polygamists. President Woodruff wore a sunbonnet and dress, and answered to the code name “Aunt Matilda.” Herm told me “what you look for in a place like this are anomalies,” and in Uintah County, anomalies abound. From allosaurus femurs to lady cattle rustlers, from an out-of-place arch to the highly-recommended King Tut and Dinosaur Cafe (and yes, even the drill-baby-drill juice bar) — this is a place for delightful incongruities and an authentic weirdness.
And finally, there are, of course, the rivers around this place. These include some of the most astonishing and wild: the Yampa, and the Green River through Desolation Canyon and Lodore Canyon. Each river section offers an incredible mixture of all of these previous 7 elements: critters, tall-tales, wildness, stillness and the warm blanket of a starry night; not to mention each with their own unique offering of whitewater and adventurous zeal.
After all, that’s why I came, for these humble and uncompromising rivers that ultimately keep this place alive and vibrant. I came for the tales of outlaws and river-legends that have etched their mark onto the fabric of this odd landscape; the rivers are where life begins out here. These rivers are sisters, inter-related with a common drainage and common ecosystems and at the same time they are fundamentally unique and varied in how they carry one through their canyons.
Herm says to me “you can’t choose a favorite one here. It’s like being asked to choose a favorite child.”
Early surveys of the Uintah valley reported back to Brigham Young that the region was “one vast contiguity of waste and measurably valueless.” Since then, our ideas of ‘measurable value’ have been tweaked. For one, the oil and gas industry now recognizes Uintah county as massively valuable (as long as the price-per-barrel is high). But if this extractive concept of ‘value’ is the final word for Uintah County, they just might turn the place into a “vast contiguity of waste” indeed.
What gives me hope in a place like Uintah County is how clearly residents and visitors can see another kind of value. The quiet, stillness, and wildness of Uintah County might not be clearly ‘measurable,’ but they’re the kind of words that light up a person’s eyes when they talk about why they love this place.
p.s. Thanks to Holiday’s river-runners for housing and feeding me! Sherpa: your pancakes and pork chops are incomparable!
Written by Kate Savage, desert wanderer, river lover, and freelance writer. Check out Holiday’s River Currents blog for more of Kate’s writing soon!