Mountain Meadows Massacre Site

While re-reading Under The Banner of Heaven by Jon Krakauer last fall, I really found myself attracted to the subtitle of the book: A Story of Violent Faith. In support of this Krakauer discusses the Mountain Meadows Massacre of 1857. This historical event has come up in many many accounts of early western history and I feel like I’d always sort of skimmed over the event until that re-reading.

Mountain Meadows was a part of the old Spanish Trail and later part of the California Trail. In 1857, a group of emigrants from Arkansas was attacked by the Mormon militia leading to the murder of 120 emigrants.

When I decided to make my trek to Washington through western Utah, one of the first non-hikes to make it onto my itinerary was a stop at Mountain Meadows (a National Historic Landmark, as of 2015).

Sprocket and I made our way to Mountain Meadows from Cedar City and walked around the cairn monument and then around the field to the west of the monument. My understanding of the event was still sort of superficial but it was still really sobering to be in a spot where over a 100 people had lost their lives.

I didn’t think to order a book focused on the massacre until too close to my departure date so I had Massacre at Mountain Meadows by Ronald W. Walker, Richard E. Turley, and Glen M. Leonard delivered to my mom’s house. I was really glad to delve into a more complete description of the events of the day than I’d had previously so I found the read worthwhile.


But.

All three authors of this account are part of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) church. The book admittedly leaves an account of the aftermath of the attack, and what some would call a coverup, “to another day.” It also seems quick to acquit Brigham Young and other church leaders in Salt Lake City.

While I tried to put my finger on what was such a let down about this book, I read through some Goodreads reviews and had to nod heartily when someone suggested that having a single non-Mormon author would have helped address the culpability of the church as a whole.

This book did, however, make me wish I had taken the time to visit the Women & Children’s Memorial Site and the Men’s Memorial Site. When I drove by, I found the separation distasteful but when I finished Massacre at Mountain Meadows, I learned that the separation was historical in nature.

In an attempt to remedy my uneasiness with Massacre at Mountain Meadows,  I ordered a copy of Juanita Brooks’s seminal 1950 book The Mountain Meadows Massacre. Juanita Brooks was also part of the LDS church, however after the publication of her book about the massacre she was estranged from the church (yet not excommunicated).

Brooks’s book feels less readable to me but also feels less willing to simply let LDS leadership off the hook and pin responsibility for the Massacre on those in the southern part of Utah. Brooks does an excellent job in sharing the source material for her research (my copy is a 4th edition) so readers can better draw their own conclusions.

The Mountain Meadows Massacre is a weird chapter in American history. It seems abundantly clear, no matter which account you read, that white people belonging to the LDS church, tried to pin the attack on Native Americans and that innocent victims (who may or may not have poked a stick at the Mormon settlements but definitely didn’t deserve what they got).

Iron County and Kane County Highpoints (UT)

After we left Fish Lake, we headed for Brian Head. Thanks to the long summer days, Sprocket and I had a lot of daylight to play with. We crossed west to US-89 to Panguitch and then onto the very gorgeous UT-143 then up the Forest Service Road to the summit of Brian Head.

Utah had clearly gotten just a little more snow than Colorado but the last lingering snow banks on the way to the summit of Brian Head had already been pushed through leaving Sprocket and I with just a short walk from the parking lot to the true summit of Brian Head, the highpoint of Iron County.

Retracing our path down Brian Head, we headed through Cedar Breaks National Monument. I stopped at the visitor center for a brief visit before continuing down to the highpoint of Kane County.

I wasn’t sure what sort of shape I’d find the road in but it was only a little steep and Ruth XJ made it handily within a quarter mile of the highpoint. Sprocket happily popped out for the short walk to the summit marker.

Quality hiking footwear was used for this forested, not particularly scenic peak:

From the Kane County Highpoint we cruised out to Cedar City and westward!

Sevier County Highpoint: Fish Lake Hightop

This hike kicked my butt. I don’t think it should have been that hard but it was.

Sprocket and I started hiking at Pelican Overlook (where we could totally have stealth camped for free, but, alas).

I tried to stick to my heart rate goals for training and it was taking us a realllllyyyy long time. The canyon wasn’t particularly interesting and just headed up through trees. Somehow, I had missed this key point from the Summit Post page: “Keep heading up the canyon, until you reach a signed junction approximately two miles into the hike. Take a right. Left still goes up to Fish Lake plateau, but goes further west than you want to go.”

That’s the Hightop wayyyy over there:

I definitely went left which lead to a long hike over the top of the plateau. The plateau itself was still pretty evenly covered in 3″ of snow with more in places. Sprocket and I pushed on to the summit area which was covered in boulders in addition to the snow making it slow going for both of us.

We finally made it but that last boulder was a bit much for Sprocket so I left him below me where he made his displeasure very clear. (My mute dog hit some pretty high pitches with that bark-whine.) I signed the trail register, took a selfie and we headed down the hill looking for that elusive right fork…

A look back up at the summit area:

We found it and went on auto pilot for the descent back to the Jeep. Thanks fo the long summer days, we headed on to other goals! Sprocket was tired but he was a champ on our 11+ mile jaunt since it was nice and cool, just like he likes it.

Summer Roadtrip Kickoff: Capitol Reef NP

When school is out, I head out of town. I did it in 2015 with Amanda for an epic Utah and Colorado road trip in Francis Sally Jeep. I begged off work for a couple days in 2016 to acknowledge the beginning of summer. In 2017, I drove to OKC for the Women’s College World Series and had some fun along the way.

This year, I piloted Ruth XJ towards Tacoma to tackle a flooring project for my mom. Since my house is completed, it was time to take care of some family duties. But first: ROADTRIP.

As I planned my route, I had an eye to hitting up some county highpoints. In the interest of expediency, I headed north through Grand Junction before merging onto I-70 and heading west … into a giant rainstorm.

Initially, I’d hoped to hike the Sevier County Highpoint on my departure day but the considering that I could see that weather system had deposited snow at elevations >10,000′, I took full advantage of the fact that I had lots of latitude to do whatever the hell I wanted to. Instead of taking the Forest Service Road cut off from UT-72 to Fish Lake, I continued south to Loa figuring I’d find a coffee shop or something to hang out in before going to make camp. I didn’t really see anything that was striking my fancy.

On top of that, when I hiked the Garfield County, Utah highpoint, Mount Ellen, I’d found myself drawn west to do the highpoint of Wayne County, Boulder Top (sometimes known as Bluebell Knoll), which left me with an eight mile stretch of UT-24 to my west I hadn’t driven. I hate leaving orphan road segments. 

When I’d done Boulder Top, I’d passed through Capitol Reef but not done any exploring so I pointed Ruth east to catch the orphan Loa-Bicknell segment and then cruised on into the Capitol Reef Visitors Center for a little visit. Storms threatened all around but that meant the weather was cool enough for me to leave Sprocket in the car for a little trail run.

I headed up Cohab Canyon for a short adventure. I’d missed the desert. Before I’d left Ridgway, I’d been trying to get out for runs and get in better shape but the going was slow. Instead of fretting about it I soaked in the red rock awesomeness.

After my trail run (or hike or whatever), I headed to Fish Lake. I briefly entertained the idea of having dinner in the adorable vintage lodge but the menu didn’t look particularly alluring (and if I’m totally honest, Utah’s revenge of no liquor license didn’t help) so I headed out to find a camp site.

Word to the wise: the entire Fish Lake area is camping in campgrounds only. I toyed with driving far enough up the basin or back out of the basin far enough to find dispersed camping but instead I decided to suck it up and pay.

It’d been quite awhile since I’d pitched the tent and I think Sprocket had kind of forgotten how cozy it can be.

On The Page: Under The Banner of Heaven

In early May, High Country News published a piece on the polygamous Mormon community of Short Creek. This reminded me of Jon Krakauer’s Under The Banner of Heaven. I’d read this book a long time ago, back in college. I didn’t remember a whole lot about it and I’d learned much more about the history of the West, traveled through Mormon Country, and generally figured I was in a better place to absorb the book.

I wasn’t wrong. Getting deeper into Under The Banner of Heaven: A Story of Violent Faith was a lot easier for me now that I could picture the country on the Utah-Arizona border where Short Creek’s FLDS community is located. I’ve also read more about other exploration of the west. For example Krakauer suggests that perhaps Mormons who had been involved with the Mountain Meadows Massacre may have been involved with the killing of William Dunn and the Howland brothers who abandoned John Wesley Powell before they descended Separation Canyon (historians have long believed it was the Shivwits Band of Payutes who killed the explorers).

Also fascinating is the revisionist history of the Latter Day Saints (LDS) Church, more commonly known as the Mormons. I honestly found this uneasy relationship between fundamentalist Saints and the mainstream branch of the religion more fascinating than the central narrative of Ron and Dan Lafferty’s crimes.

Ron and Dan struck me as “typical” religious nuts of any stripe. Killing their sister-in-law, Brenda, and her daughter because God told them to was just the culmination of a descent into increasing extremism. Brenda had stood up to Ron and Dan as they attempted to rope her husband Allen into their delusions.

I devoured this book on my trip down to Oklahoma City. Despite being really tired (definitely recovering from the end of the school year!) I was pretty happy to find a quiet spot and do some reading. Like all good books, this one lengthened my reading list but I learned a lot about how pieces of western history fit together.

Topaz Museum and Historic Site

A cursory Google of my intended route had turned up the (free) Great Basin Museum in Delta, Utah. I figured I could use a leg stretch when I arrived after driving across the state so I pulled in behind the visitor center and walked around the corner.

Before I reached my intended museum, I noticed the Topaz Museum sign. This gorgeous building, with its exterior clad shou sugi ban style, stood out in the plain western Utah town. I’m a little embarrassed but I wandered inside partially not knowing what to expect and partially expecting a rock museum.

It only took me a few minutes of wandering around the lobby to understand what this museum was about. I was confused about whether there was an entry fee and about where to go. Eventually, a woman came out and ushered me into a group with a docent that had started just minutes before me.

We watched two films before the docent ushered us into the start of the exhibits. The first was about the history of Topaz and how it fit in with the rest of the internment camps in the western United States. The second was footage actually shot in Topaz by someone who was held in the camp. An administrator had helped him acquire a camera but didn’t fully give him “permission” to film. This is one of only two home movies to be housed in the Library of Congress.

I was nervous about taking photos of all of the museum exhibits but within minutes of entering the museum I had a sad sinking feeling in my gut. I attempt to not be overtly political on this blog but it is clear that our country has elected someone who is unclear on how much internment is in conflict with true American values and that underscored how important it is that we recognize how we failed ourselves in the 1940s.

The Topaz museum is astounding. The exhibits are incredibly well designed. Housed within the museum is a residence for four people and outside the backdoor is a recreation hall moved from the site. There is furniture from the site that was constructed from found wood and photos showing how Topaz interacted with Delta once it was realized that the internees were not actually a threat to our country.

The last piece of the museum is a discussion of how the internment was handled in the courts after it happened. This didn’t feel like the end of the story to me so I decided I should head out to the actual site of the camp, just outside of town.

I only made it to the memorial before I sat down on its sunwarmed granite and cried. I hadn’t even entered the site yet. The museum had so well laid the foundation for an understanding of how the internment of Japanese-Americans fit into our history and into our present that I couldn’t help but feel the moment so acutely.

While I was in the museum, one of the docents commented how terrible it was that they were confined to such an ugly place. I couldn’t help myself when I responded, “It’s only ugly if you’re stuck.” On the very edge of the great basin, I was struck by the mountains and the sky. But to imagine being trapped in such a space was unthinkable.

I grew up near the Puyallup Fairgrounds which had been an assembly point for those of Japanese ancestry while waiting to be sent to their permanent camps further inland. In elementary school, we’d had a presentation by the author of Baseball Saved Us, Ken Mochizuki, and we learned about internment camps and how important baseball had been.

Standing behind what had been the backstop of one of the baseball fields, I finally started to feel some peace. I’m not sure if its the idea of baseball being “America’s game” or if its just that my long association with the game makes me feel closer to people or what. I sat on the hard dirt and looked out to the northeast, just like ball fields are supposed to, for a bit and collected myself to move on.

While my visit to Topaz wasn’t expected and it certainly wasn’t easy, I really recommend a stop. The museum is located in Delta, Utah right on the main highway and the camp is a relatively short drive outside of town. 

Spring Break 2017: Crossing Utah

Departing from Katherine and her friends, I headed north towards I-70. Although I detest driving on the interstate, I must say, Green River to Salina is actually pretty damn amazing. Just outside of Green River you cross up and over the San Rafael Swell and then cross through some pretty mountains before descending into Salina.

Views of the Book Cliffs from US-191:

Approaching the Swell:

I got off the interstate near the crest of the swell to hike out to San Rafael Knob. The beta I attempted to follow lead me to the edge of a cliff. I’m pretty willing to scramble a lot of things but I couldn’t quite figure out how to get back on track for the route. After a bit, I abandoned the hike (fortunately its right off I-70 so making it back here isn’t hard).

It was a nice ramble along the canyon rim even if I never did find a way to penetrate its defenses.

Just after the hike, I started to descend from the swell before heading up into the mountains.

From Salina, I headed around Fishlake National Forest to Delta, Utah. (Delta was mindblowing so it gets its own post…until tomorrow!)

San Juan County Highpoint: Mt. Peale

Mt. Peale has been on my list of mountains to climb since I first went to Moab in 2009. The La Sal Mountains tower above the red rocks, often graced with snow during “desert season” in the spring and fall. Being based in Norwood this year brought fresh incentive to climb Mt. Peale since the La Sals grace the western skyline on most of my after school runs.

The highest peak in Utah outside the Unitahs, Mt. Peale comes in at 12,721′ above sea level. Moab, to the northwest, sits at only 4,000′ while Paradox Valley to the southeast is at about 5,300′ of elevation. Peale is on a whole slew of peakbagging lists, including clocking in at #57 on the USA prominence list (it’s the 3rd most prominent peak I’ve climbed to date).

Early this winter, my rooomate Katherine mentioned that she wanted to climb Mt. Peale in the winter and wanted to know if I would join her. I was somewhat hesitant considering that I wasn’t sure when I could commit to climbing the peak since I was working 7 days a week and as a result of all that work, I wasn’t running very consistently. She basically ignored me and just kept talking about the hike like it was something that was Going To Happen.

Excellent move.

As it happened, I suggested March 12 for our ascent. I had paid no attention to daylight savings time beginning at exactly the time we planned to depart from the house (2am MST/3am MDT). Somehow I figured I had plenty of time to finish my shift at Mouses at 9pm, drive 50 miles to the house, sleep a bit and still climb a giant mountain? I was, however, committed, so I was in. Three hours of sleep and all.

Also throwing a wrench in our plans was that the weekend prior, Katherine had twisted her ankle in an ice climbing fall. I was willing to let her off the hook on the hike (in some ways, I saw an escape that would prevent me from facing my fears about my own fitness) but she continued to insist that she would be fine despite not wearing real shoes at school all week. (#realchampion)

My alarm didn’t go off because I very wisely set it for 2:45am, a time that actually didn’t exist that day. Katherine gently woke me up at 3am and then attempted to lay out to me that she was 75% sure her ankle could handle the hike. It was 3am, I was out of bed, and we were leaving. That was that. We jammed to T-Swift in the car on the way to the trailhead (which meant that I had “Bad Blood” and “All You Had To Do Was Stay” in my head for 16 miles…) and I kept my eyes peeled for deer lurking on the roadside.

Honestly, when we strapped our snowshoes on at the start of the snow-covered road, with Peale looming in the full moonlight, I gave us a 50/50 shot of making the summit. We had a long slog of road before we could even think of moving up the slopes. The magic of hiking in the dark took over though and we made great progress. I didn’t even turn on my headlamp because the moon was totally sufficient for light.

The day dawned just as we reached the start of our ridge ascent. Once we left the road, the snow got steep fast. My 2nd hand snowshoes purchased when I lived in Montana (in 2010!) don’t have ascenders. They’re small, definitely not designed for mountaineering on 30% slopes, and some of the quick tighten bindings don’t stay very tight anymore. It wasn’t long before my calves were screaming and I was tugging on my bindings every few minutes to keep them tight. I was tired and just wasn’t feeling it. The sky was greyer than I’d expected and I felt terrible.

I’d seen the exposed rock on the ridge from the road and all I wanted was to make it there. As soon as I could, I removed my snowshoes and strapped them to my pack, opting instead to go up the scree with microspikes and ice axe. On the rock, I started to find my groove and the sun started to come out. I moved efficiently upward grabbing short breaks while waiting for Katherine to catch up; during one of these little breaks I actually fell asleep in the wind at 10,000′. It was sort of nuts.

At the top of the exposed rock on the ridge, we crossed some steep snow on our way to the summit. We were both tired but the summit was only 150′ above us. Most of the way, we managed to stay below the ridge and were somewhat protected from the worst of the strong winds out of the northwest. On the final walk to the summit, however, the winds were definitely something to contend with. I braved the wind to take a couple of selfies and then it was time to head down.

Our short summit stay was sort of disappointing since the views were incredible. We could look north to the bulk of the La Sals, including Grand County highpoint, Mt. Wass:

Looking south over South mountain the Abajos and the Henrys were visible along with most of canyon country:

Looking back to the west, there was the Uncompaghre, Pardox Valley, and my beloved San Juans:

Photo Katherine Zalan

We debated a little how to descend and eventually settled on a glissade down the gully. It was steep in some places but it worked out okay. The day was getting warm and the snow turning to mashed potatoes so our pants were soaked. By the end, when the grade had lessened, we were both laughing and mentally preparing for the long slog back out to the Jeep.

12 hours after we’d gotten out of Ruth, we arrived back in the parking lot and headed out hoping to make it to Naturita in time for burgers and milkshakes at Blondie’s. I don’t think I’ve ever seen two milkshakes consumed that fast.

At home in Norwood, we attempted to have celebratory beers but I was sleepy by the time I’d had two sips. We’d covered somewhere in the ballpark of 15-16 miles and climbed 5000′ in elevation. That’s definitely not too shabby for an afternoon on the snow.

Thank you so much to Katherine for an awesome day in the mountains. I learned a lot and I reached the summit of a mountain that had been taunting me for years.

Bluebell Knoll: Wayne County High Point

Once #RuthXJ, Sprocket and I made the descent from Mount Ellen, I realized that there was still a lot of daylight left but I had no idea what to do with it. I contemplated reading but the weather still seemed a bit unsettled and not great for basking in the sun. I thought about heading to Hanksville, finding some internet and working on this little blog and then I decided if I were going to spend money I’d better do it the good old fashioned way: at the gas pump.

I’ve checked into most of the Utah county highpoints over the last few years, aimlessly clicking around Peakbagger, SummitPost, and the like learning which ones are drive ups and which ones require large amounts of hiking. Wayne County’s Bluebell Knoll (also known as Boulder Mountain or Boulder Top) popped up as being not too far from Hanksville (ahem, if 60-ish miles counts as not too far). Fortunately, Utah’s Highway 24 passes through Capitol Reef so the drive was pretty much gorgeous.

When I arrived in Bicknell, there were some clouds sitting ominously over the Aquarius Plateau (again, also known as Boulder Mountain) but there didn’t appear to be rain falling from them. I figured I’d come this far and the only way to know if the forest roads were too muddy was to actually go check them out.

I’m so glad I went! The roads were only barely wet in places and mud wasn’t really an issue at all. I found that the route was in really good shape. It was, true to name, a bit boulder-y on top but nothing that really needed high clearance, just patience to pick a less bouncy line.

Everything about this drive and short walk (it was less than a quarter mile from the road to the “top”) reminded me a lot of Grand Mesa. I guess that makes sense because both Grand Mesa and the Aquarius Plateau are uplifts on the uplifted Colorado Plateau.


The only bummer of the hike was that I noticed Sprocket had split a nail sometime during our Mt. Ellen adventure. I couldn’t find a nail clipper in the Jeep (gotta fix that!) but Sprocket let me use a pocketknife to clean it up a bit so it wouldn’t split further. This was a huge bummer because it meant that the big black dog was mostly out of commission for the rest of the weekend.

After we were done, we headed back to Hanksville. The weather for sleeping the previous night had been AWESOME so I basically wanted to back and do it again.

Mount Ellen: Henry Mountains High Point

When I realized that I had the whole Labor Day Weekend to go out exploring with Sprocket, I decided it was high time to go check out Utah’s Henry Mountains. I’d been past them before but since it was early spring, the roads up into the mountains themselves were too muddy down low with snow gracing the higher peaks. The Henrys are rarely explored despite the fact that the highpoint, Mount Ellen, stands 11,522′ high giving it more than 5,000′ of prominence. The summit is also the high point of Utah’s Garfield County.

As is usual, I had a hard time gauging just how rough the road to Bull Creek Pass actually was going to be. It can be difficult to tell just what people expect road conditions to be. As it turned out, it was rough but nothing that ever required me to use 4-wheel drive. On the way down, I did avail myself of low range since it was pretty steep.

From the saddle at Bull Creek Pass, we made our way up through the wind pretty quickly. It looked as if a fairly major rainstorm might be approaching from the west but it wasn’t moving very fast and seemed to only be rain (no thunder or lightning).

Our views were way more expansive than my iPhone camera can show you. We could see all of the myriad canyons around us plus the Abajos and the La Sals in the distance. I was a bit disappointed that it was slightly hazy; I would have loved to glimpse my home San Juans from this distance!

The trail petered out when we reached the ridge and made for kind of slow going through the large rocks. Sprocket hates this sort of hiking. We lingered on the peak for just a few minutes before heading back down to the Jeep. The clouds continued to appear to not be moving quickly but the wind was still whipping across the ridge from the west.

Almost back at the Jeep, I was shocked at how powerful the gusts were! There as a bit of rain in the wind and it stung my cheeks and the wind pushed me continually off trail as we jogged back to Ruth as fast as was prudent.

As I stood on the summit, I felt a weird feeling: I just wanted to go explore the canyons at my feet instead of climbing more peaks in the range. Perhaps it was the vagabond traveler in me but I felt the call of exploring pulling me back out of their remote clutches and back on the move.