Two weeks ago, Day 4

Across the wide open spaces to some rather strange places

Southern Idaho, as I’ve said before, is a desert except where it’s irrigated. I was traveling across the path taken by the Yellowstone hotspot in ancient times — if you look at a satellite view of the region, you’ll see this sort of U-shaped giant-sized ditch in the land where, over the last few million years, the hotspot made its way from northeastern Nevada/southeastern Oregon, across Idaho, and up to northwestern Wyoming, erupting periodically along the way. What it left behind was a vast trough full of volcanic rocks of various kinds.

Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. With enough weathering and the addition of some water, it can be transformed into hellaciously fertile farmland. Think about where all those famous Idaho potatoes come from. Although Washington actually grows more potatoes than Idaho does these days — but they do it on the same types of volcanic soil. Different eruptions, though.

Anyway. I headed southeast on I-84 to the Utah state line. Once upon a time, I drove this stretch of highway in January, moving from Eugene, Oregon, to Fort Collins, Colorado, and the landscape didn’t actually look all that different from today except for the skim of dusty white snow swirling across the highway back then. This is true high desert — don’t let the signs for Salt Lake City fool you.

I left the highway at the exit labeled #26 after crossing the state line, where the sign said, rather ominously, “NO SERVICES.” But that’s where the directions for the Golden Spike National Historic Site said I was to get off, and it’s not the most isolated place on the planet I’ve ever been (see Stanley, Idaho, night before last, which doesn’t take that pride of place, either). The other sign at that exit said, rather mysteriously, “ATK.” I had no idea what ATK was, but maybe I’d get to find out.

After coming over a rise and crossing abruptly from desert to irritated farmland, then going around a few miles worth of bends in the road, I found out what ATK is. Apparently it’s where they build rockets for NASA and missiles for the Defense Department. And they’re proud of it, because out in front of this big cluster of 1960s-era-looking buildings out in the middle of absolutely nowhere was something I’ll call a sculpture garden for lack of a better term.

ATK -- a real surprise out in the Utah desert.
ATK — a real surprise out in the Utah desert.

Bemused, I parked the car and took a gander. Each one was mounted on a big metal pole, and each had its own label telling what it was.

A Minuteman missile in ATK's 'sculpture garden.'
A Minuteman missile in ATK’s ‘sculpture garden.’
A space shuttle booster rocket.
A space shuttle booster rocket.

After goggling for a bit in the windy heat (it was well into the 90s that day), I got back in the car, fired up the AC again, and headed for a much older form of transportation.

Golden Spike National Historic Site, like Pompey’s Pillar (a Lewis and Clark site I visited a couple of years ago) has always sort of been on my nonexistent bucket list. It’s where the Union Pacific and the Central Pacific met in 1869, to form the first transcontinental railroad in the U.S. The event was celebrated by a bunch of dignitaries coming to this place out in the middle of the Utah desert just north of the Great Salt Lake (you can see the salt flats from a viewpoint at the site) to hammer a golden spike into the last railroad tie and ceremonially join the two railroads together.

Looking out towards the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake from a viewpoint at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.
Looking out towards the Bonneville Salt Flats and the Great Salt Lake from a viewpoint at the Golden Spike National Historic Site.

It’s an interesting place historically, and it’s also cool because the NPS keeps two replica steam locomotives on site, and runs one or the other of them daily at 1 pm for a short distance.

Steam locomotive at Golden Spike National Historic Site.
Steam locomotive at Golden Spike National Historic Site.
The engineer's cubby in the steam locomotive.
The engineer’s cubby in the steam locomotive.
Part of the authentic reproduction paint job.  This is a portrait of Johnny Appleseed.
Part of the authentic reproduction paint job. This is a portrait of Johnny Appleseed.

I ate a picnic lunch while waiting, after having been told by the ranger that I couldn’t bring my food indoors into the AC because they had a small mouse problem (I’m pretty sure it was the mice that were small, not the problem).

Then I got to see cutting edge transportation from the 19th century, smokestack, whistle (loud!) and all. Which was pretty damned cool (unlike the weather).

The locomotive in action.
The locomotive in action.

After the demonstration, I headed east again on a backroad that thought it was a roller coaster, back down, down, down to cross I-84 again and on to the city of Logan, Utah. I hadn’t checked email in a while, and I needed groceries and gas. What ended up happening is that I got really lost trying to find the library (for email — my netbook no longer being wifi capable), but I finally made it out of town after a stop at a ranger station to make sure I was on the right road (there wasn’t a sign to be seen), where the ranger gave me a wonderful pamphlet about Logan Canyon, which was where I was headed.

And that’s how I ended up camping at Sunrise Campground in Utah, overlooking Bear Lake, up in the aspens where it was lovely and cool and the wildflowers were everywhere.

Oh, and I sold a copy of Repeating History to a couple I struck up a conversation with at the campground. Which is the first time that’s happened. I’m glad I took the print copies with me.