The officer methodically scans the car’s interior with his flashlight beam. “Do you have anything I should know about?” he asks. “No” is the honest answer to this stereotypical cop question yet I find my imagination triggering stock cultural associations. A default soundtrack begins in my head as I hand the tribal policeman my license. “Bad boys, bad boys, what’cha gonna do?” We’re so naively innocent, and though I know to be appropriately respectful, it’s hard to for me to embrace the potential gravity of this situation. I mean, here I am with my friend, Sven, in what by comparison to my urban digs is the proverbial middle of nowhere and, as we’re driving down a dirt road, revolving red and blue lights illuminate the black of night. Really? No, seriously. We’re getting pulled over?
No less surprising is the approaching figure, a buff, close-shaven young buck of a cop, shirtless save for his bulletproof vest, and tattooed on both arms from shoulder to elbow. Black tactical pants, a packed utility belt and a sober demeanor round out his ensemble. Did we know we were trespassing? He asks as Sven systematically rifles through every pocket of his bags in search of his ID. We’d already cut loose the binding ropes of routine and were on an adventure to hike up and over the Deep Creek Mountains on the Utah/Nevada border. Only problem is, we had a navigator-driver miscommunication which took us on a Nevada desert detour. By the time we reconciled the unexpected deviation and recovered our bearings, we were not only on the west instead of the east side of the range, but the night was no longer young. We hadn’t seen another vehicle for hours and thought to call it good for the night after parking on a dirt road off a dirt road off a dirt road, but as soon as we hunkered down in our camp chairs to take in the star-studded sky, headlights pierced the darkness. Apparently, like a Saturday cartoon where peeping eyes track the meddling but unaware kids, we’d been spotted and the no nonsense pick-up driver informed us that we were trespassing on the Goshute Reservation.
So yes, we’d been apprised of our offense. We recount our mishap to the dauntless po-po and expect to be ushered on our way. Instead our enforcer tells us he has the authority to take everything we have, including our shoes, and send us walking down the road outside the reservation. Dang! What bad thing could we even possibly be doing out here? We just want to hike over the mountains we explain. “You can’t,” he responds curtly. “You can’t be on tribal land. Do you have any firearms?”
“Uhm, yes,” I answer. “Right here at my feet. I have a .22 pistol.” I watch as the now very interested native gendarme flicks open the gun case on the hood of the car. “Aw, man,” I sigh. I can see him thinking, but he relatches the box and hands it back through the open window. “Tribal Council wouldn’t approve of what I’m doing,” he reluctantly shares.
Having assessed our genuine naiveté, the officer’s manner relaxes and he lets us ask him friendly questions referencing the quadrangle map we have of the area. A couple of dense palefaces he must think us, asking over and over again how we can hike up and over Granite Creek Canyon. He patiently answers every question with, “You can’t be here,” until we get it that unless we either were conducting a sanctioned scientific study or married a Goshute, we wouldn’t be fulfilling our intended plan. Officer No Shirt graciously directs us to an off-res spot where we could sleep for the night, but the rush of the encounter has ramped us up so we continue the 40-ish miles around the north tip of the range and down to the mouth of Granite Creek Canyon.
The Deeps, as initiated locals say, have been called the most remote mountain range in the West, the highest peak pushing over 12,000 feet, an 8,000-ft vertical gain from the valley floor. On the way to nowhere, the Deep Creek Mountains are accessed from the Wasatch Front either via an I-15-to-Wendover and south route, or, if you want to test your front end, on 100 miles of dirt and Old Pony Express roads.
This mountain oasis is a treasure trove of natural wonder featuring biological diversity, abundant wildlife, unique flora, and tales of placer gold. Granite Creek Canyon, geologically identified as an intrusion of granite, offers quite the opposite in its immense and unmatched seclusion.
After our previous nights close encounter of a tribal kind, we get an early-ish day trip start. I register our elevation, calculate 30 additional minutes for every 1,000 feet of vertical gain and mentally note that we’re 3.5 hours into the hike before we’ve even gone any distance. Two hikers who’ve just returned from spending the night at the trail’s high end send us a mixed message with both an incredulous look and two thumbs up when we tell them we’re going to the top and back in a day.
The route is a steady up with no memorable switchbacks. Magical pockets of scenery open and close between pine-studded, boulder-strewn meadows and more densely forested creek-side trail. I know critters thrive in these mountains, but only once do we hear the signature branch-breaking crash of a retreating ungulate. The track itself is well-traveled and foolproof, and did I mention the trail does nothing but rise? For miles?
I am of two minds when I hike. One manages logistics: water and food, check; extra and emergency clothing, check; first aid, fire starting material, check. Once the checklist is complete, my other mind engages, that of contemplating the myriad patterns and dynamics of the natural world. I don’t wonder how, but simply wonder, for example, at the relationship between an almost conjoined boulder and pine trunk, the tree’s slow concave growth allowing it to mirror the convex shape of the rock. I feel like the Breakfast at Tiffany’s Audrey Hepburn, not in New York, but on a remote mountain in the west, blissfully twirling around a tree trunk grinning, “Isn’t it just grand darling?!? Aren’t these wildflowers just marvelous?!?”
Both Granite Creek and Sven are steady partners as the trail angles up the last stretch to the top. The saddle’s breadth and openness conjure Sound of Music images, and though the hills are alive, our legs are too spent to run and sing. The hard-packed grassy slope looks and smells like an elk playground. My olfactory sense immediately identifies musk, the smell of which has a blanket-like quality the way it covers the inside of the nose. I envision regular elk gatherings here at night, bourgeois wapiti standing on hind legs holding martini glasses and engaging in small talk.
Ibapah Peak juts up on the north side of the pass, a glacially scarred rocky protrusion with no visible approach, though safe to say that if we progress in a line-of-sight direction the way would make itself known. The on-line mountaineering forums I researched made the day hike sound totally do-able, and also I now understand the dubious look on the faces of the young men who were getting in their truck at the trail head. It’s at least another rock scrabbled mile to the peak.
As hiking partners, we’ve reached the part of the journey where we need to make a joint decision, to bag the peak, or not. As is often the case, one adventure partner urges, the other modulates, and so we have our roles: the dreamer and the voice of reason. I shed my role and activate my practical mind. Body, weather, time. I know what our decision is when I hear us discussing how we’ll do it the next time we come up here. The best course of action, we decide, is to End the day on an enjoyable rather than on an exhausted and possibly sundown note.
We scout, wander, commune with venerable bristlecone pines, and breathe in the idea that we’re here. After a picnic, possibly a trespassers’ repast as the reservation boundary is somewhere here on the west side of the saddle, we begin the what goes up must come down. On the return hike you see the same terrain, but the beauty of time is that the same is now different. Light illuminates and highlights what hours ago were shadows. Silver reflections glint off water seeping from distant rock walls. The descent is easier than I had anticipated and we arrive back at camp in the wake of the daylight.
While the West Desert sage flat temps will reach 90+ degrees, deciduous shade characterizes the camp spots along Granite Creek. We’ve pitched tent next to what qualifies in an area of such scant rainfall as a swimming hole, the concrete block wall with the quintessential rusty irrigation gate causing the creek to dam and form a chest-deep pool where two Bonneville trout enjoy the spoils of the creek’s downstream bounty.
After a morning dip we return to the road to check out a side trail that leads up to an inviting collection of rounded monoliths firmly resting against each other forming sizable shelters. Naturally we’re drawn into these granite grottoes and are captivated by the sight of numerous red pictographs drawn on the rock. I’m not one for speculation so it’s enough for me to simply appreciate the fact that a long time ago someone from my species, someone whose lifestyle was significantly different than mine, but whose actual experience of life probably was not, painted these symbols here.
The biosystem around the pictographs no doubt is one reason why native people occupied this region (and still do). Piñon pine cones litter the ground as plentifully as contemporary detritus after a modern concert event, their unclaimed, dried-up nuts evidence of a regular fall harvest. In fact the BLM does not require a permit for limited noncommercial picking, an allowance I find comforting in an increasingly restrictive society.
I also find it comforting to be in a place and time that’s so publicly private, and so unencumbered. Some people like to play video games. I like to shoot my .22 to practice hand-eye coordination, but mostly I like to plink because I can. Sven and I decide to have a contest after cooling off in the creek on this laser hot day. In flip-flops and wrapped in tropical print beach towels we fashion targets out of coconut water cans and take turns knocking the cans out of juniper tree branches. We may not be allowed on the west side of the Deeps, but here on the east side we can traipse and explore and exercise our available freedoms.