Monday, July 09, 2007

Highway 89: A photo essay

It’s a treat having a full day to travel from Salt Lake down to Southern Utah. Making the best of the opportunity, I decide to take the back roads. At Spanish Fork, I leave the freeway for US 6, taking the highway through a break in the mountains toward Soldier’s Summit. The blacktop parallels steel rails, a difficult section of the old Denver Rio Grande mainline where the tracks snake downhill toward Provo. At Thistle, the site of a giant landslide in 1983, which wiped out the Rio Grande’s Maryvale’s branch, I turn south on US 89. For nearly two hundred miles, I’ll travel through broad valleys ringed by tall mountains. Ponderosa pines, aspen, spruce and fir grow high up in the hills, but they’re unrecognizable from the road running through the valley. Between the valley floor and mountains, sagebrush dotted with juniper and pinion covers the hillsides and come down to the highway, except where there’s water. Where irrigation is available, the alfalfa is lush. This is good livestock country; mostly cows, but there are still some sheep raised here. Although I see a few cows, most all the livestock are up on the mountain grazing in their summer pastures.
When I enter Sanpete County, the towns become more frequent, breaking up the arid landscape. In town, irrigation water runs through ditches along the side of the streets. Cottonwoods, willows or locust suck up the moisture and provide some shade, their leaves fluttering in the wind. This is familiar country. When I lived in Utah, I made the trip to Mt Pleasant many times for business. It’s the home of Wasatch Academy, which was started by a Presbyterian missionary and one of the survivors of some 100 schools started by Protestant Churches in Utah during the 19th Century. At that point in history, the Utah Territory had few schools, as the Mormon hierarchy didn’t believe in public education. Brigham Young, their leader, was known for his opposition to school taxes, saying that he wasn’t going to pay to educate no other man’s child. Of course, when you have several dozen of your own children, it might be a bit hard to have enough left over to educate someone else’s children. Seeing an opportunity, Presbyterians along with Methodist and Baptist and Congregationalists sent teachers into Utah in the hopes of both educating and converting the population. They weren’t very successful with the latter goal, but the schools did educate a large number of Utah’s leaders for the late 19th and early 20th century. As part of the agreement to obtain statehood in 1896, Utah began offering public education and most of the private schools closed.
Although their conversion rate wasn’t good, the Protestant work in this area of Utah did get off to a promising start. Duncan McMillan, a Presbyterian missionary, joined up with several dissent Mormons to start Wasatch Academy. He also helped organize several churches in the Sanpete Valley. The reaction of the Mormon leaders were swift. On the heels of McMillan’s successes, Brigham Young, knowing that there is nothing like a work party to rally the troops, announced the church’s intention to build a temple for the valley. Located in the south end of the valley, the Manti Temple sits atop Temple Hill. With 179 foot towers, I spot the gothic temple constructed of locally quarried oolite limestone miles away. I stop to take a few photos from a distance and again up close, but I don’t bother going up to the temple itself. Only faithful Mormons with a temple recommend can enter the building. They have to show a temple recommend, which looks a lot like a driver’s license. To receive one, a member has to regularly attend sacrament meetings as well as show they’ve been faithfully tithing (giving 10%) of their income to the church. Unlike churches, the temple isn’t used for worship. Instead, within their walls, “endowment ceremonies” such as baptism for the dead and the sealing of marriages take place.

The Manti Temple was one of four temples the LDS Church built in Utah during the 19th Century and, like all of the temples built during the that century, is a testament to the skills of the Mormon architects and craftsman. The Mormon Church in the later half of the twenty century began a temple building frenzy which has yet to abate, but none of the more modern temples can touch the elegance of the temples built they built in the 19th Century, leading me to wonder if all Mormon architects were killed in the Spanish American War. The modern temples have been subject of much humor, especially since many of them look like something off the movie set for 2001: A Space Odyssey. One of my favorite Pat Bagley comics, published in the Salt Lake Tribune, has two ET like characters in a spaceship approaching the Ogden Temple. As their ship hovers toward the temple, one says to the other, “Quick, pull up, that’s not the mother ship.”
Down the road from Manti, Highway 89 enters the Sevier River Valley. For the next hundred and thirty some miles, the road, like the old railroad, crisscrosses this stream. At Salina, I stop for lunch at Mom’s Café, located at the junction of US 89 and another famous highway, US 50. After a sandwich, the waitress tempts me with a slice of their homemade blueberry and cream cheese pie. It’s delicious. Leaving Salina, US 89 becomes a part of Interstate 40 for a little over 30 miles. After devouring the pie, I’m so full that I don’t bother pulling off the freeway in Richfield for a stop at the dairy there which features great tasting milkshakes and wonderful cheese curd. The afternoon temperature now approaches 100 degrees Fahrenheit. In the winter, I’d also be tempted to stop at the hot springs at Monroe, a bit south of Richfield, but why would I want to sit in a pool or tub of hot water when it’s already steaming outside.

US 89 leaves Interstate 70 at Sevier and winds its way south through a tight canyon. I’m surprised to find the old railroad bed paved and converted to a bicycle path. Shortly after entering the canyon, I see several rafts and kayaks floating the river. During the summer, due to steady water releases from Piute Lake to quench thirsty farms downstream, this section of the river makes a nice float trip.

The bike path ends at the “Big Rock Candy Mountain.” This multi-colored volcanic rock received its name after folksinger and hobo Harry McClintock published the well known hobo ballad. As a joke, local residents staked a sign claiming this site as the legendary hobo heaven.
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains there's a land that's fair and bright
Where the handouts grow on bushes and you sleep out every night
Where the boxcars are all empty and the sun shines every day
On the birds and the bees and the cigarette trees
Where the lemonade springs where the bluebird sings
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains

I stop for a cold drink. This piece of Americana is now the jumping off point for those paddling the Sevier as well as for others interested in four-wheeling on the Piute Trail.

A few miles south of the Big Rock Candy Mountain is the town of Marysvale, the end of the old Denver and Rio Grande's Marysvale Branch. This section of rail was completed in 1900 to serve the mines located west of the city, on the steep slopes of the Tushar Mountains. Later, after the formation of Bryce Canyon National Park, Marysvale was the closest embarkation point for the new park. The town is now a shell of its former self, but still draws tourists, especially for the hundreds of miles of ATV and Snowmobiling trails in the area. Today as I drive through the town in less than a minute, I recall a trip five or six years ago when Ralph and I spent a whole day in his truck up in the Tushar’s, checking out old mines. There’s no way this rental car could make that trip.

I continue south through Junction and notice the old courthouse for Piute County, located in the middle of the town, is now a bed and breakfast. When I lived in Southern Utah, it was purchased by a “Christian polygamist.” This man decided that the old-Mormon practice of multi-wives sounded like fun. Not wanting to convert to the Fundamentalist LDS Church (who still encourages polygamy), he maintained he was “Christian.” His church wasn't very big, just he an his inflated family. As I drove past, I wondered what happened to this brother and his seven wives (get the joke?). Somehow I suspect they weren’t granted tax-exempt status by the IRS. Or maybe he became a hermit after discovering that pleasing a multitude of women was more work than fun.
South of Junction I slow down for a few hundred yards as I drive through the small hamlet of Circleville, home of Butch Cassidy. Afterwards, I speed up and set my cruise control and don’t have to adjust my speed till I arrive in Panguitch, a ranching town that has strengthened its commercial district with all kinds of boutiques aimed at catching the eyes of the tourist heading for Bryce Canyon. In the middle of Panguitch, at the town’s lone stoplight, I leave US 89 behind and take state road 143 up through the black lava rock toward Brian Head, home of Southern Utah’s premier ski resort. When I get to the top of the mountain, instead of turning right toward the ski village, I take a left and drive through Cedar Breaks National Monument. At the junction of Utah 14, I turn west and drive down through Cedar Canyon and on into Cedar City, my destination.


  1. No off-roading in the rented PT Cruiser? That's a shame.

  2. Murf, you need a little more clearance than compact rental cars provide. If I had my truck with me, not only would I have done off-roading (actually not really off-roading, but taking the dirt roads), and I'd probably slept in the back.

  3. Is sleeping in the back of a pick up considered hobo heaven circa 2007?

  4. I always have loved drives of leisure. I don't get to do them very often these days but there will come a day soon when I can resume them.

    Did Mom's Cafe have a lot of calendars on the walls? I'm betting the answer is yes if my theory holds water.

  5. These great photos prove to me that there is a real difference in driving it! Beautiful!

  6. Mmm, not only do I want to go see this for myself (well, except the dude with the seven wives, but only 'cause we don't know where he is), but I'd like to bike as much of it as possible...

    Sounds wonderful, Sage!

  7. Murf, a hobo would sleep in the back of someone else's truck. I suppose it'd be heaven if it had a top on it and a flask hidden under the spare tire.

    Ed, didn't count the calendars, but you're right, those places like Mom's seem to have a multitude of calendars (probably Christmas gifts from her kids and regulars)

    Michael, it would be fun to stop and spend a day in each town

    Susan, I'd love to bike it--I need to get back into bicycling

  8. Sage, I think that every old western movie I ever saw was filmed at least partly in that state! The photos look familiar even though I've never been there.

    I have the sheet music to the song Big rock Candy Mountain, and sang that a lot as a child.

  9. Blueberry and cream cheese pie? Count me in for a slice too! My last rental was a convertibel PT Cruiser - pretty fun car to drive . . .

    Great post, sage - I felt like I was on the road with ya . . .

  10. Kenju: You're right. If you go a bit further down Highway 89 to Kanab, you'll be in a small town that was used as a base for many western movies in the 40s-60s. They even built the "faux town" of Paria for a movie set.

    Diane: I once rented a PT Crusier. It wasn't a convertible, but was fun to drive

  11. I know I am late here and I won't be saying anything new either.

    Your photo essays are picture and word perfect.

  12. Sage, thanks for the tour and the pictures. It was very interesting, and reminded me of a family vacation I took years ago to Zion and Bryce parks. I actually read your post a second time with a map of Utah handy so I could follow along.

  13. do bring back some memories..

    When my sibs and I were young, our Grandfather would take us on driving trips thru Utah, Arizona, California and New Mexico. He would be relating much of the local history to us. At that age it was boring and the trips seemed interminable. It was only when we reached adult hood that my brothers and I really understood and appreciated what a rich experience he had shared with us

    Thank you *S*

  14. The pie sounded delicious. The palace, er, temple is quite impressive. Thanks for taking us along on the road with you, Sage. I enjoyed it.

  15. Great travelogue Sage; I was engrossed to the end. And the photographs were spectacular.

    And speaking of the LDS Church, there was a recent PBS documentary on Mormons. As someone not that familiar with the religion, the documentary (like your writings) was very enlightening, to say the least.

    Not sure if I've missed a lot of your posts about living in Utah, but I bet it must have been an interesting time.

    Once again, great post. Thanks for sharing your drive with us.

  16. Very interesting post. Highway 89 looks well worth a visit.