Tumbleweeds

They lie, quietly waiting, across the desert Southwest, a serpentine presence, a threat to the unwary. They are back roads, twisting, rutted red dirt and stone that go off the map where paved roadways wouldn’t dare. With deep sands that challenge Jeeps and sharp rocks simply itching to rip off an oil pan, these are not places for The Family Car.

And so, after a few too-short hours at Capitol Reef National Park, where a storm was blowing in from the northwest (promising…and delivering…snow to the higher elevations), the decision was made: staring at the rental car wasn’t going to transform it into a 4WD with high clearance, and we would have to return another time to visit Cathedral Valley. Ah, but so close.

Nothing to do then but continue eastward on Highway 24, along a flank of the weather system. When we’d steered through this part of Utah in 2005, going west, a severe thunderstorm had already made its passage, leaving the countryside fresh and bright under an evening sun. We’d met the storm earlier, up at Goblin Valley State Park, and had dings on the car from dime-sized hail to prove it.

On this evening only a few errant raindrops followed us, but the wind strengthened by the mile, whipping up whitish dust as it insinuated itself into the nervous system. For a while visibility dropped to less than fifty feet as a tall curtain of dust rustled across the landscape. Somewhere in that fog-like scene, we knew, was Factory Butte.


It appeared suddenly, between clouds of blowing dust, as impressive and mysterious as I remembered it. When I’d first photographed here it brought to mind medieval fortresses? forbidden castles in the air? ancient, otherworldly places, and here it was again, changing magically by the minute.

A ways on, past the worst of the blowing debris, I parked facing the butte and wind, and Ulrich and I forced our doors open and went outside. We were mindful of the harm the harsh conditions posed to our electronic cameras and lenses, but it was a scene that demanded to be viewed face-to-face, however fleetingly. As we shot our photos a pickup truck appeared, full of Real Cowboys and pulling a large stock trailer; a honk and a Big Grin from the passenger’s window as it passed let me know we weren’t the only crazies out and about. They knew, too.

When the small stones pinging off our heads became too big to ignore it was time to retreat, to move on. We were close to Hanksville, the light was draining quickly from the day, and it was time to find a room and a meal.

Not too far to go. The first motel we pass has been shuttered and dark for…how long? When did that dream die? On the other side of the road, equally forlorn, is a Time Machine advertising unleaded gas for $1.49 a gallon. (Word is, the old Texaco station will reopen next spring: expect the new owner to raise prices when it does.)

The character of The American West relies, in part, on illusions to bolster its fame. Or call them myths. But the skies out here, like the surrounding men and mountains, are bigger than elsewhere, the legends more memorable. Why, I’ll bet you didn’t know that Pecos Bill founded the Chamber of Commerce, now did ya? Well. He also filled his saddlebags with the brightest stars from the Milky Way and spread them out across the West, to better lure tired travelers into the roadside restaurants and motels that would disappear without them. We call these beacons neon lights.

Hanksville has a few of its own. I park under one at the Best Value Inn, and while Ulrich goes in search of night photos I go into the Office.

A couple of guys are talking to the owner, Ed, and I can tell they aren’t convinced they should be staying here. In the semi-darkness I’m not sure I should, either. Is the place a work-in-progress, or simply run down? After the guys leave, I ask to see a room. A piece of tumbleweed guards the door, a good omen for the semi-superstitious, and of course the room is one of the best we’ve had. Unexpectedly. And there’s good regular coffee across at the restaurant, where the giggling teenage waitresses are friendly and the cook’s name is Grandma. We sleep well.

The next morning, breakfast is served at Blondie’s, around the corner from our motel. The neon has evaporated and the early sun is low and welcome. The wind, too, is gone, and the day begins with a calmness of thought, murmured conversations at the tables, bacon and eggs.

At the motel, thanking Ed for his hospitality, he tells me how a flood overran the highway in 2006, inundating the motel and wiping out the extensive remodeling he’d done only months before. How the pool had been buried by the previous owner, excavated and redone, and then reburied in the flood. He promises that it will be an indoor pool in a couple of years, and I don’t doubt it.

When Hanksville finally disappears from the rearview mirror, I silently promise to remember that the biggest lights aren’t always the brightest.

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