Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Utah Places: Secret Glades on Sanpitch

These quiet old farms in Milburn hide some secret places that few people have ever visited. I first sought out the headwaters of Sanpitch River just out of curiosity, but was at first frustrated for quite a long time by the many barb wire fences and no trespassing signs that stood in the way. Then one day, just by accident, I happened across that magic yellow gate that opened access to the Forest Service lands beyond, and suddenly I was happy to roam across many new miles of foothill trail, across the base of the Manti La-Sal. I discovered new places, secret places that only cowboys and sheepherders, foresters and pipeline layers knew about. No one else ever came here.

Most remarkable was finding the Sanpitch headwaters. It is a beautiful glade, shady and cool, sheltered under tall old Douglas firs on the south, and a mass of aspens on the north, that makes the steep canyon a private, hidden place, where the world cannot find you, and cool waters come tumbling off the Skyline straight from snowbanks. The banks are over arched with Cornus, the native flowering dogwood species, and it forms a protective barrier that guards against encroachment from any sudden intruders. Along the entrance, scrub oaks guard the way, growing so close down along the way that they scratched the paint badly along the sides of my 4runner, and I was angry, until I arrived at the bottom pool of the stream, and saw the enchanted glade beckoning me with a magic sirens song in the soft breeze sighing through the tops of the towering swaying green trees.

I wanted to lay down on the carpet of leaves and grass, and stay there forever.

When I explored further up the creek, I was not sure which was more startled, me or the sage hens I scared up.

They must be the silliest acting upland game birds in nature. They exploded literally from under my feet out of the low scrub. If they would have kept still, I never would have even noticed them. As it was, I could have scooped two of them up in my bare hands, and wrang their necks right then.

Instead, I watched gape-mouthed as they flopped around like a bunch of drunken spastics. Then they ducked back under the same bush they burst out from in the first place, and just stood there, aquiver and cowering, as if they had somehow done all they could and were resigned to whatever fate was assigned. Stupid, brainless birds.

In the same canyon, I had a more educational encounter with a young buck deer. He actually vocalized a challenge as he defended his home territory. I had never realized that deer had much of a voice. This young guy was not too careful about making his feelings known. It sort of sounded like an elk with a cold trying to make a bugle, not loud, but definately airy and harsh sounding and threatening. The buck adopted a very threatening posture too, with all his feet splayed out in a wide stance, like he was ready to start fighting. He was across the creek from me, so I felt I was in no immediate danger, but I was sure he would not hesitate to attack me with all his energy and might if I approached any closer. I backed away slowly, respecting his space, sobered by a close encounter with a wild animal probably weighing probably a third my weight, but still willing to go head to head to defend his home ground.

It was a lesson to learn, and I will not forget.

For me, and for you, the freedom of the hills does not come free, nor is it even cheap. It has come to us at a very dear cost, and we must defend it forever, as if our very lives depend on it. As they well do.

As they well do.

Here is another sight I frequently and fondly watch from the banks of the Sanpitch.


Anonymous said...

See, I knew you were a tree hugger, whether or not you like to admit it. You're just a confused tree hugger.

I'm a tree hugger, but not an environmentalist. How's that for confusion???

Jim Cobabe said...


Let you in on a secret if you promise not to tell -- It's the tree huggers that are confused. Some of us love the land of Heavenly Father's creations with a heartfelt and undying love that runs deeper and broader than our life itself. It is beyond words, beyond comprehension. I wish I could explain, but if you don't already understand completely, it would not help anyway.

I tried to explain to cousin Ricky the other day why Forest Rangers earn $30k after they go to school for 15 years and have a masters or even two, or a Phd. They work at their profession because they love it, not because they want money. It's not even good work, it just gets them where they want to be part of the time.

Freedom of the hills is just a phrase. It represents an idea that people are free to live without restrictions, to do as they want with their lives, to realize ambitions, to try with their might, and perhaps to fail, but at least try with no one else saying, you cannot do that. Tree huggers don't realize they have turned full circle and come up against the walls of forbidding again. The idea of freedom has slipped from their grasp.

Freedom is what they are seeking in the wilderness. But they can never find it if they seek to chain it up and put it behind walls.

Anonymous said...

I completely understand, and I feel the same exact sentiment. That's why I say I'm a tree hugger, but not an "environmentalist".

I love the land more than I can say. The earth sustains us and is a gift from the Lord that replenishes our souls when we are down and weary. It is more than beauty. I like the idea of calling the earth our mother, because it is that sweet and healing to me.

When the scriptures say that we have stewardship over the earth, I wonder sometimes if that doesn't indicate more of a symbiotic relationship. We take care of it, it takes care of us.

Some of my more poignant moments with the Lord have come to me through nature.

That's why, when you mentioned that the trees suffer silently, I told you I've heard them speak, and so have you. All of nature has a voice. Don't you think? Oh, I'd better shut up, before I break out into a John Denver tune.

Patricia said...

Jim, that picture you put up a while back of the Great Gallery in Horseshoe? My brother told me he went to Horseshoe a few years back and was met by one or two rangers who proudly proclaimed they were trying to get the canyon closed.

Closing that canyon to me, for instance, would be like closing off a portion of my home, one where important events have occurred that were central to my personal development. When my daughter turns 12 or 14, I hope to take her there on a girls' campout, back to show her what in some ways form of headwaters of my soul.

Among all the things about environmentalism that I've wondered is how much of what some environmentalists do is for self-preservation rather than preservation of species and habitat. Now in some ways, that makes sense: If you find a place to be beautiful and it becomes "part of you," so to speak, then a lot of you will rise in defense to protect that part.

On the other hand, if except in the most extreme cases, you seal that part of you off to "protect" it, that is an empty and faithless gesture, an act against society. For one thing, it provokes defensive behavior from those the act is directed against, and that comes coupled with rebellion. For another, by sealing wonder in a vault you not only perpetuate the unfortunate behavior that does injury but you risk deepening it, since people's opportunities to feel, think, and do better will be curtailed.

Education is a better route, I think, even though for science the important matters are still unfolding. And patience. And not taking things so personally.

What do you think?

Jim Cobabe said...



But I as I told my dear friend Patricia, I am also friends with the sheeperders, whom I watch callously throwing the dead bodies of the spring lambs that did not survive into a stinking heap for the varmints to rend and the carrion maggots to swarm over. The dogs won't even touch it.

The first time I passed too close to that sweltering pile of rotting carcases, I lost my lunch rather abruptly. The sheep guys, most of them indians and hispanics, were watching me pretty closely to see what I would do, and they had a good laugh. But I ate mutton with them for dinner. (It wasn't very good, but I thought it was the polite thing to do.) They almost always eat mutton, but if you want to be friends, you have to pass the little initiation first.

Jim Cobabe said...


Regarding your comment on the great gallery in the Horseshoe. Worth further investigation and a separate post. I will look into it further. Thanks for the heads up.

Patricia said...


My understanding was that the rangers failed in their objective. My brother, feeling exasperated with their reasons for attempting such a thing, said to them,"Sure! Seal the whole thing under glass and install push buttons."

Yesterday I tried to take my kids to Grand Gulch, but the snow was still too deep, so we went to Comb Ridge instead and climbed around on the slickrock. At one point, we found a road that had been bulldozed. My kids expressed impatience with its presence, but I insisted on following it to see where it went. For one thing, I said, it was important to know as an orientation point. But second, I thought it curious: what was it for? Let's go find out.

It was an old road, winding this way and that, up over the least precarious outcrops of slickrock (but still getting pretty precarious at times). We found the end of it emptying into the modern roadcut. I wasn't sure (I know someone who could tell me but haven't talked to him yet) that this was the "old road," the one people used before the new highway was cut and paved.

As far as I'm concerned, this old road is part of the "nature" of the area.

Jim Cobabe said...


Old roads are becoming an obtrusive element of the ongoing battle beween states struggle for autonomy over public lands and existing infrastructure, and the feds pronouncement of universal and self-righteous eminent domain over anything and everything they see fit to claim or change to rules to lay claim on. It has been a growing problem for decades, especially in Utah, where the feds claim more land acreage than any private interest. Ghosts of the Sagebrush Rebellion.