Alien Worlds

The trailhead to the Hickman Bridge is just 1.5 miles east of the Capitol Reef NP Visitor Center. It’s a leisurely 2-mile walk with a 350 foot ascent. And, because it’s near the Visitor Center and easily accessible from the road, it’s a fairly crowded hike. Nevertheless, with patience, I was able to get a photo of Hickman’s natural bridge (an arch, really) without any tourists in the frame (below, top panel).

On the way back down from the bridge/arch, we stopped briefly at an overlook from which we could see some of the fruit trees planted years ago by early Mormon settlers (below, bottom left). Looking directly south, we had a good view of one of the sandstone domes, this one known as Fern’s Nipple (below, bottom right). Um, yeah.

Contemporaries of the Anasazi, known here as the Fremont Indians, occupied the Waterpocket Fold region where they carved a number of petroglyphs into the sandstone of the canyon walls (below, left). Like the Anasazi, the Fremont also left the Colorado Plateau in the late 1200s A.D. for reasons unknown.

I wonder how the early Mormons that settled here in the 1880s reacted to their discovery of these drawings. Did they worry that these were self-portraits of alien beings from another world, when, in fact, they were made by people much like themselves, but from an alien culture and time?

One of the first settlers here was Elijah Cutler Behunin (1847-1933). In 1882, the Mormon Church sent Elijah on a mission to settle here, which he did in what is now Cainesville, Utah. According to one of his sons, Hyrum (1874-1963), within a year of settling Cainesville at least 7 other families had settled there, too, so, in Hyrum’s words, “I guess that was too many for us, so we moved to Pleasant Creek to start a settlement there in 1883.”

The Behunins moved about the area quite a bit over the following decade, building several cabins, some of log and two from sandstone. Elijah ultimately acquired 80 acres in the settlement of Fruita next to the orchard planted by Nels Johnson, the original settler of Fruita, upon which he built a house.

One of Elijah Behunin’s sandstone cabins has been restored and sits just off UT-24 a little over a mile east of the Visitors Center. It’s hard to imagine that a family of 11 lived in this 215 sq. ft., one-room, dirt-floor structure (bottom right) for an entire year (Hyrum Behunin’s autobiographical notes say it was 1892; the NPS and Wikipedia say 1882-83).

At any rate, for several decades, the Mormons at Fruita sustained themselves with their orchards, crops and livestock, until the NPS purchased the property in 1955 for inclusion into Capitol Reef which had been established as a National Monument in 1937 by proclamation of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Twenty miles east of Capitol Reef NP on UT-24 (and 3 miles west of Hanksville) there’s a dirt road that runs off to the north through forbidding territory. The 7.5 mile drive from the main road, which traverses some the weirdest terrain we’ve seen on this trip, ends at the Hanksville-Burpee Dinosaur Quarry which sits on federal land, managed by the BLM. We had driven in to the BLM office in Hanksville, hoping to go on one the BLM-guided tours of the site (or to at least get directions and information about it), but, today being a Saturday, the BLM office was closed. So, instead, I found directions and information on the helpful Road-Trip-Ryan website and off we went.

[Note: I have since discovered that the BLM tours are only available in June.]

By now, we had grown accustomed to the foreign landscapes of the Colorado Plateau with their colorful strata and unusual land forms…

… but there was something alien about this terrain, as if we had stumbled onto the set for Mad Max or a scene from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. There was something foreboding and apocalyptic about this barren, Martian-like desert.

According to Wikipedia:

Hanksville-Burpee Quarry is the name given to a paleontological excavation site approximately 150 feet wide by 600 feet long near Hanksville, Utah, where scientists have found a large mix of remains of sauropods, trees, freshwater clams, and other species dating between 145 million years ago to 150 million years ago. The mixed assortment of remains deposited in this one location provides a unique opportunity to scientists to study the paleoecology of the area in the late Jurassic period.

The Burpee Quarry dig is managed by paleontologists from the Burpee Museum of Natural History in Rockford, Illinois. They came to Utah in 2007 in search of dinosaur fossils for a new exhibit and struck “gold” here: at last count, they had uncovered the remains of at least 15 different dinosaurs, removing over 1,000 bones to their museum for further study. Every summer, the museum leads an expedition to the site and for $250/day (3 day minimum), anybody can join in at the dig as part of the team!

We arrived at the Quarry, somewhat surprised to find a fence and sign, but no evidence of any archeological dig.

Relying on the trail guide we had downloaded from the Road-Trip-Ryan website, we headed off to the northeast from the gate, down into the ravine running parallel to the adjacent mesa.

There was no visible trail here, so we kept the base of the mesa to our left and wound our way around to its northern side where the vista opened up dramatically.

I enjoy bushwhacking and blazing my own trails and today Dale had no choice but to follow my lead. We ascended.

It soon became apparent that this time Road-Trip-Ryan’s directions – which led around the north side of the mesa – were not taking us where we wanted to go, so we made our way back to the mesa and, keeping it on our right, followed it back to where we had started.

As we walked back up the ravine toward our parked Jeep, we kept on the lookout for dinosaur bones, to no avail (although I did find a bunch of fossilized shells).

Back at the fence, we noticed several shackles bolted into the sandstone in a roughly rectangular shape. I surmised that these could be anchors for tents or tarps.

The program I have loaded on my phone to track our hikes by GPS allows me to overlay topographical maps and satellite photos over our path. Back in the Jeep, I adjusted the overlay to favor the satellite photo and, sure enough, there were the tents, just as I had suspected.

But, what about the dig? I scanned the photo and found a rectangular disturbance of the soil about 850 feet to the WNW of the entry gate and sign. We discussed going back and hiking over to see if that was the dig, but concluded that even if it was, it was just a filled-in hole now, awaiting next summer’s crew.

We headed back the way we had driven in as I pretended to radio ahead, “Mars Station, this is Rover One; do you read, over?”

And then, before us, another alien world, this one of geodesic domes and towers: Mars Station! Really!

From the Mission Statement of the Mars Society:

Mars will be the decisive trial that will determine whether humanity can expand from its globe of origin to enjoy the open frontiers and unlimited prospects available to multi-planet space-faring species. Offering profound enlightenment to our science, inspiration and purpose to our youth, and a potentially unbounded future for our posterity, the challenge of Mars is one that we must embrace. Indeed, with so much at stake, Mars is a test for us. It asks us if we will continue to be a society of pioneers, people who dare great things to open untrodden paths for the future.

The Mars Society mans and operates its Mars Desert Research Station here. And just like at the Dinosaur Quarry, anybody can sign up and participate (for $1,000/week)! Come on, you always wanted to be an astronaut.

I want to repeat that last line from the Mars Society’s Mission Statement:

It asks us if we will continue to be a society of pioneers, people who dare great things to open untrodden paths for the future.

Just like Elijah Behunin and his Mormon brethren, these would-be astronauts are pioneers. Both made preparations for entering an alien and unknown world. And, so too, the paleontologists at Burpee Dinosaur Quarry, although the alien world they explore is temporal, not spatial.

It’s that same pioneering spirit that is fundamental to the American character. It is part of our psyche. It’s what tempted me and Dale to relocate across the country 5 years ago and it continues to be what prompts us to visit new and exotic places and push our own limits.

Go West, young man!

Or, East or South or North or Up or Down.

Just don’t sit still.

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