It’s four am and I’m listening to NPR as I’m driving down a dark windy road in north-eastern Utah. I’m sure the terrain all around me is absolutely beautiful, given the signs I’m seeing telling me I’m in a national forest, but it’s pitch black outside. My headlights illuminate the windy roads around me, and I navigate them with speed. I rarely see other headlights, not at this time of day. When another driver comes toward me, we both courteously dim our headlights from bright to standard, then turn them back to bright as we pass each other.
I’m appalled by the roadkill. I have seen at least a few dead deer, a porcupine, three rabbits, and two skunks, their obnoxious and cloying odors stretching a full mile around their tiny corpses. In addition, I have slowed my car at least four times in the last hour, once for some large bird, twice for rabbits, and once for another skunk, animals that scampered across the road at fast speeds. I roll my eyes at each of them silently, wondering if it wouldn’t be easier for them to just wait the ten seconds for my car to pass and then to cross, cause it ain’t like there is any other traffic out here.
I haven’t spent much time in this part of Utah, though it isn’t far from where I live, only a few hours drive. The whole state is packed with mountains and bodies of water, so I don’t have to look hard for beautiful places to visit. I know there are lots of camping areas here, several reservoirs, and a ton of hiking, but the towns are small.
The reporter on the NPR station I’m listening to is interviewing a woman in Canada, who is sharing her opinion on American politics. I can’t remember her exact words, but she says something like “American politics is the best reality show I’ve ever seen, only much more horrific. I’m on the edge of my seat wondering what they will do next. America is rather like the crazy neighbor who lives next door. Mostly I leave them alone, but on occasion, I have to peep over the fence to see what shocking thing they are doing next.” She voices her support for Bernie Sanders first, Hilly Clinton second, and then admits that Canada is mostly a nation of Democrats. She talks about Prime Minister Trudeau’s state visit with President Obama, and outlines some of the complicated trade history between the two countries. I navigate the turns with a smile on my face.
My eyes flash to the bright screen of my phone, showing the map of the area I’m driving through, and a few of the names of small Utah towns, some of them unincorporated, some just groupings of farms and houses, others cute little towns. I’ve never heard of most of these. Duschene (pronounced Du-shane). Strawberry. Myton. Ouray. Altonah. Neola. Randlett. Tabiona. And then Gusher. Gusher? There is a town called Gusher, Utah? A few houses, fences, barns, and cows are visible in the dark, then I’m already past it.
I think back to the history of this region, how it was settled by Native American tribes for hundreds of years until the fur trappers and gold miners moved through here. Then the Mormons came in the 1800s and settled in the Salt Lake valley. Brigham Young sent members of the Mormon church all over the region, for hundreds of miles, creating farming communities, mining industries, trade posts, and settlements. I’m not a big fan of Brigham Young, but I have to admit that his settlement of the state of the Utah at the time was absolutely impressive.
Later, during my long work shift, I look up some of the communities that I’ve driven through. I look into the origins of their names, some after Native American chiefs, some after early settlers, some after rocks or crops. But I am most fascinated by Gusher itself. About ten miles outside of Roosevelt (a much larger town for the area), it’s described as a “roadside settlement” rather than a town. I learn that when it was first settled, it was jokingly called Sober City, a name given by the locals, making fun of the town’s habit for getting drunk. They later renamed the town Moffat, after David Moffat, a railroad magnate, but the town wasn’t successful and it shut down for decades until, in 1922, a man named Robert Wood moved to the area and named the town Gusher, hoping to make a successful oil business there, though that never happened.
I think of the farmers that have lived there likely for generations, the same families there since the beginning. The demographics for the area list the residents as, literally, 97.99 % white, and well over 90 % Mormon.
Later, as I leave the city of Vernal, I take the same road back to Salt Lake City. This time, I can see the small houses, the barns and cows, the fences, the rolling hills and trees, the snow-capped mountains, and, yes, the roadkill. Gusher looks nearly the same in the daylight as it did in the dark, an eyeblink of small town Utah farms where families have built their homes and lives.
I pull my car over at one of the reservoirs and look out over the beautiful mix of rock and water, and I think of my grandmother, who spent over 90 years in a town in southeastern Idaho with a population of less than 500 people. And from her little space there, she had five children and dozens of grandchildren and even more great-grandchildren. She worked as a schoolteacher. And from her little spot on the globe, she made the world a better place and impacted hundreds of lives.
I turn back from my spot on the road, from which I can’t see another human in any direction, and I wonder about my grandmother, and about Gusher, and about history, then I get back in my car and drive toward a different kind of civilization.