Forgotten History and Wild Horses in the Heart of the West Desert

Delta Sign  by Eric Erlenbusch
Delta Sign by Eric Erlenbusch

Old construction nails littered the cracked alkaline soil. We saw those first. Out here, they’re one more reason not to wear open-toed shoes. Then we saw buttons, sherds of pottery, shells and a rusty tin with holes in the lid, probably used by a little boy to collect bugs.

The wind was fierce. It kicked up the powdery layer of white dust and rendered normal conversation impossible. They said at a time the dust was ankle deep. Turn your head against the wind and you couldn’t hear a person two feet away. The effect is immediate. This was a common reality in the land, and made worse once denuded of the greasewood that held the fragile ecosystem together. This was life deep in the Great Basin Desert of western Utah.

It’s virtually empty now. But people lived here; it was not by choice. Topaz Relocation Center (aka Japanese internment camp) west of Delta, Utah, was a pop-up city, of sorts, that at its peak was home to some 8,000 Japanese-Americans — with emphasis on Americans. Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, it can be said that hysteria gripped the American government. The consequence was the forced relocation of more than 110,000 men, women and children, most of whom were American citizens, to a cluster of remote internment camps in Utah, in the western United States.

It was a frightening violation of civil rights. A violation of trust.

To say, “west of Delta,” for those familiar with the geography, is to say that the United States government dropped this Japanese internment camp in Utah, in a place that visitors in the land would easily dismiss as uninhabitable. If they’re feeling generous, they’d call it inhospitable. But as Jane Beckwith, executive director of the Topaz Museum points out, people very much did eek out a life here — though, sadly, the evidence is rapidly disappearing as tourists walk away with it: jars of nails, toothbrushes, lipstick holders, anything and everything.

In a land where everything is supposed to flow in, priceless heritage is flowing out.

An Unforgiving and Fascinating Province

We had a modest checklist that would determine a successful afternoon in the Basin and Range: find the legacy of Bob Stinson, hike Swasey Peak and see wild horses. Along the way we would wander through what writer and photographer Stephen Trimble calls “The Sagebrush Ocean.” We were amateur explorers on and around Old Highway 50/6. Some consider it one of the nation’s loneliest landscapes.

Me? I love the west desert.

We signal right and slow for the turn. It’s a quick transition from the asphalt of U.S. Highway 50 to the dusty packed gravel and after a minute the road veers west, carving a mostly straight path toward the narrow Marjum Pass in the House Range. Signs out here are few. A physical map is useful, as is the GPS dot on the minimally detailed Google Map. A little intuition helps, as well. We’ve packed for “what if” scenarios. If you’re really worried, travel in a caravan of two or more cars, just in case. Cell service is spotty out here.

We were amateur explorers on and around Old Highway 50/6. Some consider it one of the nation’s loneliest landscapes. Me? I love the west desert.

The directions to Bob Stinson’s Hermit’s Cabin are appropriately ambiguous: We’re to locate the last canyon on the right before completing the mountain pass. After one or two false stops, we think we’ve found the correct canyon.

Like the ancestral cliff dwellings that dot southeastern Utah, you have to keep your head on a swivel when hiking, as the saying goes, or you’ll miss them. Old Bob had cleverly walled in a natural alcove overhang with a stone-and-mortar enclosure complete with framed windows, a door and externally exhausted stove. Some say any fixed city in the desert is an anomaly; a single habitation in a forsaken canyon in the rugged range west of Delta feels like magical realism; spirits roam here, but they are peaceful. Discovering the cabin feels equally accident, accomplishment and invasion.

Stories about Stinson outline his sources of income and supplementary provisions, but to the modern visitor, none of that matters. Even before the new highway was laid and even without knowing the rate of traffic through this remote desert, the isolation of Bob Stinson must often have been profound. If he suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder after World War I, perhaps here he could keep a clear head. The historical population of nearby Delta was roughly 1,500. (Today, it’s just over twice that.) Who traveled here? Who shared a homebrew with him?

There’s a geocache at Bob Stinson’s cabin. An entry in the logbook reads: “This desert transformed me; replaced my blood with desert silence … Beware! When you grow an intimate relationship with the west desert you’ll always be coming back.” It is signed, “SunHawk.”

***

  • View of the Tushars

    View of the Tushars

    The distant Tushar Mountains frame the eastern horizon of Utah's west desert, part of the Basin and Range province. Photo: Eric Erlenbusch

  • East of the House Range

    East of the House Range

    To the southwest and northwest, roads trickle off into the indiscernible distance toward a motionless dust storm and a hazy other range. Photo: Andrew Gillman

  • Jackrabbit and Jalopy East of Death Canyon

    Jackrabbit and Jalopy East of Death Canyon

    A jackrabbit’s flying-saucer ears are tuned toward the visitor. The window of the passenger door, ajar for unknown ages, frames her. It's a quintessential desert tableau at a crossroads east of Dome/Death Canyon. Photo: Andrew Gillman

  • Dome Canyon, House Range

    Dome Canyon, House Range

    Historical marker at Captain James H. Simpson's House Range route of the Central Overland Trail. Photo: Andrew Gillman

  • Snow Geese

    Snow Geese

    Each February, Lesser Snow Geese make their way into Utah and use the fields and waters in the Delta area as a rest stop on their northern migration.

  • Hermit's Cave House/Cabin

    Hermit's Cave House/Cabin

    After breaking down in the west desert, Bob Stinson (who had recently returned to heartbreak from World War I) cleverly walled in a natural alcove overhang with a stone-and-mortar enclosure complete with framed windows, a door and externally exhausted stove. Photo: Andrew Gillman

  • End of the Sinbad Spring Road

    End of the Sinbad Spring Road

    Even without binoculars, the Basin and Range comes into clear focus; it defines itself. The bleached-bone-white and ashen deposits of an ancient lakebed stir up in the wind. There are multiple horizons. Photo: Andrew Gillman

  • Wild Horses

    Wild Horses

    They are far enough away not to be spooked; close enough to be curious. They watch as the car comes to a halt. They return our gaze and pose for our cell phones, then return to their grazing. Many journeys along the backways of Utah's west desert pass through Wild Horse Herd Management Areas. Photo: Rosie Serago

  • Wild Horses of Utah's West Desert

    Wild Horses of Utah's West Desert

    Millard County's House Range cluster of herd management areas and the Swasey Peak HMA are excellent bets for seeing wild horses. Photo: Rosie Serago

  • A Gathering of Wild Horses

    A Gathering of Wild Horses

    Even at a distance, wild horses capture the imagination and command respect due to their centuries-old lineage. Photo: Rosie Serago

  • Lone Mustang in the Wild Open Space of Utah's West Desert

    Lone Mustang in the Wild Open Space of Utah's West Desert

    "When you grow an intimate relationship with the west desert you’ll always be coming back." — SunHawk, quote from a logbook at the Hermit's Cabin. Photo: Rosie Serago

Our road takes us north toward a junction with something variously called Death Canyon and Dome Canyon. At the turn is a rusty heap of a jalopy shot up and mangled. On the other side, a jackrabbit’s flying-saucer ears are tuned toward our presence. The window of the passenger door, ajar for unknown ages, frames her. She does not run. To the southwest and northwest, roads trickle off into the indiscernible distance toward a motionless dust storm and a hazy other range.

We ascend a somewhat rockier road toward Swasey Peak. There’s an opportunity to bushwhack it 1,500 feet to the top of the mountain but we continue down the road to its end, then set out on foot to see where the path leads. At the precipice, familiar desert juniper and pinyon creep toward the ledge. Sticky pine cones commingle on the ground with needles and sun-dried juniper berry. We are not prepared for the view. Even without binoculars, the Basin and Range comes into clear focus; it defines itself. The bleached-bone-white and ashen deposits of an ancient lakebed stir up in the wind. There are multiple horizons. In the distance stands the snow-capped Mount Wheeler of Great Basin National Park. At more than 13,000 feet, the snow lingers into June. We are mostly silent on the return drive, our eyes lazily scanning the desert panorama.

“Wild horses.”

The words escape my lips. The car stops. They are 100 yards away: far enough away not to be spooked; close enough to be curious. They watch as the car comes to a halt. They return our gaze and pose for our cell phones, then return to their grazing. These wild horses in Utah are white, bay, dun and black. We are in the midst of one of the county’s multiple Wild Horse Herd Management Areas. They are wild, though massive electricity pylons carrying transmission wires frame the middle distance, transporting power to some far-off pocket of civilization. It is only the second time I have come into contact with Utah’s wild horse population. The last time they were tiny, yet unmistakable specks on a far-off ridgeline; their vocalizations echoed across the range. Even at that distance, wild horses capture the imagination and command respect due to their centuries-old lineage.

Here, I can make out the colors and some of the musculature. Next time I’ll bring binoculars.

Improving on Our Past

Back in Delta, the Topaz Museum on the south side of the wide U.S. Highway 50 that doubles as Delta’s main street is a no less an anomaly in its space than the square mile “city” Japanese internment camp (part of a larger 19,800 acre “project”) originally called the Central Utah Relocation Center.

Salt Lake City–based Sparano and Mooney Architects and Darin Mano of Raw Design are responsible for the award-winning museum structure, which even outside of the understated west desert outpost might conjure up thoughts of “modern” and “avant garde” as the clean, austere lines of the exterior give way to a thoughtful procession of five distinct spaces in the interior exhibits: Modern geographical context combine with deeply problematic historical events in one astonishing museum.

Even without binoculars, the Basin and Range comes into clear focus; it defines itself. The bleached-bone-white and ashen deposits of an ancient lakebed stir up in the wind. There are multiple horizons.

When we visited in the late spring of 2017, it seemed the only things missing before the grand opening were the names on the donor wall and some of the exhibit signage.

But in an ideal world, I find out something else is missing. “Relocation Center” and even “Internment Camp” are, at best, euphemisms, though they’re harder to recognize as such without one key component: a guard tower. Scott Bassett works for the Millard County School District and serves on the Board of Directors for the Topaz Museum. Bassett is a passionate and knowledgeable ambassador of the museum and guardian of its history, but he points out that raising money to construct a replica guard tower would truly drive home the message of what these Americans endured during the war.

The board has led the remarkable journey to raise awareness about the Japanese internment camp site, listing it as a National Historic Landmark and then pressing forward to further commemorate and archive the history with the unlikely museum. In July of 2017, the museum held its grand opening. At the same time, in the heat of an election year, America held a remarkably similar dialog about national identity; about what it means to be “American.” Many things in Delta, Utah, seem to speak to that identity: the Days of the Old West Rodeo directly taps a lineage of western and pioneer heritage. Two lonely east-west highways, one paved, one unpaved, cross the isolated and insular Great Basin. Wild horses roam the lands, yet likely descend from Spanish stock from the 16th century that pre-date the arrival of white, European-American settlers to the territory. In some ways, perhaps these horses are more American than ourselves.

Andrew Dash Gillman

Andrew writes and curates content for the Utah Office of Tourism. He has also written for Edible Wasatch, Business in Utah, Utah CEO and FilmUtah and has been working on a novel for about six years. His leisure time is consumed by running with podcasts, hiking with doggos and camping throughout Utah. He truly unplugs while cooking, oil painting and gardening.

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Delta and Environs

Explore Utah's west desert from a base camp at Delta.

What's Nearby

Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum

Territorial Statehouse State Park Museum

Get a feel for what life was like for those early pioneers establishing Utah. There are tons of interesting artifacts, and you can take it in at your own pace. The knowledgeable staff is happy to field your questions and engage your kids’ curiosity.

West Desert Ramble & the Pony Express

West Desert Ramble & the Pony Express

This itinerary is a slow-paced, yet adventurous drive into one of the few wild frontiers left in the world. It brings together unique scenery, history and wildlife all along the fascinatingly desolate Pony Express National Historic Trail.

Topaz Museum

Topaz Museum

Base camp: Delta

Delta is a gateway to the Great Basin National Heritage Area, which combines Utah's Millard County (click here to download PDF travel guide) with Nevada's White Pine County.

With multiple accommodations and restaurants, Delta is an excellent base camp to the Great Basin's distinctive west desert experiences:

  • Great Basin National Park (Nevada)
  • Great Basin Museum (Delta)
  • Pahvant Valley Heritage Trail (PDF)
  • Clear Lake Waterfowl Management Area and the annual Snow Goose Festival (February)
  • Hiking and rockhounding including Topaz Mountain, Notch Peak and Swasey Peak
  • Bureau of Land Management House Range Wild Horse Herd Management Areas

Visitors to the west desert are advised to carry extra water, food, fuel and emergency provisions as well as to let others know of your travel plans. Where available, BLM georeferenced maps are helpful to know which roads are typically passable by regular passenger vehicles, but conditions are subject to change.