Relic Run 2009: Great Salt Lake
Report By Stephen Nielson
Many people have fond memories of family camping trips into the backcountry. The family Jeepster bouncing over long dirt roads, Dad priming the old Coleman stove while Mom sweeps dirt out of the spring bar tent. Memories of a time when taking a family camping trip meant leaving it all behind. No cell phones or laptops, just shadow puppets and campfire stories. With the second decade of the 21st century dawning, those simpler days are seemingly long gone.
The Relic Run was born from the idea that many of us enjoy exploring the backcountry, but that we had become overly dependent on our modern conveniences. We had become so used to looking at our GPS’s for directions and sitting in our tents watching DVD’s. The Relic Run was conceived to give us an opportunity to go back in time and enjoy the way things used to be, even for just a few days.
In June of 2009 nearly a dozen vintage 4x4’s dated 1979 or older gathered at Golden Spike National Historic Site northeast of the Great Salt Lake in Utah to embark on the inaugural Relic Run. Ranging from Series One Land Rovers to Toyota FJ40 Land Cruisers and even International Scouts the participants headed into the desert.
The first nights camp was established at Rozel Point overlooking the world famous earthwork sculpture Spiral Jetty by Robert Smithson. The Spiral Jetty was constructed in 1970 out of basalt rocks and mud and sticks 1500 feet out from the shore of the Great Salt Lake. Submerged for most of it’s life, the Spiral Jetty again became visible in the early 2000’s because of drought conditions and remains visible today.
As people admired the Spiral Jetty and snapped pictures with period appropriate 35mm cameras, others worked on setting up their army surplus or spring bar tents and getting their rustic Coleman stoves and lanterns ready for the evening. Perhaps more than the vehicles, the Relic Run encourages people to recreate the atmosphere of by gone times by only bringing period appropriate camping gear. Some even went so far as to dig out grandpa’s leisure suit or sport mustaches. The first night at the edge of the lake was enjoyed with hors d'oeuvres stories while kids played with flashlights in the waning light.
As dawn broke on the second day many braved the cloud of mosquitoes at the edge of the lake for some spectacular views while others packed up and secured their gear. Once everyone was awake and ready to go, the caravan took off along the network of dirt roads north of the Great Salt Lake passing old ranch houses and abandoned vehicles in this remote area.
As one would expect from a group of thirty year old and older vehicles, there were several casualties. Chief among them was an original Willy’s CJ-2A whose engine decided to give out. After reaching the main service road the owner of the Willy’s and several friends decided to head back to town rather than limp along. The rest of the group forged ahead, saddened by the loss of such a unique vehicle, but emboldened to continue.
The first stop on day two was the abandoned railroad town of Kelton. Not much is left of Kelton, just some foundations and the cemetery, but an interesting place to stop and reflect on the lives of the people who tried to eke out an existence in such a harsh land nearly a century before. While lunches of sandwiches and chips were being enjoyed maps were also broken out to determine the final destination for the day. It was decided to make for Hogup Cave on the eastern side of the lake with a short detour to Crocodile Mountain.
As lunch wrapped up the group started out on the vast network of roads that mark the eastern edge of the lake. After a few wrong turns and reexamination of maps, Crocodile Mountain was reached. From its summit you can see all the way across the Great Salt Lake to the Wasatch Mountains and Salt Lake City at their base; a spectacular sight.
After taking in the scenery, the caravan hit the road again in search of that night camp, Hogup Cave. Situated slightly north and east of Crocodile Mountain, Hogup Cave is a very wide, but rather shallow cave which provided shelter for various Native American tribes over the centuries. It has provided archaeologists with vast amount of knowledge about how these ancient peoples lived. The Relic Run set up camp on flat ground below the cave and everyone clambered up the hill to get a look inside while there was plenty of light. It is incredible to think that people would weather the vicious storms that often rake the Great Salt Lake inside this natural cavern.
That night everyone enjoyed a potluck dinner and discussed the various vintage gear they brought with them. There was a slew of flashlights ranging from the late 1940’s to the 1970’s, antique stoves, clothing and camp chairs. It is a wonder what everyone was able to dig up in family attics, garage sales and discount stores. The enthusiasm and memories many had about these articles made the show and tell that much more fun and interesting. As the night wore down the group split up into those willing to brave the rocks and bugs and sleep in the cave, and those opting for the luxury of their tents.
The third day broke with a casual breakfast and discussion of the route to the next destination. The group would be traveling from the western shore of the Great Salt Lake to the west desert of Utah bordering Nevada. The first stop was the massive Hogup Pumping Station. These huge pumps were installed following the 1983 floods in Utah and were designed to pump water from the lake into the salt flats to the west. The pumps were completed in 1987 as the lake level was already receding and have never been used since but are kept in a state of readiness in the event the lake level ever rise to those historic highs again.
After admiring the pumps and throwing some rocks into the canal leading from the pumps the caravan got on the service road next to the Union Pacific railway and headed west to the Newfoundland Mountains. Along the railway one can still see the devastation that floods nearly thirty years before brought. Vehicles abandoned and rusting where the flood waters took them over; barges that had been used to survey damage to the railway during high waters left to rot in the desert. It is surreal.
Reaching the Newfoundland Mountains everyone gathered in a canyon with significant amounts of old mining equipment to have lunch and explore. The Newfoundland Mountains are interesting in their remoteness and rich history of mining during the late 19th and early 20th century. Currently only accessible from the north via the Union Pacific railway, the southern tip of the mountains is actually inside the Hill Air Force Base Bombing Range which is strictly off limits.
By this time the inherent Britishness of the Land Rover had rendered it limp. Electrical gremlins that had haunted it from day one finally won out. That combined with a broken control arm meant it was time for the tow strap to come out. The mighty International Scout took up the task of getting the Series One Rover to the next camp.
From the Newfoundland Mountains the Relic Run continued west to the old railroad town of Lucin. Abandoned in the mid 1930’s, Lucin still has a few structures standing and, interestingly, the artificial lake that used to be the center of town is still there thriving with fish and algae and surrounded by tall, lush trees. It was a nice place to stop and take a break from the heat for the day. Those who were daring took a dip in the lake before everyone headed out again for the final night's camp.
The final campsite brought the Relic Run to another major piece of art called the Sun Tunnels. The Sun Tunnels are four massive concrete tubes aligned with the winter and summer solstice and ironically installed by the wife of Robert Smithson of Spiral Jetty fame, Nancy Holt.
As the Scout and Land Rover approached the turnoff for camp, the second most important thing in the desert ran out… gas. The Internationals already thirsty V8 ran itself dry with the added task of pulling a stricken vehicle for dozens of miles. Fortunately when you travel in large groups, there is always another vehicle around to help out. In this case one of the FJ40 Land Cruisers was on hand to tow not just one, but two vehicles into camp in what was one of the more interesting sites of the trip.
Due to the chronic shortage of fuel, not only in the Scout, it was decided that several vehicles should make a break for Wendover, Utah to fill up some jerry cans so everyone could finish out the trip under their own power. So the few with enough fuel struck out while those who remained took reprieve from the blazing sun inside the giant cement tubes.
Once everyone returned and the precious gas was distributed, everyone set up their vintage tents and cooked dinner on their antiquated stoves for the last time. Around the campfire that night discussions ranged from how fun it was to experience the backcountry in such a unique way to when and where the next Relic Run should take place.
The next morning dawned harsh on the desert floor and everyone quickly packed up their gear after breakfast. The caravan left the Sun Tunnels and hit the highway for the first time in nearly four days and headed into Wendover, effectively ending the Relic Run. Four days in the desert with only gear from the 1970's or earlier proved to be an exciting adventure and all involved pledged to make it to the next event, whenever or wherever it might be.