Sometimes finding a new place to explore involves nothing more tactical than looking at a map and wondering what a particular place looks like. Montello, Nevada has a rodeo grounds and two functioning bars, or at least according to the map it did. So why not confirm it?
Montello (pop. 216, and that sounds liberal) sits 23 miles northeast off I-80, on State Route 233, which continues seamlessly into Utah as its State Route 30. For decades Montello’s big industry was supplying the railroad, and that appears to still be the case. We sat captivated as a mile-long Union Pacific freight decoupled its twin engines, a process that took fewer minutes (about 12) and workers (2) than we would have guessed.
Montello’s another town that once you digest it, you have to either retrace your route to get back to civilization, or continue through harsh and unfamiliar territory. The latter strategy was still too tempting to pass up. The plan crystallized – continue into Utah, then take a 4×4 road to the historic ghost town of Lucin.
Lucin is noteworthy for a series of trestles known as the Lucin Cutoff – a work of engineering genius that enabled Southern Pacific trains to cross over Great Salt Lake rather than around it. Lucin, long dead, sits about 8 miles south of the lightly populated state route. The navigable if erratic dirt road continues south for 70 miles. Several working ranches dot the route, sandwiched between the staggering Pilot Mountains to the west and the edge of the seemingly infinite Bonneville Salt Flats to the east. It prompted one inveterate traveler to remark that she now understood what inspired Brigham Young when he declared “This is the place” and brought the early Mormons’ westward trek to an end.
The only signs of human life we encountered south of Lucin were 4 hunters riding ATVs, it being the opening day of Utah’s 2-week bull elk season. Pilot Mountain Road took us briefly back into Nevada, within the boundaries of a hunting unit in which a cognizant bull elk could remain safe from muzzleloader fire for another 8 days.
The road then curves southeast back into Utah, with a view into the panorama of the famed salt flats. Either you need to hold a yardstick in front of you while looking at them in order to detect the curvature of the Earth, or that’s just an urban (or rural) legend. Still, it’s as impressive as any barrier reef or glacier field.
Back on the interstate, and one more attraction to cross off the list. Metaphor: The Tree of Utah. A sculpture the height of a cell phone tower, consisting of a series of baseball-shaped polyps emanating from a trunk. Hard by the westbound lanes of I-80, it’s the only work of note from Swedish artist Karl Momen, who financed and built it in the early 1980s. He wouldn’t spring for a highway exit, so the tree’s plaque and its inscription sit unread by the thousands of travelers who speed by daily. Having already encountered one highway patrolman too many on this trip, we didn’t think it wise to double back and have “radiator trouble” by the sculpture. Instead we continued into Salt Lake, ready for metropolitan life once again.