Rediscovering the Old Spanish Trail - Now it's a Freeway
Traveling north on Interstate I-15, from Mesquite, Nevada, one must pass through the stark, but beautiful Virgin River Gorge. Although a highway traveler would find it hard to believe, the river at the bottom of that steep, narrow canyon is navigable some years by kayak during April and May. Because of the remoteness and difficulty of that transit, whitewater websites include stern warnings to enthusiasts contemplating such an attempt. As the early Mormon pioneers discovered downstream at Mesquite Flat, the large watershed that feeds the Virgin River can also create huge flash floods.
Although driving through the gorge feels quite seamless and sinuous, when it opened in 1973, this section of I-15 was among the most technically difficult to engineer and most expensive ever built. Because many motorists expect to navigate our interstate highways at well above the speed limit, I-15 through the Virgin River Gorge hosts many spectacular speed-related crashes. As we traveled up-canyon in April 2009, I-15 crossed the river gorge on seven separate bridges before we lost count. To us, it shall always be a “Seven Bridges Road”.
Forty miles north of Mesquite, beyond the head of the gorge, lays the City of St. George, Utah. St. George’s mesas and buttes contrast with the dunes and alluvial fans surrounding Mesquite.
In 1861, St. George, Utah began as a Mormon outpost. Elders of the Mormon Church feared that the Civil War might curtail their cotton trade with the Southern States. Because of that perceived issue, the Mormon Cotton Mission traveled south past the earlier Iron Mission at Cedar City, Utah which had suffered greatly from lack of permanent shelter during their first winter there. Known for their pluck, the pioneer founders of St. George named the area "Utah's Dixie”, a name still popular today. Although those early settlers managed to grow some cotton, it never became a commercially viable crop.
St. George is the county seat of Washington County, Utah, and is the principal city of Southeastern Utah. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, St. George had a population of 67,000 in 2006, up from 49,000 in 2000. From 1990 to 2000, St. George beat Las Vegas, Nevada as the fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S. This trend continued until the mortgage crisis and financial meltdown of 2008 put at least a temporary end to growth.
Most observers of Mesquite, Nevada would say that the city has overbuilt its housing supply in recent years. Unlike the near shutdown of development at Mesquite, St. George, UT continues adding to its excess housing stock. At both the south and the north ends of town, the dominant feature is “for rent”, “for sale”, “for lease” or “auction soon” signs. If there were enough jobs to go with this new housing, all would be well. According to a resident that we met at the RV Park in Mesquite, St. George has experienced recession and job losses similar to the rest of the country.
As we drove from one end of the city to the other, we were amazed to see that building of new planned community infrastructure continues. It seemed that the outskirts did not know that the core of the city was struggling. In town, empty condominiums lined the freeway. At one off ramp, several huge apartment buildings stood surrounded by weeds, silent, empty and unfinished.
When I stopped to take pictures north of town, we parked at one end of a large highway overpass. Standing at the west end of that bridge was a new community. To the east, construction workers were grading parkways into gentle arcs across barren land. If one takes a long economic view, this new infrastructure could make sense. When growth returns, St George will be ready. In the near term, other than keeping construction workers employed, these roads-to-nowhere were an economic mystery.
After allowing our disbelief to fade, we continued north to the junction of I-15 and I-70. At their western ends, both I-70 and I-40, farther south, end at I-15. In contrast, I-90, I-80 and I-10 each stretch from “coast to coast”. Facing widely spaced services and desert terrain, continued travel on the interstate highway system forces both I-70 and I-40 travelers south along what once was the Old Spanish Trail, towards Los Angeles, California.
Prehistoric animals such as the Mastodon utilized that route at various times during the Pleistocene. Members of the early Clovis Culture found the route and used it for transit in both directions. Scholars tell us that some languages found in the contemporary Indian cultures of the Four Corners region have their roots in the Ancient Maya Culture, far to the south. In the past two hundred years, American trappers and mountain men found the trail and used it. In the 1830s, the Old Spanish Trail became a formal, if multi-route commercial road. Later, the railroad and highways adopted a similar route.
During the past two hundred years, a look at the seemingly endless desert was enough to turn prudent travelers south toward Los Angeles. If early travelers tempted their fate in a trek west, a Great Basin of desert valleys, alternating with craggy mountain ranges greeted them along the way. Not until they could wend their way up and over the high mountain passes of California's Eastern Sierra Nevada mountains, could travelers expect help from settlers in the foothills on the west side. Two famous parties tried to take separate shortcuts west to California. Each lost members of their party, creating a warning for those who followed.
The Donner Party Route
Not listening to the Wisdom of the Ancients and traveling south, along the Old Spanish Trail, they split the geographical difference between the northern and southern routes. Not finding their hoped-for low pass across the Sierra Nevada, they “holed up” for the winter in the high desert. The following spring, when a rescue party arrived from Los Angeles, they finally departed their cold, dry winter home. Although stories about its naming abound, one legend has it, a woman from the party of Lost 49ers turned to look back at their place of peril and said, "Goodbye, Death Valley”. Regardless of who first named it, Death Valley is what we still call it today. Ironically, the survivors traveled overland to Los Angeles; the same city that they had earlier avoided as a waste of their precious time.
Today, you can travel by land across that section of the Great Basin, but it will be on secondary highways such as US Highways 6 or 50. In the 1950’s, when engineers began planning the interstate highway system, they heeded both history and the spiritual message of the Ancients. By the 1970’s, when the interstate highway system was completed, it left untouched a wide swath that stretched from Salt Lake City, Utah to Fresno, California. For reasons that would be apparent to the historical 49ers or Donners, US-50 bills itself as “The loneliest highway in America”.
After pondering that remnant of what was once called the Great American Desert, we headed east on I-70. For the next hundred and fifty miles, we enjoyed varied terrain, starting with mountain passes and ending with the barren flats past Green River, Utah. It is a beautiful drive, with unique landforms at many points along the way. If you travel that route, plan to stop often and take pictures. With so many unique geological features, some appear for only a few minutes at highway speeds. If you travel straight through, you will miss unique features of the land too numerous to recall.