We missed out on the Poison Road, but the Hogsback made up for it.
“England and America are two nations separated by a common language.” – George Bernard Shaw (attrib.)
You can add Australia to that, and make it three nations. How was I to know that the word ‘summit’, which indicates the top of a mountain where I come from, can mean ‘the highest point along a road’ to our American cousins?
Had I known the American definition when I consulted my map in the bar in Torrey, Utah with the temperature dropping visibly outside and snow threatening from lowering clouds, I might have chosen a different route. As it was, I assumed that the notation ‘Summit 9400ft’ referred to the nearby Lion Mountain and not Utah Scenic Byway 12.
Nearly three kilometres up and enveloped by steadily falling snow, I discovered my mistake. Fortunately my riding companions didn’t hold my misapprehension against me; for Australians, riding through snow is more a novelty than an imposition. And despite the fact that the ride up into Dixie National Forest had been a blast so far, we were still looking forward to the best part of Utah 12: the Hogsback. This is much of the reason why Utah 12 is not only a Scenic Byway but one of the much rarer All-American Roads.
A little history here. Until the 1930s, Boulder, a town just a little way along from our trial by snow, was the last settlement in the United States to get its supplies by muleback. In 1933, when Franklin Delano Roosevelt launched the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), the good folk of Boulder and Escalante, further south and the starting point for the mules, petitioned the President for a road to link the two settlements. They got two, both of which exist to this day.
The first to be finished was FR 153, which is now known as the Devil’s Backbone Road. It pretty much follows the contours, which requires less earthworks and other engineering work, although it includes a wonderful bridge over Sand Creek and Death Hollow. Its 60 kilometres run through the Grand Staircase, and it earned the soubriquet The Poison Road from the workers, who were all too conscious of the steep drops it navigated.
But that was nothing to the other road, now Utah 12. Built presumably because FR 135 was still not passable all year round – its gravel surface is closed in winter to this day – it took a lot more engineering work. Some of it is standard road construction, with cuttings to even out the height variations. But some of the engineering is far more adventurous.
The chosen route ran over huge outcrops of Desert Slickrock. I haven’t been able to find out exactly how the CCC engineers dealt with this, but the road looks as if they just dumped a kind of dyke of soil and rock on top of the slickrock, a little wider than the road. When that reached the height they needed for the road surface, they just tarred the top and painted on some lines. The result is a road that seems to balance precariously on top of a long, high and steep mound of rubble with no runoff – indeed, with no room of any kind on either side of the tar. Leave the road and you’d be well advised to say your prayers on the way down into one of the rough, dry gulches.
This is the Hogsback, an apt description if I ever saw one. How did the CCC get the rubble to stick on top of the appropriately-named slickrock? Perhaps I’d rather not know.
At any rate, it’s wonderful how the lack of runoff or protective fencing concentrates the mind when you’re traversing the Hogsback. Here’s hoping you don’t get a flat tyre. The road continues to be exciting on the way to Escalante, although it doesn’t offer another experience like that.
Escalante is not exactly a one-horse town and I’m sure it still has its share of mules, but it does have fewer than a thousand inhabitants. With that in mind, we were pleasantly surprised by the Cowboy Blues Restaurant (since renamed the Devil’s Garden Grill, I think) which not only offered excellent food – my locally-caught smoked trout was excellent – but did it in a pleasantly relaxed atmosphere with reasonable prices. The beer, as advertised, was cold and the service was efficient while remaining relaxed in line with the atmosphere.
And you know, we didn’t find ourselves separated by our common language at all.