alone in the city of rocks   12 comments

Posted at 9:23 am in being alone,Don,geology,history,loss,memory

road to City of Rocks, in Albion Mountains, near Almo, Idaho

Late afternoon on April 4th, and I’m making my way northward out of Utah. It’s the easter weekend. Just over the line into Idaho, I stop at a busy gas bar and find my van among cars and SUVs with out-of-state licence plates, crammed with parents and children on their way to or from family gatherings. I seem to be the only lone driver. The dogs peer through the van windows, puzzled by the frantic activity as people run back and forth between their cars at the pumps, and the convenience store where they are loading up on pop, chocolate bars and bags of chips. We depart and soon turn off the interstate, heading cross country to our destination – City of Rocks National Reserve in the Albion Mountains near Almo, Idaho.

campsite in the Smoky Mountain campground by City of Rocks

Arriving at the visitor center too late to speak with anyone about the campgrounds, I study the brochures and find my way to the Smoky Mountain campground set among the tree clad slopes at the entrance to City of Rocks. The signboard lists winter rates and informs that there is power at the sites, but the water won’t be turned on for a few more weeks. I drive up and cruise around, looking for a good site. There are several horse camping sites with the best shelter among the juniper on the high side of the campground. Apparently, I’m the only one crazy enough to be up on this snowy mountainside, so decide that no one will object if I choose a site with a corral.

I plug in the extension cord and set up the small heater fan which can occasionally be turned on to warm up the van if it gets too cold during the night. Surprisingly, my blackberry is able to send and receive email notes if I position it just right at a particular spot against a metal strip in the back window frame – a discovery which I made while camped at other more remote areas in northern Ontario. I send a message to my mom that the dogs and I have a nice campsite up in the mountains, and are comfortable, lying in our bed, listening to the first evening calls of a Great Horned Owl. I soon doze off and awake at some point during the night, feeling as though someone may have just driven by on the nearby lane. I check the time and then lie looking out the van window at the million dollar view of the valley and mountains beyond, wondering if I was dreaming, or if someone actually did drive by this lonely place at around 3 a.m. I’m pretty sure it was just one of the odd dreams I have when camped off on my own.

stone house ruins on road into City of Rocks

Just before dawn, I awake to the whispering of wind as snow flakes whirl through the juniper. I decide to get us on the move as I’m not sure of the weather. The clouds feel ominous and heavy with precipitation as they scrape over the mountains, trailing a broad veil of snow behind. I want enough time to visit City of Rocks before continuing northward and am not sure if the roads will begin to ice up. On this day, I’m not feeling much like getting stuck or sliding off the shoulder. I follow the roadway to the peculiar granite formations, but stop to photograph the stone ruins of an old house on the bend as the first formations loom into view. It feels particularly forlorn in this place – but that has more to do with my state of mind this morning.

snowy crags in a section of City of Rocks

I stop periodically to photograph the granite crags and monolithic boulders rising up out of the silvery sagebrush.

inscription on Camp Rock in City of Rocks

I’ve read enough about this place to know that there are inscriptions on the rocks – many made by those who traveled the California Trail by oxcart in the 1800s. City of Rocks lay at a point where those who traveled west either continued northwest on the Oregon Trail, or turned to the southwest and passed through City of Rocks to follow the California Trail. As many as 200,000 people passed through this region, stopping to camp by springs among the formations. Those who passed through this range sometimes left their mark on the granite, painting their names in tar or wheel grease. Perhaps this inscription on Camp Rock was made by one of these visitors long ago.

sketch and journal entry by J. Goldsborough Bruff in 1849

On an interpretive sign, I find this little sketchbook entry. For some reason, it speaks to me on this day – here in this snowy landscape surrounded by frozen granite that seems to sap every bit of warmth out of me. My hands are becoming increasingly numb as I fumble with the settings on my camera. J. Goldsborough Bruff wrote:

Night very cold, hardly slept, – on ground, – sick, took laudanum.


No sign yet of my train. Left card in sarcoph cave rock.

Bruff is, no doubt, referring to a cave beneath Sarcophus Rock which was used as a place for travelers to leave mail and messages. See this page for further information on messages and inscriptions.

the lone tracks of my van on the roadway back out of City of Rocks

After spending about an hour alone, listening to the sound of snow sifting between these great rocks, I turn the van around to follow my own tracks back out to the highway. There was plenty more driving to do before we would make that night’s destination in Montana. Before leaving, I altered my campsite receipt to mark the date – April 5th – Don’s 58th birthday. I hope that, in some form or another, his spirit was able to spend a little time at City of Rocks. I know he would have loved being there with us.

campsite receipt with birthday note to Don, April 5, 2010

Written by bev on April 16th, 2010