Travel

Green River, Part 2

(trust me, you really need to read Green River, Part 1 first)

Friday

We left Denver on Friday morning. Unfortunately, a million other people also wanted out of town for the long (Presidents’ Day) weekend, and traffic was the worst I can remember. It took about three hours just to get to Frisco, a distance of 80 miles. We picked up sandwiches for lunch there, and decided to just eat in the car since we still had another 275 miles to drive before supper.

I had found what looked to be a fun place to stay called the Skyfall Guestrooms. About three years ago, someone decided to build three hotel rooms downstairs from the Tamarisk Restaurant in Green River, Utah. Green River isn’t a big town, especially in the winter months. In the summer, there’s lots of tourism from river rafters and the nearby canyon country, and a famous watermelon farming business. But in the winter, it’s mainly just a town where people stop on their way through from California to Colorado. But Skyfall was cool way beyond what you’d expect for a truck stop town. Each of the three rooms has an artistic mural representing some nearby site. We got the Goblin Valley room, #2. The other two were for Crystal Geyser and for the Book Cliffs.

The Goblin Valley Room

I’d read how this was the nicest place to stay in town (an easy feat) but I still was impressed. If I ever remodel my condo, I want the interior designer responsible for the Skyfall Guestrooms to plan it. It was artistic, modern, efficient, just industrial enough, and comfortable. Anyhow, once we arrived, we checked in and then settled into our room.

Then we went up to the Tamarisk Restaurant for dinner, and I was impressed with the menu and the food, too, also something I didn’t expect for Green River.

Saturday

The next morning, we got up and had breakfast, again at the Tamarisk Restaurant. Oh, I just realized I forgot to tell you about one of the best things about the Skyfall Guestrooms. When you stay there, you get free breakfast at the restaurant. But it’s not like “Free Breakfast” at most hotels, where you help yourself to cold cereal and a bagel and some reconstituted scrambled eggs. Here, you can order anything off the regular breakfast menu, including drinks and extras. So I got a yummy omelet and Brooke had French Toast. They didn’t have a way to make a mocha latte, so she got a cup of hot chocolate and a cup of coffee and then just mixed them.

Anyhow after our overly-filling breakfast, the museum had opened and it was time to visit. It’s just across the main street, so we walked in the cold wind. Really cold.

Me outside the John Wesley Powell museum

The visit to the museum started with a 20-ish minute video on John Wesley Powell’s first expedition down the Green and Colorado rivers. For those who haven’t read his book, the video was a good introduction to the topic. Of course I read his book a couple decades ago, and used to own it until The Great Downsizing of 2011.

Then we spent about an hour in the main part of the museum, learning about the Colorado River plateau, Powell’s two expeditions, other (non-Native) people who explored various other parts of the river system, the history and pre-history of the region, modern issues related to the river, and so on. There’s a lot to see there, including a few full size models of different types of boats early explorers used on the river before they eventually developed boats specifically for several-month journeys on whitewater rivers.

Once we got through the main part of the exhibit, we wandered through the temporary exhibit that was the main point of the trip: Glen Canyon: A River Guide Remembers. We spent another hour there, looking through some of Ken Sleight’s 60-years-old rafting gear and photos, and listening to interviews with people about their early experiences rafting Glen Canyon. Here is the museum’s excerpt describing the exhibit:

About the exhibit:

Iconic Utah outfitter Ken Sleight began his river-guiding career in Glen Canyon during the mid-1950s, just as the Glen Canyon Dam blueprints jumped from the drawing board to remote desert terrain. The pulse of the Colorado River through the canyon would soon be halted by a cement wall and Glen Canyon backfilled with water. Ken knew the condition of the canyon was terminal. He used every ray of daylight to memorize every detail of the canyon before inundation: to learn its 125 side canyons, to observe Native American ruins and mining relics, and to immerse himself in the lives of seminal guides who preceded him like Dave Rust, Bert Loper, and Moki Mac.

Now 88 years old, Ken and a team of Glen Canyon curators open the archives to create a museum exhibit: Glen Canyon: A River Guide Remembers. With historic landscape photographs, First American artifacts, boats and other gear, passenger portraits and journals, guides’ handwritten-packing lists, and more, this is an exhibit as simple, gritty, and rich as a trip through Glen Canyon with Ken. Within the walls of the John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, Utah in 2018, Glen Canyon lives again.

It was pretty somber, as it always is, hearing people talk about how beautiful Glen Canyon was before it was flooded to make Lake Powell. I’ve wished for years that I could somehow go back in time to see it. Or go forward to a time after the reservoir is gone and the canyon is restored to its natural state.

A little depressed, we went to get some lunch at a weird Mexican restaurant. It was a gas station that had gone out of business, and the new owners parked two food trucks in front where the gas pumps used to be. So you order outside and they make your food in the trucks, then you go inside to eat on one of the tables scattered around the old gas station. I ordered a plate of tacos and a Mexican Coca-Cola, both of which I shared with Brooke.

After that, we wandered around the city park, and saw the world’s largest watermelon slice and a big model of a Cold War rocket.

Brooke modeling next to the world’s largest watermelon slice
The missile and me

Why is there a rocket in the town park of Green River? Well, it turns out that back in the 60s, the government built an extension of the White Sands Missile Range way up near Green River. And they used to test launch these rockets from the facility they built south of town.

Wait, what? Yes, there was a missile test range in the 60s where they’d launch these rockets up and over Canyonlands, across southwestern Colorado (one went off-course and crash landed near Creede, I learned), to land in the desert of southern New Mexico at the White Sands Missile Range. Given my recurring dreams about a secret aircraft test facility near Moab, this was pretty weird news for me to learn. Was it just a coincidence? Did I hear something about the missile test range back in the 80s that I later consciously forgot but that my subconscious kept generating dreams from? I have no idea. Anyhow, the Green River launch facility was decommissioned in the 80s, and all that exists there now are remains of abandoned buildings, and a big pile of radioactive debris covered in black sand and surrounded by a fence.

Apparently I’m not the only one who thinks there’s something sci-fi about this missile test center. Google Maps labels the road leading to it the “New Area 51 Rd”. I don’t know if that’s what it’s officially called, but that’s what it’s called according to Google! Also, we saw some graffiti on the back of a billboard at the edge of the old base that said mysteriously “WE WERE ONCE HUMAN”.

There’s another weird thing in Green River. It’s a huge piece of art that is a representation of the Fibonacci sequence.

Then, it was time to leave town. I plotted a course for the Crystal Geyser, a geologic feature that’s also a bit strange. Growing up Wyoming, I loved visiting Yellowstone. Geysers and steam vents and mud pots were so cool to me as a boy. Well, unlike the geysers in Yellowstone, the geyser near Green River isn’t powered by magma in the earth heating up water that rises to the surface and then explodes out. Apparently, there’s a pocket of carbonated water near the Green River south of town, and when someone was drilling for oil in the 1930’s, they hit it.

So, excited to see a rare cold water geyser, I drove us out to the site, which is only a few miles down a gravel road from town. We waited a while, and went for a walk along an old road. And just when we came back, there was water spurting up about three feet from the ground. I assumed this was the beginning phase of the full geyser plume, but that’s all it did, and then over the next few minutes it spewed even less water up. We walked around the travertine formations, which reminded me of the ones in Yellowstone, but the geyser never did shoot up like you’d expect a geyser to do.

This is the pipe that created Crystal Geyser
Travertine next to the Green River
I love the patterns in the travertine

That night, back at the hotel, I dug deeper into the story of Crystal Geyser and learned that it stopped really erupting sometime between 2012 and 2014. Over the years, people started throwing stones into the pipe from this well until they finally plugged up the plumbing. Now, instead of erupting up thirty to a hundred feet in the air, the water just bubbles to the surface once in a while. Sadly, if you just read about Crystal Geyser in travel brochures and articles, almost none of them mention this. They talk about it as if it’s still a geyser in the present day. But it’s not. Here’s a local news report about the death of the geyser.

Once we gave up on the geyser actually erupting up in the air, we left the area of the Green River Launch Complex (via New Area 51 Road, of course) and headed for the San Rafael Reef.

We stopped at a few view points on both sides of the reef, but it was getting colder and windy, so we didn’t do any hiking. Plus, we were running out of daylight.

San Rafael Reef looking east, with the Book Cliffs and moon in the background

We got back to Green River right about supper time and ate once again at the Tamarisk Restaurant. And once again, it was good food.

(continued in Green River, Part 3)