It’s an abnormally hot date for late May, and I find myself in the Vernal, Utah Bureau of Land Management (BLM) office asking the guy working the desk for a map of the Book Cliffs area. He responds with a thick southern accent, “Well why would you want a map of that area, nobody goes up there!” I explain to him that my friend and I are biking from Vernal to the Book Cliffs via Route 88. He asks, “Well is your friend a girl too?” and I apprehensively respond, “Yeah,” unsure why this man needs to know our genders before giving me a map. He says, “Well I don’t think you should go up there alone, the only people up there are men working the rigs and druggies. You don’t want to run into either of those kinds of people. And anyways there is really nothing up that way, you should take a different route.” I tell him we will not be taking a different route and he replies, “Well then I hope you have a gun.” I laugh, a gut reaction I regret immediately. He says, “I’m not joking.”
The next day, my friend Brooke and I peddle up Route 88 towards nowhere, without a gun.
Most people miss Route 88 on the drive from Salt Lake City on their way to Dinosaur National Monument. From a map the road appears to be a 70-mile dead end. It’s eerily well maintained for a road to nowhere, a magnificent piece of pavement. Google Maps doesn’t show what's beneath the ground, but about 10 miles down 88 we pass countless oil rigs bobbing up and down almost silently and with precise rhythm. I begin peddling to that rhythm as we climb. It seems the primary goal of the road is to get oil workers to their rigs. And here we are, biking on a road meant for cars to get oil so that other cars could drive on roads that go somewhere.
What I hadn’t told the man at the BLM office was that we were headed towards P.R. Spring. The last mile of pavement on Route 88 before it turns to dirt. The site of the first U.S. tar sands operation. A place we were meeting friends.
In 2012 the BLM conducted an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for what they call “Special Tar Sands Areas.” These “special areas” have sand that, if squeezed hard enough, produce drops of oil.
An EIS is a long, tedious document. Many factors funnel through bureaucratic organization and categorization into hundreds of pages that somehow quantify a landscape. One of the factors considered is an area's “scenic value.” And while careers have been dedicated to the winding and fleeting journey of describing the natural beauty of a desert, the EIS offers a different approach. If you ask the federal government, there are four categories of beautiful, and the land better hope it counts as “Class I.” But Class I is reserved for the classics, San Rafael Swell for example, is considered to be of scenic value for the BLM. It’s steep canyon walls, and small desert rivers make it beautiful.
P.R. Spring however, is not beautiful. The BLM bestowed a Class IV Scenic Value to the area. And Class IV is bad news for a landscape. Class IV means P.R. Spring is open for business. And business came in the form of U.S. Oil Sands—an ironic name for a Canadian company from Alberta where they learned firsthand how tar sands mining can turn low scenic value into a horrifying, unclassifiable pit.
Before visiting the Vernal BLM office, we biked in areas considered Class I Scenic Value. As I bike on Route 88, the magnificent coniferous forests of the Uinta Mountain Range, with fresh water rivers and cold, bug-less air haunts my mind. Every time I turn around to check for cars, I catch a glimpse of the snow topped peaks I’m leaving in the distance. Straight ahead is dry, beige ground dotted in small sage brush. Behind me is green, fresh air, bubbling water. At some point, as is bound to happen when you bike as slowly as an oil rig turns, I find myself completely alone. I begin to cry. I want to bike the other way.
The place is harsh, short hills of sand and brush. The smell, like none I have encountered before, is so putrid it is difficult to breathe. In the days to come, our friend Kate would note that to a vulture the smell of a rotting animal is that of a house filled with the warm inhale of baking cookies. But I am not a vulture, so the smell of a half rotted wild horse on the side of the road, covered in flies, is overwhelmingly awful.
Eventually Brooke and I turn with a bend in the road and come across a pasture next to the Green River on the Uintah and Ouray Ute Reservation. The field is spotted with cows and horses. There are no fences. As we bike closer, the horses on the road stand taller, huffing, stomping and trotting in front of their young. We laugh nervously as the tension builds. When we get closer, the horses stomp but then run off towards the grass. Over one hundred horses surround us.
Biking is slow. It’s slower than a car, and certainly slower than a plane. But it’s not just the speed. Your body is outside with the vehicle. You are forced to notice the rise and fall of land. You are forced to sweat up the hills and smile as you speed down them. The bugs, and rain, and heat ride along with you. The speed of travel allows you to notice as sage turns to juniper turns to aspen. You are afforded a 360-degree view of the land. There are no blind spots. If you drive Route 88, you probably don’t notice when the sage grows denser and the juniper grows taller as the temperature decreases degree by degree. You probably don’t start crying at the beginning of the road as you see the Uinta Mountains in your rear view mirror. But without the experience of crying, you also can’t stop crying when you begin to look forward to the view from the hill that rises ahead.
As I peddle to the rhythm of oil rigs, on Route 88, with no gun, headed towards the last mile on a road to nowhere, I conduct my own assessment of the scenic value of this land. At mile 69, it feels as though I have reached the heavens. The road ends with a hill, as all good rides do. So when I reach the top, out of breath and sweating, the view takes the last of my breath away. To the west, I see the La Sal Mountains peek out of red rock. To the east, I see the Uintas I cried for miles back. And right there, wrapped in fence and signs that say this land is not yours, I see the tar sands mine. I wish I could say that the mine destroys the scenic value of this place, I wish I could say that it ruined P.R. Spring. But opening up the land to create a horrifying pit can’t diminish its undeniable, categorical beauty.
As the sun sets, we descend into aspen groves lining a dirt road. Two familiar faces smile and yell from a passing old pick-up truck, “See you soon!” Ten minutes later, we pull up to our friends preparing a meal. I blast “If I Had a Hammer” from our small speaker and everyone starts singing.
The people that wrote the EIS that rated P.R. Spring as low-class scenic value have never biked there. They have never been in fear among wild horses, cried desperately dreaming of forest streams wishing they were anywhere else, stood on top of the world spinning with views of the La Sals and Uintas all at once, sang songs about the place with people they love.
Kailey Kornhauser is currently a PhD student in Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University where she studies collaborative forest management. Prior to her recent move to Oregon, she earned a Masters of Science in Environmental Humanities from the University of Utah in 2017 and a BA from Westminster College in History in 2015. She is currently a long distance member of Wasatch Rising Tide. When she isn't in school, Kailey enjoys riding her bike long distances very slowly.