Field Notes: House Range
I learned to drive dirt roads by watching my father. I can see him now: a knee propped against the steering wheel of the old Mazda truck, one of my mom’s granola-esque chocolate chip cookies in his hand, as he bangs a Bonnie Raitt cassette tape against his knee in a vain attempt to revive it. He'd throw the truck's polished gray gearshift in 4L and roll down the windows, a smile on his face as red dust settled in a thin layer on the dashboard. Regardless of washout or potholes or total absence of roadway, he drove with an almost religious conviction— can the truck make it? Sure it can.
As a kid, I’d sit in the passenger seat during his field work trips to Nevada, and I remember watching him open beers on the lock mechanism of the driver’s side door, parked in the middle of a dusty two-track with no asphalt for miles. I would sit on the cool red metal of the tailgate and he would fix me sandwiches, ham and swiss and mayo on little crusty rolls. This was back when he still shot film, and in the cooler next to the eggs and the salsa, I’d find ziplock bags of film canisters, the little green FujiFilm logo blinking up from each round gray cap.
Years later, my father remains a ever-expanding human guidebook to the dirt roads of the American West. This weekend, at a loss for where to go, I call him— Dad, it’s too snowy in the Uintas and too hot down South, whaddya think? And this time, like every time, he pauses for a second. “Well, let me see,” he says into the phone, and I can almost hear him shuffling through his mental rolodex, topo maps and roadside camps from thirty years ago or more.
He recommends the House Range, three or so hours southwest of Salt Lake, and I can hear the smile in his voice as he tells me where to find John Hart's Hiking the Great Basin on his bookshelf. “It’s a great guidebook,” he says, almost wistful; I’m sure he hasn’t looked at in years, but the man remembers a good read.
I turn off the freeway in the middle of nowhere, and rally my Subaru down a few miles of pitted dirt road. A bright sunburn warms my arm as it dangles out the window, slowly baking in the fierce desert sunshine. Today, I hike the narrows. Hell N’ Maria Kitchen, a ridiculous name, surely the product of countless misspeaks and misinterpretations. Why is it a kitchen? Is it Hellen, or Helling, or Hell and? I park when the road ends, and start walking. A mile or so down the trail, I pause in the shadow of a huge juniper tree, its branches curved over me like cavern walls, and suck warm water through the plastic tube dangling from my backpack.
In the canyon I pass cougar scat, and I imagine myself waving a trekking pole and screaming incoherently at some colossal cat stalking me from around the bend. The cliffs narrow down around me and the walls reach skyward, closing up and in until I can reach out and touch the cool limestone with my palm. It's the texture of glass, a rock aquatic in origin, the substrate of ancient seas. Running my fingers along the smooth ridges and huecos, I imagine saltwater and smooth undulating sea grass, the bubble of fish and the scuttle of crustaceans. There hasn’t been water in this canyon for months— there hasn’t been an ocean in this canyon for centuries.
The drop-offs are friendly, narrow and stair-stepped, easy to descend. I turn a corner and a flock of tiny gossamer-winged insects, almost invisible but for the way they catch the light, startle and drift down canyon. I pass a sheep carcass, desiccated and fading, and wonder how it got here. Bleached, chalky bones— a fibula, a scapula, a jaw— are scattered above and below the body’s resting place, wedged into a squeeze between the canyon walls.
In the deep shade at the end of the narrows, I squint skyward into a patch of sunlight, press a palm against the rock like I’m holding hands with a friend. It doesn’t feel like hell, or a kitchen. It seems strange to find a narrows here.
Back at the trailhead I make camp, pitch my tent below another fat, happy juniper, and fix dinner under the open hatch of my Forester. I drink beer from a glass bottle and the wind blows across the rim to whistle at me, tentative and low. The gnats thicken as the sun sinks into Sawtooth Canyon, and they nag me as I sit on the lid of the cooler and stare into the middle distance and eat. I tidy up and retreat to the mesh forcefield of my tent. I read borrowed books on wilderness until the daylight fades into a deep, sweet blue.
The next morning, hiking towards Notch Peak, I pause now and then to check my trajectory, flipping through the soft, fading pages of Hart’s guidebook. I can see why my Dad loves this guidebook so much— it’s literary, friendly, and written in studious avoidance of mileage and GPS coordinates. I crest the ridge and gaze out at 2,700 foot limestone cliffs, blasting skyward from the deep void of the valley below, and the yellow sweep of Tule Basin. Hart said it best: “The word cliff is one that has suffered a certain devaluation. Writers about scenery, myself included, use it a little freely to label any very steep, wall-like drop in the land. But here, under Notch Peak, are cliffs in truth, cliffs that are perfect, cliffs without qualification.”
Above me on the summit, I know there is an ammo can and a summit register, probably a collection of worn-down nubbins of pencil, a few non-functioning ballpoint pens, dust and rocks and a petrified candy bar. I know that in the summit register, in the 1990s, when Hart hiked this peak and wrote this small, thick book, the summit register contained the following “curious” entries: “first, a spurious report of a climb of the north face, to which the names Yvon Chouinard and Royal Robbins have been signed; and a note, apparently genuine, about a hang-glider flight. In June 1979, two Nevada hang-glider pilots toted their gear to the peak and leaped off the face to land in the Tule Valley. ‘Are very scared,’ they wrote in the book.”
I look up at the serpentine trail from my perch on the false summit, watch a party of four men carrying backpacks in military tan drift slowly towards the top. I eat a peanut butter sandwich, re-read this section of Hart’s guidebook, and take a few pictures. I lay back on the smooth fractured rock and look up at the deep blue sky, like staring at the distant surface of the water while lying on the ocean floor. I snap off part of a chocolate bar and let it melt on my tongue, I feel the wind cooling the sweat on my back to an icy slick, and then I shoulder my pack and turn downhill. I have seen enough of Notch Peak, for today. The true summit is for another time.
I don’t know if that spurious report from Chouinard and Robbins is still up there on the summit, pencilled onto unlined paper by a thick, dusty fingers some untold number of years ago. But I’d like to know. So here’s your assignment: drive the dirt roads. Hike Notch Peak. Bring John Hart’s guidebook, if you can. Squint out across the deep, hazy expanse of the Great Basin. Eat a sandwich. Walk to the summit, and read the register. And when you come back, tell me what you saw.
Worth noting: your turnoff from the paved road, on your way to the trailhead, should be based on your odometer and not the highway mileposts— they have changed since these directions were written, and will only confuse you. Hart’s guidebook frequently tells you to “follow your nose” as you meander your way towards the trailhead, which sounds ridiculous but is actually excellent advice. If you’re not in the mood to follow your nose, you can find the GPS coordinates for the Notch Peak Trailhead here. And of course, keep in mind that you’re in the middle of goddamn nowhere. Fill up your gas tank before leaving Delta, make sure you have plenty of water with you, and let someone know where you’ve gone and when you’ll be back.
As you approach the Notch Peak summit, it can be easy to get disoriented— between the actual summit, the false summit, the twin saddles (identical from below) and the visible cliffs to the northwest, nearly everything looks like a possible overlook, and the path isn’t immediately clear. To keep yourself pointed in the right direction, locate the long, gradually ascending face to your left, the one with distinctive white striations paralleling the summit: that’s Notch Peak. Keep it on your left (and the next peak over, the false summit, on your right) as you ascend the hike’s final bowl.
To find Hell N’Maria Kitchen, simply hike the obvious road to the south from the Notch Peak parking lot. It’s a little shy of four miles roundtrip.
Want to make it an overnight? I arrived on Saturday, hiked Hell N' Maria Kitchen in the afternoon, camped at the trailhead, and ticked Notch Peak the following day. There's plenty more wilderness to explore nearby, too— Sawyer Peak and Howell Peak are both possible summits, and there's adventurous sport and trad climbing on the Tule Valley side of the range, and across the highway in Ibex.
Car Camping Meal Planning for Culinary Rockstars
One of the magical things about car camping is that you can eat, truly, whatever you want— many a delicious meal has been produced by a well-stocked cooler and a Coleman stove, especially since all foods are scientifically proven to be 75% more delicious when eaten outdoors. While it’s totally possible to make something awesome from scratch when you’re car-camping, I prefer to do most of my meal prep at home, which limits the amount of chopping I have to do while bent over the dusty back hatch of my Subaru Forester. Here’s a basic, highly modifiable recipe for what I like to call Fancy Pasta. What makes it fancy, you ask? Force of will.
One serving of spaghetti
Pesto (I make it at home in the blender, and store it in the freezer.)
Pre-cooked veggies (Roasted beets! Roasted cauliflower! Whatever leftovers you had in the fridge the night before you left!)
Veggies you’re happy to eat raw (I like red pepper or zucchini)
Salty meat product, if you’re into that kind of thing (Salami, prosciutto, pepperoni...)
Boil and drain your pasta. While the pasta is cooking, chop up your veggie add-ins, and go ahead and open yourself a beer if you haven’t already. Add the pesto and raw veggies while the pot is still hot, give it a stir, and grate in some cheese so it has a chance to melt. Try not to let the whine of gnats distract you from what is becoming, no question, an incredibly beautiful evening. Add your chopped up veggies, salami or prosciutto, and some extra cheese.
And now, arguably the most important step: don’t eat out of the pot with a spork, like a backpacking savage. This is car camping, after all. Use a plate. Use a metal fork. And feel like the luxurious backcountry chef/restaurant patron/culinary rockstar you are.