A Drive Through the West

Impressions of Salt Lake City, Yellowstone & Wyoming

These are some personal impressions of a tour of N America in an assignment for RTZ, visiting their mines, operations and offices across the continent. I am most grateful for the opportunity to see so much.

Salt Lake City

Salt Lake City is in a beautiful setting. To the North is the lake (40-50 miles long), which is very salty, almost that of the dead sea. They say that, instead of a life jacket, your should strap weights to your feet to keep you upright. Around the lake are mountains rising 4,000 – 5,000 feet to snow capped peaks. The valley is completely enclosed, so the water level in the lake depends on a balance of rainfall (very little) and evaporation. Over the years its level varies quite a bit, and there are pictures of beach palaces with water up around the first floor. Some of the mountains around look as if they have beaches half way up, from the water levels of 10,000s of years ago.

The city itself seems like most Western US cities, rigidly laid out with N S Streets and E W Avenues. All very spread out, and going on for ages.

The modern city has some classic and fine American architecture.

But, in the suburbs, the overhead infrastructure can look clumsy and ugly.

In the city centre there is the Mormon Temple Complex, with a temple (closed to all but Mormons) and a Tabernacle, where you can hear the choir practising every evening. Apparently they have their own national radio show, and their church singing is renowned. 

 Some background to the Mormons

The Prophet Joseph Smith received his vision in about 1820, and wrote a book - claimed to be a translation from ancient writings of American (pre-Inca) prophets (in particular the prophet Mormon) – the Book of Mormon. The official title is The Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints. The vision is to restore Zion to the current age. While basically Christian, (and generally sober – no alcohol, tobacco, gambling or caffeine) other key beliefs seem to be primarily family centred. In principle a marriage in an LDS Temple is for eternity (although divorce can happen), and only Temple marriages are approved. This, of course, causes a problem for all those who married before Joseph Smith, and who could not possibly have come to the true faith. So it is the habit of Mormons to track down their ancestors, and arrange a marriage by proxy – they call it sealing. 

Such marriages need the names and possibly some other details. So as to facilitate those who convert to LDS (Latter-Day Saints) to protect their ancestors, the Church collects records: births, deaths (purported marriages) and any other records which may help these people identify their ancestors and seal their marriages. Many of the records are on computer and are open for anybody to try. I did not rate the systems, as it found a whole host of Hirst’s, none of which matched the criteria I put in. I did not ask for further help, but there were people there very willing to offer it. I have not yet looked up their web site.

Joseph gathered around him a set of fellow believers – the Latter-Day Saints, and formed a significant community around them all. They travelled to look for a place where they could found Zion, and chose initially Independence (Missouri?). But their strong community was exclusive, and made enemies. Joseph Smith and some of his closest aids were assassinated. I understand that a state law allowing the killing of Mormons existed for many years. So the LDS set to and organised a major migration to the West. It took them many months, what with selling up and buying oxcarts and other supplies. The journey was reasonably understood and was know to be harsh. In one of the big migrations, they came across the Great Salt Lake, and Brigham Young (son? brother? Saint?) decided that this was a good spot for Zion, and founded the city. I can understand the attraction of the setting.

The city streets were all broad enough to turn a team of 8 oxen, and the plots were large, often irrigated for vegetables, and with the Temple at the centre. The Temple has to be used for marriages, and, although other temples exist, for many Mormons, the closer one is to The Temple, the better. Now, I am told, some 70% of Utah is Mormon, although others put the figure nearer 30%. I enquired, and was told that there is a choice about the celestial garment that Mormons often choose to wear under other clothes as a mark of their religion. It can be one piece or two, and is made of ordinary cotton or other similar materials.

There were many other Mormon migrations and settlements, Bountiful, Brigham, and many faced great hardship during the early years. They were critically dependent upon their first harvest, and probably did not well understand how best to grow in such an arid environment, alien to the seeds they brought. It is said that their first crops were being ravished by crickets, which they had no means of controlling, when the seagulls, who normally live on the brine shrimp of the lake, descended on the land, and ate all the bugs, leaving enough crops for survival. Landlocked Utah's national bird, in places treated with reverence, is the seagull.  Part of the Temple complex is a statue / memorial to the Seagull, and the whole complex is immaculate, largely in granite.

There was a time in Mormon history when polygamy was sanctioned, although this has not been true for 120 odd years. It may originally have been a sensible social policy to enable communities (with perhaps an imbalance in the relative numbers of each sex), to work together effectively against the sort of tribulations that a pioneer society can face. That, at least, is the argument put to me. Some churches in small isolated communities who claim to be Mormon are still liable to sanction it, but the official church now forbids the practice to its members, and the civil law is clear and enforced.

Mining in Utah

The Great Salt Lake had been a significant barrier to Westward migration, as the land is almost desert, and the lake shore was salt marshes with little fresh water or grazing. But shortly after the founding of Salt Lake City, the Gold Rush (the ’49) began, and it became a route to California for the ‘49ers. To protect them from the Mormons, the government sent in a garrison of troops, who actually had little to do, as the Mormons do not appear to be an aggressive bunch. So they did two things: fought the Mexicans, who had been the owners of the land until it was ceded to the US about then (some people say earlier), and set about prospecting the mountains. Where they found ores.

The early miners extracted by tunnelling, perhaps like Cornwall. But the ore’s were not rich, and few mines survived.

Then about 1905, a mining engineer decided that large scale processing of the low grade ores could be profitable, and bought up earth moving equipment that had been used to build the Panama Canal. He built a mill (to grind up the ore), and used a floatation process to concentrate the ore. He built a smelter (eventually with a huge chimney of 1215 feet – about as tall as the peak in HK). It was he who started the removal of the mountain that is now the biggest hole in the world. Around 1,000 feet deep. and miles across. And still digging. It was this that brought me here, and I saw several tons of the refined copper taken from the 120,000 odd tons of mountain removed every day.

Tetons & Yellowstone

My journey from Salt Lake City was North, beside the lake, and to start with the road was very busy. There were suburbs up the slopes towards the mountains.


I then turned East, and climbed out of the valley (or rather the truck did – I took an upgrade and got a 4 wheel drive Trooper). Over a pass, and then a superb view of Bear Lake, with mountains beyond.

This is a freshwater lake, and is a holiday place, with lots of holiday homes and plots. I stayed in a hotel by the lake, where there was a marina and lovely views of distant mountains.

Going on, I passed through lands settled by the Mormons (and a few English), and started up Star Valley, where I saw deer. And climbed again, with snow at the top. Absolutely magnificent views of mountains and trees. Much of the road followed the Snake River, with rapids and even some canoes coming down. I saw an eagle capture prey and climb out of the valley with it.

Jackson is the town S of Yellowstone, and is tourist oriented. Lots of Wild West type of building fronts, and "The Largest Elk Horn Arch in the World".

North towards the Tetons, a high mountain range still firmly covered in snow. There is an elk refuge here, for the elk in the winter. The land in the valley (Jackson Hole) was mostly sage bushes, and it looked cold. Continuing North, up the Snake River Valley, one comes to Yellowstone, which is a huge caldera – a hole caused by the top of a big mountain being blown up by the volcanic activity underneath. In winter, it is a forbidding place, with snows 60 feet deep, high mountains, frozen lakes and trees. There are bears, and, although they tend to sleep in the winter, they can be dangerous. Also wolves, although I did not hear one. The road had only been officially opened after the winter the week before, and the country was still covered in deep snow. There was even snow in the tops of the trees.

I was a bit shocked by the number of dead trees, both standing and fallen, there were whole mountains covered by them. It may have been the fire of a few years ago, or more recently, and there were other parts where it was more as one would expect.

Old Faithful

I headed for Old Faithful, the tourist site named after the geyser. So called by those who discovered it, because it was so reliable in geysing every 34 minutes. In practice, it is longer than this, and the timing can be + or – 10 minutes. But Old Faithful is only one of hundreds of geysers and hot springs. There had been mythical stories about a place where you could hook a fish in the river, pull it over to a hot spring, and then pull it out fully cooked a few minutes later, and such places really do exist. One of the hot springs was under the surface of the river.

By the lake, there is a hot spring known as Fisherman’s Pot, because when you caught a fish, you could drop it in the pot still on the line, and again pull it out cooked. This is said to be illegal now, but I am not sure why. Perhaps the fish pollute the hot spring. Perhaps it is considered cruel. I took lots of pictures, and they seem to have come out quite well. I saw a herd of Bison or Buffalo.

I got what they said was the last free room in The Old Faithful Inn, a huge building, all made of tree trunks. It has a great big lobby with space going up to a roof with a viewing platform. But the viewing platform was closed, and the structure was said to have been weakened by a big earthquake a few years ago. A remarkable hotel, it is shut in the Winter, and nobody is allowed to live in the park all year round. Most of the people who serve are students who come for the spring and summer.

I was not alone in Old Faithful. There were many others there, and through the Summer it keeps busy, day in and day out.

From Old Faithful, I drove East, passed the big lake, which was still partially covered in ice, and up over the edge of the caldera. Again deep snow, and some lakes still frozen and snowy. Then down and out of the park. At one point the road was full of cars all stopped on and off the road. It looked like an accident, but it was two bears, wandering across the road, quite unconcerned about being photographed by everybody who had stopped. I got a picture.

Bears in Yellowstone used to be a problem, and would raid the food stores of people camping, and the “trash heaps” left behind. So it was dangerous to sleep in a tent, as the bears would tear them open looking for food. About 100 people were injured every year by bears. But they have now made all the dustbins bear proof (they have heavy steel lids), have stopped tipping rubbish in the park, and have encouraged people to keep their food safe. So the bears have learned to ignore people, and it has become much safer. It is now unusual to see an bear, and illegal to approach them, so I was very lucky.


Coming out of the mountains there were super rock formations and then Buffalo Bill reservoir. This is a very old dam, recently raised a bit, and is used for power generation and irrigation. It does not rain much, so most of the water it collects is run-off from snow melting in the spring. When you reach the valley below, you reach Cody, named, I assume, after Buffalo Bill Cody, famous (I recall) for the huge number of buffalo he was able to shoot. I am told now that I recall wrongly, and that Cody was famous for his Rodeos, along with ?Annie? There was a rodeo going on in Cody, but I did not stop, and I was later told that there is always a rodeo going on in Cody, as it is on the East tourist route into Yellowstone. Once out of Cody, there is a nearly straight road for 100 miles or so, and I set the cruise control and travelled for about an hour without seeing another car in my direction.

Perhaps 10 coming the other way. During all that time, one could see ahead more mountains, the Big Horn mountains. To start with the land was sage brush (and I saw some old sage bushes being blown across the road). There are herds of wild horses here, and I saw some. I gather that these are descendants of horses who escaped from the Spanish. Later the land was irrigated, growing alfalfa and later still there were quite extensive white (salt?) deposits by the streams and things. Soil salinity is a long term consequence of the irrigation from the Buffalo Bill dam. The salt did not taste very salty, so it is not ordinary table salt.

In a place called Greybull there was an Air Force base, which is a place where old aeroplanes go to die. There were dozens of them, and there was a sign for a museum. But it looked as if the town was shrinking, with some of the farms falling into wrack & ruin. I did not have time to stop.

It was then over the next mountain the Big Horn mountain, with more snow at the top. For the winter months, there is a ski resort, but the snow was getting a bit thin. I saw several birds of prey, and little sign of human habitation. Then down the hill, with many hairpin bends, and into the Powder River Basin. I drove for another 100 miles on cruise control, but always with the mountains visible behind.


Gillette is oil country. There are occasional nodding donkeys, pumping up the oil. In looking for oil, huge thick deposits of low sulphur coal were found, and so Gillette is now also a coal town. They dig up the coal by building a trench, taking the coal from the bottom, and then blasting another length of the “overburden” into the trench, and so shifting the trench sideways. They create huge explosions to move the material, sometimes using over 1000 tons of explosive in a single shot. The coal is hauled out in trucks, most of which are as big as our house. While we were there one of the trucks got a puncture in a tyre, while carrying 240 tons of coal, but they had the machinery to deal with it.

The coal deposits are huge, with seams between 60 to 100 feet thick. They slope gently into the ground, and so will get harder to dig up, but there is enough to keep going for many years.

Most (~80%) of the cost for the power stations who burn it is not the cost of the coal, but the cost of the trains (mostly over a mile long) to haul it, often as far as the Mississippi. It is difficult to run power stations in Wyoming, as there is not enough water to cool them.

Gillette is also a small town with vast spaces around it. Population is 20,000 or so, but taxes are low, mostly because of the taxes levied on coal and other mineral resources, and the town is well appointed. I saw many churches, mostly very smart, of many denominations, including LDS, but many of them appeared to be independent, pastor run affairs. The airport is smart, but has only one small commercial plane, that shuttles between Gillette and Denver 4 (or less) times per day. When less, you are pretty much stranded, as we discovered when bad weather in Denver (thunderstorms, tornadoes, and hail) stopped the flights. To escape we had to drive 150 miles south, to Casper, where flights were to Salt Lake City. Gillette is one part of the US where the internet is difficult, as they have not yet got optical fibre out.

We were in Gillette in the spring, with the land all green and fresh, and mostly rolling hills, with some of the mountain shapes you see in Westerns. Our journey between airports was all in heavy rain. But this is rare, and in the winter the winds and temperatures are bitter. They talk of 40° below, when you do not switch off your engine unless car is in a garage. The lands was cattle and sheep land, with the state being run largely by the “Stockholders Association”. There were pitched battles between the cowboys (cattle) and the sheep farmers, and the site of Custer’s last stand was said to be closeby.

The trip back was via Los Angelis, Montreal (Sorel), Vermont & Boston.

David Hirst

22 May 2000, with thanks to Bruce Pain 11 June