Salt Lake on a Shoestring

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This page last updated on 07/08/2017.

Copyright 2001-2017 by Russ Meyer


It was August of 1982 and I had just finished working harvest out at the Buchanan ranch.  Harvest is a grueling affair of 12-16 hour days, seven days per week, all summer long.  I had no time to spend the money I'd earned, so I was flush with cash.  In two weeks I would have to report back to college and dive into that grind.  I really wanted to do something to make the summer memorable; especially since the only thing I had done up to that point was eat dust out on the ranch.

It was Thursday evening and I had been sitting in the basement of my parent's home playing video games with my friends Dave Cochran and Dave Valaer.  It was getting pretty late, and DC needed a lift home.  We all piled into my Chevy Monza and headed for DC's house.  Along the way, we got into a discussion about stuff we'd always wanted to do.  I had always wanted to visit Salt Lake City, Utah and go swimming in the Great Salt Lake.  The lake has so much salt in it you can float high in the water without moving your arms and legs.  That just sounded like something I really needed to experience.  Anyway, DV and I dropped DC off, but we were still wide awake and ready to do something else.

We drove around a while and continued talking about Salt Lake.  I half-jokingly told Dave we should go ahead and drive down to Salt Lake to see what it was like.  To my surprise, he said, "Hey that's a great idea."  It seemed like an inspired plan so we decided to leave right away.

It was about 1:30 AM, and we didn't want to wake anyone.  Instead, we both wrote notes to our parents and set them out where they would find them.  We packed sleeping bags, pillows, a little food, a couple of changes of clothes, a Frisbee, some motor oil and an oil filter for the Monza, then departed.  Our plan was to head South on highway 11 to intercept interstate 84.  We'd then follow the interstate all the way to Salt Lake.

It was a long drive and we planned to take shifts at the wheel.  I took the first shift while Dave crashed in the back.  I drove until about 6:00 AM, then pulled over somewhere around Ontario, Oregon.  We stopped in a gravel parking lot and got out some tools to change oil.  As we were draining the oil, a giant cloud of ravenous mosquitoes descended upon us.  I felt like Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn in the African Queen...you know, that scene where they are attacked by mosquitoes.  It was hideous...they covered every square inch of exposed flesh and bit the dickens out of us.  They bit through our shirts and socks.  They bit us on the ear, nose, neck, lips, fingers, forehead...everywhere!  We grit our teeth and plowed through the swarm to finish changing oil.  As soon as we were done, we jumped in the car, sprayed gravel, and blasted out of there...ugh!

We were low on gas and stopped in Boise, Idaho.  We didn't have much cash and neither of us had a credit card.  No problem, we figured we would just stop by the bank and cash a check.  We waited around for about 45 minutes for the bank to open.  I walked up to the teller and tried to cash a personal check.  "I'm sorry sir, we can't cash personal checks."  Yeah, but I have my driver's license right here and you can see that's my picture on it.  "There's no way to guarantee those funds are in your account, so we can't cash the check."  I was flabbergasted!  We tried several other banks and got the same story.  Dave went out on the street and tried to make a deal with passersby.  He'd write them a personal check and they would give us cash.  The story just sounded too desperate...I mean who would look at this disheveled, desperate kid and hand over $20...he'll probably spend it on drugs!  If anything, it would only succeed in getting the cops involved.  After hitting-up several people without success, Dave came back and exclaimed, "These checks aren't worth the paper they're printed on!"  Truer words were never spoken!

Dave and I took stock of our financial situation.  Pooling our cash, we had exactly $9.57...that included the 52 we found under the car seats.  Our options were as follows:  1) We could use the money to buy as much gas as we could and head back home.  If we were lucky, we would make it to within 30 miles of Walla Walla at which point we could call Dave Cochran to come out and meet us with some gas.  How defeatist!  2)  We could call our parents and ask them to wire us some money.  That just seemed too ignoble and pathetic.  3)  We could stay here and do whatever we could to scrounge up some cash...maybe even wash some windows or something.  All of these options sounded awful.  I decided to make another attempt to squeeze money from the bank.  I went in and sat down with a bank officer.  I explained our situation, and he offered some helpful advise.  He would cash my personal check if I would arrange to have my bank in Walla Walla call him and verify the account balance.  Yeah, OK, I can do that.  I found a pay phone and spent $2.75 of our precious funds to call the SeaFirst Bank in Walla Walla.  I gave them the phone number of the bank officer in Boise I'd spoken to.  I had hung up and was turning to head back to the bank when the phone rang.  Dave and I looked at each other, puzzled.  I picked up the receiver.  "Please deposit $2.50 for additional long distance charges," an automated voice intoned.  I looked at Dave, "They want more money, but I'm out of change."  "Aw forget it, just hang up," Dave suggested.  Sounded reasonable, so I did.  It really seemed dumb...I mean how many people are going to deposit more money after the call is finished.  They ought to change that if they really want to collect.  Anyway, SeaFirst called the bank guy and vouched for my account balance.  I successfully cashed a $100 check.  Whooohooo!  We were back in business.

Dave now took his place at the wheel, while I lay down in back for a snooze.  After dozing for about 30 minutes, I felt the car swaying from side-to-side and the wind noise was much louder.  I hoisted myself up on an elbow and swiveled around to look at Dave.  The speedometer was pegged.  I don't know how fast were going, but it was well in excess of 90 MPH.  I asked Dave to slow down...he balked, but said OK.  I laid back down.  Five minutes later, I could tell we'd picked up a lot of speed.  Yep, Dave had the speedometer pegged alright.  I just didn't want my car driven that hard...besides, I didn't feel safe sleeping in the back of a car going 100 MPH!  I told him to slow down and keep it below 60 MPH. "Yeah, OK, OK!," he replied.  By now, beat as I was, there was no way I could sleep.  I lay in the back listening to the road noise.  About 5 minutes later, Dave had it up over 80 MPH again.  I told him to pull over and we traded places...I'd drive the rest of the way to Salt Lake.  It really irritated me that he would just disregard what I asked him to do...I mean, the car was my property, not his, and I expected him to respect that.  There was no way I could replace that car if something happened to it.  I fumed the rest of the way to Salt Lake.

 Somewhere around Snowville, Utah, the interstate cut through a seemingly endless, arid field of rocks and gravel.  It was incredibly hot and the Monza was not equipped with air conditioning.  "Snowville...ha!," we sniffed.  Through the shimmering heat waves, a large brown sign loomed.  I've never seen anything like it before or since.  It read, "CAUTION:  Extremely severe thunderstorms next 40 miles."  I've always remembered how incongruous the sign seemed in that infernal, arid waste near Snowville.  It didn't look like this place had experienced a sprinkle in 20 years.  How strange.

We finally arrived in Salt Lake around 4:00 PM after almost 15 hours of driving.  We were pretty tired.  We planned to sleep in the car or behind some bushes in a park somewhere.  On the North side of town, we found Mueller Park and staked out a secluded spot behind a bunch of bushes for our sleeping bags.  Everything was going great. 

Right at dusk, we decided to drive into town to have a look around.  We drove down to the South edge of Salt Lake, turned around, and headed up State Street back to Mueller Park.  This was now Friday night and there were lots of kids driving around.  Two girls drove up next to us and asked us about our Washington plates.  We told them the whole story.  They asked us where were staying, and we said we planned to sleep in Mueller Park.  They were aghast.  They seemed genuinely concerned for our safety and insisted that we find some alternative.  They said weirdoes and other unseemly characters frequented the park after dark.  We had no idea what else to do.  They suggested we sleep on the lawn out back of their parent's condo.  It was in a good neighborhood, and no one would mind.  That sounded good to us, so that's what we did.  We followed the girls home and pulled out our sleeping bags.  There were some small boys about 50 yards away, doing the same thing we were doing...sleeping out on the patio of one of the condos.  Dave took off his jeans and threw them in a pile beside his sleeping bag.  The canopy of stars overhead was beautiful...I was really beat.

I was awakened by the soft noise of something moving across the grass.  I blinked a few times for the sun had already climbed high in the sky and it was now apparently mid-morning.  I was on my side, facing Dave and I could see he was still asleep.  Just beyond him I saw something move.  It was one of the boys we'd seen the night before.  He was crawling slowly and stealthily across the grass towards Dave.  I whispered to Dave, "Hey Dave...wake up...hey!"  After a couple of attempts he roused a bit.  "There's a kid creeping up behind you," I said.  "Huh, wha...," he was still waking up.  The kid was now right behind Dave and had his hand on Dave's blue jeans.  "There's a kid behind you trying to steal your pants," I whispered.  Dave rolled over and the kid jumped away, blue jeans in hand.  Dave thrashed out of this sleeping bag wearing only his underwear as the kid took off running.  Dave chased the kid around for a few minutes.  The punk finally jettisoned the pants and ran for cover inside the condo.  Dave pulled his pants on.  We folded up our sleeping bags, loaded the car, and took off.

Our destination was the Great Salt Lake for a day of swimming.Dave Valaer at the Great Salt Lake.  We drove out to The Great Salt Lake State Park on Antelope Island, where there was a swimming area.  It was very hot, and we were anxious to get in the water.  We got out of the car, shed some clothes, and headed for the beach.  There was a 3 foot black strip of what looked like a mat of seaweed or something all along the shoreline.  As we approached the waters edge, this black strip levitated into the air and dispersed in a big black cloud.  Eeeeyyyyyeeewww!  That endless black strip turned out to be millions of brine flys!  Dave and I staggered back a few feet.  The flys immediately settled on the sand at waters edge.  They seemed content just crawling around in the sand and didn't appear interested in bothering us.  Dave and I took a few steps back and with a running jump, cleared the flys and made it to the water.

The water was very warm.  We waded out about 100 feet from shore, but the water was only up to our knees; it was very shallow.  In fact, the average depth of the lake is only about 15 feet.  If I recall correctly, it is only 24 feet deep at its deepest point.  The water was very clear but strangely thick with sort of weird optical properties.  You could easily see the bottom, but it was like looking through shimmering heat waves.  All that salt in the water really altered its refractive properties.  It was quite strange.  The water was noticeably thick.  It flowed around you like a very thin syrup.  It was also filled with tiny, red brine shrimp swimming around.  They are about the only critters that can survive in water that salty.  There was approximately one brine shrimp for every cubic foot of water.

Splashing around a little bit, I got a couple of droplets of water on the inside edge of my nostril.  Holy cow!  It burned like crazy, making my eyes and nose water.  I told Dave we had better watch out and not let our heads go under.  It was really painful.  Dave and I tried floating on our backs and found we could easily hold our heads entirely out of the water.  Our chests and the tops of our legs wouldn't even get wet...we had about 2 inches of "freeboard" on our bodies.  Cool!  It was really easy to swim in the water, but you had to make sure you didn't let it touch any cranial orifice.

We saw a lady trying to teach her little boy to swim.  That seemed like a logical idea, given the properties of the water and all.  Only thing is she was holding him horizontal, trying to teach him the forward crawl.  It was clear she was going to allow the little tyke's head to touch the water.  I was about to say something when she let go.  The kid disappeared beneath the surface and emerged with an unearthly shriek.  He was clearly in agony, but his Mom just chastised him for being a "fraidy cat" and dumped him in again!  At this point the kid was bloody hysterical and clawing at his face.  It was horrifying to watch.  The mother seemed to grasp that something was vaguely wrong and hauled him to shore.  I can still hear his choked screams of agony...poor little guy.

Dave and I saw an island about a mile off shore.  We decided to try swimming to it.  It wouldn't be a problem...if we got tired, we would just stop and float there until rested.  You could float vertical in the water without moving any of your limbs, with the waterline about at armpit level.  Seemed safe enough, so we set out to try.  We waded about 200 feet offshore before we couldn't touch bottom.  A modified breast stroke seemed to work best and kept the head safely dry.  We paddled along in water about 12 feet deep.  About half way there we stopped to rest for a while.  We floated vertically in the water...just bobbing along.  I tried kicking my legs and discovered I could easily push myself 2-3 feet out of the water.  You would bob up and down a few times like a cork before settling down.  It was really neat.  Dave tried it too.  We had a lot of fun bobbing up and down.  Dave kicked really hard and got out of the water all the way to his waist.  He stopped kicking and disappeared below the surface.  He quickly bobbed back up.  I was horrified.  I waited for him to emit a tortured scream, but he just bobbed there with his face all scrunched up, his neck muscles bulging, and his head quivering like a guitar string.  His eyes, nose, and mouth were watering like crazy and running down his face.  Finally, he let out a couple of stifled, pain-laden "MMMMFFFFFHHH, MMMMMFFFFFFHHHH..." sounds.  After what seemed like 5 minutes, he was able to speak again.  "Let's go back," his voice cracked weakly, so we headed for shore.

That was the end of our swimming expedition.  We both had had enough of that toxic water!  We rinsed off, piled in the car, and headed back to town.  We spent some time looking at the Mormon tabernacle, and other interesting sites.  That afternoon DV called Dave Cochran and told him where we were.  Cochran seemed kind of hurt that we didn't tell him of our plans to head to Salt Lake Thursday night.  Apparently, he was convinced we had already formed the plan when we dropped him off, and couldn't understand why we didn't let him in on the secret.  We honestly didn't think of going to Salt Lake until almost an hour after we had dropped him off.  By that time it was late at night, and we didn't want to roust him out of bed.  Ah well.  We also called our parents.  I found my Mom and Dad very understanding.  I was half-way expecting them to be a little mad, but they seemed to have no problem with it at all.  Dave called his girlfriend, Michelle, and told her about our expedition.  I somehow recall her giving Dave a hard time about it.  Oh well...  That night, Dave and I went back to the condos and slept under the stars.  This time, we crammed our clothes into the bottom of our sleeping bags.  Stupid kids wouldn't be able to get them down there.

The next day, Dave and I planned our return trip to Walla Walla.  We both wanted to take a different route, just to see some different scenery.  Interstate 80 West through the Great Salt Lake Desert seemed like a good idea.  The Bonneville salt flats are out that way, and it would be a blast to drive the Monza on them.  The problem was we were getting low on funds again, and if we went out that direction, we might not have enough money to buy gas to get us all the way back to Walla Walla.  We really didn't want to experience another "Boise" incident again.  We finally talked ourselves out of it and opted to head back the way we came.  In retrospect, I wish we had gone out through the desert.  It would have been memorable.

When I returned to Walla Walla, my parents said "Hi," just like I'd never gone anywhere.  Dave Cochran seemed a bit miffed, but not excessively so.  Best of all, Dave and I had a story to tell.  Its experiences like this that make life worth living!