WENDOVER, Utah — Leaving Salt Lake City on Interstate 80 heading deep into the desert, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. As a child, I used to pore over my well-worn Rand McNally road atlases and was always curious about this part of the United States.
There were few labeled locations. And while there were some named mountain ranges, these maps lacked any detail pertaining to the true nature of the terrain, leaving me to imagine what was out here. National Geographic maps, naturally, were generally better at providing topographical detail, but they too couldn’t be a substitute for actually being there in person.
In the Rand McNally atlases, the course of the red-, blue- and black-colored roads gave some clue of the shape of the landscape. The more twists and turns in a road generally meant more difficult terrain to traverse.
The more straight sections signaled some sort of valley or relatively flat plain, but that’s not always indicative. Most roads in Iowa, for instance, are straight but they can cross some surprisingly hilly, undulating territory as I discovered earlier during my travels along the Lincoln Highway.
Looking at the road atlas in my youth, I-80 between one point west of the Great Salt Lake and the Nevada border was completely straight for roughly 45 miles. In the 120 miles between Salt Lake City and the state line, the atlas showed little evidence of any human settlement along I-80.
Places like this naturally spark curiosity. Who in their right mind would venture out here? For most travelers, this has been a place to quickly travel across and not linger for fear the forces of the desert will somehow eat you up or rob you of life-sustaining water.
Although I’ve been in the American Southwest on previous visits, the only comparative drive of complete and utter desolation I’ve had was crossing the Mojave Desert on Interstate 15 between Los Angeles and Las Vegas on a roadtrip in August 2001. And that stretch was driven at night when the darkness hid the landscape.
My rental car had been running great the entire trip along the Lincoln Highway, so I had little fear of getting stranded out in the middle of nowhere. Still, I stocked up on bottled water and some snacks, just in case.