Land is abundant in the central western states, but people are scarce, and so roads are scarce, too. Flip through an atlas and compare Utah with Michigan, or Illinois, or even Kansas. In any state east of the Mississippi, cow pathers have options. Roads crisscross to form a grid, and those crossing the state can choose between dozens of US and state highways without so much as even seeing a freeway.
In Utah, though, the population and the roads stay in a clump east of the Great Salt Lake. You know the rest of the state is empty, because Price makes it onto the big country maps, the ones that show just a few major cities for each state. Less than nine thousand people live in Price.
Interstates stretch all the way across the state, but that’s because something has to. Those going to California or Colorado or Arizona need to get through Utah somehow, and God knows they don’t want to get there via Nevada. The few highways that branch off from Utah’s interstates take tourists to and from the National Parks.
All of this made the state a problem. I sat down and mapped out an interstate-less route that would take me all the way from Colorado to Nevada. I would start in the northeast and zigzag west, then take the windy and crooked UT153 to the town of Beaver—just about the only place in the whole of Utah where you can cross I15 without driving on it. On the other side, the roads condense even further to Highway 50, which would take me almost all the way through Nevada.
The first day was great. Rides abounded, and I made good time. The first drive took me from Dinosaur, Colorado, to Roosevelt, Utah. Oil had brought traffic to the region, and I saw a miniature version of North Dakota. Open jobs, high prices, overstressed infrastructure. My driver said the town of Roosevelt gained its first stoplight recently, a prevention against oil truck backups. She also, true to Utah stereotypes, encouraged me to join the Latter Day Saints community and travel with a two-year mission.
My second driver was a gregarious off-duty officer for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
“I’m going to Nevada,” I said when he pulled over.
“I can take you as far as the turnoff to 191.”
“That’s great. I’m going south from there.” I threw my backpack in the truck bed.
“So you’re taking 191?” he asked.
He laughed. “No one takes that road. You’ve got a ride all the way to Price, if you want it. I figured you’d be going west to get to Nevada.”
Although he’s never hitchhiked, my driver, Dave, picks up hitchers often. If they look clean, he lets them ride in the cab. Otherwise, they go in the truck bed. When he heard about my trip—no interstates and all—he smiled and shook his head. “I can’t believe you’re doing this. What does your mom think?”
As we drove, he told me about the area, both on and off the Ute Indian Reservation.
“Have you heard of cedar rats?” he asked.
“They live in the cedar forests, north of Roosevelt. People—not actual rats. Most are up there with no electricity or sewer, and they bring in their own water.”
“Hiding out from the law?”
“Most of them are hermits—a few are crazy, or have gone crazy. But a lot come from Salt Lake, and they’re just sick of people.”
Even from the highway, I could see why the cedar rats picked backcountry Utah.
“My dad works for the power company, so he has to go up through their territory every so often,” Dave continued,” and there’s the checklist of stuff you have to do. Stop at a certain point, honk twice, wait for them to come out.”
“They come out with a gun?”
“Oh yeah. Then Dad’ll tell them he’s just passing through to work on the power, and they’ll let him go, but they just stand and watch until he’s out of sight.”
“I want to meet one.”
After half an hour on US191, we had seen just half a dozen other vehicles. If a US highway gets that little traffic, a dirt road to hermit country, I realized, would be impassible to hitchhikers. Especially when the people going there are either misanthropes or the rare power truck worker.
An hour later, Dave dropped me off in Price, that metropolis of 8,400 people..
“Thanks for the ride,” I said.
“No, thank you.” He pulled out his phone. “Hold up, no one’s gonna believe this unless I get a picture. Give me a thumbs up.”
I caught four more rides that day and ended up with an LDS family for the night. The next morning, the mother took me partway up a road even more desolate than US191. Over the whole twenty-five miles, we saw one pickup. I had her drop me off at the junction with Forest Service road 306—the back entrance to Fish Lake. Fish Lake is a popular lodge and camping area, but the back entrance is about as popular as an Antarctic golf course.
I stood for a few minutes, listening for any approaching engine, and then sat down and pulled out my book. It took a chapter before a car passed, but it was going on the state road and I doubt the driver even noticed my turnoff.
It was twenty-one miles to Fish Lake Lodge, and ten miles to the nearest “major” road. I had a fifty-five pound pack, and I did not like the idea of walking. I experienced a moment of self-doubt.
Twenty minutes later, a four-door Ford pickup made the turn. I stood up, unrolled my sign, and focused on looking very charming and sweet and innocent.
The pickup, driven by an old lady, pulled over.
“You aren’t going to kill me or anything, are you?” she asked.
“I won’t. I promise.” I gave her one of my cards and beamed. I wasn’t letting this road’s only driver get away.
“Well, I can take you up to the lodge.”
That was hitchhiking for most of Utah, continued over the next half-dozen rides. Backcountry, scarce traffic, nothing but wilderness between towns. Drivers were friendly, at least, and my waits were all under an hour and a half—until Junction.
In the small town of Junction, I planned to catch a ride on UT153, which goes forty miles though a national forest and ends up in the small town of Beaver, with nothing but outdoors in between. That nothing, I learned, also applies to vehicles.
I read fours chapters of Garrison Keillor. I worked on my farmer’s tan. I watched the horses corralled beside the road. I talked with the houseowners across the street, who walked over and gave me a sandwich and a water bottle and then raised their eyebrows when I told them my plan.
Nine times in two and a half hours, I heard a car approach. Each time, I leapt up and unfurled my sign, and I smiled and waved like every driver’s best friend. Two of those cars turned into driveways after they passed me, which meant just seven cars were actually taking UT153. That averaged out to one every twenty minutes.
The ninth vehicle stopped for me.
“We’re going up to Ten Mile,” the passenger said. Beaver would still be thirty miles away. “That’s where it changes to dirt road.”
Dirt road. I was hitchhiking on a dirt road. I might as well be trying to visit those cedar rats. “Do you think I could find a ride from Ten Mile to Beaver?” I can be stubbornly optimistic.
“Mostly just fishers and hunters going up there. You’d probably get stuck.”
I took the interstate. I trudged back to town and hitched south, where I found a paved road to take me to I15. Even so, I only used sixteen miles of freeway in Utah.
Because of my meanderings, I didn’t see Salt Lake City or the National Parks. I tripled the time it took to cross the state, and I missed some of the nation’s most famous landscapes.
But I learned about Utah’s oil boom, its Indian reservations, its mining history. I met Latter Day Saints instead of tourists, and I saw country that no one but locals and off-roaders see normally. When I have the time, there’s no way I’d rather travel.