The process of getting to Antelope Island State Park in Syracuse, Utah, is a curious one. After exiting a section of I-15 north of Salt Lake City that is notorious for high speed video game-like driving, you exit onto a six-mile stretch of dead-straight highway that exemplifies suburban sprawl. Strip mall after strip mall, chain restaurant after chain restaurant, and countless streets full of identical beige and brown houses.
After six non-descript miles, however, the road goes from four lanes down to two, narrows, and deposits you at a state park entrance gate where the view changes radically. The tract houses and neon signs are gone, and in their place is a huge body of water edged by crusty shoreline sand. At the entrance gate begins the causeway that delivers you from the cookie-cutter human landscape of Davis County, Utah to a geologic and natural time capsule, Antelope Island.
Causeways are interesting features. They aren’t bridges, so you don’t get the feeling of driving on something human-built. Yet, you’re traveling across a large body of water without getting wet, so clearly you’re dealing with something that’s been engineered. This causeway struck me as especially compelling because of the dramatic differences between the landforms it joins.
Antelope Island is the largest of the islands in the Great Salt Lake. To be fair, it is not always an island; during summer’s low water levels it becomes a peninsula. The Great Salt Lake itself is what’s left Lake Bonneville, a prehistoric water feature that was once almost twenty times larger than the lake is today. Antelope Island rises out of this body of water, an ornery spine of classic Basin and Range topography watching over a salty inland sea.
This world on the other side of the causeway is home to an enormous herd of bison. Two men named John Dooley and William Glassman first brought twelve of the animals to the island by boat in 1893. Cognizant of the bison’s dwindling numbers in the American West, they planned to keep and protect the herd for a private hunting business. When this proved unsuccessful, they attempted to destroy all of them. Enough animals escaped the slaughter to keep the species alive and multiplying on the island, and ultimately the State of Utah purchased the herd. Because they have no natural predators on the island, the bison multiply prolifically. These days the herd is culled annually to assure that their numbers don’t exceed the carrying capacity of the island – approximately 700 animals.
Bison are stately creatures. Though they are similar to cows in many ways, something about their silence, their slow and steady movements, and their distinguished facial features sets them apart from their grazing relatives. And then there’s that spectacular coat, with its rich milk chocolate color and coarse, curly texture. When you watch them, time slows to their speed, forcing you to take note of subtle shifts in the light that illuminates the blades of grass around them.
This landscape seems appropriate for them, with its barren ridgelines and crusty lakeshore. Stark in appearance, but sufficiently nurturing to keep this herd thriving.
People haven’t fared quite as well on Antelope Island. The first permanent residence was established near the island’s most reliable natural spring in 1848. The Mormon Church tended to their herds here under the direction of Fielding Garr. In 1870, the rest of the island was open to homesteading ventures. When these failed, John Dooley, the entrepreneurial bison farmer, purchased the entire island for one million dollars. In addition to bison, he ranched sheep and cattle on the property. He and others eeked out an existence there until 1981 when the state of Utah purchased the island to make it into the park that it is today.
Fielding Garr’s ranch remains a testimony to that western spirit of carving out a living in inhospitable places. Despite the lonely beauty of the landscape occupied by these old barns and cabins, nothing about it suggests that it might make a pleasant place to live. It must have been a lonely existence ranching on Antelope Island at the turn of the century. I think of island life as isolated, but also as warm and fertile. Not so here; the wind blew for the entire day that I was there, demanding that I wear multiple jackets in sunny fifty-five degree weather. It snows on this island, and the sea is salty, stagnant, and nearly lifeless. Prior to the construction of the causeway, Antelope Islanders would have had a long trip to the mainland, and there would have been no Olive Gardens and Subways to greet them when they arrived.
What remains of the Fielding Garr Ranch is picturesque, in exactly the way that the Davis County sprawl I traveled through to get there is not. Unlike the developments in suburban Salt Lake, this residence was not pre-planned. The placement and shape of the buildings make it clear that parts and pieces were added on as dictated by necessity and the availability of resources. The ranch has kept some rooms furnished in a late-1800’s style, some with 1940’s accoutrements, and some have a classic 1970’s vibe. This place was not built for two adults and 2.3 children in climate-controlled modernity; it was built and rebuilt to foster survival in a harsh and changing environment.
Perhaps this is the most striking cross-causeway contrast I noted that day – the remarkable difference between the “make-do and make-it-work” ethic that built the American West and this calculated, cookie-cutter aesthetic that has begun to dominate here of late.
I get it; I understand the efficiency of modern housing and retail layouts, and I recognize that with an ever-increasing population, “sprawl” may be the most realistic solution to the American desires for free-standing nuclear family structures and easy access to consumption. But I fear that we are losing so much. We may never see the root cellar additions and the resourceful re-use of rusty farm equipment that built the American West that we inhabit today. Like the bison, they may be isolated behind park boundaries in both literal and figurative islands of preservation.
At least we have causeways to those worlds. Let’s hope we can bring more than our cars across them.