We left SLC this morning and headed west, but no without a problem. As I checked Winnie’s tire pressures, I noticed air hissing from a valve stem when I loosened the cap. It looked like a bad valve core. I needed to find a tire shop before I could hit the road. I stopped a Jack’s Tire and Oil nearby. They work mostly on big rigs and had a bunch in the parking lot. The guy working there said it would be an hour or two before they could get to me. I asked him for a valve wrench and valve core and I would do it myself. He realized it was a simple problem and fixed it right away with no charge. He couldn’t put air in it though. I wound up getting my air compressor out and topping off the tire and we were on our way.
Today’s route took us across past the Great Salt Lake and the Utah salt flats on I80 with the goal of getting to West Wendover, NV today. I80 is pretty much a straight shot across Utah for about 120 miles. Along the way we passed the Kennecott Smelter and a couple of salt “factories” operated by Morton and Cargill. For most of the way the interstate is bordered by salt flats. People have a way of marking that they traveled a certain route. The prehistoric Native Americans left petroglyphs in certain locations that tell stories. Modern man uses rocks, bottles, and cans to create messages, smiley faces, etc. on the salt flats along the highway.
As we drove along, I noticed a couple of aerostats floating the just above the mountains. Knowing this was near the Dugway Proving Grounds (site of chemical weapons trials back in the 50’s and 60’s), I thought they must have some military application. An internet search tonight found they are Raytheon's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor System, or JLENS. They are helium filled balloons with radar systems tethered to the ground. They are huge, about 300 ft. long and fly at about 10,000 ft. They can look out for hundreds of miles in an attempt to detect cruise missiles. Raytheon has been testing them for the last couple of years. The last time I saw aerostats of this type was when I drove through Sierra Vista, AZ a couple of years ago. These were surveillance systems watching the border around Fort Huachuca. These are part of an Air Force system that is deployed along the US-Mexico border and in the Caribbean to detect drug smugglers and people trying to cross the border.
Another strange site in the middle of nowhere was “Metaphor, The Tree of Utah”. It’s an 87-ft. tall metal tree (sculpture). It was created in the 1980’s by artist Karl Momen. It is a “hymn to our universe whose glory and dimension is beyond all myth and imagination.” Unfortunately, you can’t pull off for pictures so I got a windshield shot of the sculpture. About 25 miles further on the Bureau of Land Management built a rest stop at the foot of the Bonneville Salt Flats where you can pull off and walk out on the slat flats. We stopped and I walked out on the salt. I was surprised it was wet and there were some puddles even on a day when the temperature was over 100.
We pulled into the Wendover KOA early this afternoon. It’s located pretty much on the Utah-Nevada border. This side of the border has half dozen casinos while the Utah side has not much of anything except salt. The other thing is that we are just about on the time line between Mountain and Pacific Time Zones. The people of Wendover apparently observe Mountain Time even though my cell phone is reading time of a cell tower in the Pacific Time Zone. Confusing.
Since we were here early, I decided to do some sightseeing and it turns out that there is quite a history associated with this area. Both the California Trail and the Pony Express Route passed through this area in the mid 1800’s. We’re only a couple of hours from California by car, but the California emigrants and Pony Express riders took weeks to cross the alkali flats and mountains before delivering the mail or arriving in the gold fields.
The Lincoln Highway and the Victory Highway passed through Wendover after the Federal Highway Act was passed in 1921. It was the start of the US Highway System that would begin to allow people to travel from coast to coast by automobile. It required the states to select 7% of their roads to be included in the system that would receive funding to be paved. I had never heard of the Victory Highway before today, but it was another coast-to-coast highway that started in NYC and ended in San Francisco like the Lincoln. The Victory Highway was dedicated to those who died in WWI. It eventually became US 40 which is the National Trails Road east of the Mississippi. We drove significant stretches of US 40 on our 4-month sojourn last year. The Lincoln and Victory Highway routes coincide between SLC and Wendover then diverge with the Lincoln taking a southerly route to Reno. Here in Wendover there is a monument that represents those that were supposed to be placed at county lines. They were bronze eagles with a plaque commemorating the sons and daughters who served and died in WWI. Apparently there are only 5 original bronze eagles that still exist, 2 in Kansas and 3 in California. The monument in Wendover stands on the exact route of the original highway.
Wendover was the location of the final splice in the first transcontinental telephone line in 1914. Once the line was completed Alexander Graham Bell in New York was able to call his assistant Thomas Watson in San Francisco and utter those famous words he used in the laboratory when invented the telephone – “Mr. Watson come here, I want you”. The only problem this time it would take Watson a week to get to NYC. The telephone line was 4 copper wires strung on some 130,000 wooden telephone poles. There is a monument to the event in the parking lot of the Mandalay Bay Casino.
Wendover also played an important roll in WWII. An Army Air Corp field was established here in 1939 in preparation for war. It would be the training base for bomber crews and P-47 fighter pilots before heading overseas. Many heavy bomber crews learned to shoot the 50 cal machine guns used to protect the aircraft from enemy fighters. They used a unique training aid called the “Tokio Trolley”. The macine guns were mounted on moving rail car that could travel up to 40mph. Gunners would shoot from the rail car at targets mounted on a moving unmanned jeep. They did such a good job of training the gunners that General MacArthur praised the Wendover gunners as the best trained in the Army. Wendover Field was also the place where the 509th Composite Group formed and trained. This group was commanded by Col. Paul Tibbets who would eventually fly the Enola Gay over Hiroshima to drop the first atomic bomb, Little Boy, in 1945. The second bomb, Fat Man, dropped on Nagasaki was carried by Bockscar piloted by also part of the 509th. They used the bombing ranges in Nevada, Utah, and California to practice dropping replicas of the atomic bombs. Wendover Field was active until 1969 when it was closed. It was turned over to the city in 1977. Wendover is one of the most intact World War II training airfields. It is also one of the most historic. The airfield is very isolated in northwest Utah, sitting in the middle of vast wasteland miles away from any major population center which is probably the reason, and the dry hot climate, that much of the airfield remains today.
Still existing facilities include the runway system, numerous ramps, taxiways, dispersal pads, and most of the original hangars (including the Enola Gay B-29 hangar). Most of the hospital complex and many barracks remain, as does a chow hall, chapel, swimming pool and many other World War II-era buildings. The control tower is still in use. A local group, "Historic Wendover Airfield", is attempting to preserve the former base. They’ve created a small museum with some great airplane models and personal effects and equipment of some of the people who trained there. It’s worth a stop for anyone interested in WWII or aircraft.
Numerous films and television shows have been filmed using Wendover Field. One of these was the 1973 TV-movie Birds of Prey, in which stunt pilots flew and maneuvered helicopters inside one of the large hangars, possibly the first time this had been performed. In addition to a post-war military base backdrop for the 1996 film Mulholland Falls, Wendover Field also stood in for the exteriors of Area 51 in the 1996 film Independence Day. Several flying scenes for the 1997 movie Con Air were filmed at Wendover, using Fairchild C-123K Providers, one of which was modified into a non-flying "prop" mounted on a bus chassis. It was donated by the producers of the film and is now on the ramp as an attraction for visitors.
Wow this was a longwinded post to the journal, but there was a surprising amount of history in this small town in the middle of the salt flats. It’s late I think, so I’m going to bed. I’ll be off to the Bonneville Salt Flats tomorrow.