Painting in natural light

By: Randal B. Thatcher


Columnist Randal B. Thatcher

If you had lived in France during the late 1800s, you might’ve been lucky enough to glimpse a great impressionist artist, like Claude Monet or Pierre-Auguste Renoir, sitting outside, in front of their portable “field easel” and painting the landscape in its natural light—a style of painting that originated in France, and became known as, “plein air” painting, or outdoor painting.

Well, it’s not the 1800s, and we’re not living in France.  But we can still experience the thrill of witnessing first-rate artists sitting outside, while capturing our local landscapes on canvas.

Just take a drive through Spring City this week, and you’re likely to see an artist—or several artists—intently striving to portray the natural essence of an outdoor scene, while the light lasts.

And you’re virtually guaranteed to see this same spectacle of plein air painting if you show up on Main Street this Saturday morning (dawn till 10 a.m.) for the Quick Paint Event & Auction.

This week is the annual Spring City Plein Air Festival, when local artists are joined by landscape artists from as far away as China, to paint in nature’s outdoor setting, and then exhibit their works in the Spring City Art Gallery (from 10 a.m. to 5p.m. on Saturday) for sale and auction.

I can’t tell you much about the thoughts of Monet or Renoir respecting their own plein air painting, but I can tell you how Susan Gallacher, local Spring City resident and artist, feels about her plein air efforts.  Says Susan, “Plein air painting is, for me, the ultimate—being outside, surrounded by nature’s beauty; and witnessing fleeting moments, whether bursts of color, elusive wildlife, or the silent, soft shades of an overcast day.”

For Susan, photographs never quite capture the real colors—the lights or the darks. Her inspiration is stoked by being completely surrounded and immersed in nature, a living witness to the scene she is striving to express in paint. “If you love landscape,” she says, “you remember the wonderful moments of being there, of seeing a vast panorama, or the delicate beauty of a wildflower.”

Ken Baxter, another local artist, has been practicing this plein air method of painting since the eighth grade, and still finds it elusive.  First, because your chosen subject is constantly changing, as the sun moves and the weather fluctuates. Second, because surprises will occur: unexpected clouds and wind bursts, unanticipated visitors (including, on more than one occasion, a curious police officer), and most importantly, the light continually moving on the subject.  “Planning for these events is helpful,” Ken says, “however, this living subject seems to have a personality of its own.”

This attempt to capture the essence of such a mercurial subject, amid shifting sun, wind, and even air particles, can feel sometimes “like a sublime meditation,” according to Ken; but at other times, “like attempting to get a bobcat into a suitcase!”  Either way, he says, “The process requires total focus.”

Michelle Condrat, an award-winning plein air artist from Salt Lake City, agrees. She says that “plein air painting is one of the most raw and pure ways an artist can paint, because you aren’t looking at a photograph, or through a filter or a screen. There is nothing but what you are actually seeing before you, and it is real and fleeting.”

According to Michelle, painting in the outdoors in real time is vastly more challenging than painting in the comfort and control of the studio; but that when you get it right, despite all the many inherent challenges, “the sense of accomplishment is 10 times the reward, compared to finishing a painting in the studio.”

I asked Randall Lake, another local Spring City artist about his own experiences with plein air painting over the years, and he replied simply, “Nature is the best teacher.”  Just mixing the paint to properly depict the myriad greens, browns and soft blues of nature is a valuable learning exercise. In Randall’s words, “It’s tough to mix the mountains.”

I asked these long-time artists to explain to me, when studio painting is so much easier, why they continue to struggle with all the many challenges of outdoor painting.

Said Susan Gallacher, “Being in a cushy studio, where you are in complete control, takes away the true enjoyment of painting.”

Said Michelle Condrat, “When you find the right spot, and nail the scene, it is pure gold!”

Said Ken Baxter, “There seems to be no cure for this plein air virus.”

Said Randall Lake, “It’s damn difficult.”  (And he savors the challenge.)

So, come to Spring City today, tomorrow, or Saturday and watch some very accomplished and highly skilled artists engaged in the process of doing something that is, “Damn difficult.”


[Comments are very welcome:]

A Half-Bubble Off Plumb

By Randal B. Thatcher

Columnist Randal B. Thatcher

Of all the glories and splendors of our Sanpete environs, perhaps the most glorious of all is our mountains—those splendid hills and peaks that surround us on every side.

Snow-capped in winter, sun-blazoned in summer, multi-colored in autumn and verdantly green in springtime, our mountains are a constant source of soul-stirring awe and inspiration.

But at our annual Saga of Spring City presentation on July 24th, I learned that they’ve been so much more than that…

From the earliest known history of this Sanpete Valley, the local Ute groups gleaned their subsistence by hunting and gathering in these surrounding mountains.

And the earliest Mormon settlers did likewise, heading up into the hills each summer to collect wild currants, strawberries, ground cherries and elderberries.

These same settlers were also grateful to find a good variety of useful trees in the hills and mountain forests. Sawmills were established upon the founding of each new settlement, supplying wood products for the construction of homes, barns, granaries, furniture, fences and shingles. When the railroad came through the area, these same mountains provided the lumber for innumerable railroad ties. And rare Red Pine trees were discovered in the “left-hand fork of Canal Canyon” for use in the construction of the Manti Temple. (This area is still referred to today as “Temple Fork.”)

Logs were hauled down from the mountains year-round (though wintertime was preferred, as a loaded sleigh would make the descent more smoothly than a wagon). The descendant of one of these early loggers of the 19th Century says her great-grandfather wrote that, “This was the hardest work I ever did in my life.”

Back then—as now—our mountains became the summertime herding and grazing grounds for sheep and cattle, offering vast areas of lush grass so tall it could conceal a grazing sheep. And, then—as now—mountain-lions and other predators posed an ever-present threat.

But it wasn’t all work in those early days…

George Downard, a resident of Spring City in the late 1800s, built a playground on a sprawling green meadow in Spring City Canyon, including a teeter-totter, swings and a contraption he called a, “Whirly-gig,” which consisted of several old tractor seats fastened to poles that could be spun swiftly around in a circle. Many local residents would plan picnic gatherings in that meadow to enjoy this mountain playground.

Hunting in the surrounding hills was a necessity back then, and is still popular today. Tales from those hunting exploits abound, including that of a local hunter, who illegally shot a doe, and at the sight of an approaching game warden, quickly stuffed the animal into his sleeping bag, insisting it was his exhausted comrade who’d retired early that evening. The ruse worked, but he was never able to use that sleeping bag again.

And these same mountains have been host to countless hiking and camping excursions by any number of Boy Scout troops over the decades, with all the accompanying stories around the campfire, of “little bearded men,” who live in the old, abandoned sawmill, and come out at night to play mischief upon unsuspecting campers; and of “Side-hill Galoots,” which are supposedly descended from cattle, who escaped the herd a century ago, evolving into frightful creatures with long back legs and short front legs, and can climb like mountain goats. Wide-eyed young scouts were admonished by their leaders to beware these menacing mutants; and to be ready to run quickly down to flatter ground, as “Galoots” are unstable and awkward on level terrain.

Summertime “mountain parties” were a popular respite among the settlers, with entire families spending an evening together in the mountains. A favorite treat was to plan such a mountain party at one of the local sheep camps, where the herder, glad for the company, would prepare a mutton and sour-dough dinner for their evening meal.

And, of course, no mention of our local mountains would be complete without a nod to our Skyline Drive, completed in 1935, by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which undertook the arduous job of connecting all those old logging roads into one, continuous, high-mountain roadway, stretching nearly 100 miles, along the summit of the mountains, from Thistle to Manti.

This project was undertaken, back in the 1930s, primarily to create a recreational trail, and there still exists ample evidence of old recreational camps and fire pits. This trail is now more popular than ever with hunters, hikers, horseback riders, skiers, snowmobilers, mountain bikers, ATV enthusiasts and anyone with a yearning to escape up into the solitude of the highlands.

And these amazing and awe-inspiring mountains are ours, ever present, and continually beckoning us to come away; ever ready to soothe our troubled souls to and wash our spirits clean. John Muir once famously exclaimed: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.” Dr. Seuss said, “Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting, So… Get on your way!” And, local wilderness lover, Brookelyn Wheeler, said: “The best memories are always made in the mountains.”

See you up there!


[Comments welcome:]

Marvels at creativity of kids


By Randal B. Thatcher

Apr. 26, 2018


Today, indulge me as I marvel.

I am continually amazed by the inherent creativity and innate artistry of youth.

Give a high schooler a video camera, and I’m astounded by the insightful documentary film he can produce with it. (I got to view several such films at a recent student screening event at North Sanpete High School.)

Give a girl in middle school a solid lump of clay, then I watch with awe as she confidently transforms it into an arrestingly beautiful ceramic mask worthy of a prominent place on a proud uncle’s wall.

Give a kindergartener a length of butcher paper and some finger paints, and I cannot help but be bowled over by the resulting abstract art. (Not to mention the resulting mess!)

And give a group of fifth-graders and sixth-graders an assignment to write a fictional short story, and my mind was blown by the sheer ingeniousness of their highly entertaining yarns.

I recently had the opportunity to both read and critique 42 such stories written with surprising wit and imagination by the students of a local elementary school.

Some were short—a single, double-spaced page—but others where several chapters long, stapled into book form and replete with splashy and alluring illustrations.

So uniformly good were these stories, and so compelling in basic premise, that I wanted to share a few of their titles and summaries just to give you some idea of the sheer creativity at work within the inventive mind of a typical 11-year-old or 12-year-old.

“The Day I Became a Superhero”—a familiar fantasy tale, except this young superhero saves local cats and dogs.

“The Talking Bear and the Hunter”—I’ll bet you’d hold off shooting a bear also if you discovered it could talk, and you’d probably also become fast friends, just like it happened in this story.

“Dimensions”—Just imagine discovering a whole new world in another dimension—and all before dinnertime!

“The Strange Case of the Blue Blobs”—A lot of fighting occurs in this one with the fate of the world hanging in the balance, but—spoiler alert—our young heroes finally manage to subdue those pesky blobs in the end.

“Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Bike Bandits”—If you’ve ever had a bicycle stolen, then you’ll understand the sweet satisfaction of having this master sleuth enter into the picture, solve the case—naturally—and unmask the culprit!

“The Love in the World”—a surprisingly emotional love story by a 12-year-old boy but very positive, full of hope … and steamy romance!

“It’s All in My Head … or is It?”—a reality-bending tale that blurs the line between dreams and waking life.

“The Real Mrs. Krany”—a 12-year-old’s imaginings of what her sixth-grade teacher might be up to during afterschool hours, and what is revealed may surprise you!

“The Statue that Came to Life”—Just be careful about which statues you decide to mischievously spray-paint in your local park after dark.

“Dragons Versus Unicorns”—You’d think the dragons would win easily, but the unicorns might have a few surprises inside those sparkly horns!

“Space Travel”—Among 42 stories, there’s bound to be one about space travel, and this was it, and with astonishingly detailed descriptions of the cosmos.

“Ugly Versus Attractive”—an unexpectedly insightful look into what constitutes true beauty.

Those are just a dozen of the 42 stories I had the pleasure of reading—all equally imaginative and fascinatingly fun to read. Most included a heartwarmingly happy ending (usually with good eventually triumphing over evil) but not always.

I jotted comments on every story, including some praise for the wonderful inventiveness of that particular plot. And these comments were all sincere.

I know that as we grow from kids into adults, many sobering responsibilities unavoidably come into our lives which tend to claim too much of our free time and our mental and emotional energies.

But my perennial hope, with every rising generation, is that those inherently creative and imaginative young minds will manage to retain and express their natural and wonderful creative force as they grow older.

I hope they will.

Our all-too-serious world desperately needs it!

Comments are always welcome at

Who turned these old doorknobs before me?

By Randal B. Thatcher

Feb. 22, 2018


I have a cousin who has always been interested in very old things. An inveterate rock-hound and arrowhead-seeker, he is continually on the hunt for that rare item of hidden beauty or historical significance.

Such expeditions have more recently led him into several old abandoned mining towns and ghost towns of our western United States, opening up a whole new treasure trove of forgotten Americana for him to comb through.

This includes glass pieces from old bottles, silver hood ornaments and grill plates on rusted-out vehicles, along with rusting kitchen utensils, cans, spurs, hinges, pulleys and other miscellany.

He grabs up anything from those boomtown days of yore that could—were it able to speak—tell a spellbinding story of our country’s rough-and-tumble frontier times.

One day, as he was scouring the old abandoned mining town of Manhattan, Nev., he happened to spy a particularly eye-catching doorknob on one of the old miner shacks.

“My mind began to wander,” he told me, “and to wonder about who might’ve lived in that 100-year-old shack.”

These musings prompted him to seek out other doorknobs (those on the town’s old chapel were especially striking). He photographed each one and then turned his imagination loose as he tried to picture the hands—long since moldering in their graves—that might’ve turned those knobs so many years ago.

He was hooked.

This hunt for old doorknobs became a passion.

His incessant quest has led him to other ghost towns and historic places so I knew it was only a matter of time before the lure of historic U.S. 89 and the old pioneer villages of Sanpete County would coax him down here.

Two weeks ago, his pickup truck finally rolled through Fairview and Mt. Pleasant, making frequent stops along the way to explore, examine and snap pictures of many weathered old doorknobs.

I hopped in with him as he came through Spring City and joined him in the hunt.

Of course, he deemed many rustic old doorknobs in this pioneer town worthy of adding to his photographic trophy case.

Whatever I’d initially thought of his Great Doorknob Hunt, his enthusiasm became infectious, and I found myself ruminating right along with him about the hard-scrabble, 19th-century folks who’d lived on the other side of all those weather-beaten doors.

It took me instantly back 150 years, as I tried to picture them in my mind’s eye and to envision them as they went about the rigors of their daily routines.

And now, I can’t help but look for old doorknobs myself as I go about my own (far less rigorous) daily routine.

Whenever I put my hand on a doorknob that looks authentically old now, I can’t help but wonder what unseen hands might’ve been upon it before my own.

And when I walk into an old pioneer home that still has the original flooring, I think about all those pairs of handmade leather shoes that trod the same rough-hewn planks over a 100 years before my own mass-produced Nikes came trundling over them.

My wife and I have learned some of the history and family details of the initial pioneer inhabitants (and builders) of our old Spring City house, since moving into it four years ago.

Yet I am much more inclined now to ponder more deeply upon these people and to try to feel their presence.

I will sometimes sit very still in the parlor or the bedroom and just think about them.

And if I am very quiet, I think I can hear them: their concerns about crops or the weather or the new calf or foal; their kind words and their arguments and even their most intimate whisperings.

I can’t, really, but it’s fun to sometimes make-believe I can.

Since going doorknob hunting with my cousin, such a historically minded view of our pioneer valley has grown more pronounced in my own mind.

I cannot actually see the ghosts of those original settlers, but I am inclined now to stop by an old Sanpete cemetery and wander among the headstones or saunter slowly through an old pioneer barn or farmyard, looking for any rusted relic from the past.

And why not?

Every town in this Sanpete Valley is historic, sprinkled about with myriad reminders of those bygone days. They are virtually under our very noses, if we’ll simply attune ourselves to seeing them.

I don’t expect to hear the actual voices of our home’s original inhabitants, but if I ever do, I just hope they won’t harangue me too roundly for my wimpy insistence on indoor plumbing and a furnace!


Comments are always welcome at

This Way or That? Choose a Route North


By Randal B. Thatcher

Jan. 25, 2018


Since moving to this lovely mountain valley over four years ago, I have come to realize some unavoidable facts of life and living in our Sanpete Valley:

  • Herds of sheep will sometimes be blocking the road you’re traveling.
  • Whenever driving after dark, one must be constantly vigilant for that dreaded deer in the middle of the road.
  • Trips up north to bigger cities such as Provo and Salt Lake City become a necessity.

Whatever the reason, most of us find ourselves journeying northward at least a couple times a month.

The frequency of these trips will vary by household, but I have yet to meet the family that is entirely immune from these requisite trips.

Since we all travel north from time to time and since two perfectly acceptable and nearly equidistant ways to get there exist, I am always interested to know which route people tend to prefer and why.

If you live in Moroni or Fountain Green, you will almost certainly take S.R. 132 through Nephi Canyon which connects to I-15.

If, on the other hand, you live in Fairview, you will likely just hop on U.S. 89, which connects to U.S. 6 and eventually feeds into I-15.

But if you happen to live farther south, your choice is less obvious and requires a little more forethought.

So, which way to go?

Appealing to the digital map on my computer does not provide a conclusive answer.

Spring City and Mt. Pleasant residents save only three minutes by taking the U.S. 89 route instead of Nephi.

Ephraim and Manti residents save only the same three minutes by taking the opposite route.

(This assumes, of course, that we all travel at exactly the posted speed limit and that we don’t get stuck behind Ol’ Methuselah in his ’54 Nash Rambler going a steady 45 mph!)

I have taken the opportunity of asking a number of locals from different towns which route they prefer, and their answers are telling.

Some are simply creatures of habit who have gotten used to a particular route over the years and never deviate from it.

Some are classic Type A personalities who prefer the Nephi route because it includes a stretch of 80-mph freeway where they can “really go fast.”

Some are classic Type B personalities who care less about how fast they go and who care more about enjoying the ride and the scenery along the way. These tend to prefer the more scenic route through Thistle.

Nearly everyone I talked with said they prefer that lovely route along scenic U.S. 89, provided they’re traveling during daylight hours and especially during those spectacular seasons of spring and fall. (One particular fellow who makes his living as an artist told me, “Many paintings have come from that stretch of road through Birdseye, Benny Creek and Thistle.”)

During snowy months, however, and especially after nightfall, many opt for the Nephi route, preferring to travel more of their journey along the well-plowed and well-lit I-15 corridor.

Some take the Thistle route in daylight when deer on the road are easily spotted but opt for the Nephi route after dark when they aren’t.

One woman, though she prefers the scenery along U.S. 89, avoids that same route on major holidays because, “With too much oncoming traffic, it can be scary making that left-hand turn at the junction.”

One fellow takes the Nephi route to avoid getting stuck behind a slow-moving car for many exasperating miles on U.S 89 but is willing to run that same risk during the autumn season “for the beautiful views.”

Another woman takes the Nephi route exclusively because, “It just feels safer.”

Another guy takes the U.S. 89 route exclusively because he finds it “so inspiring.” (He especially likes it in springtime when green hills in the foreground and snowy peaks in the background combine to help him imagine he’s driving through Switzerland!)

One family which makes the trip every week prefers U.S. 89 because it seems shorter but also because they “know that road very well.”

A young enterprising fellow I know will always take the Nephi route because he “gets decent cell-phone reception nearly the whole way.”

One culinary-minded fellow takes the U.S. 89 route into Spanish Fork, specifically so he can stop at his favorite Little Acorn Restaurant “for a quick bite on the way home.”

I can remember just enough from my college statistics course to conclude there’s no statistical significance whatsoever in this anecdotal straw poll of mine, but I have finally asked enough people this same question for a consensus of opinion to emerge.

Here it is: The Nephi route is considered safer (especially after dark or in snowy conditions), but the Thistle route is thought to be far more scenic during daylight hours (and particularly in autumn and springtime).

So, choose your route.

And fond wishes for safe and scenic motoring!

Comments are welcome at

Is that really Willie Nelson’s ranch?


By Randal B. Thatcher

Dec. 14, 2017


I like to keep an eye out whenever I go traveling around Sanpete Valley for those big, iconic ranch gates that dot this agricultural county. I love to read the names of these sprawling ranches on the big gate-signs that hang over the entrances—names like “Lazy 8 Ranch” or “Hill Top Ranch” or “The Double-D” or “Choice Acres.”

While spotting all these ranch gates and reading their respective gate-signs, however, one particular sign on one particular gate has always intrigued me more than all the others.

This gate can be seen along U.S. 89 at mile marker 298 as you pass through the tiny, unincorporated community of Birdseye, which is about 10 miles north of Indianola.

As ranch gates go, it’s pretty simple—lengths of pipe and wrought-iron welded together and painted white.

But it’s the ranch insignia that has always captured my attention and my imagination.        Just two letters: W.N.

Not long after moving here, I was told those letters stood for the initials of the famous country music singer, Willie Nelson. Subsequent inquiries confirmed that this much of the local lore was true.

I then heard that this “WN” ranch was, in fact, owned by Willie himself. Also true.

I subsequently learned that Willie had been obliged to sell the ranch, some years ago, to raise money to pay some back taxes. An internet search quickly revealed the sad proof of this part of the story, as well. (Which means, I suppose, that I can finally stop looking for Willie’s trademark red bandanna at the local grocery store.)

But then came the most disappointing rumor of all—that Willie never even visited his ranch and that it was merely a financial transaction on paper, arranged by some clever money manager.

This part of the story was more difficult to resolve. No one seemed able to conclusively refute or confirm the claim.

But in my dogged desire to know, I finally discovered the one person who was able to persuasively settle the question.

I happened to ask my cowboy neighbor, recently, what he knew about the history of that fabled “WN” ranch, and he promptly introduced me to his longtime friend, Kal, a resident of Mt. Pleasant, who proceeded to give me the following firsthand account, which I paraphrase:

Kal had once been a horse trainer and occasional stunt double for the actor Robert Redford, who introduced him to a friend who was looking to buy some horses. Kal said this would-be buyer did not have the look of a traditional horseman, with his scruffy, white beard, and his dingy, red bandanna tied around a head of long, strawberry-blonde hair.

The buyer turned out to be none other than the famous singer, Willie Nelson.

They instantly hit it off, and before he knew it, Kal was looking for property for the famous singer somewhere in the Central Utah area, where Willie could keep his newly acquired horses and bring friends to visit.

Kal crisscrossed the state from St. George to Spanish Fork looking at over a dozen available properties before finally settling on the 95-acre ranch in Birdseye.

When Willie’s Learjet landed at the Salt Lake International Airport, Kal was there to meet him in his mud-spattered pickup truck, squiring him down I-15, along U.S. 6 (stopping for a cheeseburger at “Big-D’s,” which, sadly, is long gone), then turning onto U.S. 89 and down those few more miles to Birdseye.

Willie approved immediately, declaring the surrounding countryside to be every bit as scenic as that of his beloved Luck, Texas.

Kal took up permanent residence, as the caretaker of Willie’s new ranch, where he soon undertook to build the white-brick ranch house in 1983 you can still see on the property, and to assemble, paint and install that simple, white ranch gate with those two prominent letters—WN—at the top.

Willie owned the property for nine years, during which time he visited the ranch on three separate occasions, always aboard his signature tour bus and accompanied by various members of his band.

During one of these visits, my neighbor had stopped by the ranch to see Kal and wondered aloud, “Who is that old hippie standing out there in the stalls?”

I asked whether Willie had ever considered the prospect of actually living on his WN Ranch during part of the year, and Kal said he likely would have done so at some point if he hadn’t been forced to sell it and that he really had come to love this scenic mountain valley.

Willie’s old ranch gate has become such a significant local landmark for me that it would’ve been heartbreaking to learn he’d never actually been there.

But, as it turns out, I now watch even more eagerly for that familiar “WN” every time I drive through Birdseye.

And, in fond tribute, I never fail, as I pass, to belt out his most famous refrain: “On the road again!”


Comments welcome at

Well-Situated Sanpete
Gateway to Scenic Splendors of the World


By Randall Thatcher

Nov. 9, 2017


Convincing friends from faraway places to come visit us here in lovely Sanpete is usually not a difficult proposition. But, for the more reluctant, I tend to sweeten the proposal with two further inducements: First, I offer to make them waffles every morning; and second, I casually mention the fact that we are less than a three-hour drive from some of the most breathtakingly beautiful spots on earth.

After overhearing me repeat this alluring fact to an out-of-state friend during a phone call last week, my wife took the opportunity to repeat to me my own words—that we are, indeed, closely situated to such singularly stunning places as Cedar Breaks, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, Bryce and Zion—and it shouldn’t require out of town guests to promptly to go see them.

So convincing were her blandishments that we impulsively tossed our camping gear into the back of the car and were soon motoring merrily down scenic U.S. 89.

As we rolled along through the pastoral farmlands of south Sanpete and Sevier counties, we considered our many tantalizing options, resolving finally upon a several-days’ adventure in Capitol Reef National Park.

Less than three hours later, we were pitching our tent in the Cedar Mesa Campground, inside the park, and preparing for an exploratory evening hike into Red Canyon.

The next day brought an eye-popping drive up and over the fabled—and still unpaved—Burr Trail Switchbacks (not quite as vexing to us, in our little subcompact car, as it must have been to early stagecoach passengers, but somewhat hair-raising, nonetheless.)

We hiked the Lower Muley Twist Canyon, ambling through its labyrinth of rock walls and cottonwoods aflame with autumn color, before looping back to the car to continue along the famous Burr Trail. The surprising scenery along this stretch of rough, unimproved road more than makes up for its tooth-rattling ruts and washboards. Even when these bone-jarring obstacles finally give way to blissfully smooth and welcome pavement, the scenery only intensified, as Burr Trail turned into legendary Highway 12.

Search the internet for the ten most scenic roads in America, and on any list that comes up you’ll likely find “All-American Road,” also known as “Scenic Byway 12,” which ushers lucky motorists through stunning orange and red canyons, silt cliffs, and plateaus covered with forests of pine, fir and spruce, with a national park at either end, and historic pioneer communities along the way.

One of these communities is the “unspoiled and untamed” town of Boulder (though tame enough to offer the passing sojourner a cheeseburger and fries).

Then more of Highway 12, until I began to think I could not possibly absorb any more grandeur. Turns out, however, that I could—and did.

Having passed the point of no return on this particular route, we determined to complete a scenic loop known as the “Patchwork Parkway” (named after a group of pioneers who, trying to get to Parowan from Panguitch in order to get supplies to save the town during its first winter after a failed crop from the summer before, were able to traverse deep mountain snows only by placing quilts under their feet so they could walk without sinking into the snow).

At Cedar Breaks National Monument we reached the lofty elevation of 10,567 feet, making it one of the highest paved roads in the state.

Metal Shop Miracle
A life lesson in the form of a metal riveting hammer


Randal B. Thatcher





It’s been decades now, but the memory is still as vivid as if it had happened yesterday: When the least likely, least confident, least capable boy in that year’s 8th grade metal shop, was awarded the only perfect score in the entire class for the most challenging assignment of the semester: A metal riveting hammer: eight inches in length, with a four inch handle, and a head exactly three inches long, and a half-inch by half-inch square.

So, what, exactly, were the odds, that this same kid, who’d turned in the worst sheet-metal lock-box in the whole class, would somehow score the only perfect 75-points on the more difficult hammer assignment?  Well, probably somewhere close to zero.

And yet, as far-fetched, and as visibly improbable as it surely must’ve seemed at the time, it actually happened.

The metal shop gods must’ve been smiling on the day I nervously drilled holes into both the handle and head.  And I guess they were still smiling the next day when I tentatively took the tap in hand to cut screw threads down into both holes, and then the die to cut external threads onto either end of my connecting shaft.

So far, so good.  But this was not the miracle.

When I eventually screwed the three parts of my hammer together, and discovered that they actually fit, I was amazed.  But this was still not the miracle.

The miracle began the day I took my hammer home to show dad how it was coming along.  He held it gently in his hands–those big, strong, skilled hands, that could build seemingly anything.

He studied it for a full minute, but said nothing.

I wondered if he was disappointed.  I knew my hammer wasn’t abjectly awful–certainly not the debacle that the lock-box had been.  But I couldn’t help trying to discern whether that consummate craftsman might not be feeling that his own progeny somehow failed to measure up.

After he’d inspected it, dad laid my little hammer down on the kitchen counter, where it remained until after dinner.

Clearing the table, and thinking there was nothing more to be said about the hammer, I picked it up and began tucking this very mediocre, and not-quite-finished thing, back into my book-bag.

And that’s when dad finally spoke.  “Bring your hammer downstairs to the shop.”

Dad’s basement workshop was a place of wonder to my 13-year old mind; a place where he made incomprehensible–almost magical–things happened on a regular basis.

Rummaging through several cluttered drawers, he produced a sheet of very fine sandpaper, some steel-wool, several lengths of emery-cloth, and, surprisingly, a crimped, old tube of toothpaste.

Wrapping my hammer carefully in cloth to protect it, he placed it between the jaws of a vise and tightened it.  Then he showed me how to painstakingly polish metal.  He told me I’d need to work every millimeter of that hammer, going over it again and again, first with the fine-grit sandpaper, then the steel-wool, the emery-cloth, and finally, the toothpaste, before one final buffing.  He said it would take a lot of time and a lot of “elbow grease,” but that the final result would be worth it.

And it did take time–many hours spent down in that basement shop, after school, sanding and rubbing and polishing and buffing, until fingers throbbed and arms ached.

Dad would come down periodically to check on my progress.  And finally, on the Saturday afternoon before the Monday when the hammer assignment was due, he nodded his approval.

No metal shop student ever turned in an assignment with more pride than I did on that Monday morning.  My hammer positively gleamed!  The shop teacher expelled a whistle of admiration as he took it from me, unable to hide his surprise at this impressive result from his least likely student.

And you already know the result: 75 points out of a possible 75; the only perfect score in the class.

And when some of my resentfully dumbfounded classmates pointed out that my hammer was not perfect in every observable detail, our teacher told them that it’s brilliantly polished finish more than made up for any minor imperfections.

It was a rare moment of triumph for a bookish, insecure 8th grader, and one he would never forget.

I still have that old riveting hammer.  I always will.  Because it reminds me of a lesson my dad taught me all those many years ago.  A lesson, not just about how to polish metal, or how to score a perfect 75 on a challenging assignment, but a lesson about life: that the little details matter; and that what can sometimes feel like tediously thankless and painstaking work–rubbing out scratches and tiny blemishes from an imperfect surface–will eventually yield a surprisingly beautiful and satisfying result.

Which, in the final analysis, will prove to have been more than worth the effort.

Thank you, dad, for teaching me this lesson.  It has helped to guide my life ever since.

Columnist Randal B. Thatcher

Columnist Randal B. Thatcher


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Heading up into the hills… my first real hunt


By Randal B. Thatcher


After four years of living in this lovely, high-mountain valley of ours, and having had so many horizon-broadening “country” experiences during that time, I wasn’t sure how many of these experiential “firsts” were still left for me to assimilate. But then came autumn and hunting season, and yet another first-ever exploit that I would not likely have had if I’d never moved here.

My alarm jarred me rudely awake at what is, for me, the rarely conscious hour of 4 a.m. (or what my avid hunter-friends refer to as “O Dark Hundred”).

Pulling on the thickest and warmest clothes I’d worn in several months, and slinging on a backpack crammed with water-bottles and granola-bars, I headed out the door and into the chilly darkness to await the Ford F-150 pickup truck that would usher me up into the burgeoning autumnal colors of the Manti-La Sal Mountains (once we could finally see anything at all, that is).

I wondered, first, why we’d needed to get such a preposterously early and pitch-dark start to our Fairview safari. But, one hour later, standing in the predawn gloom of the forest, amid the shadowy giants of fir and pine, I listened with rapt awe to the eerie, ethereal echoes of dozens of bull-elk, as they ‘bugled’ all around me, and answered my own question.

Second, I wondered if, when faced with that fateful moment of finding one of those majestic animals within my cross-hairs, I’d be able to actually pull the trigger. This internal conundrum was easily solved by no one in our hunting party allowing me anywhere near any of the three high-powered rifles they’d brought with them.

I was relegated, once dawn had broken, to spotting nearby elk by peering through a friend’s camouflaged binoculars (which, since I couldn’t actually fire a gun, helped me to feel I was making my own small contribution to our collective hunting effort).

And I did spot some elk—quite a few of them. Shots were fired. And the reverberating report of the very first rifle-shot was so startlingly and unexpectedly loud that my feet involuntarily left the ground at the exact moment that a flock of birds sprang en masse into the sky overhead.

It was all more thrilling than I’d imagined: being part of a real hunting party with formidable-looking guns and shiny, brass, rifle cartridges, and all of us wearing our requisite orange caps and vests—I was actually hunting!

As the sun rose higher into the morning sky, I was told our chances of success would continue to decline with each missed shot and passing hour.

So, it was with a palpable excitement that I peered through the binoculars to witness what I thought was an elk falling to the ground after another deafening explosion from a friend’s steadily aimed rifle.

“Yes or no?” He called to me. “Yes… YES!”

At those words—my own overwrought exclamations—we drove the truck as near the spot as possible, then hiked in an ever-expanding circle around the area where I thought the animal had fallen.

After a solid hour of exhaustive (and exhausting) searching, however, my companions’ confidence in what I was so certain I’d seen began to wane.

Relieved of my spotting duties (having sheepishly relinquished the binoculars), the hunt continued. More shots were fired, succeeding only in scaring more birds into the air.

By 1 p.m., even my own optimistic hopes were beginning to ebb as the promising sounds of nearby bugling elk faded, and our whispered deliberations of which way we might go to stalk this herd or that were becoming louder and more distracted by discussions of our impending cheeseburger luncheon down in the valley.

And that’s how it ended: over cheeseburgers and fries; talk of the one that got away; good-natured ribbing of the guy who was so sure of what he’d seen through the binoculars, and of the next hunt, and of that big, elusive buck we were all convinced we’d bag the next time out.

I don’t know how likely it is that I’ll even be invited on that next expedition (for reasons already mentioned); but for that day, even if only for that one time, I got to feel part of a real hunt.

And the next time I happen to find myself with a group of local sportsmen all waxing rhapsodic about their most recent hunt and of that unmistakable sound of surrounding bull-elk all bugling majestically out there in the wild, I can finally smile a broad and sagely smile while adding my own knowing nod.


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