Can Anything Good Come Out of Vernal?

The American Grandpa tells a lot of personal stories. Most of the time I share because I’ve learned from the experience and want to pass on the lesson. Other times, I just wax nostalgic. I reserve that right. I am an old guy and dog gone it I’ve earned it. Today I will tell you the story about a trip back into my past.

I was born and raised (until 13) in a town called Vernal, situated on the east edge of Utah. To the south are rich oil and gas fields and Gilsonite deposits. To the north is the beauty of the south slope of the Uinta mountain range and Flaming Gorge. To the east is the Dinosaur National Monument and Brown’s Park. To the west? 185 miles to civilization.

Pink Dinosaur
The Dinosaur National Monument was established in 1915 just east of Vernal. By the time I came into the world 40 years later Vernal was well established as Dinosaur Land.

My apologies to Roosevelt, Duchesne and Heber, but yes, it is 185 long miles to Salt Lake City.

When my dad came west with the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1936, he saw a posting in the Salt Lake City office for a medic at an outlying camp.  He talked his cousin Dutch Bouy into the adventure and they volunteered.  When asked when the train left, the duty officer just laughed and pointed at a troop transport truck. Six hours later Dad, Dutch and other volunteers arrived at their new post – Vernal.

Vernal CC Camp
Taken in 1938, this picture of the Vernal CC camp is pretty much what it looked like when Dad arrived in 1936.

 

Dad was not impressed.  After just a few hours in town he went to the bus terminal and asked when he could catch the next bus to Salt Lake. “Two weeks from tomorrow” came the reply, “if it shows up.” And that was the beginning of the Bath family legacy in Utah.

There is still no train to Vernal (from anywhere), but you can catch a Greyhound any day of the week right out in front of the KFC on the highway and its now only about a 3-hour drive by car over nice roads (if Strawberry is open). This isn’t like the Steadman Recreation dealer claim that Salt Lakers see the 30- mile trip to Tooele as 300. No, it is one hundred and eighty-five long, freaking miles to Salt Lake City.

Okay, we have established that Vernal is isolated.

The reason I bring Vernal up is that a couple of weeks ago I wrote about being a kid on my Grandfather Jackson’s farm and that got me thinking about Vernal. I got a little homesick and thought I would take a day and go visit. I moved from Vernal in 1969 and have been back dozens of times, but what used to be semi-annual trips are now a lot less frequent and I have never gone back just to reconnect.

So last weekend I rented a car and headed east –185 long miles – to the place where I grew up.  I was alone with my thoughts which interestingly started tumbling around as soon as I headed out of Salt Lake – all centering around my life as a kid in Vernal.

As I passed Kimball Junction, I realized that when I was a kid, Park City was just the dumpy remains of an old mining town. There were no ski resorts, no rich folk and no Sundance Film Festival. Heck, I’d never even heard of Robert Redford.

Old Picture of Park City
An unflattering picture of Park City in the early 1900’s, but it didn’t look much better when I was a boy in Vernal.

Taking the turn toward Heber reminded me that Highway 40 (construction started in 1926 as part of America’s first attempt at an interstate system) used to be called the Main Street of America. It stretched from Atlantic City, New Jersey to San Francisco, California, passing though little ol’ Vernal, Utah. This made Vernal a travelers’ first introduction to Utah and a great stopping off point – because, yes, it was sill 185 miles to Salt Lake City.

Right on the highway was the Hotel Vernal, the classiest place in town, where my mom waitressed. She took great pride in her work and would take us there on special occasions. She served both Fred Astaire and Jack Benny there and I still have the autographed menus to prove it.

Hotel Vernal Postcard
Post Card of the Hotel Vernal

Traveling along Highway 40 I came to Heber (which I have always really liked and really hasn’t changed that much in 50 years) and then took the long climb up Daniel’s Canyon to the Strawberry Valley. At 7400 feet, the Strawberry Valley can be treacherous in the winter – travelers hate it, snowmobilers love it. The rest of the year it can be a very pleasant place and holds a special place in my childhood memories.

One of my dad’s friends, Chester Murray, was quite an entrepreneur. One of his many holdings was a fishing camp on the south shore of Strawberry Reservoir (one of the great fishing spots in the world). Chester invited us often and I loved it when we went. I loved it for a lot of reasons, but foremost among them was his daughter, Allison, on whom I had a huge, secret crush. She would drive me around on her Tote Gote and I’d think I was very cool.

Camp Strawberry

Just past Strawberry I came down into Current Creek which I thought had come up surprisingly quickly, after all, it is the half way point. It was just past Current Creek that I lost all Salt Lake radio contact and started searching for local stations. I settled on KNEU out of Roosevelt and yes it was country music. Country is not my favorite genre but I will tell you that nothing gets you thinking about home, family and your roots like country music.

My mom and dad (an excellent musician who played in several dance bands) really disliked country music. Glen Miller, Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby ruled in our house and I still remember my dad’s five-piece trap set (with a hula girl on the bass that danced to the beat) as an occasional fixture in our living room. My parents actually liked some rock and roll better than country, even thought they were convinced by their John Birch Society friends that most of it was a Communist plot to destroy the minds and morals of American Youth.

Dad's Dance Band
One of Dad’s dance bands from the early 1950’s.  This is before the cool hula girl bass.  Dad is on the drums but also played bass fiddle and piano.

 

Anyway, I listened to country for the last 92.5 miles. There were some good country music standards by Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and even John Denver. There were a lot of younger singers I didn’t know but enjoyed almost everything I heard.

As I crested the hill that overlooks the Ashely Valley, I pulled over to take a look at my old home. Vernalites probably think things have really changed since I moved away, but it looked very much the same to me. It was late winter, so everything is still brown, but I could visualize how green the fields and trees would be in just a few weeks. I saw the highway curve into town and plotted out a self-guided tour, certain that the Vernal visitor center would be out of the Life of Vince Bath 1955 to 1969 brochures.

The tour started where First South merges with Main Street, right where the A&W used to be. This was a real A&W in my day with treats (root beer ice cream, floats, teen burgers) served by car hops (cutest girls in town).  My brother-in-law bought it years later and turned it into a 50’s drive-in.

Just to the right was the baseball field where I played my first year of Little League and started a lifelong love for baseball. I frustrated the heck out my coach because I would not swing at the ball. The first few games the pitchers were really bad so I got in the habit of just letting them walk me. Over the season they got better, but I choked at every at-bat and was thrown out on strikes most of the time.

baseball picxture
First shot a Little League on the Pirates.  I am the dorky kid on the front row, second from the right.  Struck out on pitches almost every time because I was afraid to swing.  Next year I was “traded” to the Cubs and started swinging.

The next year I was put on a different team (due to threat by my father) and played on a new field. My new coach worked with me on my swing, but I was still afraid as I came up for my first at-bat. My mom was sitting in the bleachers with her friend Alta Robinson and yelled at me, “no dinner for you if you don’t get a hit!”  I was so embarrassed.  I remember thinking “never again” and as the first pitch crossed the plate, I swung with all my might – and hit my first home run. I hit more homers than any other kid in the league that year. I also struck out more than any other kid, but it didn’t matter because I always went down swinging.

Just up the street and across the road from that first ball field was the place I called home for most of my growing up years. In a shrewd business deal (sarcasm is dripping from the keyboard) my father had purchased a whole neighborhood – nine 2-bedroom homes and a converted diner. We were landlords for the nine houses and lived in the back of the diner.

Dad had originally used the unconverted part of the diner for his electrical repair shop, but he and mom came up with a better idea. They converted that part of the building into a snack shop which kids from the junior high – right across the street – mobbed at lunch. At first it was just candy, chips and soda, but soon they were serving hamburgers and hotdogs though a window cut into our kitchen and soft serve ice cream from a machine we bought in Salt Lake City – 185 miles away.  Now least you think that life was pretty good for the kid who had free run of a whole well-stocked wall of candy and who was boss of the neighborhood, you’ve haven’t heard the best of it.

reading porgram
This has nothing to do with the story I am telling you, but I am so damned cute in this picture I had to include it. Note the librarians’ eyes are trained on me and I have that mischievous look that indicates I’m up to something.  Family and friends know that look.

Across the street was the junior high – my own personal playground. In front was a two-acre lawn dotted with giant cottonwood trees, crisscrossed with sidewalks. Christopher Robin may have had his 100-acre wood, but there is no way his adventures could compare with mine. One day I was Robin Hood shooting my bow from the branch of a tree in Sherwood Forest. The next day I was Sargent Sanders being shot off his motorcycle (bike) by the Germans (lawn sprinklers). Then I was the Green Hornet (it was tough getting a good Kato) heading off to my secret hideout.

One day the Green Hornet and Kato (that day my nephew Roger) decided we needed a campfire in the hideout (located in the bushes behind the seminary building). Well the fire got out of control and spread to the dry field behind the seminary. Afraid to go home, I rode all the way up to the grocery story on Main Street to call the fire in and then (in true pyromaniac style) went back to watch my dad and the rest of the volunteer fire department fight it. Then Green Hornet and Kato rode back to the firehouse on the back of the fire engine.

Vernal Fire Department
Vernal Volunteer Fire Department putting out a field fire (not the Green Hornet’s and Kato’s this day). My dad is the portly gentlemen in tan right in the middle of the picture.  And yes the Green Hornet and Kato did ride on the back of that very truck.

From the junior high I headed to Central Elementary School. I remembered my first concussion (jumping out of the swing at the apex); coming in from recess to find my teacher crying (JFK’s assassination); meeting my first black person (she’d come to teach at our school); and losing my first fight (who knew 6th graders were bigger and tougher than 3rd graders).

My boyhood hero was Mr. Glade Southam, my 6th grade teacher. He knew how to get 11-year-old boys excited about learning – rockets, video equipment, sports, airplanes, adventure books and the example of a man. He encouraged Brian Wilkes and me to enter and win at the Uintah Basin science fair. We all loved him.

From Central I headed up to Main Street, where almost every building and storefront held a memory. One was the movie theater where I was creeped out by boys turning in donkeys in Pinocchio and really enjoyed James Bond movies with my friend Dan Lopez (it was all the cool gadgets and not the girls in bikinis, honest mom). There was the Museum of Natural History with all the dinosaur bones and the blacklight/florescent light display. There was the Hotel Vernal where I first tasted shrimp cocktail salad and did my first guest appearance on radio, as a four-year- old boy who’d wandered into the sound booth of KAJM.

hunting license
Had one of these from the day I could throw a spear and I bagged my limit every year.  I think you can still get these from the Museum of Natural History or the BLM Office, but by now the dinos have all turned to oil.

 

At the end of Main Street, between the cement plant and the Gateway Café is a lane that was very special to me as a kid. Everyone probably had a best friend as a kid, maybe more than one, but for me there was the ultimate best friend – Dan Lopez – and he lived down that lane. As I drove into the lane memories flooded my mind.

I remember lying in the ditch by the highway, in the dark of night, slingshoting bb’s at the hubcaps of passing cars. It made the coolest whizzing sound and freaked the drivers out. The only problem was, I hit the same police car on three passes and the cop finally slammed on his breaks and came after us. Talk about your adrenaline rush, we tore off over the cement plant wall, across the field and down to my house – covering a mile in way less than four minutes.

I’m glad that Dan’ was a good kid, because he could talk me into just about anything including trying to make gun powder in his shed. Luckily that experiment failed. We listened to Beatles records in his bedroom (guilty pleasure for me), tried out all the moves in a commando book he got from his uncle, converted his dad’s camper into the Starship Enterprise and built rafts out of gunny sacks and car inner-tubes. Oh, and we tormented his little sister Nancy (who by the way is now a distinguished professor of dental science at the University of Oklahoma).

From Lopez Lane I drove past our last home in Vernal where puberty hit me like a ton of bricks; the Kiwanis’s Scouts house, home of the sharpest Scout troop in town; and ended up in front of the he hospital where I was born. I wrote to the hospital suggesting that they put a plaque out front of the hospital reading “December 6, 1955: A Day That Will Live in Infancy” because of the tumult my advent into this world caused at the hospital that day. I guess they didn’t buy the idea because I looked and looked and there was no plaque.

traffic jam
This is a photo from the 1970’s or 1980’s.  Someone (I think Moab) was getting rid of some life-size dino statues, so guys from Vernal went down and got them. The mastodon is sitting on my brother-in-law’s lowboy trailer and being pulled by his company truck.  His son Casey took this picture and made a great t-shirt out of it.

traffic jam tshirt

Finally, I drove past the Bath family homestead. In 1943 my parents paid $500 for a two-room cabin on an acre of land on north 500 West. There was no indoor plumbing, but a nice outhouse out back and water from a handpump at the road. By the time I came home from the hospital my father had converted the house into a three-bedroom home with indoor plumbing (he dug the waterline trench by hand and had to remove a huge boulder), electric baseboard heat and a passive solar hot water system.  I lived at the homestead until I was about 4 when Dad mortgaged it to buy the houses on 100 South.

There was a lot more to my visit, but this is all I will make readers endure.

You’ve been lucky to have me as a tour guide because honestly, on your own, you’d be lost.  You see things really have changed a lot in Vernal. My first ball field in now covered by a parking lot, our nine little houses and diner have been replaced by an apartment complex, the old junior high is gone and there are only three trees left of my two-acre wood.  Central Elementary (the new part) and the junior high seminary still stand, but have been re-purposed. The movie theater is still there and most of the Main Street buildings, but the businesses have all changed.

And the people are different too, most of the adults have passed away including both of my parents. Glade Southam died in a small plane accident over the high Uinta’s in 1975 (he was just 33). And those that have survived have all gotten really old and many don’t live in Vernal anymore.

We all know that living in the past has its problems and that living in the present is much healthier, but sometimes a trip down memory lane can increase your appreciation for the good life and blessings God has given. I had a great childhood, despite the fact that my family was a bit dysfunctional and I was badly bullied in the 7th grade. I was well provided for and taught great values by my family. I had more freedom that any kid can imagine (and I had a heck of an imagination) and flourished in a safe environment.

We have all lost too many people from the past without expressing our gratitude to them for all they did for us. (Like Mr. Southam and Dan who I haven’t seen since 1970.)  I’m always too busy, too distracted and looking for the next adventure. If this trip did nothing more for me it encouraged me to reach out to those old friends, family and mentors and thank them.

And if we are going to learn anything from life if has to come from the past. The future hasn’t happened yet and the present – well we are just applying the lessons from the past. I hope that is something I am getting good at.

13 comments

  1. I can never thank you enough for taking me on your trip down memory lane, much if which I was a part of. I love you dearly , even more than the day mom and dad brought you home from the hospital and laid you on the bed with your beautiful pure white long hair glistening in the light, and I layed next to you, face to face, with so much joy I thought I would burst.

  2. Thank you for that trip down memory lane! I feel like I got to live a bit of it with you and I got to know my grandpa a little bit better. Glade M Southam is my grandpa and I wish I could’ve met him, everyone always says how great of a person he was.

    1. Thanks for your appreciation. I will tell you that for an 11-year old boy Mr. Southam was THE perfect teacher. More than once, I considered teaching elementary school so I could be the kind of influence he was for young men. I am sure the girls liked him too, but we guys really thought he was great.

  3. I was born in Vernal, but we moved when I was only 18 months old. I’ve only visited a few times, mostly for funerals. I always love learning more about my roots!

  4. I love your look back! My great grandparents lived in vernal and some of the family still live there Do you know any Bowthorpe’s?

  5. I loved this article. You sure have the gift of story telling. I was born in Vernal in 1952. Do you remember Vernal Hide and Fur? The Montgomery’s? Sadly my grandparents home and business is gone and the New Museum is on that spot. Vernal really has changed – and then again maybe not so much.

  6. PS
    My husband is related to the Southams. Glade Southam truly was a wonderful man.
    I remember the day of the plane crash, very sad day for Vernal.

    1. Thanks for sharing. Vernal is one of THOSE places. Seems like everyone has a connection. I remember your grandparents business, sure. Did you go to the old Jr. High and ever go to my parents snack shop across the street?

  7. I really enjoyed your memories. Growing up in Vernal and Naples I feel I had an idealic childhood, despite the loss of my father when I was just 8. I lived close enough to walk to both grandparents; I knew all my uncles, aunts and cousins on both sides of my family and we did things together regularly. Life was more simple and we had freedoms which are hard to imagine in today’s world. I remember spending all day with my best friend, Darin, playing in Ashley creek. Mom had no way to contact me or to know how I was doing. I remember my dad taking us for rides in a single engine plane, digging furrows in our garden with the Trail 90, taking us for trips down the Green river on his pontoon boat, and driving along single lane mountain roads near Oaks Park in “the beast”, a 4×4 Dodge Power Wagon. I’m thankful for growing up in a small town. I’m grateful for the legacy left by my father, Glade M Southam and for good people like you who share stories which allow me and my children to know more about him.

  8. Hey Vincent. Stuart Wilkins here. I have wondered how you have been. We were in Central Elementary together. I enjoyed your trip down memory lane. I still live in Vernal. A lot of things have changed but other things haven’t. Your memory about bailing out of the swing sounds kind of familiar to me. I can remember I learned how to play chess in grade school with you and Brian.

    1. Stuart, I remember you well. Thanks for remembering me. We had a great childhood, didn’t we? Glad to hear you are still kicking and all is well. I am on Facebook and will try to find you, if you are there, and we can reconnect more.

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