THE MOTEL AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE
The Fry Canyon Lodge
(With apologies to Douglas Adams)
Story and Photos by Fletcher Anderson
Imagine and for most of us at one time or another, this doesnt take very much imagination imagine the need for nothing more than just a little quiet. Picture the serenity of the desert at sunset after the wind has died down. Imagine the quiet distinctive rattle of cottonwood leaves in an almost imperceptible breeze. Think how truly relaxed you might be sitting in the shade nursing something cool to drink. Then with a regretful sigh, drop the whole fantasy because the desert is many hours away by car and you have to be back at work Monday. Drop the idea because your imaginary paradise requires half a day of hiking through blistering, debilitating heat, and finally forget it because once you arrive your destination will turn out to be RV hell with thousands of other people already crowded in there.
Drop the whole idea and get back to work. But then again, perhaps your dream does have an element of reality to it.
Think of a shaded porch with air conditioning available inside but not really needed. Think of a motel with only ten rooms, very modestly priced, very old, once somewhat run down but now completely renovated in a crisp, clean simple but very attractive unpretentious style. Envision a typical roadside eatery in the classic roadside greasy spoon style, similarly renovated and mysteriously offering a simple but elegant cuisine more typical of a very high-end resort than a rural back-road motel. Dream of the sort of sensations beyond the ability of words or photographs to convey. Let your mind wander again, and while you are doing so, get out the Denver Sectional Chart.
What you are looking for is, officially, the most remote motel in the entire state of Utah.
You could get out the Utah State Highway map and go 25 miles south from Hite. It is fairly easy to find by road, being the only building on the entire 120 miles of highway between Hanksville and Blanding! The runway is marked on the Denver Sectional at N 37º 39.0 W 110º 09.5, so plug it into your GPS, or use the sure-fire method of finding virtually anything (which student pilot John Kitts and I employed this past July): fly around randomly in every direction until you see somewhere to land. You would be a little over 55 miles out on the Hanksville VOR (HVE, 115.9) 140º radial, but you would not be able to receive the VOR signal unless you were too high to spot the runway.
The area south of Lake Powell is now and almost always has been definitively uninhabited. Well-preserved Anasazi Indian ruins line the canyon east of the runway. Mormon Pioneers on their way to colonize the San Juan River and establish a boundary to their Deseret Empire passed this way regularly in the late 19th century, but did not settle. Likewise so did cattle rustlers, including the notorious Wild Bunch, whose leaders Butch Cassidy and Harry Longbaum (the Sundance Kid) were later made famous by Hollywood. Fry Canyon has one of the few easily accessible water supplies, but there is no farm pasture anywhere in the region.
The Wild Bunch killed dozens of people, but by far the most notorious mass-murdering serial killing outlaws ever to visit this region came in the early 1950s. These were none other than the United States Government Atomic Energy Commission. As the cold war began heating up, the governments appetite for uranium grew beyond human understanding, while that same governments very clear knowledge of the dangers of radiation remained Top Secret. Hundreds of thousands of miners stampeded to this desert in a uranium frenzy.
The Fry Canyon Motel was established in 1955 as a service center for upwards of three thousand miners living in the surrounding area. The dirt runway was bulldozed in that same year. Helicopters existed then, but were too expensive for even uranium companies to operate. Thousands of similar runways were constructed all over the region, all of which are still quite visible from the air, but few of which are in any shape to be used today.
By 1959, the year I first visited, Fry Canyon was a hopping place, selling more beer to the Gentile miners than any other alcohol outlet in the entire Mormon State of Utah! The crash of breaking bottles was drowned out only by the roar of twin diesel-powered generators running twenty-four hours a day. Today both noises are gone, with a state of the art photovoltaic system providing electrical power. Utahs alcohol laws are a bit difficult for a non-Mormon to understand. Beer and an excellent wine list are available at Fry Canyons restaurant, but there is no sign of either. They are not allowed to advertise, but if you ask first, then they are allowed to tell you, Yes, we have a wine list.
The uranium frenzy ended almost as quickly as it began with a glut on the market. The miners and mill workers began dying off soon after, victims of the deadly radiation the government never warned them about. The population of Fry Canyon dropped into the low single digits.
It is perfectly safe from a radiation standpoint to visit these old mines provided you stay out of the tunnels, and several of them are within easy hiking distance. The danger comes from breathing radioactive dust and radon gas and its breakdown products. Being inside one of these mines or mills was lethal. Being outside is not.
Drifting in and out of the realm of fiction, the next visitors of note were fugitives George Washington Hayduk and Dentist Ed Sargis, who destroyed most of the machinery engaged in paving the road, and who were later pursued to eventual capture in Ed Abbeys book the Monkey Wrench Gang. Uranium mining enjoyed a brief revival at that time for use as a fuel for electrical power plants, but again lost favor following the disasters at Windscale England and Fermi #1 in Detroit. (This was pre-Three Mile Island and Chernobyl.) The population of Fry Canyons surrounding metropolitan area briefly soared back up to something larger than ten residents, but then dropped down to less than four.
With construction of the road completed, a very small but regular flow of tourists passed by on their way to the Hite Marina on Lake Powell and to Natural Bridges National Monument. Two of these later visitors may have been the fictitious travel writer Ford Prefect of Hitchhikers Guide fame, and English astronaut Arthur Dent. This tourism boom, which at times amounted to as many as three cars per hour, was just too busy for the former lodge owners, who sold out eight years ago and moved to Alaska.
Current owners Will and Georgina Petty noticed the lodge in part because it still had a usable runway, but more because of the unique charm of the place which lends itself far better to a visit than a description. Judge for yourself how well they achieved their goal of preserving the unique charm and history of the Fry Canyon Lodge, while at the same time upgrading it to an understated level of comfort no roadside motel ever dreamed of.
The runway is about 2500 feet long, uphill 80 feet from southeast to the northwest. The soil is sandy and drains well, so rain gullies seldom form. Clumps of grass make it look much rougher than it really is. Student pilot Kitts elected to land uphill and touch down just beyond a road which cuts across the south end of the runway. His soft field landing was smoother than on some paved runways, including nearby Hite. Beware though that after a recent rain, the surface can be soft. While the walk to the motel is always referred to as being half a mile, a glance down from the air will show you that it is about three runway lengths, i.e., a mile and a half.
After a short easy walk from the airstrip, we made it to the restaurant too late for breakfast, but too early for lunch. Never mind. The chef salad appeared in seconds and was fresh and delicious. Everyone we met was friendly, and we felt no rush to get moving. Among the people we spoke to were two of the guests, each of whom had been staying regularly for decades. The first was an art gallery owner who lives (surprise) about a mile from my home in Telluride. He was anxious to show us around the place. In answer to the obvious questions about air conditioning, showers, TV, etc., he joyously exclaimed that there was no TV reception here and he was taking advantage of that to reread his four favorite books.
As with many remote locations, there is no cell phone reception either, nor can you talk to Flight Service or Center on the radio unless you are up very high. The motel itself has a satellite radio phone for emergencies.
The other guest looked just a tad more dangerous -- he was a biker in full regalia riding his Harley back from Sturgis, South Dakota to San Diego. But wait. Can this guy read a map? Fry Canyon is nowhere near the route between those places. Indeed, it isnt on the road from anywhere to anywhere else! It turns out that back at work this scruffy biker is a 757 captain for Airborne Express, who has occasionally flown with (is this a small world or what?) my stepson-in-law, who is a DC 8 pilot with the same company! His schedule is fly a week, take a week off. On his week off he hops on his Harley and rides off with a know destination but no pre planned route. More often than not, the route finds its way to Fry Canyon. Where else, he asked us rhetorically, can you sit back in such peace and enjoy the desert clear dark night sky?
During the hot part of the day, relaxing on the lodges porch is the drill. Hiking takes places in the early morning and evening hours. If you drove here, you would probably visit Natural Bridges. If you flew in, you would probably fly up to Hite for a swim in Lake Powell. You could also visit my favorite restaurant at Needles Outpost, fifteen minutes or so by air. After a scenic flight over the Goosenecks of the San Juan River to the south, you might land Bluff, Utah, or you might fly over the Abajo Mountains to Monticello, 30 Nautical miles east, and the closest fuel stop. The same distance west gets you to Cal Black (which also has fuel) or Bullfrog airport on Lake Powell, where you could rent a boat.
Our departure in a 180-horsepower Cessna 172 with temperatures climbing to 100 degrees used barely a quarter of the runway. Any small general aviation aircraft will do fine here, although you would probably not want to subject a retractable nose wheel to this or any soft or bumpy dirt runway. As with anywhere in the desert, summer midday can be turbulent and surface winds can be gusty. An early morning or evening takeoff or landing would be the most comfortable. John Kitts is talented, but is still a student pilot, and had no problems whatsoever with the approach or the runway. Neither should most private pilots.
The most remote motel in the state of Utah is on the Internet at www.frycanyon.com. You can phone 435-259-5334 for reservations, but that gets you the desk at their sister resort, the Red Rock Lodge in Moab. They can give you the satellite phone number if you need to inquire about runway conditions. General manager Ray Farnsworth also manages the Sheridan Hotel in Telluride, and spends countless hours on the road every week. (Are you reading this Ray? You could learn to fly and visit all three lodges in two hours!)
Fletcher Anderson lives in Telluride, Colorado, and is the operator of Mountain Aviation Services (970-728-1728), the second highest flight school in America. He has over 3000 hours experience flying small powered aircraft, 2000 hours flying paragliders, and a lot less time than he wants flying sailplanes, all in the mountains. He has given over 1000 hours of mountain flying instruction, and has several hundred hours game spotting and photo flying.
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