There’s a hidden beauty of the arid desert landscape that evades even the most discerning observer. Those who brave these supposed desolate environments may spend their day and their dollars yearning to see these rare glimpses into what lies beneath the dust and the rocks, but the desert reveals her true soul only to those who are prepared for such a showing and are found worthy of such a spectacle.
Amidst the many remnants the never-before-seen Lake Bonneville left across the Great Basin, the Tule Valley Hardpan is a familiar one to backcountry aviators across the state of Utah. Affectionally known as Ibex, the dry lake bed serves as a long, wide, hard, and flat landing surface that attracts even the smallest of tires to the outdoors. The name itself gives those who stumble upon this magical place a sense of mystery as to its origins; the author Galen Hanselman theorizing that the man who put this place on the map, Jack Watson, turned grandiose visions of nearby bighorn sheep with larger-than-life horns into the now preferred name for this somewhat hidden spot, perhaps in an attempt to draw visitors to these lands.
Nestled between the Barn and Black Hills, the hardpan’s white outline is broken up with what appears to have been an island that now serves as the preferred parking and camping spot for our airborne adventurers. Atop this hill now rests a windsock that’s had many battles with the winds and the weather that frequent this valley. The latest reports coming in to the Utah Back Country Pilots Association (UBCP) show that the windsock is standing tall and has been reinforced for the upcoming battle with the spring weather.
Fisherman and hunters will deny any knowledge of a “secret spot” that yields results never before seen elsewhere. Passed on through traditions, kept close in family circles, these secret spots seem more folklore than fact. Ibex, while published in many books and scattered across the many repositories of backcountry airstrips, is one of these secret spots to me, minus the secret part. The magic of a place like Ibex rests not in its location, nor its accessibility. The magic of Ibex is something given to those who’ve experienced these lands transition from day to night and back to day.
Our purposes for enjoying this magical place on this particular day stem from a mother who tragically lost her son while flying crop dusters nearby. For years she would celebrate her son’s love for aviation by making the trek out to Ibex to grill burgers and hot dogs for those who shared her son’s passion for flight. Even in her advancing age, she’d still make the drive out, wrestling what was once a functioning propane barbecue into the confines of her pickup truck and serving as chief of the watch on the grill. I’ll never forget one year, the last for that rusted barbecue, where the ingenuity and hunger pains of the dozens of pilots were able to turn airplane survival gear into the necessary parts and pieces to restore the wind beneath that Weber.
Marking the beginning of the spring backcountry flying season, the UBCP’s Ibex fly-in contends yearly with the weather patterns that postpone and/or cancel the event on a recurring basis. Last year, however, not even a pandemic could cancel Ibex. Dozens of adventurers made the trek across the hills and valleys nearby for a more COVID-friendly fly-in, barbecues and potlucks put on hold while the world was still trying to figure out what to do next.
After a few hours of a socially-distanced social, the bulk of our friends and colleagues departed Ibex to more civilized pastures. Three of us remained. Tied down, stomachs full of our own lunch concoctions, the continual adjustment of our chairs beneath the wings of our airplanes became our home. The tall tales of previous exploits, the dreams and aspirations of future ones, and the rekindling of our passions for backcountry flying spanned the remaining daylight hours as the sun continued on its westward route. Lingering in the background, a dark and ominous cloud grew, at first, a welcome addition to Ibex providing much needed shade and a picturesque backdrop to stare into (and to photograph).
Soon the tell-tale signs of a gust front began to manifest themselves on the southern edges of the hard pan. A quick inventory of supplies not staked to the ground with homemade 18” spikes and climbing ropes and we felt prepared for the worst. Winds whipping through the valley drove the trace amounts of moisture hidden high in the atmosphere horizontally against our skin, forcing my youngest son to seek refuge in the cub while I made sure those winds and the USA35B wings didn’t come to a fruitful conclusion putting Matt at six years old to be the youngest to solo the cub. A few moments of the battle between man and machine and Mother Nature and after a few sighs of relief, Ibex opened up her arms and welcomed us into her womb.
Tumultuous skies were instantly replaced with conditions aviators only dream of. Winds that never blew, skies that never looked so blue, and the entire lakebed and the airspace above it to ourselves. In union, Josh, Joshua, and myself became giddy with excitement as we loosened the bonds that once held our planes firmly to the ground and partook in the gifts that Ibex gave to us, quickly firing up our trusty steeds and heading out in every direction off the surface.
A few short moments of flexing our wings in the skies and naturally the barnstormers in each of us took childhood fantasies and brought them to life. In an almost homage to the lands that we were flying over, the low passes, wingovers, and other flying-circus maneuvers kept us all smiling beyond the confines of our faces. If the hard pan could have spoke, we surely would have heard a generous thanks for the impromptu air show. Eventually, the setting sun ushered in the coming evening, and while the time spent flying felt like an eternity, trying to set up our tents and sleeping arrangements in pitch black would have felt even longer.
While we prepared our meals, and made preparations for a night alongside a small campfire, the evening offerings from Ibex were still on our mind. As if this place had exhausted sharing with us all her secrets, the sun eventually disappeared from the horizon, my son Matt naturally fell asleep as his father and his friends continued to relive the past as the logs on the fire slowly turned to ash. Knowing there was still more to experience, I relocated to our fly-less tent and set an alarm clock set for sometime around 0200 to catch a pass of the many Starlink satellites scheduled to overfly Ibex.
Missing the physical alarm in the morning, but waking to a biological alarm clock a few hours later, the desert landscape appeared to be more alive. Sounds of all manner of living things, to this day I’m still unsure what they were, kept my eyes scanning the horizon to catch even the slightest glimpse of these creatures that were awake with me. Wondering if I would wake others rustling around my tent, I found my coat, shoes, and made my way to my chair to sit and stare into the heavens. When your body wakes you up at such an early hour, there has to be a valid reason. Relieving any internal pressures, a glance into the clear, unfiltered night sky revealed to me the other side of Ibex. Peering into the infinite abyss above, slightly disappointed that my calculated satellite flyover was in the past, I took this opportunity to peer deeply into the heavens. Having become an amateur ornithologist as of recently, my trusty pair of binoculars offered me views into the sky that I’ve been missing since moving away from the mountains. Shooting stars, small satellites, and all sorts of things flying overhead leaving small light traces barely perceivable by the human eye, opening pathways into my mind of the vastness of what lies above me.
Shortly after the umpteenth shooting star, in my field of view the Starlink satellites started to streak across the sky in a manner that I had never experienced before. Dozens upon dozens of small lights flying in formation across the sky, losing sight of them briefly as the natural eye that draws its focus in the center would cause the rods on the outskirts of my corneas to lose the ability to discern the dim reflections off of Elon’s latest project. At one point prior to this, having been frustrated with sleeping through an alarm that was supposedly set to the correct time for this observation, the realization that as much as I could think a few extra sips of water caused this early-morning rise, Ibex had played a part in this all happening.
As the sun broke, the rest of the party slowly rose to the occasion, making careful preparations for the half-day adventures back to home base. The time on the hard pan may have been short, but the experiences we shared were profound. The desert hides her secrets and only shares them with those deemed worthy. While I question the notion that a few amateur adventurers such as ourselves were worthy of such an opportunity, we will never question the magic of Ibex. We will never question the hospitality of a place marred with labels as desolate, bland, or dull, for within those few moments shared together we saw something our eyes could not see.
Photo Credits: Josh Kelson