Should you ever find yourself motoring west out of Salt Lake City, escaping the toothy reaches of the Wasatch Mountains, skirting the southern shore of the Great Salt Lake, and hammering down into the maw of the Great Basin, you'd do well to pull off Interstate 80 at an exit called Rowley Junction and pause in the parking lot of a gutted truck stop that used to be known as Teddy Bears. All that's left now is the shell of a building carpeted with shattered glass, chunks of loose sheet metal creaking drunkenly in the furnace breeze, and the burnt husk of an abandoned car. Still, it's a good place to stop and meditate on the road ahead. Because before you sits the gateway to one of the most woeful stretches of land in all of North America: Skull Valley, Utah.
Five miles south of Teddy Bears on Route 108 you'll pass a particularly surreal monument: the bust of a Polynesian warrior standing sentinel over the remains of Utah's first and only leper colony. Perched upon his stone pillar, the warrior stares west toward the remains of Iosepa, a settlement founded by a group of native Hawaiians who had converted to Mormonism and migrated to Salt Lake City in 1875 to dwell in Zion's holy citadel. Eventually, the church elders shipped them out to this valley, where they carved irrigation ditches, grew vegetables, and won a prize for the "best-kept town and the most progressive city in the state of Utah." In 1896, however, the bacillus Mycobacterium leprae appeared in Iosepa. Although only a handful of leprosy cases were confirmed, the little village was ostracized and never recovered. The Hawaiians stuck it out for another 20 years, but in 1917 the residents fled back to the islands, leaving behind a half-acre graveyard holding 79 plots and a lone red fire hydrant. Somebody apparently still comes by to spruce up a mournful display of plastic orchids, frangipani, and hibiscus that quiver in the dry, high desert wind. It's a fitting talisman for a valley where the dead outnumber the living.
Flanked by the Stansbury Mountains to the east and the dry, rounded ridges of the Cedar Mountains to the west, Skull Valley stretches north-south for nearly 50 miles, a long, low, bald pate of rock festooned with a toupee of parched greasewood and cheat grass. It's easy to see why the locals simply call it "Skull." The bleakness only gets bleaker the more you look around.
Just beyond the Cedars lies Tooele County's West Desert Hazardous Industries Area, where three waste-management corporations are engaged in the business of entombing pesticides, lacquers, metal solvents, wastewater sludge, used syringes, plastic resins, dioxin-tainted ash, empty chemical barrels, vats of unused printer's ink, radioactive mill tailings, and mounds of toxic trash from factories, research plants, and Superfund sites across the United States. South of the Hazardous Industries Area, there's the Wendover Bombing Range, a 25,000-square-mile military playground where F-16 Falcons, A-10 Thunderbolts, and B-52 Stratofortress bombers routinely fire missiles and drop "precision-guided penetrating ordnance" onto the desert floor. At the very top of Skull, where the valley's northern end reaches the shore of the Great Salt Lake itself, stands a magnesium production plant operated by a Salt Lake Citybased company named MagCorp. From 1995 to 1997, the plant earned the number-one ranking on the Environmental Protection Agency's Toxic Releases Inventory, a list of America's biggest industrial polluters, because it emitted more than 85 tons of hydrochloric acid and pseudocumene into the air each day. (MagCorp recently installed industrial scrubbers that have reduced the plant's emissions.) At the opposite end of the valley sits the Dugway Proving Ground, a restricted military zone roughly the size of Rhode Island, where the U.S. Army has spent decades experimenting with everything from incendiary bombs to a potpourri of chemical and germ warfare agents, such as VX nerve gas, botulism, brucellosis, anthrax, bubonic plague, and tularemia. To the east, just the other side of the Stansburys, the Army's Tooele Chemical Demilitarization Facility is slouching toward a terrible milestone as its workers labor to complete an eight-year, round-the-clock mission to incinerate 43 percent of America's chemical weapons—some 1.1 million rockets, missiles, and mortars packed with 13,000 tons of sarin, mustard gas, and other deadly agents. Although the surrounding area is sparsely populated and the plant is more than 25 miles from Salt Lake City, the Pentagon estimates that a severe accident could kill as many as 89,000 people. This would be in addition to the 6,400 sheep the Army accidentally gassed in 1968.
If you were to pull out a map and draw a rough circle connecting Dugway, the MagCorp plant, the Wendover Bombing Range, the Hazardous Industries Area, and the Army's chemical weapons incinerator, the center would be a point about 15 miles south of the Polynesian warrior. Not a prime piece of real estate, to be sure. But here, in 1912, the federal government set aside 18,000 acres as a reservation for the surviving members of perhaps the most ravaged group of Indians in all of North America, the Skull Valley band of Goshutes.
It is impossible for the 25 Goshutes who still reside on the Skull Valley reservation to avoid the dangers that surround them. (Most of the 91 tribe members who make their homes off the reservation live nearby in Grantsville, Stockton, and Salt Lake City, Utah.) But before you get back in your car and vacate this little patch of hell as fast as you can, take a deep breath and consider the toxic trash and noxious chemicals, the deadly biohazards and mephitic clouds of gas, the military debris and industrial detritus that taint Skull's soil, pollute its air, and fester in the DNA of its plants and animals. Certainly, it's too much for one piece of land to bear. But then also consider that the Goshutes have been wandering in these barrens since the last Ice Age and have faced extinction many times before. And then mull this final thought: For all these reasons, and a few more, the current chairman of the Skull Valley Goshutes, a 44-year-old former security guard named Leon Bear, is eager to start filling up his tribe's front yard with the ultimate 20th-century poison, the last missing element in the valley's litany of contaminants—40,000 metric tons of uranium fuel rods, virtually the entire stock of high-level radioactive waste that has been produced by America's 128 commercial nuclear power plants.
Now floor it.