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Cold Desert Night

IMAG0023In the high desert country of southeastern Utah, the weather can get pretty extreme. I’ve seen it get 110 degrees in the summer, and 25 below in the winter. Usually the real extreme weather didn’t last too long. Didn’t get a lot of snow, so it made good winter country for grazing cattle.

I spent 8 years riding for Gurney Land and Livestock. They ran their cattle on the desert in the winter, and on Fishlake National Forest in the summer. On the desert most of the water for the cattle was from wells that had the old jack pumps on them, with little gas engines. It was part of my job to keep the water going for the cattle.

One winter in the mid eighties we had our cattle on an allotment called Saucer Basin allotment. It had stormed a little, then cleared off, and turned real cold. For about a week the high temperature was only getting to about zero.

I needed to go out to Saucer Basin well and check the water and break ice, in case any cattle came in to water. This was about 50 miles from town. I got out there about noon, broke the ice and made sure there was enough water in the storage tank. I got back in the truck and it wouldn’t start.

Back in them days we didn’t have cell phones. Most of the time nobody knew where I went each day, or what time I would be home. I knew no one would come looking for me until after dark. It was cold, and going to get colder after the sun went down.

I had a couple of horses turned out around the well, that I would bring in with a little grain each time I went out there, but I didn’t have a saddle or bridle with me that day. It was so cold I had  planned on just checking the water then heading for home.

I started digging behind the seat of the truck, and found an old calf halter. I got the horses into the coral and caught the gentlest one. I put every coat I had in the truck on, put the calf halter on the horse, got on bareback and headed out.

I knew there was no way I could make it to town. The closest place belonged to another rancher named Chad Moore. He had a place at the Texas Well. He had some corals and a double wide mobile home there. I figured if I got to there I would at least have a warm place and something to eat.

I guessed it to be about twenty miles to Chad’s place, if I went across country. So away I went. I figured my route, and thought it best to follow the road for a ways. Then I would cut across country down past Jack’s Knob and up through the Sweetwater Reef. I was hoping I could get to the reef before dark so I could find my way up through it.

When I got about a mile from the reef there was an allotment fence. I had to go down the fence a ways to find a gate. When I got off to open the gate I was so cold I wasn’t sure my legs were going to hold me up. I had trotted and loped a lot of the way, and I wasn’t used to riding bareback so my legs were cold and rubbery.

Heading up through the reef it was just getting dusk. I was worried if it got dark I wouldn’t be able to see the Texas Well. No one had any lights out there after dark, except maybe a little gas light in the kitchen.

I made it to Chad’s place right at dark. I was so cold that I just tied my horse to the fence and went to the house. I would put my horse away after I warmed up a little. I started to worry a little because I didn’t see Chad’s truck. I got to the door of the house and it was locked. Nobody was home.

I had a hard time getting my hands to work, but I got my pocket knife out and worked the bolt on the door until it opened. When I got inside, I had never felt anything so warm as it was in Chad’s house. I warmed up for a little bit, then went and put my horse in a coral and threw him some hay. I went back in the house and sat on the heater for a while. It was really dark by now.

I was sure Chad wouldn’t come back out there that night, probably wait until morning. After I had been there a while I started getting hungry. I started to look for something to eat and realized why Chad had went to town. He was out of groceries. I couldn’t find anything to eat except a couple of crackers. I was going to make some coffee, and he didn’t even have any of that. There was about a half cup of coffee left in his pot from that morning, so I heated it up and drank that.

By then I was sure I would be there until morning. I went in and laid on the couch. I had just started to dose off when I heard an engine. I looked out and saw headlights. I walked outside and it was Shane Wilcox, a high school kid who had been helping me on weekends that winter. He said he had been to Saucer Basin well, saw my truck with the hood up, and saw my horse tracks on the road. He said where he saw my horse tracks leave the road, he knew where I was headed.

Shane was probably the only person who could have found me, and boy was I glad to see him.


  1. That just gave me chills dad. Love ya

  2. Great story, I would like to read more of the times and happening while working with my cousin Shane Wilxox.

    • Thanks for your comments. I just write things as I think of them. I spent enough time with Shane, I’m sure their will be more.
      Thanks, Don

  3. I really like your stories, Don. Keep ’em coming!

    • Thanks, I appreciate you taking the time to read them. I just write them down as they come to me. They’ll be more.
      Thank You, Don

  4. Celeste S. says:

    Reminds me of one of Grandpa Guy’s stories about a night he spent down Valentine Bottoms on the Green River back in the late 1930’s. The river was frozen solid he talked about how the ice creaked and boomed all night…he figured it was around 30 below. He said it was too cold to sleep so he built a big fire and spent the night rotating by it to keep warm. He said his two horses also came and spent the night by the fire turning first one side and then the other to the fire as well. The cold side would steam as it warmed up and the ice melted off their hair. It can get heck of a cold in this country for sure.

    • Celeste, Thanks for taking the time to read my stories. It seems like I remember your grandpa telling me that story. I had a lot of good visits with him when he lived next door to me. He would come over and watch me ride colts. I wish I could have known him when he was younger. Sure miss your grandparents.
      Thanks, Don