Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Tucker Utah and the Infamous Thistle Landslide of 1983

Back in the spring of 1983 I was engaged to be married to . . . an utter git.  What can I say?  I was only 17, he was older, handsome and charming.  That he was also manipulative, mean, abusive, and not particularly bright?  That knowledge came AFTER I said "I do."

One night, a couple of months before the wedding, the now-ex and I drove up Spanish Fork Canyon to visit his Dad and Step-mom.  This would be the evil Step-mom my ex hated beyond measure.  Her sin?

Marrying his father.

Well, marrying his father and not being willing to put up with the ex's stealing, manipulation, and all-around BS.  See, his Mom--his SAINTED MOTHER--was actually not such a saint.  She . . . engaged in behaviors that led to divorce, and she went on to marry the guy she was "behaving" with (or so the story came to me).  The ex hated him, too.  And then his Mom committed suicide when he was a teen.  Which made him hate both step-parents all the more.

Of course.

Anyway, so we drove up Spanish Fork Canyon to the tiny (non-existent?) "town" of Tucker, Utah.  This drive took us past the tiny railroad town of Thistle, Utah.  This becomes important later.  The date?

April 14th, 1983.

The ex's paternal family owned the only digs there in Tucker.  The Skyview Cafe.  Actually a cafe, a motel, and a gas station/service station.  A run-down kind of mess, but, as I said, the only game in "town," and, in fact, the only place for miles to grab a cup of coffee or a place to crash (or fill up the tank).  Sadly (and yes, it does make me sad), the Skyview Cafe is gone.  My last Amtrak trip up Spanish Fork Canyon found an empty expanse where the old buildings once stood.

An OLD postcard, no idea who took the pic but it was likely in
the fifties, judging by the cars.

This was my first time meeting his family.  And oh, my hell.  First, the "gourmet restaurant" where his "chef and professional caterer" Mom had worked her magic?  Was an utter dive.  I mean, it wasn't roach-y (I don't think), but it was your average western desert/country greasy spoon.  A lot of scalded coffee stink and cigarette burns in the linoleum.


His family.  Wow.  WOW!

His Grandma was a wonder, truly.  She went by "So-So," and her biggest brag was that she was older than God and had her cigarettes shipped in special because they didn't sell them in Utah.  Precious few teeth, and an astounding capacity for booze.  In fact, the whole lot of them were drunk when we showed up, and got drunker as time passed.  The Step-mom was SO nice to me it became obvious she was either being nice because she knew it drove the ex crazy OR she was trying to drown out any awfulness he might have filled me with concerning her.  Quite possibly a little of both.  I liked her, but who knows if she liked me?  And his Dad?  Kept smiling at me with his shot teeth and bleary eyes and telling them to "be nice."

And let's not forget the older brother.

Holy cow.  Apparently, the ex had once shown up with a drag queen/hermaphrodite, and the older brother had never forgotten the drunken encounter.  He kept poking at me, asking if I was "real."

It was, overall, a hellish night.  It was also almost my last.

Oooh, I know, isn't that all ominous sounding and stuff?

See, 1983 was a VERY wet year in Utah.  Like flash floods and Salt Lake's State Street sand-bagged and turned into a river WET.

One of the things leveled by the heavy rains and astounding snow pack?

The very highway we'd traversed to reach Tucker.  That's right, US Route 6, our happy highway to Tucker, slid away in a giant slump, eventually damming up the Spanish Fork River, taking out the rail road tracks (bye-bye, Amtrak--the then-Rio Grande Zephyr [now California Zephyr] was last train to come through for months), and demolishing/submerging the little town of Thistle.  And it's funny (funny interesting, not funny "haha"), we saw the work crews, the cop cars, the railroad vehicles on our way up, but had no idea why they were there.

We sure knew the next day, after our seemingly eternal detour and backroad path back home.

Poor little Thistle, huh?

Check out this site, it's the Utah Geological Survey's Thistle page.  And then here, from a more Rail Road-y perspective.  Good stuff.

And this whole story?  Utterly pointless, I guess, but if you've read it, thank you.  You've made me happy.  It was the most expensive landslide in United States history, so hey, you've been enriched by my "I was there" account!

Oh, and the "it was almost my last" bit of drama up there?  I was referring to the ex's drunk driving that night/morning, not the slide.  I do find the slide oddly apropos, though.  Much like our marriage, you know?   An ugly, slow, lumbering thing that inexorably plowed through home and hearth, leaving in its wake devastation and heartache.

Yeah.  Look at me wax all poetic and stuff.


Now, while I have you here, I want to talk about a ghost town in Utah.  I may have discussed it before.  It's called "Old Frisco," and there's a particular headstone there that captured me years ago, and I'm hoping someone can help me out.  

See, I first saw the stone in 1994.  Hubby and I were just dating then, and we'd decided to take a rockhounding roadtrip through Utah and Arizona.  A few weeks, no real set destination.  One of the places we wound up was Old Frisco.  It wasn't, at the time, a going concern, and so we explored pretty thoroughly (always on trails and out of adits, of course).  The town has some amazing old charcoal kilns outside of the main area, plus a gallows frame and some still intact old buildings.

There was no fence around these guys when we were there, but folks kept climbing on them
and taking bits, so up went the fences.  Which people often tear back down.
Old Frisco was an amazing place in its heyday.  It had more bars/saloons per capita than any other town in the United States.  It was a scary place, rivaled Bodie, California for sheer "lawless old west" stuff.  Bodie, of course, is in better shape, being cossetted by the Rangers and kept in a state of arrested decline.  

What really grabbed me at Old Frisco?  The graveyard.  From what I've heard, efforts have been made to restore this small cemetery, in which children were greatly overrepresented, but when we were there, the place was torn hell to breakfast.  I found myself standing over a broken, knocked over, shot at, half-obscured with sand and silt gravestone.  I bent down, read the inscription (what I could read--the part of the stone with the first name was mostly gone--might have been Timmy, Tommy, Jimmy, Sammy, or some other "ends with y" name), and found myself on my knees, crying.  Understand, I wasn't the crybaby then that I am now.  But it was wrenching, it was so awful to me. 

"Tis a little grave, but oh, have care, for world wide hopes are buried here.  How much of light, how much of joy, is buried with my darling boy."  

Trite?  Maybe, but life in those days was HARD, and this town, judging by the ages on the headstones, ate children.  Like a Stephen King story, it devoured kids.  

The rest of the headstone?  What was left told us that this boy's last name had been Staples, and he died December 27th, 1881 at the age of one year, four months, and 27 days.

There's a photo I'm hoping to include here, but it's on Flickr and I'm looking to get the owner's permission first.  It's a photo of the headstone much as it appeared when I saw it in the 1990s.  Below is a much older picture:

See, here's the thing--in this picture, you can see that the headstone was still mostly intact.  You can see that the name is still there.  It was clearly in better shape in the early 1970s than in the early 1990s, though you can absolutely see the evidence of grave robbing (the casket dug up, the bones scattered about and bleached in the sun).  NO, the folks who took this picture weren't the grave robbers--they came along after, were horrified.  I found this picture on a mostly defunct website dedicated to ghost towns.  I edited the shot because there was a young girl in the picture named "Trini."  I didn't think it would be appropriate to put her face on my blog without her permission.  I emailed the folks who own that site, but they have no memory of the name on the stone, and say they have no way of reaching Trini, who might know.  I DO know Trini's last name (maiden and married) and the area where she lives, but my attempt to email her was not fruitful--I got no response.  

What I'm hoping is this--that someone, somewhere was in Frisco in the 70s (or earlier) and remembers this headstone.  I just want the boy's name.  Why does it matter to me?  Because my heart broke at his death, 113 years after the fact, and it never stopped hurting.  These people lost their boy, and they lost him in a gawdawful place.  They likely gave up everything for a shot at making a life based on crap promises and unrealistic dreams of gold and silver.  Their baby boy died here.  And I'd like to know his name.  I'd like to know their names, too.  I mean, wouldn't you want someone to care that you had existed, to roll your name off their tongue 132 years after you'd died?


And that's about it.  My Dad and Step-Mom sent our boy an electric/acoustic guitar with a small practice amp.  I think I wrote about it earlier?  Well, it came today.  He still doesn't know what it is, and hubby wouldn't let him open it until he gets home from work.  So it's here on the floor, still boxed, waiting to be opened.  I've taken to referring to it as the "guiltar," because I so creepily just leapt in and demanded my Dad send it to my boy instead of taking it to Goodwill.  Cost him a hundred bucks to ship it, and I feel like a total bucket of scuzz.  The words were out of my mouth before I could get a hook in and draw them back.  On the bright side, our boy gets an acoustic/electric.  On the not so bright side, I suck.

Do not reprint without permission. © KAQ


  1. When we still got the real newspaper, I often looked thru the Obituary pages. It was always a bit sad to read one for a child. I didn't feel ad for the dead, as much as for the parents.

    Three years ago the gandson of a good friend of mine was killed in a sand cave, cave in. He was having a Birthday celebration at the Beach. He was eleven. An only child. Homeschooled, and much loved.

    Somehow, when I think of him , I always wonder what he would have become.

  2. The child, it turns out, was named "Johnny Staples." I found mention and an old photograph with the Utah State Historical Society. So have a thought for little Johnny Staples, who is remembered.