Last month, for Easter-break, our family packed up our small-house-of-a-car and drove to southern Utah. Why southern Utah? Two reasons really: 1) we’d heard the landscape was like none other and 2) I wanted to visit a restaurant called Hell’s Backbone Grill (you knew food was going to be involved!).
The route we chose to explore was Highway 12. Nicknamed Scenic Byway 12, it was designated “All American Road” in 2002 and is considered one of America’s most beautiful drives. From its northern point to its western, it passes through Capitol Reef National Park, Anasazi State Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument and Bryce Canyon National Park. It includes a white-knuckle drive through Hogsback, a section of road much like those found in the west of Ireland, a gently meandering journey through Fruita, a tiny village with its still-operating Mormon fruit orchards dating back to 1880, and breathtaking red sandstone vistas.
For every day we drove, we hiked. Our favourite places included Hickman Bridge in Capitol Reef, Calf Creek Falls in Escalante, and Navajo Loop Trail in Bryce Canyon. All three were just the right length for the children to walk comfortably and ranged from 1 1/2 hours to 4 hours in length. Most importantly, the surroundings were superbly unique. We were never bored. The highlights included fantastic sky-high hoodoos, a cascading waterfall and natural pool, and remnants of what was once an active Fremont Indian community. All three were ideal family hikes and I promise to write about each one, in-depth and with photos, in the coming weeks. For now however, I’d like to switch gears and talk about the other driving desire for our road trip…Hell’s Backbone Grill.
I stumbled across Hell’s Backbone Grill not long after coming to America. I was sitting in the hairdressers, flipping through the latest fashion rags, when With a Measure of Grace: The Story and Recipes of a Small Town Restaurant surfaced from the heap.
I was captivated by the cover’s photos: a barefoot girl walking on a split rail fence, Tibetan prayer flags blowing in the wind, a basket of farm-fresh eggs and a lemon chiffon cake. These sweet, serene, images are in strong contrast to the name of the restaurant and I was curious to see how they fit together. As it turns out, they do so quite well but only because of the philosophy of the co-owners, Blake Spalding and Jen Castle, and the courage of the townspeople of Boulder, a quiet Mormon community of less than 200 people.
Their story, the photos and the recipes literally beckoned me. I had to see the place for myself. I was so captivated that I didn’t want to buy the book on Amazon. I wanted to touch Hell’s. I wanted to meet Blake and Jen. I wanted to experience it for myself. I, so desperately, wanted to have this experience that I called the restaurant as soon as I got home from the hairdressers. Be warned, Hell’s closes for the winter! I left a message to please call back when they reopened in the spring and I waited. Before they could call, my husband suggested a trip to Utah over Easter-break and I quickly bargained for a hiking/food holiday. Done!
Boulder, Utah is at the base of the Aquarius Plateau. When you see the “Welcome to Boulder” sign you can’t help but wonder “is this it?” There are no street lights, no buildings…just open land with clusters of sagebrush and some tall trees on rolling hills, dotted by what appears to be small farmsteads. It is a quiet place, just the way the locals like it. As we arrived, I felt panicked that we were in the wrong place but my lovely husband took a turn here and another turn there and then, suddenly, it was right in front of us…like an oasis in the desert.
Hell’s Backbone Grill is a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City so the fact Jen and Blake can run a restaurant in such an incredibly isolated location is a wonder. They do so by relying on locally produced food, grown mostly on a nearby six-acre farm. The girls also avail of local ranchers, for their naturally raised meats and poultry, and orchards, for their heirloom fruits. They tend their own bees.
You’d think with all the work these two ladies do, there’d be precious little time for them to socialize. Luckily for me, that is not the case. I met Blake Spalding (and her fiancé) the night we arrived for dinner and again the next morning at breakfast. She was down-to-earth, quick with a smile, and very gracious. She allowed me to take pictures – lots of them.
She signed the book I bought, posed for a photo, and listened actively as I talked about gardening, cooking, moving from Ireland and blogging. She was even good enough to suggest I post a few recipes from With a Measure of Grace on In an Irish Home (please see tomorrow’s post on Lemon Chiffon Cake).
With the welcoming hug I got from Blake after breakfast the next morning, our trip to southern Utah was complete. Satiated, and with a packed lunch from Hell’s in the cooler, we drove back to our home on the edge of the Rockies. Our little family was well exercised, well fed, and, well, happy! I look forward to visiting Utah’s southern lands again and dining at Hell’s Backbone Grill. I hope you will too.