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Ol' Pals

Big Rock Candy Mountain

Greg Loebel

Back in simpler times, a brakeman on the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad penned a little tune about a hobo's paradise that centered on a dream of a mountain made of sugar, where life was easy and work was unknown. That brakeman, Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock, recorded his Big Rock Candy Mountain in 1928. For most people familiar with the classic folk tune, Big Rock Candy Mountain was simply a mythical place, a metaphor for the yearning of an ideal world. But in fact, the mountain is as real as air-a unique caramel-colored rock formation that broods in central Utah's Sevier County, just above Marysvale (pop. 381), 190 miles south of Salt Lake City.

The mountain received its name following the release of McClintock's song. As one story has it, in the summer of 1929, Ken Olsen and some friends jokingly placed a sign with McClintock's song title onto a post at the mountain's base. Olsen also affixed another sign next to the nearby natural spring with the moniker "Lemonade Springs," referencing another line in the song. The names held. Ever since, the song and the mountain have been intertwined.

Both song and mountain would elevate to greater fame in the 1950s, after the great folksinger Burl Ives took a trip on the old passenger train that used to stop at Marysvale. Ives, captured by mountain magic on his visit, then recorded a version of Haywire Mac's ditty that became hugely popular. More recently, the song was included on the sound track of the movie Oh Brother, Where Art Thou.

Kay Staples, a Richfield native and local country and folksinger/guitarist, has felt the Candy Mountain's draw and has seen the times change around it.

"Before I-70 was built, most people did their traveling along Highway 89 or on the train," Staples says. "Marysvale happened to be a natural stopping point. On the way in, you come around a bend and Candy Mountain just kind of jumps out at you."

The mountain's unusual yellowish hue is part of its immediate visual effect, but it's also said that if you dig under the surface, the soil is gray. After being exposed to the mountain air, however, the soil changes back to the yellowish-brown color. A geologist explains that the "magical" result comes from ancient volcanic activity. Minerals that permeate the rock and soil oxidize when they meet the air, changing the color.

The suddenness of the mountain's appearance, its unique yellow and chocolate colored hue, and the fame of the song all combine to give Big Rock Candy Mountain its magical effect. Additionally, the "Lemonade Springs" of fresh water became a part of the draw.

"The springs have always been said to have healing properties, and people like to bottle some of the world-famous water to take home with them," Staples says. "Times change, but Candy Mountain's effect always stays the same. No matter how complicated the world gets, people's basic wants and hopes remain simple. I think being around the mountain helps you remember that."

Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Wallace Stegner writes about those basic wants and hopes in his novel titled after the Big Rock Candy Mountain. Stegner's story centers on a family struggling to survive the lean times of the early 20th century and brings forth the emotional message that, no matter the present hardship, there must be a better life-if only it can be found.

The emotion that Haywire Mac first sang about in his dreamland of a hobo's paradise is and always has been part of the Candy Mountain's magic. If you ever take a trip there, scuff your feet around in the yellow soil, drink from the Lemonade Springs, and remember: The magic isn't in the rock or the water but in the inspiration it brings.

Greg Loebel is a freelance writer from St. George, Utah.

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