HANKSVILLE — As the Memorial Day weekend and full-blown summer weather approaches, folks around here know what that means: more and more cars and trucks towing boats and watercraft pulling off for a gasoline fill-up before the final 65-mile push to Bullfrog Marina and the 1,960-mile shoreline of Lake Powell.
One station — Hollow Mountain Service — always seems to get its fair share of attention, and not just because it’s the first one you see as you approach town from the northeast or the west.
It also happens to be the world’s one and only gas station hollowed out of a mountain.
The entire interior of the convenience store — the beverage coolers, the cashier counter, the place where they sell the Lake Powell souvenirs and bait, the spacious restrooms, the storage area — was all once solid rock.
The story dates back to 1984 when a uranium miner from Green River, Utah, named Harry Thompson bought the corner lot at the intersection of highways 24 and 95 on the east end of town. He paid $1,200 for four and a half acres, almost all of which was a sandstone rock roughly the size of the Salt Lake Tabernacle.
After dynamiting the rock away to a point about 120 feet from the highway, the uranium miner had a brainstorm: Now that he had enough room for the gas pumps out front, why not build his convenience store inside the mountain?
He knew it was solid sandstone with high clay content and from his mining experience he was confident it would work.
The store was tunneled out in 60 days, and in the summer of '84 Hollow Mountain Service was born.
It was a small store at first, very small, so when Don Lusko, an early employee, bought out Harry in 1996 the first thing he did was make it bigger. More dynamite and more tunneling, and the size was greatly increased with the crown jewel being huge restrooms 100 feet into the rock.
“Before, we were really cramped. It used to be an employee would get fired for ordering one case too many of water,” jokes Don, who continues to own and run the station to this day.
Nowadays, he says, Hollow Mountain wouldn’t happen because of too much red tape.
But in the 1980s and 1990s, “it was still America down here. We had no planning, no zoning, no building inspectors, no building permits. Now we have all of that, and you’d never get enough certifiers to get this through.”
The building is safer than anything around, he contends, and the uniqueness of being inside a rock has indeed been a continual draw, he affirms.
“It’s the biggest novelty. If there are kids in the car they yell, ‘stop, stop.’ We’re Hanksville’s icon, I guess," he said. “Even the cars that don’t get gas stop on the highway and take pictures.”
The station has received attention from near and far. The German carmaker Mercedes-Benz featured it in its 1992 calendar, a hotel in Taiwan has it painted on a mural, and a B horror film called “Red Canyon” was filmed inside the station.
“Everybody’s curious,” says Celeste Sellers, Don's sister and one of several extended family members who help run the station. “We’re always getting Flintstones comments.”
And the next time she hears someone say "you work in a hole" will not be the first time.
The last few years, the only drawback has been the economy that’s slowed down the flow of gasoline-users headed to the lake. Ever since the 2008 recession, Don testifies, Hanksville hasn’t been the summertime boomtown it used to be. And could be again.
“There’s still water in the lake, come play in it,” he says, giving his best chamber of commerce pitch. “It’s just another hour from here, and there’s nothing in between; we’re the last stop.”
Fill up and come inside the rock for some T-shirts and beef jerky. The restrooms tunneled into the sandstone are free of charge.
Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays.