Thursday, August 16, 2007

Travelogue II: The Loneliest Road and Beyond

Saturday morning, August 11, 2007: The second day of our journey started in Salina, Utah. We woke early, ate a cold breakfast at the campsite, hiked up to the bathroom, packed and, after a stop for coffee at Burger King--hey, Starbucks has not quite made it to central Utah--we were on US 50, heading 39 miles to the Wasatch front. The Wasatch is a fault block mountain range that demarcates the beginning of the Basin and Range. Along the back of these mountains, the slope is gentle--this is the hinge side of the fault, and the valley has beautiful Mormon farms. They seem to produce mostly alfalfa here.

A quick trip nine miles south on I-15, and we are once again on US 50, America's Loneliest Highway. At Delta, Utah we will leave the farms and fields behind and embark across the Great Basin of Utah. Delta is named for the ancient feature it sits on, a delta made by a long-ago river as it slowed down and dropped it's sediments upon entering glacial lake Bonneville. The Great Salt Lake far to the north is only a remnant of that ancient lake, one that covered all of central and southwestern Utah and on into eastern Nevada.

The Great Basin of North America has no outlets for water. All rivers that enter here do not flow out again anywhere. Rather they peter out into sinks, where they form ephemeral lakes that evaporate in the dry desert air, leaving only salts. In this picture you can see one such playa lake. The range in the distance is in Nevada. The car driving past is one of only two that we saw the entire distance between Delta and the Nevada border. This land is hot, dry and empty. The ecological zone is cold desert and the index species is Artemesia tridentata, which is Big Sage. And yet, in it's emptiness, this land evokes a sense of grandeur and spaciousness that expands the soul. There is room here, room for something beyond the small and petty concerns that often crowd our lives.

And yet, there is also evidence of the human attempt at mastery of nature. We found an old witness post and survey marker near the road. This boundless place, too, has been mapped and bounded. But there is a certain timelessness as well. It takes long spaces of time for the desert to remove tracks, fence posts and otehr evidence of our presence.

The Utah stretch of the loneliest road was indeed the loneliest part. And small evidences of human presence in the Great Basin only serve to remind us of how awesome and vast is this place. How very fortunate we are
to live in a small window of time in which we can drive through this place in great comfort and so see it. It is not soon forgotten.

As we approached Nevada, we left the Great Basin behind and began to approach the Basin and Range Province proper. Up, up to the highway pass for a range, each marked by the elevation above sea level and by the presence of a weather station powered by solar panels and connected to the rest of earth by a satellite dish for uploading data.

Basin. Range. Basin. Range. It was about 60 miles and two Basins and Ranges until, in the third Basin, we came to Ely (Ee-lee), Nevada, where we fed Henry the Big Red truck a lunch of petro-chemicals and we had lunch, too. Ours was also organic, but of a different kind. It has been years since there was a Sinclair station anywhere near where I lived, so it was a real treat to see the friendly Apatosaurus in the hills of eastern Nevada. We ate right there at a picnic table outside the station. The sun was warm and the breeze persistent and cool. Next services, more than 100 miles. Basin. Range. Basin. Range.

From our experience on Saturday, it appears that America's Loneliest Highway is becoming somewhat popular. In the second range outside of Ely, we came upon two U-Hauls that would not pull into the pull-outs to let cars by, despite the fact that we could not pass them until the next basin. And we saw more traffic on US Highway 50 than we had in Utah.

Basin. Range. Basin. Range. As we approach western Nevada, we notice that with each range, we gain less height and that with each basin we descend further towards sea level. Our net altitude is going down.

Basin. Range. Basin. Range. As we descend to the Fallon Sink, we see the 'shoe tree' near a lonely bar. Lovers making up after a quarrel are supposed to throw their shoes into the tree. And then the endless salt flats and dunes that lead into Fallon, Nevada, home of a US Naval Air Station far from the sea. Salt flats and playa (ephemeral) lakes are good places to test airplanes because you can land on the flat.
Fallon itself has grown as the Navy has combined several different divisions of its "airdales" at the Fallon Air Station.
Finally, even as we are descending toward the Carson River, we are leaving the Basin and Range. The Carson River has an outlet from the Fallon Basin. And as we leave Fallon, we can see the Sierra Nevada ahead, way past Reno. The high Sierra are not part of the Basin and Range, and yet the rocks there are remnants of various island arc terranes that crashed into North America when the subduction zone was just east of where the mountains now stand. The island arcs were floating on dense oceanic crust that was subducted and recycled to come to light again as volcanic rock and glass. But the lighter continental crust of the islands themselves could not be subducted, but crashed into the country rock, causing thrust fault zones that lifted the ranges in the Basin and Range.
We planned to stay at Reno, and we stopped to eat at the Black Bear Diner in Sparks before finding a room for the night. But when we inquired at a modest place, the price was incredibly high. We were puzzled until a local told us about Hot August Nights--a street festival in Reno. So we got back into the truck and drove another two hours plus to Auburn, California, where we got the last room in town! (Yesterday in Susanville, which is 84 miles from Reno on the road to nowhere, the motel proprietor told us that during Hot August Nights in Reno, he fills up and has to send people four more hours to Oregon. Incredible). We took the room with only one bed and no extra towels. N. slept in his sleeping bag on the floor. We used our own towels. And considered ourselves lucky. Since we were nearly three hours further along than expected, we left instructions for a late wake-up call and fell into our beds. Sweet sleep!
Published from Vacaville, California


Melora said...

Those pictures are amazing! I love traveling, and almost never do, so I'll enjoy your trip!
We watched The Muppet Movie last night, and I kept asking Ed, "Where is that? I want to go There!" as each new shot of spectacular landscape came up. Someday!

momof3feistykids said...

Excellent travel journal! I love all your pictures.