The Second Time Around the Loop: Part 1
|The morning alpenglow start of the GBT|
|Looking back towards the Snake Range|
The Great Basin Trail circles 1,100 miles within the state of Nevada, with the obvious connotation of the vast ecosystem the trail resides in. This loop is huge, a vast and remote landscape adorned with isolation and empty terrain. Hardly any sign of humans exists in some of these remote expanses. The GBT is strung together by lonely ranges and empty basins, high ridge lines and barren sagebrush-filled valleys. None describes these characteristics more than the Fortification Range. This range is seldom visited by recreationists and campers, hardly peak-bagged because the peaks are not tall enough, and never off-roaded by jeepers because of the wilderness designation. This range is a wild horse sanctuary - laden with water, shade and grass, untrammeled by people.
From afar, the range looks inhospitable and beyond access. But, upon closer exploration, the walker finds a horse trail angling up into the ramparts along a large cliff band. Under the pink tufts sprouting up like a stegosaurus's back, the prominence below and all around of the Great Basin puts one in an ocean of empty land. Woody, Pep, and I followed this horse trail up into a narrow creek crammed under pink walls. We stopped occasionally, Woody stopped to inspect rare plant species endemic to the Great Basin. His knowledge immediately brought us closer to the landscape, his enthusiasm filled our veins with excitement. He spotted a few ponderosas under the toothiest of crags, a tree rare in these parts. More life existed in these inhospitable parts than met the eye.
Here’s the key - I utilize descriptive words only in relation to human impact or existence. I cannot describe the utter spirit of wilderness. That feeling can only exist when us humans are gone or one is solo in isolation where that wilderness encompasses one’s presence and presses that emptiness atop insignificant and puny shoulders. We, humans, are no match for all of this wilderness. Nevertheless, we must go and dive in, the deeper we dive the more we succumb to the power of vulnerability and drown in the spirit of the wild.
Sun bleached bones littered the drainages and slopes near the springs, scattered about as if fallen from the sky by ravenous birds. We stumbled onto an elk carcass, the pelt exploded around the bull’s skeleton as if the skin had suddenly popped, each individual strand of fur outlining the carcass. The skull and antlers had long dried meat, purple from the dryness and decay. We studied the death site and could envision the throes of death in the Winter in an empty landscape, no person to hear the wails, probably most other animals giving a wide berth. This carcass was not here in the Spring of ‘20. This seemingly agonizing death felt recent and natural.
Beneath the range, we skittered along braided horse trails in a crescent-shaped divot, a cove in the valley that rose gradually and protected into the range. The Gouge Eye formation fortified the range as much as the ramparts did. Elk grazed here alongside the wild horse. At the namesake spring, we find the copper pipe dry and rusted, the dried-out pool signifying the drought we all knew the West is under. I felt disappointed to find this spring bone dry. Last year, at this spring a chickadee alighted on the pipe inches from my hand and face. I felt that moment to be a good sign, one that pervaded the long waterless stretches and the intimidation of the high desert. We stood almost tongue-less, parched, with thirst encroaching on our survival. I had filled up an extra liter, just in case, at the previous potholes, but I expected water here. We schemed out a plan that would push us forward while in search of water. Temperatures were cooler in the night and the morning. We would make miles then.
The search for water put a strain on our threesome immediately. We all had different experiences with these situations. Being I was sort of leading this expedition, I felt confident we would find water. I tried to maintain some calmness and sternness. We needed to keep forward progress while managing our conditions. We woke up to chilly temperatures that morning in Smiley Canyon and ambled along a forested wash. Eventually, we found water and lavished in the rich coolness of refreshment, really only having to go 12 or so miles without water in very modest temperatures. Deep down I had hoped this would set a tone - do not take this environment lightly.
|Water and Mapping|
After our indulgence of water, we scrambled up, over, into, and back up in the Wilson Creek Range. The route gets wooly here, the very thickness a pioneering sense of progress. Our group mentality rebounded positively with the prospect of plentiful water, yet we needed the overgrown patches to forge our fortitude - we were in it, committed. Finding a way through with Woody and Pep blended our skill sets together. We pushed our unexplored way through together discovering a new isolation. Huge conifers thickly lined the sharp angled drainages, aspen quaked in a slight breeze, and the cold night up on the high plateau and ridge brought a beautiful and brittle reality to our momentary lives. In a mahogany thicket, cluttered and tunneled out, we camped on a saddle, the cold air sinking, the dark sky shrouded by the branches. At one point in the night, the deafening silence was broken by a far-up airplane soaring by. I could see the stars twinkling in between the arms of the mahogany. Down below, I could see a sliver of a shimmering white light in the basin, a lone vehicle miles away hovering in the blackness. The three of us, like at the edge of an inland world, drawn together into the oblivion, we felt the loneliness of a unit rather than a lonesome solitary plight, a sullenness of torture brought on by isolation, as if we the travelers were left to roam the only emptiness left in this world. I forgave myself for my past obsession of traveling solo; I was grateful to have them with me. I leaned over and faced them from my bedroll. We all faced each other, our whispers breaking the silence, our beings in good company in this random and remote ridge.
In Pioche, we settled up for the night in a haunted motel and saloon. I moseyed up to the bar and drank cold, cheap beer. Something nostalgic traveling through a dusty old mining town, like itinerant travelers back in the Old West, moving through and headed to where temporary work was. We left the next morning and set our sights on the Highland Ridge. Once atop, amid the communication towers and repeaters, we on-sighted the southern ridge descent. Woody marveled at the limestone summit and told us to keep an eye for some rare astragalus or something or other, maybe even claytonia. Every once in a while, I would hear him whoop at a rare find or a beautiful plant specimen. I got a kick out of it. I asked him questions, a ton really. Pep did the same. We navigated, Pep and I, while Woody scoured the hillsides and ridges for rare plants.
|Highland Range ridge|
Pep is in his element in these situations - no trail, cross country, his vision piercing through land blocks, his calmness finding a good way through, the most fun way. I liked having him in this trio. He led from the back, quietly. He only says something if he means it. And, I trust his instinct. When he asked if he could join us on the GBT, I eagerly accepted his request. I knew he could make the GBT better and ultimately provide an improved vision that would appease any exploratory hiker. He is a visionary, while I am the results-oriented masher. Woody is the scientist that would lend to a deep and intimate relationship with the land. I knew the route while they provided assets and skills to improve the design on the GBT route. We had already improved the Wilson Creek Range traverse, and now, up on Highland Ridge, with a panorama as wide as any on the GBT, I already saw the GBT route improving, finding a better line than the one I originally took while ground-truthing. Now, with Pep and Woody, we were ground-proofing.
I find the water; that’s what I am good at. I have a nose for water. But, even with all my research prior to hiking the GBT the first time, I had to dive into this vast expanse of the Great Basin with a relatively unknown sense and security in what the water sources would actually look like. I was willing to take the risk, to go thirsty for a couple hours or 10 miles. I knew I had trained for that, even having a belief that I am built for waterless endurance. It is a mind set I have been working on for years. Even so, I had water caches planned at a couple locations, sometimes stashed with our food buckets, to buffer any real serious issues like drought or hot temperatures. I knew what to expect, like how far the next source would be, how likely the next source would actually have water, etc. This second time around the loop I held a firmer confidence in knowing the sources I had hiked to the previous Spring.
At Cyclone Spring, thirsty, hot and dry, all of us, I blatantly walked past the dugout spring area fully believing nothing was there. But, I turned back to investigate the area further, realizing I should exercise patience and observe more of the possible changing conditions. Maybe I missed something? Nevertheless, I decided instantly to maintain a level of exploration out here, like I had not hiked across here before, like I was new to the area. I mustered deep into the well of curiosity to seek what we needed, to provide for our survival in a sense, to stay on task. The dugout proved to be nothing more than a dug out pit of where someone kept digging to find water, as year after year water kept seeping deeper and deeper into the basins below.
Then, we stumbled upon an iron vat, a large tank with a heavy lid. I opened the lid not expecting anything. To my bewilderment, crystal clear and cold water flowed out of a pipe, a strong flow pulsing into the voluminous tank. I looked up at Pep and Woody, smiling from ear to ear. We found water. We found unexpected water. Clear and refreshing water, an oasis discovered by our stumbling and aimless direction. We splashed in sheer excitement, like in cartoons where the characters find water in the desert. Our tongues rolled out to the floor, our eyes bulging out of our heads, this tiny discovery filled our gullets and stomachs with joy, with utter refreshment, so much so, I relished the quench of this water more than any other water I have ever gulped.
That evening we walked into a sunset amongst a tall Joshua tree forest. The Great Basin Trail travels through a small northern section of the Mojave Desert ecosystem. Joshua trees flourish in groves in the angled slopes of the basins - just between the peaks and the valleys. The sunset, purple and orange, a palette of dusk, spanned across the whole western horizon, as we walked towards it, facing the end of a day in dramatic fashion, as behind us the looming darkness of night began to pull the cord on the curtain on this stellar and empty stage. We were small characters, tiny actors, in the wide expanse of the Great Basin, meandering across the desert in amazement, the blooming of the desert still fragrant, air teeming with the fragrance of the ephedra and the sage, an impending thundercell encroaching towards us flashing lightning up in the clouds while the last rays of orange turned to purple that silhouetted the layers of endless mountain ranges, a seemingly sea bottom in the desert simply bountiful with wonder. We laid down our bedrolls among a tiny grove of Joshua tree as the thundercell rolled on through. Woody looked upward in marvel yet with a nervousness that he set up his tent. Pep and I just let things happen, open to the possibility of a tiny drenching of a spring rain. My gaze went from the western horizon to a fixation on the roving clouds above. The lightning flashed directly above us, not reaching the ground, although sparking a circular bulb instantaneously, so fast that if I blinked I missed the heavenly sparkler. As my eyes fell into a slumber, we never got wet, the virga never touching the ground, the electric orbs signaling a beacon eastward for the next lonesome traveler.
|Mojave Desert ecosystem with Joshua Tree|
In the end, when my time is up and I have left everything behind, I want to believe I contributed to something, to a community, that for a small era in my life I passed a piece of shared work behind that can help people attain a valuable experience in an incredible landscape. I witnessed such immersion that evening: watching Pep’s eyes bulge in excitement at the flashes of lightning above, observing Woody’s passion for intricacies in the plant life of the Great Basin. I can see their marvel in the panoramic vision into the emptiness of the Great Basin. This is as unique an environment as any place in the world. I just believe in that. And, I truly hope I can pass that forward. The Great Basin Trail is my contribution for the thru-hiking community.
Limestone cliffs buffeted the summit of Mt. Irish making the peak seem unattainable. Once through a notch in the cliff band, we stumbled into a scattered ponderosa forest. The tall pines looked old from the appearance of the thick and jumbled red bark. Woody had his eyes peeled for a rare plant up here, Lewisa maguirei. Limestone led to his curiosity, limestone encouraged his learned experience. He just knew he was going to find something. This Great Basin landscape, the freedom of space intertwined with the natural exploratory character of being a walker, of Woody being a botanist, of our human instinct to rove, to be nomadic and take a keen eye to the landscape, will all influence one’s hike. We all have a purpose out here. We all have skills that benefit the meandering movements of our threesome. The freedom of space and movement within this landscape only bonds together a route that is personal to the walker, like a form of survival, a thriving of the wild spirit that taps into our genetic code. Free form, adapt, do what you feel - you do not have to walk anyone else’s path. My intention is to develop this route to immerse you in the Great Basin. I encourage you to loosely follow what I have created to form your own experience, to fulfill your own curiosity from what the empty landscape inspires. Our common thread, as the traveler, is the unbelievably immense and empty landscape of the Great Basin.
Woody yelled out. ‘Oho! Oh SHIT!! Maguirei! I found it!’ Woody had just extended the known range of an endangered plant species by a couple hundred miles, the only known places being the Spring Mountains and the Quinn Range, some distances away in the Great Basin ecosphere. Damn, I felt enthused by Woody’s passion, his excitement. I felt it in my veins. Pep rushed over to observe the discovery. He leaned down, crouched like Woody, and snapped photos in the same eager way as he. We were infected by the bug, this microscopic view of the dirt and limestone that brought another intimate layer to this wide place, that brought a pulsing life to the terrain.
I scoured the dirt beneath me, the chossy limestone broken apart atop raspy shelves. I found one Maguirei, then a couple more. Woody had me trained now to see even the tiniest of plants. I knelt down and imagined the sprout pushing through the chossy surface. How tough and resilient, I thought, the gall to live and thrive excruciatingly. One forceful stem shoving through the gravely dirt showcasing its tiny self to the sun, exposing its smooth skin to the dry air. Then, one leaf pops open slowly, tumbling over a moat of dry air like a controlled and chained bridge, finally splaying out. The leaves cup for water, begging for the clear sustenance, surviving in the harshest of climates, the ancient species still stubbornly persistent.
|Thundercell moving through the desert|
I found it hard to leave the high limestone shelves beneath Mt. Irish. I wanted to dig more, to scrounge around and look for more rare plants. I felt like I was on a hunt while at the same time trying to traverse through. I ultimately kept my head up and forged my way to the top. All three of us sat under the communication towers atop the peak. We were afforded the usual wide views of the surrounding areas. We could see our next larger target: the Quinn Range about 50 miles away as the crow flies. In the foreground sprouted the Worthington Range, a gnarly craggy range short in length but precipitous in its jutting fault line. Pep eyed this closely. I could see it in his squinting brow. He sees something in the landscape most travelers do not. I could tell he wanted to traverse the range. I interjected his train of thought in a more conservative way. I even quelled my urge to stick with my plan of a harder crossing up and over the hogback. Instead, I vouched for my original crossing of the range in the northern and gentler graded slopes of the Worthingtons. I did not trust the water availability, as well as the amount of food we had left until the next resupply. The Worthington traverse would take time.
We focused all of our thoughts at the immediate craggy ridge line stemming off the northern point of Mt. Irish. Woody found a couple of bristlecone with roots hunkered into the chossy and exposed slopes. He mentioned how the bristlecone just loves cold and windswept ridges, how impressed he was that this particular scattered stand grew slowly and firmly in the lowest possible elevation for the tree’s life. He took a trip down ancient history and told us of how the basins below were filled with a vast inland sea. Ancient peoples navigated through the sky islands above the sea and probably saw this bristlecone stand as saplings. From our lofty view, I could only envision a past filled with unknown marvel and peril. I drifted off into a story I have read about, heard about, and now trying to walk about. I longed for that wild simplicity of purely existing. Instead, I trundled along soft talus that trained my focus to the present footstep.
Woody continued to teach us about the plants of the Great Basin. In every basin or valley, whether large or small, the plant life exhibited the blemish of the weather of the previous Winter and Spring. Various plants inhabited these lowlands depending on elevation, aridity, and alkalinity. Sagebrush is ubiquitous in the Great Basin. Sagebrush encompasses more often than not the basins around the Great Basin. One’s view is often glorified by the purple and greenish color of the sage. Once in the sea of sagebrush one’s nose perks to the sweet smell of the aromatic shrub. But, other shrubs dwell here in the Great Basin. We roved from greasewood to bitterbrush, sagebrush to salt brush, black sage to rabbitbrush. Huge forests of juniper and pinyon pine belted the foothills in between the basins and the highest parts of the ranges. In this belt and in the ribbons of creeks plummeting from the crests, cottonwoods colorfully lined drainages. The highest elevations held the occasional ponderosa, aspen, douglas fir, limber pine, and bristlecone pine. Woody rifled off names in such a stunning fashion that I ended up fumbling over my words and just fell into a trance gazing over the landscape. My descriptions above of the plants and trees of the Great Basin pale in comparison to the human guidebook that is Woody.
I began to look at basins differently because of him. As the GBT route creator, I am in constant search of a better way through, or a way that may hold more water for the hiker. I want to see how the seasons are different and how the seasons vary year after year. I am trying to envision a water record, to anticipate the quenching of the land through the needs of plants and shrubs, wild horses and trekkers. In the end, the greatest gift Woody taught was how to read the color of the plants to understand the water content of the plants, water levels of the basins, and how the storms of the previous Winter and Spring moved over the landscape. I developed a pattern in my mind’s eye in how the water fell and I began to understand in confidence what would lay ahead. This inadvertent teaching immersed me deeper into a desert landscape. I now saw the desert differently, more intimately.
I was not shocked, then, to enter the Quinn Range and find running and pooled water scant in the first couple creek drainages we entered. No geologist here, but I tied the layer of rocks the Great Basin ranges were made of together with the health and vibrancy of the plants and shrubs. With limestone being composed of carbonate I could fathom the erosion of the brittle rock either soaking up or percolating the water through; I expected flowing water to be in lower elevations, but not as the creek bed entered a different rock layer at the upper edge of the basins. Either way, even if I could indescribably see water underground flowing like an electrician sees an electric current flowing through wires, I felt so ecstatic to present Pep and Woody the first perennially flowing creek on the Great Basin Trail. At a break, we lazed around in the pools amid the cascading cold water. We splashed our faces and necks, our skin rising up in tingling pricks. We even rinsed out our dusty socks and our salt-stained shirts.
Normally, I am in the front leading the hike, especially on the climbs. Sometimes, though, I want to linger behind and observe how Pep and Woody choose the way through the route. However, I found this difficult to do based on our vastly different styles. Pep really took his time absorbing the landscape, as if he was figuring out some code, deciphering the secret of the terrain, while Woody would be scouring the ground for rare plants. I found myself ‘leading’ too much most likely because of my personality and my intimate knowledge of the route. I really felt engaged when I did, in fact, have the opportunity to observe my two friends navigating their way through. I relished those moments when our brains worked together as one and we, together, had decided which way to go. Within a week or so of our start, I understood how fortunate I was to hike a big route with two new hikers unfamiliar with the region as I was.
|In the Quinn's|
Normally, I am not one to hike with anybody. Usually, I find myself more driven than the person beside me. Generally, I hike for myself and my own experiences. I do not feel the urge to seek out socially driven experiences, too. It is just my general nature. But, to be very open about this, the GBT and this particular hike with Pep, Woody, and eventually Katie is about their experience and the experiences of future GBT hikers. I read people just as well as I read a desert landscape, and I am so lucky to have the chance to observe Pep and Woody weave and meander through this grand Great Basin. I know them, too. I know the ‘feels’ they get out here under the big, giant sky. I see the fervor behind their smile. I can feel their hearts balloon up with their immersion in this place. I am happy to be out here with two friends hiking a route I envisioned and created that I truly have not thought about my own personal time out here. I am enjoying seeing them do this. These two are talented, smart, and really, really care about an endeavor of this sort. Occasionally, I would well up with emotion looking back at them or sharing a vista with them. Them joining me and I leading them means so much to me. And, I will help them in any way I possibly can. Mainly this means adapting my route and my schedule to the group needs whether physically, emotionally, or route-driven. All I know is that to see Woody geeking out on a rare plant and to spy Pep gazing out over the Great Basin from some random spot means the absolute world to me.
Atop the ridgecrest of the Quinn Range, we attained the best view of the whole GBT thus far. All around us we gazed in excitement at the profound distance we could see. We looked deeply into Area 51, looked intently back east at Wheeler Peak, squinted strongly towards the west and the Toiyabe - could we see the High Sierra? - and trained a furrowed brow to the north - could we see the Ruby’s or Diamond Peak? Massively impressed, our energies felt at an all time high. Pep lined his vision to the enormous canyon below us of the westerly ramparts. He looked up at us deviously: Should we take it?
|The heart of the Quinn's|
Here’s the effused freedom I envisioned a hiker would pulse with out here on the GBT. This landscape beckons the traveler on foot to trample across the terrain where one’s curiosity pulls and tugs at our exploratory and nomadic nature. Impulsively, we must go that way; instinctively, we need to go that way. The wide open and unwalled space of the Great Basin unlocks a movement that flows with our needs and creative wants - free-form, adapt, do what you feel - you do not have to walk anyone else’s path. My intention is to encourage the lengthy immersion within the Great Basin, to loosely follow what I have developed to create your own experience, to forge our common thread of exploration in this unbelievably immense and empty landscape.
‘Hell yea, Pep.’ ‘Let’s do it.’ Woody and I chimed in, responding to Pep’s enthusiasm.
‘What do you see, the line? The way?’
We scampered along the ridgecrest weaving around piles of rock and in between clinging limber pines. At a ridge node we took the one most craggiest and slid down talus chutes and rocky limestone outcrops. At a low saddle, 500 feet below us, a negotiable descent began through a thickly sagebrush mountainside. The three of us split up following winding and twisting elk paths. Quickly, the peaks around us loomed steeply above, the gullies and shaded areas filled with crunchy snow. We reconvened at a wide and funneled pan directly above three creeklet forks that came together. Pep pointed out the canyon pinch point right around where the thick forest began. We aimed for the slopes adjacent to the small gorge. We ambled the elk trail that became straighter and etched through the rock and snow detritus. Large tumbled boulders and rolled logs laid stuck in the aggregated mess, but we moved swiftly. Soon enough we began an undulating traverse over a series of gullies, but not before running into a wild cow and her calf. Rough looking, wild-blazed, the horned cow trampled through the mahogany and pinyon pine thickets, the calf zig-zagging in any direction of least resistance. These two lived a quiet life up here. Branded, but probably forgotten, or known as too much trouble to capture, we envied the roaming and roving life of these mountain cattle in this wilderness.
In the dense forest, we lost the game trail. We kept a closer eye on each other through here to avoid any wrong turns or unfortunate off-chutes. Even though we wanted to be like the cattle, uncaptured and free, we were each other’s responsibility. Giant ponderosa pines lined the gouged-out creek drainage and sloped flats. We stopped to marvel these tall stands knowing that the pines were old and hardly ever had human eyes look up at their high canopy with needles draping from long branches, or had human hands touch their thick and red jigsaw puzzle bark, or had a human nose smell deeply in that same thick and jumbled bark the sweet fragrance of butterscotch or vanilla. Woody understood how rare these ponderosa stands were. With hardly any access to this canyon and this part of the Quinn Range, this surrounding forest was protected from any human impact. As we descended the drainage, sometimes we would hit a clearing on a rocky point, or attain the ridge bump between gullies, and see the tallest of the ponderosas sprouting up through the forest, just towering over the smaller trees.
We followed the flat banks of the creek that bounced us along atop ponderosa pine needles and duff.. Dry for some time, the creek bed had round boulders with a ‘clean’ patina. Yellow smudges showed the water mark, long ponderosa needles most likely the culprit of the stain. I wondered why this creek would be dry for most of the year. You could tell that maybe something cavernous fell below the channel or a porous characteristic drained the water below. With ample shade and the occasional pockets or pool of water, this canyon felt unoccupied, as if we felt the spirit of something residing here in this sanctuary that had not been here for a long time. At the confluence of the two major canyons, still hopscotching along rolling boulders, we found a cove tucked beneath a sedimentary textured rocky outcrop. Pink turrets poked up from the top just beneath the tallest of the ponderosas. A steep ramp led up to the cove. Woody eagerly spoke: ‘Let’s go look!’
We found a small overhang with a flattened and dug-out surface beneath, a small and indiscernible fire ring up against the lower parts of the wall. We looked around investigatively, especially Woody, the trained and educated eye. A shelf from the wall had splinters of rock and charcoaled wood. Arrowhead points and flints, tiny and broken, littered the shelf in a worn bowl within the rock. Woody found the best specimens directly on top of the dust and powder. He looked down at his feet and began picking through the thicker dust splinters of wood. He lined up his best finds. We had stumbled upon something, we knew it. We had found a cave long ago used by tribes. He looked up and saw pack rat midden glued to the roof of the cave, the amber gunk spackled into the potholes. He had studied, funnily enough, pack rat midden in recent summers. He understood that pack rat midden can tell us the timeframe of usage of this cave through the detritus stuck in the midden. Pine needles, charcoal, bones, whatever you can think of, if it was small the pack rat collected it and used it for its nest and the area of the pack rat’s shit and piss froze these small remnants in its amber. And, since the generations of pack rats kept the same nest, the pack rats shat and pissed in the same chambered room. Over time, these middens kept inadvertent track of the cave's history.
Our skin tingled, our spirits swelled. This is why we walk a long way. We only hope and dream of something occuring like this, a discovery of our past, of a life much rougher and simpler, of less mainstream and electronic clutter, of no conveniences and fluff, of a tight knit family and tribe all geared towards survival. Woody felt the walls, poked at the ground, and gently caressed rocks while Pep gazed in wonder, his eyes wide and sparkling. I could not stop looking in circles, overwhelmed by the moment, envisioning that epic past life while trying to find the tiny remnants of that past life. My intelligible mind felt unaligned with my imagination, my heart and feel disconnected from my touch. Woody trained his eyes on something up high towards the outward side of the roof of the cave. Blurred and almost smeared in ochre, Woody spotted a pictograph, a figure. Our discovery continued on.
After eyeing the pictograph for another few minutes, we trundled down the canyon until stumbling onto a giant ponderosa grove. The largest and most robust ponderosa had a crystal clear spring flowing from its exposed and massive root system. Again, for a moment, I lost track of our place and blurted out: ‘This cannot be Nevada.’ Awe-inspired, I gawked up at the glamouring giant tree. The isolation, the lonesomeness, the island-in-the-middle-of-an-ocean feel is what made that tree so special. A ton of other places out West with a similar feel would be overrun by hikers, climbers, hunters, off-roaders, mountain bikers - all recreation users - yet here in a sky island range in the middle of the Great Basin the grove and canyon felt unseen and untrammeled, just too damn hard to reach, the most faraway of all places. We tanked up and slurped the cold water that slaked our high desert parchedness on the altar of isolation, upon the shrine of individuality - this wilderness.
Moments later, maybe a mile or so, our wilderness shield shattered when we stumbled upon an old marijuana grow operation. Rows had not been furrowed or plotted, however, the remnants of a future grow operation laid under the canopy: coiled hoses of a couple different types, tarps, litter. Something foiled this attempt and the grower left in a hurry.
‘Damn,’ I thought, ‘I thought we found an unmanned place.’ We left the area quickly with Woody shook, Pep nonchalantly looking down-canyon, and I apathetic to the situation. We have seen this shit before: the wilds taken advantage of and used by man, a special place tarnished by our greed and egos.
Out in the sprawling Railroad Valley, we walked across the basin far enough away from an agricultural ranch. The ranch seemed out of place with huge circular fields, at least half a dozen of them, growing green alfalfa in an otherwise dry world. Long and gangly sprinklers sprayed water out over the fields, the mist reflecting a peaceful and vibrant rainbow. So much life existed in the Great Basin ranges, but we were not expecting a sprawling agricultural ranch in the middle of nowhere. With Area 51 to the south, a massive, empty, and inaccessible landscape, civilization felt lost, or away from here. Our nights had been filled with a chunky Milky Way draping our camps with a stellar ceiling, almost blinding us from a deep sleep. We had hardly seen any track of civilization other than the scant towns we had walked through or crossed or walked upon the occasional dirt road. A couple houses were scattered about the property and looked separated from each other for privacy. Antelope jumped and roamed through the alfalfa fields, their heads poking up with abstract horns. Who contradicted the place more? The illogical presence of a sprawling ranch in a vast and wild area? Or, the wild antelope, primal and fiercely wild within a groomed field? Seemingly absurd and out of place, tamed yet flamingly wild, munching on alfalfa, poking sprigs out of their mouths, their jaws incessantly ruminating the green cud of vibrancy, the antelope still held the startling and wary look of precariousness.
We were just as absurd as that ranch, just as privileged as that ranch too. I can tell myself as much as I want to believe that I walk with some sort of primordial favor, something deep-rooted, when mainly we walk out here because we can. We have the money, the public land, the time - we are just passers-thru with a lot of fortune and freedom. I abhor seeing our scars on the landscape when scars need not be present. I sometimes envision being back in the Altiplano of Bolivia while hiking out here in the middle of the Great Basin, the feel of the landscape so similar: both feel empty, both feel at bay to a wild nature. Yet, one has indigenous people while the other has colonizers, settlers in recent history. Something felt cheapened, something off, when walking across the basin near that ranch. We sat at Abel Spring, probably named for some Mormon settler, shadeless and hot. Our views widened as far as the eye could see. We lounged near the gurgling pool of hot water bubbling out of the ground. Alkaline plants and salts dotted and colored the area with greenery and acidic colors known of geothermal areas. A couple of cattle tanks nearby doubled as sipping and sitting troughs, one for cattle use and the other for human leisure. Surrounding the springs, in the areas where cattle hardly grazed, shards and splinters of arrowheads and points laid scattered around the dry and sandy floor, simply there innocuously and unseen. I was surprised that the artifacts had not been picked over, more signs of a past and forgotten people and time, more signs that this landscape has been utilized for centuries.
|Looking towards the Worthingtons|
I sat in a morose state trying to relax in the blaring sun, trying to rest my legs and slurping up warm and salty water. I tried to find reason within the scars and in the presence of this wide open landscape, within the fathom of the incredible amount of people in this world with limited space. Would any voluminous population of man or culture destroy the inherent nature of a landscape? The shards of arrowheads tell me the people were a part of the landscape, working and living in unison. The ranch tells me a story of bullying, of barging a way in to force a home and way of life. They are no different than a corporation in a big city letting off exhausts that only pollute the world. I picked through the splinters of various kinds of tips and arrowheads, a palette of earthy colors and textures, probably traveled and carried from other areas. I was transported to a place and time I wanted to be in, away from here, in a more tangible sphere where I am truly connected to the land and spirits of this place.
We walked on into the tablelands to the west, some short distance away, walking away from a familiar memory now blurred, now a mirage of heat waves, the valley so flat and wide that even a small rise would obstruct any object of considerable height. The heat of the day began to blister the air making the heat upon your skin a scorched tingle. We sought the refuge of shade beneath the cliffs of a mesa. We walked between the layers of rock and dirt. To the east Railroad Valley ramped to an incredible flatness of lowness, while to the immediate west the Pancakes sloped upwards to another incredible flatness, this time in the form of mesas. Chutes and tiny alcoves lined the eroded cliffs and each of us found our own nook to recline under the shady overhang. I closed my eyes and I sat in nothingness only hearing the wind blow making the clouds whisper. I again was transported to a past time. I would be doing this a hundred years or a thousand years ago, lounging in the shade in relief of the blaring sun and gazing over the landscape and horizon.
|Below the cliffs seeking shade and respite|
An hour went by and I slowly woke up from a nap. I stood up and began to explore the base of the cliffs. Few people have been here with this area being fairly remote and almost inaccessible. A rugged jeep track was within spitting distance. Maybe the wind had blown away all the footprints in the sand, maybe the rugged road kept the driver engaged enough to just get through; either way the alcove of the cliffs prevented the buffeted poundings of the wind and heat and this respite site provided temporary protection. I found more flakes and splinters near the base of the small alcoves, as if the knapper utilized the alcove as a shelf or a table to flake rock to pass away time during their respite from the sun.
I am obsessed with nothingness. To find these areas that are characterized by an enormous sky and wide horizon that lie within emptiness - that’s what I am after. Away from the agricultural ranch and buffered by the cliffs I was taken into nothingness. Then, we found ourselves walking across Lunar Lake, a dry lake bed in the middle of nowhere. Maybe my ultimate dream is to be on the moon, or to continue to explore places with lunar characteristics. This world is filled with these pockets. I absolutely need to seek those places out.
|Spread out on the Lunar Lake|
We spread out, some hundred yards between us, each of us marveling along at our own place, our heads craning up towards the roving clouds in the sky to the mud-caked tiles our feet were stepping on lone streakers across the plains of the Moon within the galaxy of the Great Basin. Tiny volcanic marbles poked up from the tiles, signs that this barren area at some point and time in the year is filled with water and moves objects around. The power of wind and water in unison was present on the western shore of the dry lake bed. Piles and ribbons of volcanic rock filled in the nestled shore that pushed up against cinder cones. Beneath our shoes on each tile had footprints of sandhill cranes and herons, migratory birds in search of water to wade in, frozen in time proving this place held disappearing water. The flatness of the lake bed made the surrounding mesas seem tall and jagged. Enveloped in this globe of light, the tiles gleamed in the sunlight, the flatness of the lake bed shimmered with heat waves, and the wind careened in unabated and cooled our skin. The walk across the lake bed was only 3 miles or so, but that immersion in that emptiness felt like an eternity, just walking on the metaphysical plain of thought and emotion, the unending tube of hyperspace - Am I even existing in this spiritual essence of nothing?
|More empty and openness|
Bah, I am so hokey, even though I find myself inspired by these barren landscapes where I find beauty in harshness, I know this is what I was born to do. We snapped out of our transfixed gait as soon as we crossed from the caked-tiled shore and into the scraggly salt brush and rocky pumice ground. Woody now scanned the ground for a rare buckwheat that is endemic only to this Lunar Crater area, this place separated by barren land from the ranges to the north, an infertile desert island. He found the skeletons of buckwheat from last year’s growth. He said this desert area had most likely seen no trace of water. Everything beneath our feet crunched and snapped to exclaim the dryness of the ground. This area seemed devoid of life, not even a lizard. But occasionally we would cross or follow a cattle path that wiggled through the alley way of cinder cones.
We walked into the sunset and to the rim of the Lunar Crater, a 500 feet deep divot plunging unexpectedly below us. A stunning sight to stand and gaze over. The wind rockets up from the depths and disrupts the peacefulness of the potential stillness one might assume. Turns out NASA had trained astronauts here in the early ‘70s, as the area resembled what scientists believed to be similar to Mars and the Moon. A dirt road lined the rim on the east side, but we had walked here to this lonesome and isolated place. That felt different and unique, our own little astronaut training in venturing towards the most untrammeled areas, only on foot, simple as that.
Under a cool and exposed night, I slept like a volcanic rock wedged in hardened mud. Cozied up within the dryness and staleness, I awoke a couple times to feel the abomination of blackness deprived of any superficial light. The stars hung up there as if caked into a black wall, spackled as an ornament and definitely not a part of the black mass. It was so dark out there that you could tell that space is the overbearing entity of everything, the utter black backdrop the ruling force, the stars just mere freckles. Nestled among the spindly greasewood I felt the cold sink into the barren openness. I woke up replenished and groaned a morning wail under the purple dawn. Woody and Pep sat up from their greasewood pockets. We knew the day would end with us in a proper town.
Off we went with a spring in our step. Some 16 days or so into the Great Basin Trail trek, we were seared dry and wrinkled from the Great Basin, hardened from our wanderings, a little town relief would suit us well. A few beers, multiple meals, a bed, couple showers, all would suffice. At Highway 6, the lonely highway that bisects the GBT, we sat on a picnic table under a dying ash tree. We drank water from a non-potable hand-cranked pump and lounged for a bit. My mom was to meet us and drive us to Tonopah, her offer of help to isolated travelers. After lining out our meet-up point, we crossed the highway gazing into more rugged country to the north and west, the skyline imprinted in my brain the toil of much effort. I wondered what Pep and Woody felt - of what was behind us, of the unknown pathway ahead of us. I knew what they felt about town. We were ready to satiate our hunger and slake our thirst eagerly, to plump back up properly.
I continued to gaze north and west towards a pointy skyline, as we walked a short ways on. My mind cleared with a familiarity of place, a cadence of emptiness, the stream of faraway footsteps pitter-pattering and echoing into the corridor of nothing. I continually find my ‘nothing’ out here in the Great Basin. The year before amid the beginning of the Pandemic, I saw not a soul for 3 weeks before getting into Tonopah. I had released the strain of the world with that stream of faraway footsteps. To walk far and long, remotely and in isolation, the walking erases the mind into nothing. I could start over. I could start from scratch, calmly. This is what nothing means to me– completely present that connects the mind with the place that taps into my innate nature of wandering. Bring me nothing or nothing at all. It is my chance to struggle and persevere within myself and elements around me.
We drove to Tonopah, the highway whizzing by the barren desert, the blurring of nothing. We entered the stream of nearby humanity. I immediately felt the longing to be back in nothing. I had hoped Woody and Pep felt that same notion, or that fleeting feeling of what that long and empty walk meant. I had hoped they felt ‘nothing.’ I kept on looking outward to the north and west as we neared Tonopah. I knew a couple days in town would be good for me, to refuel, replenish, to feel the need to re-clear again. We would be diving back into nothingness soon enough anyways.
|More of the Fortification Range|
|Southern Great Basin|
|A typical barren southern basin|
|More of the Lunar Lake|
|The Big Empty|