Wednesday, June 19, 2013

A Wild West Long... Drive... Home

I like to get in a car and go. Just go. It is a somewhat infamous trait of mine among people who have known me long.

This habit began the first time I had the opportunity. I was 22, just out of college, with a little extra money and a good used Subaru (thanks MJ). I suppose it was a latent though burning inner wanderlust that was simply waiting for the tools. So I toured America. Who wouldn't want to do this? From Ohio I went north to Minneapolis, then followed the Mississippi south to Memphis before cutting over to south central Alabama. East to Tampa, Florida. North to Virginia Beach, Washington, D.C. and from there? Why San Francisco of course! On that D.C. to SF leg in the summer of 1988 was the first time I drove across Highway 50 in Utah and Nevada, America’s loneliest highway. Bernard and I retraced a short segment of that route two days earlier.

Now, 25 years later, about to depart Great Basin National Park, my traveling companion was full of surprises. Bernard had previously crucified me for taking unnecessary or “illogical” road trips—traveling too far for too little time he said. My retort “it was all the time I had,” referring to one of the many roadtrips I took when I met him two years ago.  Here we were, in sync regarding how to drive home. We agreed to take the long way and explore some very remote locales.

As we left the park we took one last look at the “road art” built into the barbed-wire fences bordering each side of the highway. These are humorous and quirky displays, including Bob and Barb Wire, an alien in a wheelchair, and my favorite: “Grate Basin.” At the Border Inn, situated one yard over the border on the Nevada side—where laws are more liberal for gambling and alcohol—we filled up on fuel before heading out into no man’s country.

Road art. 
The route was along the dirt Gandy Road, running north on the Utah side, parallel and within miles of the Nevada border. Our next stop would be Gandy Warm Springs, but before we got there we passed Eskdale. We wouldn’t have known about this Old Testament commune if it hadn’t been for our stop at the Airstream two days earlier. Airstreamers always have the best info.

A Mormon convert who was quickly excommunicated for having his own conversations with God, Maurice Glendenning (born 1891) founded the Aaronic Order in 1942. We saw the Aaronic settlement, Eskdale, off to the east. The little Old Testament-loving town is a long-surviving commune, something that is rare since most experiments in communal living don’t survive long. Glendenning died in 1969 but his religious order continues, and apparently the community is as strong as ever, nearly 50 years later. Somewhere between 200 and 400 people live in this commune, and there are approximately 1,000 active Aaronites.

We arrived at our magical warm springs located at the base of a rocky outcrop of a mountain that rises a mere 300 feet or so above the desert around it near the "town" of Gandy, Utah. In the Basin and Range country this sole little mountain was an oddity. The 82 degree water from the springs nourishes a little desert oasis with ferns, dragonflies, and crystal clear water. This became our lunch spot. We lounged around for about an hour.
Gandy Warm Springs, Utah. 
Our Airstreaming friends recommended Great Basin National Park, a guide book by Gretchen Baker. True to the recommendation, the book was filled with interesting stories about locals from the area. I read many of these to Bernard as we continued northward. We passed through little “towns” where you were lucky to see more than one building, though people still lived in these remote locations. We read about a 1918 showdown between neighbors over wandering cattle where men were shot and killed—though the killer somehow escaped justice. An outcast of the Jesse James gang lived along our route, spending the waning years of his life in hiding in a fortress he built in the Deep Creek Mountains. And we read stories of the Pony Express days.

A stone building not big enough to call a shed, really more of an outside closet, stood along the road we took up into a canyon that came out of the Deep Creek Mountains. This picturesque little stone building was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the 1930s as a shed for gunpowder. I don’t know if it was to blow out the crazy terraces the CCC put into mountainsides throughout the West, or just to supply gunpowder for guns, but it stands proud three quarters of a century after it was constructed in the wilderness. Its tiny roof is gone, but the wooden roof rafters remain.

CCC gunpowder building at the Deep Creek Mountains (not visible), Utah. 
Bernard and I agreed the canyon would be a wonderful place to camp with a small group of friends. With white granite, the Deep Creek Mountains are unique among Utah’s many mountain ranges. They're pretty.

Continuing up the Gandy Road we passed the long abandoned CCC camp where 100 men once lived and worked. Then we came to Callao, one of the stops along the Pony Express. Gretchen Baker is correct in her guide, calling this the most handsome settlement in the region. People still live in this little isolated town, but as many homesteads have been abandoned as there are that remain occupied.

An abandoned house in Callao, Utah. Photo by BVG. 
North of Callao is Gold Hill, a once productive mining town whose last heyday ended with the end of World War II. Like Callao there was a combination of abandoned buildings and some that are still occupied, though the occupied properties in Gold Hill seemed more run down, and therefore seemed a little scarier to those of us just passing through. Presumably this was a home for people living remotely who don’t want to be bothered by tourists--or so I imagined. The most interesting building in town is the roofless old general store. Bernard was not impressed and refused to stop. I wasn’t too far off from this instinct and didn’t object.

Along the Gandy Road at Callao. Gold Hill is to the right (north). The Deep Creek Mountains are on the horizon. 
The town is known for producing gold, copper, arsenic, and tungsten and was quite productive from 1871 to about 1945. It's one of a seemingly endless number of mining towns in the American West--many (most?) long ago abandoned. I know that Alta, Utah, for example, was once a booming mine town with thousands of people living there. Hard to believe since today, even with its world famous skiing, there are only a few hundred year round residents.

Gold Hill is home to the second Airstream we saw on the trip, one from the early to mid 1970s, the same vintage as my former aluminum home. It’s possible nobody has used this Gold Hill Airstream since the seventies too.

The final stop came outside of Gold Hill, about eight miles before we hit pavement again (the entire route since the Border Inn was on a dirt road). I brought a cantaloupe and wanted to crack it open before we headed home. The fruit was very cold from sitting in the melting ice of my cooler. We stopped in a grove of Pinyon-Juniper and ate a few pieces.

After the cantaloupe stop it was time for some driving that even I could agree was boring. We crossed back in to Nevada to connect with the first stretch of paved road in half a day and the final leg of the northbound journey. Then it was onto long stretches of I-80 between Wendover and Salt Lake that were straight and straighter. We cruised through the blinding white light emanating from the Bonneville Salt Flats. Bernard was kind enough to let me read to him from one of my favorite novels, Wallace Stegner’s Angle of Repose. He was restless and tired of the drive. Meanwhile I was happy as a clam--spoiled by having someone drive me, a rarity.

We arrived at my house around 7PM after this road tour of a still very wild part of the American West. It was a day of doing what I love to do: Exploring and going. Just going.

Don't miss part one of this post: Unplugging in the Great Basin.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Unplugging in the Great Basin

It was time to unplug for a few days. No Facebook. No telephone. No texts. No emails. Not even a place to charge. No, we exchanged our modern world for a few days of true recharging in the American West.

Welcome to the Great Basin.
My friend Bernard and I drove west last Friday into the forbidding landscape of the Great Basin. This is the largest area in North America with no outlet to the sea. Salt Lake City is on the eastern edge and Reno is on the west. The Great Basin stretches north-south from southern Idaho to below the southernmost point in Nevada to California in the area that includes Palm Springs. In most of its wide open expanses there are few people or roads.

Our primary destination: Great Basin National Park. The park is just south of Highway 50, “the loneliest highway in America,” and ten or so miles west of the Utah/Nevada border. It is one of the least visited national parks in the U.S.

John McPhee's book Basin and Range beautifully discusses this unique region. The topography undulates with one mountain range after another, all running north-south, each separated by valleys or "basins." It's dry country.

Pulling into our campground at an elevation of 7,500 feet we were greeted with a pleasant sight: a 1999 Airstream Bambi. We found a campsite situated next to a rushing mountain stream and surrounded by Aspens. After setting up camp, eating, watching and terrorizing (but not hurting) a giant beetle, we ventured out to begin our explorations. The Airstream was stop number one. Owned by a Salt Lake City couple who married in 1974, and honeymooned at the park (at that time it was called Lehman Caves National Monument), they graciously allowed us to tour their aluminum home away from home. Bernard was underimpressed, but all it needed was an interior remodel.

We drove to a trailhead at 10,000 feet to do a four mile hike to a Bristlecone Pine grove. These trees are the oldest living organisms in the world, with some individuals standing for 5,000 years. This predates not only Ancient Rome but also Ancient Greece, and even the Egyptian pyramids! Shaped by wind erosion, they are gnarled into crazy shapes.

Bristlecone Pine. Photo by BVG. 

My best preppy-rugged outdoorsman look. 

Dinner, campfire, sleep.

Saturday we woke, chilled to the bone, and anxiously awaited the arrival of sunlight in camp. It came and the chill faded. Temps had dropped to 37 degrees Fahrenheit overnight.

Our hike for the day began at 10,160 feet, near the trailhead of the evening before. In front of us: a 2,900 foot ascent up Nevada's second highest peak--Mount Wheeler. I did fine until we hit a certain pitch, then the elevation and my poor conditioning conspired to slow me down. But I plugged along and though it was tough (there were even gale force winds along the way) I loved being on the mountain. We had the summit to ourselves with views for at least 75 miles in all directions, and for whatever reason the wind wasn't bad on top.  

Approaching the summit of Wheeler Peak, Nevada. Photo by BVG. 
On the way down, my weak left ankle betrayed me, it popped and I went down, body-slamming the jagged rocks on the trail. I landed on my left side and writhed around in pain for a few minutes. This happens too much, though it was the first time in at least six months. I had to press on, so after the initial pain began to subside that's what I did. I gimped on down the mountain, though most of the pain was over in the first five minutes. When I took my shoe off at the bottom and stepped on it again the pain went back up temporarily but with some ibuprofen it didn't affect the trip beyond my dramatics when I first went down. 

On the ascent with Wheeler Peak above us. 

Bernard at the summit. 

The summit hike was my favorite outing, though there was still much to see. After the hike we showered in camp with Bernard's solar shower, then headed in to town to check out the local bar. It was, as he aptly put it, a "one-horse town." Baker, Nevada owes most of its existence to revenues generated from the national park. One gas station, a multi-denominational church, two bars, the park visitor center and maybe a dozen houses--that was the whole town. 

Some guy had a snake in hand and he was blocking the entrance to the Silver Jack Inn (and bar) where we wanted to go. I skirted around him, went inside and got my beer. The building seemed to be vintage 1920s--certainly pre-WWII. It was a funky little place. And quiet. 

Back to camp, dinner, another campfire, and bed. It was much warmer the second night and we both slept better as a result.

After breakfast and breaking down our campsite, we went to Lehman Caves and did a 90 minute tour of an amazing limestone cavern (it's one cave despite its plural name). This was easily the best cave tour of my life, though I've only done a few.

The most iconic formation in the cave, part "shield" part curtains. Shields occur in only a small portion of caves around the world. Photo by BVG. 
It was a mellow weekend and just what the doctor ordered. The West maintains its spell over me thirty years after I first visited. It's a great place to live, and an even greater place to unplug from the modern world.

Part two from the trip: A Wild West Long... Drive... Home.

All photos by BVG except for the one of him.