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.

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