Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Last Day -1

Rarely have we felt more melancholy than we did as we packed our bags the next morning. Good company, good food, lovely surroundings (and geology!) … we'd had a wonderful time, but it was all downhill from here.

Literally. We left early on Hwy 20 downhill, out of the Sierra Nevada.

Roadside Geology of Northern and Central California in hand, I tried to note the different formations as we drove west. I looked for red soils on high ground as we began the journey: these red soils are the old surface of the Sierra Nevada, before the uplift that began a few million years ago. We'd driven on it as we travelled from Tahoe to Colfax: I80 runs along a ridge of it, hence the long gentle descent. The extensive gravel bars in the Yuba River were washed down by the hydraulic mining of the gold from those ancient mountains and later (1903–1968) dredged and processed again for any placer gold that had escaped the original miners. I had a glimmering sense of satisfaction: my general knowledge of this landscape was improving, I could put things into context and understand the relationships I'd been reading about.

California has been built over time from 'exotic terranes' left behind as the Farallon Plate sinks below the North American plate. The 'original' west coast was in Utah: the land west of this is a sequence of island arcs and oceanic crust scraped off the Farallon Plate from about 165–50 million years ago. The Farallon Plate itself melted at depth and some of it returned to the surface as basalt, obsidian and ash; the Sonoran volcanics that so entranced us are the result of this process. Near the Yuba River Bridge, Hwy 20 passes over massive rocks with thin red soils: the red is iron oxide weathering from the rock, basalt flows that were once on the floor of the Pacific Ocean. Distracted by this from my sense of impending doom - the end of the holiday - I felt more cheerful. 

Yuba City felt strange. A perfectly normal farming community starting its Friday morning, but so very different from the tourist-centred mountain and desert communities we'd been travelling through, and set in a farming landscape. Green, but green thanks to irrigation: look at Google Earth and admire the regular blocks of every shade of green. There were ditches, but instead of carrying water away as they would in the UK, these brought water to the fields. There were rice fields! And there were the stark, surprising hills of Sutter Buttes rising from the fields. 

Soon we could see the Coast Ranges. On the roadside - I wasn't fast enough with the camera to show them - there were scattered red dots: tomatoes! Fallen from passing trucks. Crows were eating them and I just sat back and marvelled once more at the concept of open trucks full of tomatoes. 

Beyond Williams Hwy 20 threads its way across the Coast Ranges. Ash, lots of ash. More volcanics. California, Land of Volcanoes? Volcanoes 'r' Us? There's a point at which the road heads due south down what is clearly a fault line; on Google Earth there are so many sharp parallel fault lines that this area looks like a gigantic rutted dirt road. There are more trees, but primarily on the north-facing slopes: on the south-facing slopes grasses bake in the sun under the hot blue sky.

In places there are fewer trees; here the basalt cores of the hills are clearly visible through the fire-blackened trunks.

 We turned south onto 53 for Calistoga. Hills, trees, more trees, higher hills.

The road plunged down the hillside into the Napa Valley at Calistoga. Vineyards.

Roadside fingerpost signs direct visitors to vineyards, a very practical touch. We wondered who funded them (guessing the vineyards themselves). 

As 128 progressed, there were fewer vineyards, more hillside. On the other side of Cloverdale, it was almost all hillside. The afternoon progressed, we progressed. Pleasant but lacking interest, let alone excitement. The plan was to drive to Hwy 1, then south along the coast to find somewhere for the night; why not find a more interesting way to get to Hwy 1? Turn left here! I demanded in Boonville. Onto Mountain View Road. Our road map suggested it might have been good gravel, but in the event it was paved. And it was beautiful. The road went up, and up, and up. There were redwoods. It went up some more, and then down, and down, and down, and down. Through the gaps in the trees we could see the sea. 

 And then there were far fewer trees, and much more sea.

It was Point Arena, and it was getting late, time to be thinking about somewhere to sleep. And eat, eating would be good. I scrabbled for the CAA guide and A. realised it was in his suitcase. We stopped (fresh air was also good) and I discovered that the guide didn't list a lot of options. We'd missed the turn for one of them in Point Arena; the next place of any size was Gualala. We'd have to be alert.
We were alert (anyone else remember "Be Alert! Your country needs Lerts!" the first time around - or at least a long time ago?). Not alert enough to spot the first place we passed, but that was good: we arrived at the Breakers Inn instead, and they only had luxury rooms left. Sauna or jacuzzi? Oops, sauna is taken. Jacuzzi? How could we say no? As we hauled our suitcases down the stairs, A. said he'd hoped we could find somewhere special for this last night on the road. We did.

Jacuzzi in the window.

Balcony overlooking the Pacific Ocean. 

We assessed our options and the time available, and came up with A Plan: showers and dinner before anything else, as people in North America eat earlier than in Europe. In London we can sometimes get tables in good restaurants at 1800, provided we are out by 1930; here we need to be at the restaurant by 1730 if we don't have a table reserved. Dinner at Trinks was good, the wine was excellent. We took our desserts back to the jacuzzi with us. After jacuzzi, we sat outside on the balcony and watched the sun sink into the ocean and the stars come out once more. Not Death Valley, but memorable nonetheless.

It sounds romantic, and it was. 
Then we began to ponder the names of the constellations (there were so many more than we knew), and I remembered I had a phone app that used Location Manager to display the stars where I was, and that worked but needed updating, and A. wanted one on his phone and had to google to find the best one, and then there was downloading of additional features and tweaking of settings, then comparison of lovely informative screen images, and then all was peaceful again for about ten minutes, after which we started trying to take time-lapse photos of all the stars, so had to google night sky photography on iPhones and apps for the phones, and then had to download them and work out the settings … There was a lot of kneeling and balancing of phones on the balcony rail and assessing images and general dissatisfaction followed by more google, and do it all again. It was Fun. It was All Good. It was far better than All Good. I even got a photo in which it is possible to see some stars. Don't use too much imagination, most of the dots are CCD noise :-)

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Malakoff Diggins and the Bear Who (fortunately) Wasn't There.

Our friends wanted to show us a good time while we were with them. They'd clearly given it a lot of thought, because the first part of the excursion focused on geology, while the second part was food. What could be better?

Part One was a visit to Malakoff Diggins Californa State Historic Park. That's the official site, which is much less enthusiastic (and gives much less info) than the park deserves. Wikipedia does a better job, and I'll try to do even better than that.

Basically, it's a large hole in the ground with beautiful fluted, water-worn edges carved into colourful sediments. The history of the hole is what makes it interesting.

Travel back in time 55 million years or so, to the Eocene. The prehistoric Yuba River (named for the modern river in that area, but following a very different course) is depositing gold eroded from the ancestral Sierra Nevada in its riverbed gravels as it winds through the hills west of what is now Lake Tahoe. In the Oligocene, starting about 40 million years ago, new volcanoes appeared on the crest and eastern slopes of the Sierra Nevada, producing vast quantities of ash (known as the Valley Springs Formation) that choked the Eocene rivers, filling the river valleys and covering the gold-bearing gravels. New streams and rivers - the ones we see today - eventually became established in the new landscape created by the volcanoes; some of these contained gold, but only where their courses cut through the gold-rich Eocene channels.

By the middle of the 19th century the Gold Rush miners had claimed and removed most of the placer gold (loose gold particles in stream gravels or deposits) from the modern streams and rivers. There was still a great deal of gold in the Eocene riverbeds, but the remaining gravels were deeply buried under the volcanic sediments. Many hours of labour with picks, shovels and barrows could reveal the gold-bearing layer, but water was then needed to wash the gold out of the gravel. Human ingenuity found a way to do both: hydraulic mining. By 1853, reservoirs were being constructed high on hillsides above the area where gold was buried. Wooden flumes brought vast quantities of water down the hills to the extraction sites. Fed into hoses and out through cast-iron cannon-like nozzles known as 'monitors', high-pressure water jets washed away the unwanted soil and rock to expose the gold-rich gravels. Malakoff Diggins ('diggings') was the largest hydraulic mining site in California, still the best place to see the results of the technique. Here up to 12 monitors at once were used to carve a pit 1.5 miles long and 0.5 miles wide into the hillside; 600' deep at the time of mining, erosion has since filled it with 300' of sediment. 

From the Wikipedia entry on Hydraulic Mining: a monitor in use.

The layers of volcanic ash and stream gravels that filled the prehistoric Yuba River Valley are clearly shown in the cliffs of the Diggins.

It's a weirdly beautiful place. After picking up a map from the Vistor Centre in North Bloomfield, the historic remains of the 19th-century town that serviced the Malakoff Diggins, we parked and walked down to find the circular route way-marked around the bottom of the pit. As we walked, it struck me that volcanic debris has been one of the highlights of this trip, a feature of the landscape since we drove south from Yosemite. Layer upon layer of bright pale colours glowing under the California sky: I shan't forget it.

We walked, we talked. We talked about studios and their contents as recording an artist's route through his or her craft. We talked about the difficulties of disposing of materials that are no longer needed; I suffered a momentary lapse of good manners when S. suggested I might inherit some of hers (there's a significant drop in front of us; one little push … it's mine, I tell you, all MINE!)

The well-trodden path grew fainter; clearly many visitors didn't walk the circle, they'd turned back. We meandered on, continuing to talk, while the menfolk followed.
Look closely at the picture and you'll see a length of iron pipe that was once part of the monitor system. The ground is littered with it in places.

The trail grew fainter and we started casting about for the next waymarker. We eventually found it, or the top 4" of it, almost buried in sand and mud. The shrubs growing on the floor of the pit are part-buried, too. Eventually the pit will be no more than a hollow in the ground.

Watching for boot- and shoe-prints to confirm that we were on the right path (or at least that other people had walked the same way), I noticed several deposits of, um, animal spoor. Scat. Feces. Full of berries, not hair, and not white with bone. It took a while for the long-buried memories of my summers working in the Rocky Mountains in Alberta to surface. When they did, I suggested we talk more, and louder. I started looking for pawprints rather than boots (I found them), and took a much closer look at the next deposit.

Bearshit. (Plus some coyote, near the white rock, looks a bit like dog but contains more hair from the animals it's eaten.) Three lots of bearshit, in fact, one large and two small. A mother and two cubs? I didn't recognise the berries, but S. suggested manzanita and when we later found a bush, it was a good match. There were no berry-bushes in the area, but clearly there had been several bears (or fewer, with some digestive issues). 

A. thought my engrossed examination of the bearshit was worth recording for posterity.

We continued to walk, talking loudly amongst ourselves to let any bears know we were coming. It was midday, but still: better safe than sorry.

There's a lake of sorts at the far end of the pit, which leads neatly to the question of what happened to all the water jetting out of the monitors? The pit had to be thoroughly drained to expose the gold-bearing gravels (known as the blue lead for their colour). An 8000' tunnel was excavated through bedrock to carry the waste water out of the pit and into Humbug Creek, which flowed into the Yuba River. Known as the Hiller Tunnel, the stretch nearest the pit is still accessible. And with the water went the hillside it was washing away. The sediment in the tailings from hydraulic mining created an environmental disaster: the mud polluted rivers, killed fish. Mud washed from these hillsides began to fill the beds of the Yuba and Sacramento rivers (just as it had filled the bed of the prehistoric rivers the first time around), causing flooding of cities and farmland, and preventing ocean-going vessels reaching their ports. In desperation the farmers filed a lawsuit to stop the hydraulic mining and in 1884 Judge Lorenzo Sawyer issued an injunction banning the dumping of mine debris into the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers and their tributaries, effectively haulting hydraulic mining in Northern California.
Excavating this pit is thought to have cost the North Bloomfield Gravel Mining Company about US$3 million, and they probably recovered about the same amount before mining was halted.

There. Isn't that at least a little bit interesting? Not knowing all of this at the time, and being rather hungry, we were more interested in lunch! The Ridge Cafe, North San Juan, was perfect. Especially the lemonade, which was almost the Plato's Cave version of the cold drink I needed. And then we went home and talked some more.

Monday, October 20, 2014

To Bodie and Beyond!

Writing this nearly three weeks later is bittersweet. The trip is fading from remembered reality to memory, but blogging is recalling it to present mind. I sit and look at the photos and I can again smell the dust, feel the sun on the back of my neck, the woodgrain under my hand.

So. We didn't check to see if we could have Mono Cone milkshakes for breakfast - that would have been just plain silly - but ate the last of our Schat's Energy Bread (we commend it: tastes good and keeps well!) and a handful of dried apricots with coffee, packed everything into the car, and headed north on 395 for the road to Bodie. As you may have noted, we don't often spend an entire day hammering out the miles; although it's great fun, provided there's road music on the radio, sitting in the car with the landscape rolling past like a projected film is no way to learn about a place. Several people had told me that Bodie was worth a visit, and they were right. We arrived early, before the park opened, in time for the flag raising ceremony. I know Europeans who are slightly unnerved by the frequency of flags and flag-raisings in the US - they see it as an indication of the strength of 'my country right or wrong' that has proved problematic - but while I understand their views, I also see it as symbolising something that most of Europe has put to one side, loyalty to a nation-state. At least I wasn't the only person taking a photo.

Bodie (also Wikipedia) is a gold rush ghost town, now a California State Park. Beginning as a mining camp c. 1859, although several mining companies worked the ores, little was produced until a new lode was discovered in 1876. By 1879 up to 7000 people lived in Bodie, in a town that extended nearly a mile west of what is now the park entrance.

This is A's panorama of the remaining buildings, looking east from the highest point visitors are permitted to reach. 

With luck this is the Google Earth satellite view (wait for it… :-)

View Larger Map

Look beyond the roads that Google marks and names, and you can see the lines of many more. The surviving buildings, while extremely picturesque, don't give a good idea of what this town was like in its heyday. Wikipedia has a photo c. 1890, showing the area where the surviving buildings now stand, and the mines on the hillside beyond it. Click for bigger, it's worth it.

I'd hoped to climb higher on that hill, but it's fenced off for the safety of visitors. Given the density of mine workings, perhaps it's just as well. Look closely at the area around Bodie on the satellite image, and the extent of the mining becomes evident: this was a busy, busy landscape in the late 19th century. The tranquility of the park makes it hard to imagine the place as it was.

The buildings in good condition house park workers; others are left as they were when abandoned or (we suspect) artfully restored to what the interpretive specialists thought appropriate. We eyed relative amounts of dust and differential fading on labels analytically, because we're like that. No photos, though.
Rust-reds and browns in strikingly beautiful contrast to the glowing blue sky.

There's very little interpretation, even in the Visitors' Centre. We had a reasonable understanding of the  mining and refining process; we wanted more, and much more detailed information, but the display cabinets were full of artefacts of the period: clothing, glassware, ledgers. Attempting to instill empathy for those who lived here, rather than information about why they were here and how they earned their living. We bought Bodie "the mines are looking well"  for the information we wanted (it's a lot cheaper in Bodie!).

Bodie sits on a plateau nearly 8500' above sea level. It's high desert, tied with Barrow, Alaska as the US locality with the most nights below freezing. Look at those buildings again.

Timber, plaster and lathe if they were lucky. Single pane glass windows (one of the surviving houses has a conservatory about 2' deep built onto the house; with scarcely room for a chair, even though it's now filled with shelving and a random assortment of bottles, it looked more to us like an attempt to trap warmth for the sitting room). Life here was hard. Until 1881, when a railroad was built from Mono Lake, everything - timber, fuel, food, booze, mining equipment, timber and more timber - was hauled in by road, and the gold - c. US$34 million was shipped out. We wondered how large and beautiful the forests around Mono Lake were, in the days before the Gold Rush. We wondered where the water supply was; there's a creek, but it runs right below the mine works, where cyanide was used to extract gold from the crushed ore. We really wondered whether anyone had analysed the creek sediments recently … but whatever is in there, it's not harming anyone now. 

There's a reconstituted mine headworks by the parking lot, and elsewhere a small junkyard of abandoned equipment. We wandered around it, admiring it 

and trying to identify all the bits. Eventually we realised it was nearly 1130, time to leave. 
I hesitate to confess the next bit, but it is part of the story … 
I'd brought my favourite trainers on this trip. They'd pounded the London pavements for many miles, seen many parts of Scotland, they'd carried me to almost all the SOARs (Spin-Off Autumn Retreats) I'd attended. I walked around Sunriver in them every morning in 2009 and in 2012 they were blackened by volcanic ash at 8000' in the Sierra Nevada, then (with extra thick wool socks) washed clean in the early snows at Tahoe. They were very old now, soles wearing through. I'd bought replacements in San Francisco and wore the new shoes in Yosemite and Death Valley, but I'd been unable to bring myself to just dump the old ones unceremoniously in a bin. I could have buried them somewhere, leaving a memorial to puzzle future archaeologists (Ritual! Clearly Ritual!), but that seemed like pollution. Sitting in the car waiting for A., it occurred to me that this was the place, it was somehow fitting to leave them and the memories here, in a ghost town. Whispering apologies to the Park Service who will have had to truck them out of the park, I took the battered shoes out of the suitcase and, (sad but true) with tears in my eyes, said farewell and placed them carefully in the bin. End of an era.

And then we drove back down the road. 
There is a spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada from the highest point of the road.

Lower down there are some patches of grazeable greenery near the road.

There were sheep, and (look closely)
A donkey. We speculated on the reason for a donkey. You can, too.
And then we reached 395 and we drove, or rather I drove, and A. navigated, which means far fewer photos. In fact I am somewhat horrified to discover, none. I was certain I'd taken some where we stopped for lunch on the roadside  but I can't find them in iPhoto, which leaves me wondering whether the gnome was on strike for some reason.  I can show you where we stopped (wait for it :-)

View Larger Map

Click 'view larger map' Isn't technology wonderful?

At Carson City we turned left onto 'Nevada State Route 431', aka Mount Rose Highway. This is one of the best routes to admire the steep east slope of the Sierra Nevada - it hairpins straight up from the basin floor at Carson City to Mount Rose summit, at 8900'. There are some stunning views from the road, and we had ample time to enjoy them in the traffic queuing for one-way flow due to re-surfacing work. 
And then we were queuing through Incline Village and Kings Beach, deciding that no matter how lovely the houses, we weren't buying anything on a slope that steep in an earthquake zone. West on 80 and we're going down, down, down the seemingly endless gentle western slope of the Sierra. We turned north on 174, headed for a good friend's house which was exactly where it was supposed to be, although the road to get there was, um, interesting. If you've been there, you know exactly what I mean. I did a lot of talking to the car toward the end of the trip, and pointed out to myself that the bridge was absolutely no different to a vehicle inspection ramp and I take pride in driving my own car onto those. A. was vastly amused. Either he talks to himself silently or he doesn't have to talk himself into things at all. 

Flowing downhill on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada felt like what it was: saying farewell to the mountains. I generally like travelling west; west and north are the 'good' directions, the ones that promise adventure, but we were all too aware that our time here was running out. Although we'd encounter some more unexpected adventures before it ended …

Thursday, October 16, 2014

The beginning of the end.

All good things must come to an end, or we'd have nothing against which to compare them. But we were distinctly melancholy as we packed our bags into the car and headed out the next morning. After so long driving south, ever south, driving north made it very clear that the end of the adventure was inevitable.

We'd waffled all evening and part of the morning about today's route. North, yes, as we were to stay with a friend just west of Lake Tahoe tomorrow night, but through Nevada or California? If Nevada, how far? Cut back into California south of Mono or north of Mono? As navigator, the decision was mine, and I made it as the sign for Hwy 374 through Daylight Pass to Beatty, Nevada came into view. "Turn right here", I said.

The road heads east up the slope of sediment shed by the Funeral Mountains, part of the Amargosa Range. These are Cambrian quartzites, much older than the colourful Tertiary deposits of the Black Mountains just south of Furnace Creek: 

I've embedded a satellite view here. 

The different colours of the gravels in the fan are a function of how long ago they were deposited. The older they are, the darker, as over time the rocks acquire what is known as desert polish, a smooth upper surface polished by windblown dust, and desert varnish or desert lacquer: windblown clay embedded in exposed surfaces attracts manganese and iron particles to develop a shiny dark coating. As you look at the satellite view, you can see how paler, more recent flows cut through the darker, older flow surfaces. We stopped to admire the rocks, both those on the ground and those rising from it. There were cacti(!) as well as rocks on the ground. 

The wind scours finer, lighter sediments away, leaving the rocks to become pavement. It's a nice firm surface to walk on, but do so carefully as it's the result of decades or centuries of erosion.

I spent some time trying to take a photo that would capture my thoughts, but in the end resorted to words.
Texture and lack of texture totally engages my eyes and brain. Fractal texture of mountains, fractured rock against glowing blue sky smoother than the smoothest ice, a new standard for untextured. Achingly beautiful, orange-brown rocks etched against the contrasting blue, bluer, bluest sky. Hard. Crisp cut edges. Painfully sharp. Not an easy place, water does not gently smooth away roughness and imperfections: it erupts, scours, rips, cuts. The mountains resist. This is a land of conflict between elements. 

And we looked back wishfully, wistfully. The pale patch in the centre of the valley is the Mesquite Flat Sand Dunes; beyond them on the left is Tucki Mountain and Mosaic Canyon at the northern end of the Panamint Range, behind them and to the right are the Inyo Mountains.

But the road called, promising more to see and think about. As it climbed, it ran through and across areas where floods must be frequent (the palest areas nearest the hills): graders have created berms to protect the road, with tamarisk to hold the rocks in place. There was no sign to mark the summit of the pass, but the road began to descend, and on the first curve we passed one of the really hard men of the road: a solitary cyclist travelling west, brown leather skin over sinew and bone, eyes on the road, slowly but steadily making his way uphill. He must have left Beatty hours before. We've seen a few over the last couple of days. Most wearing billed caps with cloth flaps to keep the sun off their necks rather than helmets, all with that whipcord and wire look of long distance, long time riders.

We cruised downhill across the Amargosa valley and the many minor streams feeding the Amargosa River, which makes a u-turn west at the southern end of its valley to flow north into Death Valley. Beatty felt like a classic North American small town, but a couple of cars with roughly-applied spray paint camouflage left us feeling uncomfortable. Instead of suburbs there's a trailer park (big stationary house trailers), something we'd seen a lot of recently. Cheap housing, but must be like ovens on hot days (some have the frames for awnings over the entire trailer). 

At Beatty we joined Hwy 95, our friend for most of the rest of the day. This is a different landscape, softer. The elements have had much longer to attack these mountains: their skeletons emerge from rolling hills constructed of the sediments eroded from them. But it's still geologically active: there are cinder cones, and the occasional lush greenery beside the road relies on hot spring flows. Elsewhere: sage bushes (I don't know which kind), dirt and scattered grasses, mile upon mile of it. High desert. We're at 3-4,000' feet above sea level.

Sage is sage green; creosote bush aka greasewood has bright yellow flowers and is very well adapted to survival in dry environments.

I love it. We love it. 

95 north of Beatty. Zen landscape, the eyes relax. Soft greens, creams, distant mountains softened by age. 
Vast expanse of sage green flowing up the gentle hillslopes. Cream, green, endless shades of blue in haze softening the brown distance. Restful. Just as boredom approaches, so does a cinder cone, offering fractal detail to engross the eyes.

I want to live here in the dry lands for a season or four, a year or three. I want to know what it feels like to wake early for hard work in the cool of the morning, then retreat like a snail into its shell as the heat builds. To see rain not as a cold grey nuisance, but as a rare, dangerous but desirable event. To watch clouds drift across the vaulted sky in all its shades of blue. To find out when, and how, I cease to cherish the vastness and the searching sunlight and perhaps come to hate these spaces for separating me from shops, the sound of running water and dappled sunlight through green leaves.

Over Goldfield Summit (6,021') and down into Goldfield itself. 

From 1906-1910 this was the largest city in Nevada, but ever-deeper mining grew too expensive, the town's population decreased. The buildings remained until 1923, when a disastrous fire completely destroyed about 25 blocks of the city. I know this because we stopped here to stretch our legs,

and ended up talking to the proprietor. As the price of gold has rocketed in recent years the mines are coming back to life, and more are planned: Hwy 95 itself is scheduled for fast-track diversion to allow access to a new find. We left with a delightful walking tour of the town prepared by the Goldfield Historical Society, a road map of Nevada (I'd been working from the California map and guesses), and best of all, two Goldfield shot glasses. We drank a toast to Mr. Davarpanah from them last week, and hope to do so for many years to come. I liked Goldfield. Not beautiful or scenic itself, but an honest little town set in a beautiful landscape.

Bottle houses grew out of the need for housing in an area where there was no timber, while saloons produced a plentiful supply of bottles. This is one of only four that survived the 1923 fire in Goldfield.

On, across sagebrush with distant mountains until Hasbrouck Peak announced imminent Tonopah, where we stopped for lunch. 

Endless variations on a theme, but we're not bored yet.

Just north of Tonopah on Hwy 6 a white tower shimmered in the distance with something peculiar at its base.

A. guessed it was a solar thermal plant, and Google proved him right. And then the road curved west around Lone Mountain and we saw the Sierra Nevada again. They'd had snow since we left, surely? We pulled over near a tiny cinder cone that offered slightly better views.

At the top I found a selection of pellets full of small mammal bones, regurgitated by some large bird of prey (this is how they get rid of the bones and fur of the animals they eat). If the pellets are soaked until they soften, the contents can be identified from skulls and teeth. Great fun! but I left it for someone else to enjoy.

Then, decision time. Continue west on Hwy 6 with time to explore Mono Lake before a night in Lee Vining, or north on our old friend Hwy 95 to Hawthorne and a longer route? We love a road trip, we liked the landscape: we drove north. 

The mountains grew nearer: we must be near Hawthorne. Our new Nevada map mentioned 'Hawthorne Army Ammunition Plant', which may explain road signs forbidding trucks laden with explosives from stopping overnight in the little towns we've passed. It certainly does explain the vast array of small bunkers, each a significant distance from its neighbours, each surrounded by a ditch and berm to protect it from adjacent explosions, or reduce the effect of its explosion. Scary to contemplate working there.

Fill with gas and out on 359, climbing the skirts of the mountains, then southwest along a large valley until the road begins to twist and I shout "STOP! Piñon pines!" Poor A. But I was right, they were, and it was extremely satisfying to see yet another thing I've wanted to see for decades, even though the only nuts we could find on the trees were ancient bug-eaten shells full of frass.

Up a bit more, into the trees and then down again out of the trees into sage and creosote bush. Ever-widening gaps between the trees showed glints of light: sunlight on Mono Lake. 

Just as I'd planned (ha!), we'd arrived with time to spare to visit Black Point. Thirteen thousand years ago this volcano erupted under a much larger Mono Lake up to 900' deep, fed by meltwater from glaciers on the surrounding mountains. The pressure of the water forced the lava and cinders to become wide, flat cone, and may have influenced the formation of the peculiar fissures found in the summit. It may be the only fully exposed 'underwater' volcano on earth. A gravel road led to a dirt road, which led to a small parking area and sign between the hillside and the lake.

The hill is only about 500' high and it was late afternoon, not too hot, so we opted for a waterbottle instead of hydration packs, and a handful of energy bars in case of emergency, and followed the largest of the trails of footprints in the dark loose soil. It soon morphed into an interlacing of smaller paths, all heading uphill, so we chose our own route over the false summits, always aiming for the highest point. Here the dense layers of tuff (compressed ash) stood proud above the softer ashes and offered spectacular views over the Mono Lake basin. Almost at our feet were white deposits of tufa leading out to Negit Island, the darker of the two islands, a volcanic cone probably less than 2000 years old. Beyond it is Paoha Island, 

and beyond that, the remainder of the Mono-Inyo Craters, although we can't see all of them. 

Looking north across the low, flat hill, we could see a hollow that might be a fissure. We plunged downhill through the bushes, taking care to make noise to alert anything (snakes) to our passage. It was indeed a fissure. 

The origin of the fissures is unclear, but they are fascinating. Some are relatively shallow, not much more than very large mud cracks. Others are deeper and large enough to walk down with ease, giving good views of the layers of tephra differentiated by differences in the relative amounts of ash, pumice, basalt, and 'country rock' - the granite of the Sierra Nevada batholith - each contains. Strange and thought-provoking to see chunks of that granite here, embedded in the ash. As we entered the shade of the cleft, there were animals: bees were attending the creosote bushes, there were tiny flying things (which explained the spider webs). We emerged and found another fissure, this one much deeper; we found a way down to one end, but looked again at the angle of the sun and decided it was better to head back to the car. 

So we did. As we walked, the shadow of the Sierra mountain wall swallowed us and the air began to cool rapidly. I saw the start of something else I'd wanted to see: wildlife emerging at dusk. We'd note a movement in the brush below us, freeze, and wait: a rabbit. Two rabbits!  Repeat a few minutes later and: jackrabbit! Finally, as we approached the car, a coyote sloped across the road toward the hill. Hide, rabbits.

Back into the car, back down the dirt road, out on the gravel to Hwy 395 and Lee Vining. Where we found beds for the night and Mono Cone. Hamburgers were good, but the first milkshake I've had for decades was beyond good. Especially when enjoyed while reading a book on geology and listening to Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Bliss. A memory to cherish forever.

And the next day we drove north to somewhere west of Lake Tahoe. And other places.