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. 


Freyalyn said...

Magical - thankl you.

Figgy said...

Oh Sarah, I have so enjoyed your trip accounts. You have the voice of a poet and the eye of a geologist/artist!