Alone, yet never lonely, at Great Basin National Park
In need of a late summer distraction as the next academic year approaches, I planned a solo road trip to explore eastern Nevada. While I love my career and always look forward to meeting new students, there’s a certain melancholy that accompanies the end of break as you’re staring down an impending wave of emails, presentations, discussions, assignments, and meetings. I always experience a mix of emotions. Maybe it’s the transition that makes me anxious. So, what better ways to stave off those feelings than to throw myself into fall quarter preparation and arrange a short visit to Great Basin National Park?
After wrapping-up a round of syllabi edits, I packed some clothes, food, and gear and left Carson City on Highway 50 just before lunch on a Monday. This highway is known as “The Loneliest Road in America,” and I understand why it received this moniker. After all, you only see a sliver of the cars that you see on the nation’s interstates. There’s a series of mountain ranges and desert valleys of sagebrush that you pass through as you drive eastward across the Great Basin, which is punctuated by small, once-thriving mining towns. To some, the landscape is desolate, but I emphatically disagree. Deserts may appear to be boundless, uninhabited places to many passing through, but those of us who have lived in them know better.
“And let the sun wrap its arms around me…”
The closest city to Great Basin National Park that has solid hotel and restaurant options is Ely, Nevada. So, I reserved a room for three nights at the Nevada Hotel and Gambling Hall on the downtown strip. The hotel itself is ninety years old, but you wouldn’t think that when you see the rooms because they’ve been renovated to look modern. Now, there are a couple of other major name hotels in town, but why pay twice the rate when you can stay somewhere that’s clean, safe, and has a bit more character? It only cost me $74 a night. The staff members were friendly and accommodating, unlike some of what I’ve encountered down in Las Vegas where many look and sound like they’re exhausted. Plus, there’s a Chinese restaurant, Happy Garden, with a pleasant atmosphere right across the street that serves a delicious mixed vegetable and tofu dish with steamed white rice.
On Tuesday morning I woke up and drove out to the park. It’s roughly an hour long trip that drops down into the very tranquil Spring Valley (not to be confused with the city near Las Vegas) just west of the Snake Mountains. From what I could tell, there are several ranches in the area, but I didn’t see any people. Maybe a handful of cars were on the road – if that. Lonely is an understatement for that strip of Highway 50, however, I soaked in every minute as my eyes scanned the desert floor because it always brings me peace inside.
My trip had two goals: hike up to Wheeler Peak on Tuesday and then explore the Lehman Caves on Wednesday. Upon arrival, I stopped at the visitor center to pay the entrance fee and obtain a hard copy of the trail map before I proceeded. The woman behind the counter informed me that the park is free. This stunned me because I just paid $35 to enter Yosemite National Park in July. Perhaps it’s an incentive given the remote location? After she gave me the map and a copy of the park newspaper, The Bristlecone, I got back into the car and drove up a winding road to the Wheeler Peak trailhead. Given that I had ascended thousands of feet, the temperature dropped to about 67 degrees. After I put on my hiking shoes and sunscreen, I grabbed my backpack and headed off into the forest.
Topographically speaking, the first couple miles of the trail didn’t tax my body much. I left the forest and passed through some beautiful meadows where I heard the buzzing of thousands of bees on the countless wildflowers. I couldn’t believe how loud they were, but the sound quickly became a soothing white noise. The sun felt so warm on my arms, and yet the breeze so cool against my face. As I made my way to the ridge, I knew that the hike would become far more arduous as I pressed onward. Since I didn’t know how my body would react to the high elevation, I occasionally stopped to drink water and rest a for a couple minutes. From a distance, you think the trail goes straight up, but you quickly realize that there are sections of switchbacks that you come to appreciate. Many trails can be rather “deceiving” (to quote a fellow hiker I encountered that day), in that, you climb up one ridge only find that there are more ahead. It took me just shy of four hours to reach the peak (13,063 feet) where I rested for about 25 minutes before I began my descent. Not once did I feel nauseous, which means I don’t suffer from altitude sickness. This is good news because I want to go higher and farther in the years to come. Distance: 8.6 miles. Time: 6 hours, 45 minutes. Needless to say, I slept well that night.
Next, on Wednesday morning I drove back out to the park for a tour of Lehman Caves, and here, the National Park Service truly delivered. To guarantee that I got in to see them, I made a reservation in advance. It only costs $11. My recommendation: choose the Grand Palace tour because it’s more extensive. Our guide really impressed me. She knew so much about not only the geological formations of the cave, but also the life that inhabits it. Sadly, decades ago people damaged portions by breaking off stalactites and writing their initials with candle soot on the ceiling. Fortunately, they didn’t do this in every room. The tour lasted an hour and forty-five minutes and I didn’t want to leave.
Any road trip that I take will always include NPR and music. Thankfully, I had radio reception for much of the drive so I could listen to some of my favorite programs (e.g. All Things Considered). My interest has a bit to do with what I teach, but I just like being informed about world events and NPR is always my first choice for news. Also, Good Riddance released a great record this summer: Thoughts and Prayers. It contains some of their best tracks in decades. As usual, Russ Rankin nails it with his ruminative lyrics that span the personal to the political in thematic content. Yes, there’s plenty of social commentary on this effort that fans will like. “No Safe Place” is my favorite song. Perhaps there’s a bit of irony here. The album made a perfect soundtrack for the long stretches of open road that appear unending.
“Protect your precious heart from the undertow…”
On my return home, I decided to stop at several places that had caught my attention along Highway 50: the most notable being the old mining town of Austin, Nevada. My reason: Stoke’s Castle. You simply don’t expect to see a structure like this up on a hill overlooking a valley in the Great Basin. When I arrived at the site, I walked along the fence to view the building from every angle. Today, only the granite walls and some pieces of wood remain. This didn’t surprise me as New York businessman Anson Phelps Stokes had it constructed in 1896-97. Unfortunately, someone cut open the fence, so I wrote to the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and they referred me to the Austin Historical Society. When I called the organization, a woman informed me that this happens regularly. I said that it’s only a matter of time before somebody vandalizes the structure and we can’t afford to lose this important window into our past. She agreed, and told me that her husband would repair it. Just before we hung up, I promised to send a donation.
To me, exploration, in general, and hiking, in particular, are more than personal challenges. They are a conscious separation from a culture that undermines our very essence through distortion and manipulation to produce a regrettable social condition devoid of thought, of heart. Moments I am all alone on a desert floor or in a forest or on a mountainside are moments when I reconnect with my humanity, and there I remember that the sickening noise of daily life cannot penetrate every physical space on Earth. This is the only escape that I need.
All of the pictures in this post are mine.