Finally, a Rattlesnake

Wednesday night marked another enjoyable outing at Centennial Park, which is on the northeastern edge of Carson City. Just as I pulled into the empty parking lot around 10 pm, I caught a glimpse of my first Great Basin rattlesnake comfortably resting on the asphalt that’s adjacent to the tennis courts. As you can imagine, I couldn’t wait to grab my camera and jump out of the Forester. When I walked over, s/he never rattled or attempted to strike me. S/he appeared very relaxed for most of our encounter. After taking several photos, I gently used my snake hook to move her (or him) to the wide gravel shoulder because I’ve seen obnoxious teenagers cruise through after hours. Then, I shot a few more pictures and watched her (or him) slither toward the nearby sagebrush behind a wire fence.

During the remainder of my visit, I managed to find a record 10 scorpions of varying sizes and one toad that hopped up to me like we were longtime friends. As I wandered the desert hillsides under a beautiful moon, i.e. a waxing gibbous, I wondered why scorpions appear in different places on different days. This trip required me to climb higher than in the past. Furthermore, I discovered one of them in a grassy area as opposed to the sandier areas. Could this have something to do with the daytime temperatures? Hmm. My plan is to explore the grassy area more when I return. Now, I don’t know what to make of the toad since s/he approached me for some reason. Normally, they hop away from, not toward, people. S/he tried to cozy up to the side of my hiking shoe. Hmm x2. Overall, an incredible night to be outside wandering around in the desert.

All pictures taken by me.

Vegan World Radio Interview

In 2017, my comrade Michael invited me to appear on Vegan World Radio, a KPFT (90.1 FM) program in Houston, Texas. We talked about a variety of issues, including veganism, music, teaching, and activism. As an idea, animal liberation deserves far more attention than it receives. If you care about animals, please stop eating them. Click here if you’d like to learn more about the vegan lifestyle. Immediately below is the audio of our conversation.

Picture taken by me.

Illegal Dumping on Goni Road

John A. Duerk, Ph.D., ___ West _____ Street, Carson City, NV 89703

July 23, 2020

Supervisor Brad Bonkowski, City Hall, 201 North Carson Street, Suite 2, Carson City, NV 89701

RE: Illegal Dumping on Goni Road

Dear Supervisor Bonkowski:

My name is Dr. John A. Duerk and I live at ___ West _____ Street. The reason for my letter is that I’m deeply concerned about the illegal dumping that has occurred on Goni Road as you drive up to the Carson Valley viewing point. Over the past year, I have seen an increasing amount of refuse on the east side of the road going down into the ravine. If you drive up there, you will see furniture, tires, empty alcohol bottles, empty shotgun shells, and even yard waste such as trimmed branches. Attached to this message are a couple of pictures that I took earlier this evening. More can be provided upon request.

As someone who is solution-oriented, I believe that action must be taken to address this problem because it has only gotten worse.  According to NRS 444.630, discarding waste in such a manner is unlawful.  Unfortunately, people get the wrong idea that it’s permissible when more materials accumulate over time.  Slowly, that ravine will become a makeshift landfill.  We simply cannot let this continue because it’s a danger to people and harmful to the land and wildlife.  In my view, we need to clear the area.  I’m willing to help with the process if the city can provide a truck.  Perhaps we can organize a desert clean-up, much like what is done with beaches in different parts of the country.  Then, the city needs to install signage that warns people they will be reported and prosecuted if caught.  Lastly, perhaps we can do some form of outreach to inform the public of where such refuse needs to be taken.  I’m totally open to ideas if you have any to share.

Thank you for your time. I look forward to your reply.


John A. Duerk, Ph.D.

Dear Scorpions, I’m back…

If the desert is home, then scorpions are among my favorite neighbors along with other wildlife such as mustangs. Last night marked the end of my seven year hiatus from ‘scorpion hunting’ as I spent a couple hours scanning the ground with my new black light at Centennial Park. To qualify, ‘hunting’ only involves finding and photographing them in their habitat and never causing them any harm. Prior to this outing, I wondered how northern Nevada might differ from western Arizona because the Great Basin Desert is different from the Mohave Desert (e.g. elevation, weather, temperature, plants, animals). I found three of them just a short distance from a perimeter fence – one in the sand just off of the road and two on a rocky hillside just off of a trail. Two of them were the smallest I’ve ever seen. I need to do some research on which species live in the area so that I know what I’m looking at when I go out there again next week.

Click here and here if you’d like to learn more about scorpions.

The photograph that appears in this post is mine.

My Eyes Were Outside

For me, photography started very simply as a way to document experiences, but that view evolved several years ago when I realized how much I enjoyed capturing different subjects ranging from wildlife to architecture.  There are multiple questions that factor into my process.  Which subjects do I find appealing?  What angle should I take?  How do I fill the frame to accurately capture the subject in a given moment?  Do I want the secondary objects in the background to be in focus or blurred?  When is the best time of day to shoot?  Why capture the subjects that I’ve chosen?  What should I do with the pictures that I really like?  As you can see, there are many thoughts that go through my mind.  To answer my last question, I’ve created a new photo blog: Eyes Outside.  There, you will find images that I would like to share with others.

In December of 2000, I moved to Rockford, Illinois and for the next five and half years I thought about leaving.  Almost daily.  Eventually, I did, but not before I had a handful of experiences that affected me in different ways.  Here I briefly share some of them.  While I appreciate the lessons and friendships, I won’t ever miss living there.  Moreover, I don’t understand how people (who have a choice) resign themselves to staying somewhere they don’t like when there are so many other better places you can build a life for yourself.  Don’t complain.  Act.  I’m glad that I moved on, but some experiences you don’t soon forget.

Image source: “Rockford again makes ‘worst cities’ list” from the Rockford Register Star.

My plan to hike more has turned into a monthly routine with four consecutive visits to Prison Hill Recreation Area, which is several miles from our cottage.  It’s the perfect place to go as you wait for the snow to melt that’s higher up in the Sierras.  Last Saturday, I set a new personal record of 11.4 miles in 6 hours.  That included multiple stops to look for rattlesnakes (unfortunately, I didn’t find any sunning on or near the rocks) and eat my lunch or drink some water.  The main goal has been to push myself with longer trips.  The other is to occasionally diverge from the path that I took during my previous visit(s).  Both can be accomplished given the size of the park and number of trails that people have created (note: some trails do not appear on the map from the city).  Even though the COVID-19 pandemic is disrupting our lives, I refuse to be completely stationary because it’s not healthy to stay inside for weeks.  No worries, it’s easy to practice social distancing when there’s plenty of space and you don’t encounter many people.

A Sunset

Eight years ago when I accepted a teaching position in western Arizona, little did I know just how much I would fall in love with the Mohave Desert.  Hands down, it’s the most captivating place that I have ever lived or visited.  One evening in early November I drove home from work under the most amazing sky that I have ever seen.  After I pulled my car into the garage, I witnessed this sunset from my driveway as I looked westward toward California.  No, the picture has not been edited.  It really looked like this.  I miss these evening views.  I miss the scorpions, chuckwallas, and rattlesnakes at the park down the street from my place.  I miss the scorching summers.  I miss monsoon season.  I miss the slot canyons and petroglyphs.  I miss wearing shorts in December.  While my time in Arizona couldn’t last for professional reasons, I choose to focus on these moments when I reflect upon those days.  Here I consider myself fortunate.  With the sky as its canvas, nature gave us this beautiful painting that won’t ever be forgotten.


A Toad

I abruptly moved to Houston, Texas in late 2013 after accepting a teaching position that required me to start in January.  Unfortunately, I hadn’t done much research on the rental market (lesson learned) and took the first unit that I could find.  Total mistake.  I moved into a complex of drug dealers, a creepy drug user next door who lived with his mother, a prostitute, angry children who ran around the parking lot screaming, stray animals that wandered the property…and the list could go on and on and on.  The upside?  Toads.  Countless toads.  The tropical climate of eastern Texas brought some of the heaviest rain that I’ve ever experienced in my life.  The region’s thunderstorms were nothing short of incredible.  Consequently, water collected in multiple spots near my apartment, creating a perfect environment where the toads could mate.  Then, in the summer, many of them hopped around just outside of my door.  Perhaps they were looking for bugs at night.  Maybe some were lost.  One night I took this picture.  It’s my favorite from the Houston years.


X: Straight Edge and Radical Sobriety

“Simply being straight edge doesn’t make you better than anyone else, especially if you embrace and perpetuate a lot of the fucked-up aspects of mainstream culture.” –Eva Hall, p. 28

Gabriel Kuhn has done it again.  Nearly a decade after his initial effort to capture the political elements associated with straight edge, he offers us another well-conceived title, X: Straight Edge and Radical Sobriety, published by PM Press.  Without question, it is a solid companion to the first book, Sober Living for the Revolution, that he compiled about a song that has evolved into subcultural phenomenon around the globe.  This collection of interviews and essays further demonstrates how the choice to oppose a pervasive “intoxication culture” warrants further exploration.

One of the more stirring essays is by Clementine Morrigan, a queer anarchist who describes how her experience of incest led to years of reckless self-medication with alcohol and drugs as she sought ways to suppress her pain.  Once she realized that she could not continue this self-destructive behavior, she entered a twelve-step program to regain control and later became an advocate to assist others.  “I built relationships and community and helped newcomers get sober…I did a lot of…organizing and facilitated workshops on intoxication culture.  I started thinking about ways in which sober communities and harm reduction communities could work together” (p. 274).  Furthermore, her work is layered.  Clementine’s path, which is rooted in a “principled life,” also includes other political dimensions as she critiques a “heteronormative, capitalist narrative of what sobriety should look like” (p. 276) – institutions that she thinks are socially accepted and reinforced without challenge.

A second powerful piece that is included in this volume is by Sarambi, who writes about the harmful effects that drugs have on different parts of the world.  For example, subjugation and exploitation have occurred across Latin America as some people are caught up in a drug economy that is both condoned and condemned by different actors for their own political reasons.  “I watched too many people end up in the clutches of the state for abusing or pushing drugs only because they had nothing else to gain or lose” (p. 235).  The author claims that a person will never be free when they are confined by the severely limited options dictated by nations such as the United States.  “Many people are no longer able to access their generational homelands due to violence related to the purest capitalist motives of those who have ‘moved up,’ forced to take work as runners, pushers, guards, etc. since there is nothing else because the land is poisoned or monocropped” (p. 237).  Ultimately, the U.S. government conducts drug interdiction efforts that decimate communities of color within its own borders while reinforcing white supremacy abroad.

Another strength of X is that it illuminates ideas such as “total liberation” and “intersectionality” that have taken root among participants in the hardcore scene.  Eva Hall recalls how some didn’t make connections between social issues when her previous band, Gather, performed in the mid 2000s (p. 24, 27).  Still committed to her principles, she’s concerned about a variety of issues, including “capitalism, and…industrialized civilization” because our practices are “devastating this planet and everything on it,” (p. 26).  Furthermore, she explains how the once predominantly male scene has shifted and how she found a place as Gather’s vocalist (p. 29).  Next, Kat, who self-identified as straight edge in reaction to where she lived, describes her experiences editing the fanzine, xclusivx.  She believes vegan straight edge isn’t an “isolated theme,” rather it’s associated with others in the human condition (p. 202).  With regards to the zine’s contents, the collective wanted “to present perspectives that allowed readers to connect the dots” for themselves (p. 202).  It served as a vehicle to disseminate ideas about issues such as feminism because the hardcore music scene is male dominated.  To Kat, “in a puzzle of oppression, no piece is isolated” (p. 203).  Lastly, the Sober Anarchist Feminist Trans Crew (SAFT) argues that class is just as important as gender.  “Alcohol soothes aching bodies and becomes a simple escape from the alienation of work and the hate of the world around us.  But it doesn’t create revolutions.  A pacified working class doesn’t rise…The system hands us a bottle and wants us to be lonely, quiet, and weak” (p. 255).  For SAFT, alcohol distracts people from their miserable condition and undermines their ability to change it.

As one might imagine, no book is perfect and I have a few critical thoughts about X.  Why not conduct a new interview with Martin Sorrondeguy to explore why he no longer self-identifies as straight edge?  If you’re going to interview people who abstain, but don’t embrace a label (e.g. Jon Active), it makes sense to ask other figures why they distanced themselves and reframed their lives. Also, might Kent McClard have additional insights to share now that he’s middle aged and has decades of experiences to reflect upon?  Lastly, Kuhn’s own essay on events in Madrid, Spain (p. 135-138) leaves me with multiple questions about what happened there.  If you’re going to include a discussion of straight edge anarchists being accused of orchestrating an act of political violence, then the reader deserves a more thorough narrative to understand the case along with its implications.

Ultimately, X appeals to two separate parts of me.  First, there’s the aging suburban punk who loves hardcore – from the classic bands and records to more contemporary acts and their respective output.  The ideas drew me in as a teenager.  I can’t see that fading.  So, reading this book gives me hope for tomorrow because another world is waiting for us.  Secondly, it’s an entry point for academics like myself who are fascinated by radical subcultures that transgress normative behavior as their participants envision a different society.  Yes, there’s a wealth of primary material here to analyze.  Thank you, Gabriel Kuhn, for putting it together.

My hikes in 2019

Hiking is a restorative exercise.  You disconnect from society and reconnect with nature and yourself.  I meant what I said when I told people that I would do more of it once I relocated to this part of the country.  Last year, I made time to explore a couple of different trails in the Sierras.  This year, I pushed the total number to seven, including a visit to a lesser known national park where I spent hours in solitude and another where I learned a bit about local mining history that will be incorporated into a class I teach.  Here are some images and details from my recent adventures into different landscapes of the West…

Turtlehead Peak in Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area (Nevada), April 3, 5 miles, 2000 feet of elevation gain, strenuous, 4.5 hours, 73 degrees at the trailhead (lower on the peak itself).  Map.  Photo: A segment of this trail is incredibly rugged and abrupt once you start climbing.


Genoa Loop in Genoa, Nevada, May 4, 8.5 miles, 1,500 feet of elevation gain, moderate, 4.5 hours, 74 degrees.  Map.  Photo: This ridge caught us by surprise.  A mountain biker crashed below us just minutes later.  There are signs warning people, but some don’t take them seriously.  This is our first hike together.


Thunder Mountain in Kit Carson Country (near Kirkwood Mountain Resort and Silver Lake in California), August 7, 8.4 miles, 1,775 feet of elevation gain, moderate, 5 hours, 78 degrees.  Map.  Photo: The region received so much snow last winter that large patches hadn’t yet melted well into the summer.


Wheeler Peak in Great Basin National Park (Nevada), August 20, 8.6 miles, 2,900 feet of elevation gain, strenuous, 6.75 hours, 90 degrees at the park entrance (67 degrees at the trailhead and lower on the peak itself).  Map.  Photo: The trees and lakes appear so small when you’re thousands of feet above them near the mountain’s edge.  I experienced a flash of vertigo at one point, but I pushed through it because I wanted to reach the summit.


C-Hill in Carson City, Nevada, October 6, 7.6 miles, 935 feet of elevation gain, moderate, 4 hours, 69 degrees.  Map.  Photo: West of town you can see where the pine forest of the Sierra Nevada ends and the sagebrush of the Great Basin Desert begins.


Donovan Mill with the Nevada State Parks (from Dayton to Silver City and back), October 12, 6.5 miles, 700 feet of elevation gain, easy, 6 hours (this includes a 15 minute lecture on the water pipeline from Lake Tahoe to the Virginia Range and a one hour tour of the mill itself), 70 degrees.  I don’t have a map for this trail.  Click here for more information.  Photo: Thousands of beautiful mustangs wander around different parts of the valley.


Prison Hill in Carson City, Nevada, December 20, 5.7 miles, 900+ feet of elevation gain, moderate, 3.5 hours, 52 degrees.  Map.  Photo: Major snow accumulations occur up in the Sierras that are beautiful when viewed from the east side of town in the Prison Hill Recreation Area.  While Carson City receives about 22.2 inches per year, most of it melts quickly so you can spend beautiful days like this outside.

As of today, I’m already planning hikes for next year.  My goals are simple, yet ambitious.  First, I would like increase my number of outings to nine (or more).  Yes, this will be contingent upon weather conditions.  The thought is that I can do at least one a month from April through December.  Secondly, I want some (perhaps three) of them to be in the 10-12 mile range because I like challenges.  Also, I hope to observe more wildlife in their natural habitat.

To some, spending money in a store is akin to casting a ballot in an election.  While this is an imperfect analogy, I’ve come to appreciate it.  Undoubtedly, we send companies a message every time we open our wallets to them in the marketplace.  We monetarily reinforce the multiple components of their business model – from where they operate and their modes of production to who they employ and the quality of their goods or services.  If you can envision a continuum of social responsibility, then different companies will occupy different places on it depending on their practices.  I’ve been thinking about this more now that I’m living in the West and buying gear for outdoor activities.  Here are some small choices that I’ve made to help stem the world’s bleeding, both figuratively and literally…

American Giant Classic Full Zip Hoodie: In September, I came across a company on a CBS Sunday Morning report that manufactures its clothes from start to finish right here in the United States.  Yes, it can be done.  The company is American Giant.  Now, you won’t pay big box discount retailer prices, but you will purchase a high quality product that won’t need to be replaced in a year while helping employ some people in our country.  Reading the eye-opening book Fashionopolis got me thinking more about what I buy as a consumer (and how sweatshops still exist in places like Los Angeles).  Click here to watch a great interview with the author, Dana Thomas, and here for a related podcast.  Anyways, the 100% cotton camouflage sweatshirt I bought is the most solid one that I’ve ever owned.  The thickness and cut of the fabric, longer cuffs and taller waistband, reinforced sleeves, and stitching are amazing.  No doubt, this garment is manufactured to last.

Ben Davis Charcoal Heather Beanie: This acrylic hat is warm and comfortable.  It fits snugly on my head and is substantive enough for climates where the temperature drops below freezing and there’s plenty of snow to contend with, i.e. the Tahoe Basin.  I wear it during my commute and then around the college even after I’ve been in the building for an hour or more.  Ben Davis still manufactures some of its clothing, including this winter hat, in the United States.  I came across the brand just by chance in a work apparel store last summer.

Carhartt Duck Quilted Flannel Lined Active Jacket: I’ve worn this coat on several mornings when the temperature has fallen into the twenties, and the wind simply can’t penetrate its tough, duck canvas shell combined with a warm, comfortable polyester lining that isn’t too thick.  What also helps is the elastic waistband and cuffs.  While I have yet to use the hood, I’m confident that it will protect me when multiple snowstorms roll into the Sierras over the winter.  This United Food and Commercial Workers International Union made coat is manufactured in the U.S. of domestic and imported materials.  Normally, I wear a size medium in just about everything, but here I need a size small.

Gerber Gator Drop Point, Plain Edge Knife: You never know when you’re going to need a knife while out in the wilderness.  This is the perfect one to carry because it’s solid and light.  The stainless steel blade locks when fully opened and the rubber handle provides an incredible grip when you’re holding it.  It can be easily kept in your backpack or worn on your belt.  The blade is 3.75 inches by 1.125 inches wide.  The sheath is 6 inches long, 3 inches wide, and has a low profile at 1.25 inches with the knife inside.  Plus, the knife is made in the U.S.A.  Note: The nylon sheath is made in China.

Merrell Moab Vegan 2 Shoes: Honestly, this company has managed to combine durability, traction, and comfort to make the best shoe that I’ve ever bought.  And, they’re vegan-friendly!  So far, I’ve worn them on multiple hikes in the mountains of California and Nevada where the rocks are rough and jagged.  They passed the test.  Both the sole and upper can withstand the terrain and they feel extremely light on my feet.  I have not come home with any blisters.  Also, dust and dirt can’t easily permeate the top of the shoes like another pair from a competitor that I previously owned.  I’m really impressed with the synthetic upper they’ve developed.

Patagonia PolyCycle Full Zip Hoodie: While I had heard of Patagonia back when I lived in Houston, I never really paid close attention to the company’s products until after I relocated.  Last year, a colleague told me about their business model.  Is ‘ethical capitalism’ really possible?  Hmmm.  We discussed it a bit and I’m still not sure.  That said, they’re doing far more than most corporations in our society.  For example, they use recycled materials in some of their clothing lines, repair their products if they tear or break, use factories where workers are respected, and help activists network with organizations in their community.  So, I decided to buy one of their recycled polyester sweatshirts from the outlet store in downtown Reno.  It’s well designed and constructed.  Furthermore, the style is appropriate to wear with jeans when I teach during the fall and winter months.  As a side note, I also want to recommend their Atom Sling 8L for simple day trips or meetings.  It’s perfect for items like a phone, notebook, pen, camera, recorder, and snacks.

REI Co-op Trail 25 Backpack: When it comes to a backpack, there are multiple factors that I consider before making a purchase.  To start, there’s functionality.  Will it meet my storage needs for long day hikes, i.e. adequate space for water and food and ease of access while moving down the trail?  Next, construction.  Just how thick is the material and how strong is the stitching?  I always look at the inside.  Then, comfort.  How does the pack feel against my back and the straps on my shoulders, chest, and waist?  Finally, style.  I don’t like any that are loud with too many straps or obnoxiously bright colors.  After going to different stores and looking at numerous models from several major name brands, I found the perfect pack in the Trail 25 (and I get to support a company that cares about the world as evidenced by their annual Stewardship Report).  Yes, it meets the checklist, and it costs much less than most others.  Plus, it has a convenient pouch on the side where I store my canister of bear spray.  I’ve owned it for nearly three years and know it can handle all different kinds of trips.

Subaru Forester: While I miss my Honda Fit, the Subaru Forester made the perfect replacement after moving to California (and now Carson City, Nevada).  I’ve owned mine for over a year and it hasn’t disappointed me.  I’ve driven it 75+ mph down gravel roads in the Amargosa Valley just north of Las Vegas and then onto the sand of Big Dune.  I’ve driven it through blinding snowstorms on the South Shore of Lake Tahoe where the plows can’t keep up and the center of the road is about 6-12 inches deep in some places.  Having all wheel drive here is imperative.  The Forester handles the different conditions like a champ.  In addition, its interior is spacious for road trips and hauling music equipment (e.g. a Marshall half-stack, a guitar, and some other gear) to band practice.  Now, I wish it got slightly better gas mileage, but thirty-three MPG is good for this kind of vehicle.  Without question, Subaru builds high quality, dependable cars.  If you check the Consumer Reports Buying Guide 2020, the Forester received the highest rating of all the compact SUVs (p. 171, 178).  Enough said.

As humans, we’re imperfect, and consequently, no choices we make are perfect solutions to the problems we’ve created.  One could argue that our very existence is harmful to the world around us, and I’m inclined to believe this is true.  However, the mere fact that you can’t do everything shouldn’t become a reason to do little or nothing.  Moreover, we ought to push ourselves to be better consumers because our lifestyle choices have repercussions that can no longer be ignored.

Thank you, Good Riddance

Good Riddance is a band that matured without abandoning their sound, consciousness, or intensity.  That’s really hard to do in music – especially punk.  As many of us age, a separation between our past and present develops that some rationalize as simply part of an inevitable growth process.  Too often, devolution is masked as evolution.  Not for this band.  Their latest effort, Thoughts and Prayers (2019), is as solid as anything they recorded in the late 1990s.  Hell, I think it’s better than most of their earlier albums – perhaps second only to Ballads from the Revolution (1998).  When I left the venue after their recent performance in Reno, I found myself feeling optimistic.  While I don’t personally know these guys, I’m always inspired by authentic people who hold onto their core values and pour their hearts into a chosen craft.  They reminded me that I’m never alone in a world that rejects much of what I deem important.  I know that I’ve made the right decisions for the right reasons.  Furthermore, we don’t have to give up.  No, middle age doesn’t have to claim us.

I took the image from The Bluebird’s, i.e. the club’s, Twitter feed.

C-Hill in Carson City

One of the many benefits of living in Carson City is that we’re situated just immediately to the east of the Sierra Nevada, which means that we’re living a short distance from a handful of trails that beg to be hiked.  Earlier today, I ventured into the foothills that you can see from my driveway.  They’re so close that I like to think of them as my side yard.  While the map I brought along didn’t include all of the different trails that people have made up there, I found my way around without any problems.  You wouldn’t think that some of the hills rise approximately 935 feet above the city, but I could sure feel it in my legs both going up and down.  I enjoyed the view of the trees across the west side neighborhoods – trees that you don’t expect to find in a high desert.  It took me about four hours to wander 7.6 miles.  I plan to return soon so I can see where the other paths lead.

“So, as the walls close in…regress or overcome…” —Good Riddance

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.  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), 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.