Highway 50, wandering east-west through Nevada, is billed as America’s Loneliest Highway. I can’t believe it’s any lonelier than some of the other highways I’ve travelled (95 in Oregon, 278 or 225 in Nevada, 51 in Idaho). Still, I didn’t run in to an Olive Garden.
A vast, wandering playa stretches south, some of it mirrored with a recent, rare rain (rrr!), about 45 miles west of Great Basin NP. Shattered glass mountains, low ranges, enfold the lake. The water a sheet of reflected sky, the treeless mountains diamonds in the half-clouded skies. All painted a perfect still life by the lake.
Basin and Range topography differs from Colorado Plateau landscape. Great Basin landforms are more tilted, less vegged, the strata often more apparent, the mountains more abundant as opposed to the occasional laccolithic ranges of the Plateau. Basin and Range mountains tend to be lower and sharper, the valleys flatter, and there are fewer miscellaneous landforms such as mesas and buttes. Throw in salt flats, and mountain ranges that vault straight from valley floors without foothills along more or less straight, north-south axes for dozens of miles.
The whole landscape provides an artist’s lesson in perspective. The ranges foreshorten toward the horizons of valleys and finally disappear, like a line of sea cliffs that only the skyline snuffs out. Then, FOR SALE: 5 ACRE LOTS! And there goes the neighborhood.
You drive east through a wide, planed valley. A massive mountain wall rises at its eastern end near the Utah border. A prominent peak still capped with snow in late May, taller than all the rest, means you’ve reached Wheeler Peak, at over 13,000 feet. Its singular stature imposes itself 8,000 feet above the surrounding valley floor. It stands out from a massif of other peaks in the higher, southern section of the Snake Range. Wheeler, the highest freestanding summit in Nevada, seems similar in some respects to Pike’s Peak along the Front Range of the Rockies near Colorado Springs, though the orogeny – the origin of this range – is quite different from the Rockies.
If you’ve reached this point and continue on over Sacramento Pass, you’ve mounted the Snake Range, a 60-mile-long upland that presides over the high desert of the Great Basin. You may note that ranges here have a higher base-to-summit rise than the Rockies and most other ranges in the continental U.S. As the earth’s crust pulls apart (rifts), faults cause massive blocks of stone to drop down, forming valleys or grabens, while other blocks right next to the down dropping grabens rotate and lift, forming mountains or horsts.
On the east side of this titanic uplift, you’ll find Great Basin National Park, a desolate mountain retreat known for bristlecone pine, the oldest freestanding organisms on the planet.
I camped out at Baker Creek Campground, nearly deserted this time of year. I hiked Baker Creek Trail to Baker Lake, plowing through silken snowdrifts up to my knees. Sometimes I step into postholes punched through by other hikers. Sometimes I drill my own holes. I was alone the whole day.
I almost made the lake, but stopped in the shadow of the headwall of a gigantic cirque. I’m way above snowline, negotiating dozens of trunks felled from a blowdown at the foot of the cirque. Huge rock faces loom on the far side of the tarn, near vertical, now locked in ice and snow. This lonely experience is my dream come true.
I recall man years past, watching glaciers calve into a fjord in Alaska. I remember the Alaskan tundra north of the Arctic Circle in Nome, and in Kotzebue. I remember Quetico National Park in the Boundary Waters Wilderness north of Minnesota. Wolf River in Wisconsin. The mountains outside Steamboat Springs. What disasters all those trips had been. All I could think about back then was where my next drink was coming from, or my next drug. Or I was too drunk to enjoy it. But now, I can take it all in. If I remain present to presence, if I remain in the present, I am in joy. Our eyes are the windows between interior and exterior universes.
On the fringes of the cirque, Manzanita, pale mountain dandelion, and mahogany ready themselves for the growing season. I’d hiked through Engelmann spruce and Douglas fir. Now, I stood among limber pine. Out of nowhere, it seemed, memories of my ancestors wafted in with the wind.
I thought of my father and my grandfathers, of my grandmothers, and all who’d gone on. I wept. Told them that I missed them. And though I may never again hear my Opa laugh or my dad curse, I hoped that they could see this blue sky through my eyes, hear through my ears the wind sing through a thousand wooden spines. I took out the ear plugs I used against the cold wind. I snorted in the sharp pine and the sweet sage and the bitter aspen. I stopped crying and felt Manzanita leaves through fingers stiffened by the cold.
I gazed at the forest. I stood at a rushing, bouldered creek with waters clear and dark. I measured the inches of my height against the towering 3,000 feet of headwall above me through air so clear and so distant from the lights of men that it offered the best stargazing for a million miles square. I stopped and listened, instead of rushing at the insistence of the petty, loud voice inside which demanded that I make the end of the trail so I had bragging rights, transforming the moment into a trophy. Instead of marching in abeyance to the taskmaster of time, I could pause and listen to the warning pip of the marmots. My father, my grandmothers and grandfathers had never seen or heard or tasted this summitted world in their forced, industrial lives, where they toiled as machinist and seamstress, as electrician and janitor to give me a future. They’d never known the brace of cold, powder blue air, the scarce sight of bighorn or antelope.
So I slowed and let them experience it through me. I stood in a long chain of being. With boulder-strewn Baker Creek roaring at full-throttle, the stands of aspen leafing out, I didn’t think they’d find a lusher alpine spot than Great Basin National Park.
To get here: Just get on America’s loneliest highway (U.S. 50) and follow the signs to Great Basin N.P. The hike up to the cirque took me 2½ hours. I didn’t quite make Baker Lake. The snow covered the trail and, well, I lost the trail. It’s 5+ miles one way, and 2,000+ feet in elevation gain to 10,000 feet.
Timber Creek Trail to Johnson Lake
Next day, I set out to actually make it to the end of the trail; a different trail. Timber Creek Trail climbs much more steeply than Baker Creek Trail. In an hour, I enjoyed dizzying vistas of the valley to my north, and across its broad span, mountains stacked themselves on mountains in towering stairs.
I reached a sloping park. Across it, the major peaks in the Snake Range soared, topped out by the ice-carved formations of Wheeler Peak. Constant wind blasts. Very cold.
The southern flank of Wheeler’s cirque vaults to the peak’s summit in a massive wave, a frozen whitecap with snow bearding the south face. Etched relief plummeted vertically down the north face, a dark, snowless headwall. Wheeler’s shark tooth summit razors up and down for a mile or more. I had to wade through some snow, but once I reached the Snake Creek Divide at 9,817 feet, I could see to the edges of this spinning earth pouring off in all directions.
At Snake Creek Pass, pestering gales rocked my world. From here, I could see the remote, snow-clad summits in the Mount Moriah Wilderness, across Sacramento Pass to the north. Between sips of the sonnets of William Blake, who fit snugly in my backpack, I took in gulps of the tanned, Snake Valley and the Confusion Mountains across the border in Utah.
I trekked on. Snowfields eventually stopped out the trail, not uncommon in late May. Minor route finding was required. For the last 45 minutes, I just followed the postholes gouged by a couple of hikers who made the trip earlier in the season, probably yesterday, I judged, from the freshness of the imprints. At one point the footprints diverged, and I followed the smaller pair (a woman’s, I assumed) to the skirt of a talus slide near the summit. Maybe they had an argument and she split.
Trails’ end is Johnson Lake, a fair-sized tarn walled in on three sides by its cirque. The headwall was pewter gray, and the gigantic, rounded domes embedded in the mountainside reminded me of Sierra Nevadan granite. By the time I made it there, my feet were soaked by the sheetwash I had to slosh through as I island-hopped the small lenses of bunchgrass. The deep, wet snow finished my attempts to keep my feet dry. My cold, soaked toes and disappearing snowprints prodded me to head down pretty quickly after I’d arrived. Besides, Blake’s Tales of Heaven and Hell wasn’t doing it for me. I followed my own clodhoppers out and retraced my route down.
To get there: The trailhead’s about a half-mile from the Baker Creek C.G. It took me 4 hours from the T.H. to reach Johnson Lake. It took 8 hours on this 11.2-mile roundtrip with 2,620 feet in elevation gain. You’ll encounter some old log cabins and mine buildings on the way up and down, btw.
© 2022 by Michael C. Just
Mike’s novel, The Dirt: The Journey of a Mystic Cowboy, is available in softcover or eBook formats through Amazon.
You can purchase the book through this website. Or go straight to amazon at https://www.amazon.com/s?k=the+dirt+journey+of+a+mystic+cowboy&crid=1S40Q4BXSUWJ6&sprefix=the+dirt%3A+journey+of+a+m%2Caps%2C180&ref=nb_sb_ss_i_1_23
Mike’s other titles, including The Crippy, The Mind Altar, and Canyon Calls, are available through this website or through Amazon at https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B002
Four of his short stories have recently been published online:
Lies, Ltd. has been published by The Mystery Tribune @ Lies, Ltd.: Literary Short Fiction by Michael C. Just (mysterytribune.com)
The Obligate Carnivore has been published by the Scarlet Leaf Review @ Category: MICHAEL JUST – SCARLET LEAF REVIEW
I See You, Too has been published by the 96th of October @ I See You, Too – 96th of October
Offload, a short story about a man who can heal any disease, is now live and can be read at The Worlds Within at Offload – The Worlds Within