Sunday, July 3, 2011

What a Day!

DAY THIRTY-NINE: (Saturday, July 2): Ok, take out your road atlas, and find Nevada. Now look up in the northern third, and find I-80 going East-West, and look for Winnemucca in the west. Take U.S. 95 north out of Winnemucca for about 31 miles and then take Route 140 west. We took this road today, and it has been one of the most memorable rides ever. Not because it was spectacularly beautiful with thrilling features, but because it was beautiful in a totally different way: it was almost featureless for mile after mile after mile. It was empty in an extraordinary way, and to traverse it was like a meditation. Time slowed down. I don’t want to suggest in any way that it was boring. Far from it. It was a kind of out-of-body experience that went on for hours.


But let me go back. We started out this morning in Beaver City, UT – the birthplace of Butch Cassidy, and yet a town so Mormon that with a population of only 2500, it has three huge Mormon churches. It would be interesting to know how they relate to each other.

The road from Beaver City to Grand Basin National Park was beautiful and fascinating, and our enjoyment of it was enhanced by having a copy of Roadside Geology of Utah by Halka Chronic (an interesting name), which helped us understand what we were seeing. We were in that huge part of the west which is called “The Great Basin,” which constitutes much of Utah, Nevada, and part of Arizona and Idaho, an area where no rivers flow into the sea, but simply into the ground. At one time, over 10,000 years ago, much of it was a huge inland sea, Lake Bonneville. Pushing up into this huge lake were some 200 mountain ranges, creating islands. Most of that ancient lake is gone (the Great Salt Lake is a vestige), but the “islands” remain – mountain ranges separated by utterly flat valleys, in which the “soil” is often what is called caliche (ka-LEE-chay), a kind of natural cement (formed by millenia of the evaporation of water saturated with salt, calcium carbonate and other minerals) in which plant roots have a hard time finding purchase. The drive from Beaver, UT west involved going over a mountain range and down into a valley, across the valley and then up over another range, etc, over and over again. An amazing ride.

Great Basin National Park is one of the smaller, lesser-known, less-visited parks, but for that reason all the more attractive. It contains an incredible diversity of life and geological features, mainly because within the park, the elevation varies so much, from deep caves to the top of Wheeler Peak at 13,000+ feet. It is home to fine stands of the Bristlecone Pine – which is said to be the longest-lived life species on the planet! Some of these pines are reputed to be as much as 5000 years old! Why didn’t I know this before? We had a lot of ground to cover today, so we couldn’t linger, but we’ll return if we get the chance.


From Great Basin we rode for a while on Route 50, called “The Loneliest Highway in America.” It was so-termed in a 1986 issue of Life Magazine in a derogatory way – there was nothing there, no “tourist attractions,” to travel it you had to be a survivor, so best to avoid it. The Nevada Tourist Board made this insult a point of pride and created a “Route 50 Survivors’ Guide.” You can visit each major town on Route 50, get your “passport” stamped, send it in, and get a "Survivors of Route 50" Certificate! But we abandoned Route 50 at Eureka, NV and headed north up to I-80 and then on to Winnemucca, as described above. If the editors of Life thought Route 50 was “empty,” I wonder what they would have thought of Route 140!

We found ourselves wishing we could read a book about the creation of Route 140 – John McPhee would be the ideal author - why does it even exist? (“Why is there something instead of nothing?” - Heidegger) Who envisioned it? How was it planned? Who had to be persuaded to pay for it? How was it laid out, surveyed, and actually constructed? It could be a fascinating book.

The sequel to this day is that we had planned to drive on to Klamath Falls, OR to find a motel room (no motels on Route 140!). But when we got there, every room in town was taken. After 1 or more hours of fruitless searching, we had to just keep going and drove to Medford, OR where we finally found a room in a Motel 6 at 2:00a.m. We had driven almost 900 miles and been the the road 18 hours. Boy did that bed look good!

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