Connections in Oregon’s tallest town

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One of many of Lakeview’s welcoming tall cowboys. 

Renee and I felt honored to be invited to present the Basin and Range Project to the Northwest Basin and Range Synthesis Ecosystem Symposium the past couple of days in Lakeview, Oregon (which has the distinction of being Oregon’s highest elevation town) hosted by the Great Basin Landscape Conservation Cooperative. It was really interesting to participate in the symposium’s panels and activities, which focused on the connectivity of landscape and ecological processes. We really believe that the Basin and Range Project has a lot of opportunity to contribute to making people fall in love with these areas that we love so much and to inspire them to champion them.

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Also doesn’t hurt that our motel has a natural hot springs pool!

There have been so many really interesting and informed conversations at the symposium and I feel like were lucky to be able to take part in them with a lot of people, representing a really wide spectrum of people charged with and active in preservation of wild spaces and public land. It is really refreshing to take part in this symposium in the northern part of the basin and range, which is near and dear to us in a lot of ways, but also is one of the largest pieces of intact ecosystem in the lower forty-eight of the United States.

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Driving up along 395 along the Warner Mountains.

I was lucky enough to talk to Jen Ballard of the Great Basin Bird Observatory, who presented a really fascinating presentation on bird transects she had done in the Pine Forest and Black Rock Ranges, which featured pictures from Leonard and Chicken creeks and even had a thank you to the Montero family! She shared her love for birds with us and really deep knowledge and I really hope that we have a chance to volunteer with them in the future!

Last night we had dinner with the symposium’s keynote speaker, Michael Branch, writer and UNR English professor, aside from turning out that we know a lot of people in common (not least, his former student and our friend Paul Bogard whose second book, The Ground beneath Us is high on my reading list right now), we also really connected about writing, life, our feelings about the environment and more. Then Michael read from his book Raising Wild, which I have to confess I did not know about before, but after hearing the stories from his great reading will also soon be in my hands as well as his forthcoming book, Rants from the Hill. 

After the reading a group of us continued the conversation on all sort of topics into the night. We got home around 11 just still full of a great day. As I was drifting off to sleep I remembered something that we had joked about with Michael at dinner, that, sharing friends, working at the same university, and being interested in so many of things, it had taken going to Lakeview, Oregon to actually meet and talk. But it seemed fitting, in a way, that of all places, these connections came in the tallest town in Oregon.

Back in the Saddle

 

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My first bike commute of 2017 after one of our many stormy days of this great January weather.
My commute is one of the most important parts of my life. I know that is an extremely strange thing for a modern, office-dwelling US individual to say, but in my case it’s true. And it’s because of one reason: I commute on my bicycle. Bike commuting is one of the bedrocks of my life. It starts my day right: I think about the day ahead, daydream, take photos, listen to music … all the while pedaling.

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More scenes from that gorgeous first day on the bike. 

 Especially with the completion of the McCarran bike path and it’s interlinking with the Tahoe-Pyramid Bikeway and the river path, my commute is Reno has become a great pleasure. From our doorstep to downtown Reno I travel along (well on one side busy McCarran) the UNR Farms, a great piece of the remaining green space in the Truckee Meadows, then along the river path whose twists and turns reveal and hide the river’s trace, Mount Rose, Peavine. It also reveals a lot of industrial development, and heartbreaking scenes of homeless people, illegal immigrants, and other tortured souls carrying out their days. It is sobering to see the juxtaposition of our area’s great beauty with the pain that modern existence engenders in so many. But even that makes my day become real, and reminds me to keep myself in check, that my problems are just a tiny drop in a vast ocean.

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Filled with gamblers, from outside the GSR is a landmark on the river path. Here from my second ride home of the year. 

I have always been a bike commuter, at least ever since I arrived in Eugene, Oregon. Those bikes and moments stay with me. Riding across town on my first commuter, a classic Schwinn Cruiser. Bike/bus commuting from our home way out on the Mackenzie River and then riding Manhattan on my Trek mountain bike. The Surly came into my life in Richmond, where it carried me sweating across town and Miami, and Reno. The only city I ever lived in where I don’t think I ever bike commuted was Santiago, Chile, for one summer/winter.

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The UNR farms on my way to work this morning. 

But this year has not started promising on the bike commute front. A combination of the weather (which has been impressive) and lethargy have kept me behind the wheel of an automobile. On Friday I rode for only the second time this year. And the paths were fine, and then we had a great biking weekend, and then I biked again today, so some rhythm is building.

But I’m still behind. I’ve worked 18 workdays so far in 2017 and I have bike commuted 3 times, so 16.66%. I should be well over 50% so this situation won’t last for sure. I’m keeping track and am going to see how fast it takes for me to get back over 50% and then if I can keep up the momentum and going to keep my stats for the year for days on bike versus days in the tube. If I don’t drive again, I should make it back to over 50% pretty much toward the end of February. We’ll see how it goes!

Down in the Sink

On the Humboldt Sink, where the water comes to an end. Here it either rises into the sky or seeps into the earth. 

View of the Humboldt Sink from the southeast. Courtesy of photographer Famartin via Wikipedia Commons

Water has been the theme of life lately. More specifically, lots of it! In various forms too: rain, snow, frozen rain, floodwater, ice. Not to complain, I am loving this winter’s latest explosions. Any inconvenience is more than made up for by the good it does for all of us and the world we share with so many other living things. Tonight though, I’m thinking about a place where the water ends. Specifically, the Humboldt Sink. It has always been a place to rush by, the part of I-80 from Lovelock until you crest the hill and start arrive at the Fallon cut-off. A sort of blip in the map. But as I start to learn more about the Great Basin it occurs to me that sinks, even more so than mountain peaks or lush meadows, are the defining features of our part of the world.

A sink is a distinctive geographic feature; a basin from which no water escapes. Rather than flowing into some other basin (like an ocean), the water that flows into a sink does not flow out. It only leaves by evaporation or penetration (i.e., sinking into the groundwater). The Humboldt Sink is the end of the Humboldt River.

One Saturday we set out to explore the Humboldt Sink a bit, along with Lovelock Cave. The cave is an amazing piece of the human record of the Great Basin, a place that was occupied for over 4,000 years! After the cave we drove down the road and just walked out toward the sink. While we didn’t make it as far as the actual playa bed, just walking among the greasewood-dotted sand dunes,  swales and salt grass flats was striking.

This was also the beginning of the dreaded Forty Mile Desert, perhaps the most terror-inspiring and horrific place on the California Trail. Travelers were no fan of the place,

“In place of a great rent in the earth, into which the waters of the rivers plunged with a terrible roar (as pictured in our imagination), there was found a mud lake ten miles long and four or five miles wide, a veritable sea of slime, a ‘slough of despond,’ an ocean of ooze, a bottomless bed of alkaline poison, which emitted a nauseous odor and presented the appearance of utter desolation. ” —Reuben Cole Shaw, 1849

“Even the very wagons seem to know that we are off today for the great adventure—in sand, volcanic ash, alkali, furnace heat, and the stench of putrid flesh—We crossed along the edge of an immense baked plain with the fetid stinking slough for a guide, although the wreckage along the way almost paved our route…. It must have been here that one emigrant said he counted a dead animal every 106 feet.”

It was also an important place for Native Americans, and as such they often came into contact with and conflict with the newcomers. I highly recommend reading Across Nevada, a pamphlet put out in 2012 by the National Park Service from which the top quote is taken. It’s definitely gone into the library. The bottom, unacknowledged, one is from The WPA Guide to Nevada (already in the library).

It is a sink, and walking along in its sand dunes we often started to disappear a bit, giving us an even deeper feeling of walking into a place older somehow than everything around it. A place where more has disappeared than has remained. And, as described by John McPhee in Basin and Range, where a new ocean will one day appear:

“Death Valley. Walker Lake. Carson Sink.” An Exxon map of the western United States is spread open on the seat between us. He runs his finger from Death Valley to Carson Sink and on northward to cross the interstate at Lovelock. “The ocean will open here,” he repeats. “Or in the Bonneville Basin. I think here.” (p. 138 of his collected Annals of the Former World)

I don’t know if this is the most current geology, but this was what most caught my imagination when I read this fascinating book and remains for me a striking image, a metaphor even for the ability of reality to be transformed by the passage of time. That the place that I had driven by hundreds of times, where I walked with Renee and Coco on a calm and cool early spring day, where emigrants had cursed and fought, where Native Americans had seen the beginning of the end of their life ways with the arrival of bands of newcomers with terrible weapons and new diseases, that this place will become an ocean. We come across a perfectly molted snake skin and stop to examine its contours. One day it will open and where we are will be swallowed by a vast expanse of cresting ocean. We walk on, it’s easy to lose yourself in the vast plain until you lift your eyes to the ringing mountains.

The Rises and Falls of the Truckee

The Truckee at flood stage West of Reno.


We had a very exciting night in Reno and Sparks last night and into today with the Truckee rising to flood level with heavy rain high in the mountains on top of snow. It’s a weather phenomenon that brings pretty regular floods to the Truckee Meadows and other similar mountain and basin landscapes in our region. We stayed pretty close to home yesterday, our location is rather near the flood plain as it extends south from the where the Truckee enters the canyon south across the UNR farms. 

Our feeder road, Rio Poco, became Rio Mucho last night. Here during a brief lull in the rain.


There was some flooding on our main feeder road, especially early in the day when I’m guessing a culvert must have been blocked. We walked out in the evening and it is extradordinarily stunning to see the power of water, especially when we’ve been in a drought for a few years now. 

The periodic rises and falls of the Truckee are something I’ve always known about, but I thought I’d do a little more digging on them and share any tidbits I found. The most interesting article I found was at a Tahoe-based site stormking.com, with an article “Floods in the Driest State.” In the winter of 1889-1890, a chinook melted snow and flooded the Carson River Valley with debris. Ranchers had to dynamite ice near Gardnerville to open the waterways. The winter of 1906-1907 was particularly active in both northern and southern Nevada. Las Vegas was for a time completely cut off and running low on food supplies. Meanwhile in northern Nevada there was chicanery, shotguns, and a flood surge that carried away bridges and entire houses. One rancher left his house, but wasn’t able to take along his dog. He returned in a canoe to find his home flooded but his pup safe and sound, atop the family piano! There are many more stories such as this at the above mentioned site which is well worth the read. 

Of course, famously, the flood of 1997 “created” the Sparks Marina, which had previously been a gravel pit (and superfund site). 

Well as the waters recede we look toward the next rise and fall of the Truckee. 

Going Home to the Library 

We recently visited the Nevada Room at Winnemucca Library. This place ignited my lifelong love of libraries.


On a recent Saturday we went up to Winnemucca and had the opportunity to visit the Winnemucca branch of the Humboldt County Library in order to look up some information from a history of Nevada for another post. 

The library was a special place for me as a child. On our trips to town from the ranch my mother would just leave me there and I would spend hours perusing the aisles of books. Magical to me. 

The library staff all knew me and I’d get stern talking to about my invariably late returned books and smiles and laughter and kindness. I don’t have a lot of childhood memories, but the library is the keeper of many of those there are. 

Thanks library and here’s to you serving to ignite the love of knowledge of countless more generations of young Nevadans!

Read Land, Write Walk: Northern Virginia Range, Nevada

This image from the Lagomarsino trailhead on Long Valley Creek well illustrates the role of perspective in evaluating landscapes, if facing the other direction, rather than this pretty scene, we would be looking at the entrance to the Washington Hill quarry.

Walking in the foothills east of Reno recently, I thought about what my first write-walk should be after the end of NaNoWriMo. Sometime last year I wrote a post about a day out that Renee and I shared in Reno on our bikes. It was, among other things, National Indie Bookstore Day, so our day started off with a stop at Sundance Bookstore. There I found a fascinating book called How to Read the American West: A Field Guide by William Wyckoff. Casting about for topics, and wanting to really focus on this blog, I remembered that post and thought what a better thing to write-walk than a landscape. And what a better place to read landscape than these tortured, volcanic, long and deeply used hills.

Hills are mountains that will be hills again.

I pulled up the list that Wyckoff had created giving tips for reading landscapes. While there are many more to focus on than these, the ones that I want to focus on today are, “Appreciate the role of time,” “Recognize the importance of scale,” and “Remember that what you see depends on the experiences you bring with you, the questions you pose, and the details you emphasize.”

Time

These hills east of Reno are the remains of volcanic activity that predates the rise of the Sierra Nevada, and the landscape would have then resembled the Cascades more than the current Virginia Range (more in my post on The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone ). The dominant plant and animal species came in waves: some “real” pine trees, the juniper and sagebrush, wild horses, later invasive species: cheat grass and mustard weed most notably. While I am walking across their slopes many jet planes, some obviously commercial, others more likely military, use the airspace above me to approach the Reno airport. There is day-long activity at the quarry that is Washington Hill. And there is much evidence of past heavy use: the remains of a stone house I see in the canyon bottom, a wide old road now an OHV path. At places I can almost see over to the Tesla Gigafactory. I crest over a hill and see in the canyon of the Truckee below me a place that was an important life source for native people. Then transformed into a major thoroughfare for the West: gold-seeking emigrant parties, the first transcontinental railroad, the first interstate all have used this narrow funnel into the Golden Land of California.

Volcanic deposits and pine trees in the Virginia Range, or the Mountains that Built Modernity.

Scale

The scale of the landscape is dominated by the massive undertaking that scraped off the top of Washington Hill and that continues to haul it away for our purposes. A massive scale that is mirrored in the vistas of the river, of the sierra to the west, Clark Mountain to the east. Nearby rock formations, splashes of multicolored rock, pines spaced parklike in otherwise grassless volcanic parks all seem to be muted against the vastness of all else, and yet these are just little trackless mountains, blinks of the eyes on the interstates. Places to go through to get somewhere else. The juxtaposition is powerful.

Washington Hill dominates the local landscape.

Seeing Your Own Experience

I set out in the morning along a jeep trail that climbs along the side of the Washington Hill Quarry. There are numerous shooting sites here and the landscape, while still brilliantly volcanically colored, is tortured and adorned with litter and the trappings of modern gun culture: hundreds of shells, metal and plastic twisted by bullet holes, the remains of several destroyed pumpkins from recent Halloween. In the canyon bottom I notice a large piece of cardboard on which someone has scrawled cartoons of a man grasping his penis and a naked woman alongside. The crude drawings are labeled “DICK HEAD” and “SKANK” and are peppered with bullet holes. Something I hope was just the release of steam and not the prelude to tragedy. Beyond there someone has planted 2 trees, surrounded by stones as though they are meant to mark something. The place makes me nervous and I hurry past. Deeper in the canyon there is still evidence of people. I follow tracks, but the litter is less and I start to appreciate the presence of the volcanic parks dotted with not-juniper pines. Climbing out of the canyon I am struck by the vastness of the city basin from Mount Rose up to Peavine. The modest silhouette of Clark Mountain belying in the distance its grandness, the utility of Washington Hill. Walking back along the ridge line it is the Truckee and colorful volcanic outcroppings.

The remains of the gun range.

I think part of the reason I am so attracted by this landscape, by exploring in this area, is just this. It is a place in complete transit, unconsidered by many and used hard by others. It doesn’t reveal itself easily. And yet when it comes into focus its story is incredibly rich and is a microcosm for how Nevada has always been seen by people. While there is a growing sense of pride in place in Nevada, it still remains for many a place to use and go through. Real understanding of the landscape goes much deeper than that.

Climbing into Reno’s Fiery Past

Clark Mountain from near Washington Hill.

There is a mountain in the Virginia Range I’ve been interested in for a while. I call it The Old Mother Who Sleeps and Wants to Be Left Alone, but it’s known by most people (who know or care) as Clark Mountain. It is the highest northern Virginia Range mountain and always intrigued me. I tried climbing it one day with Coco early this year, but we turned back as the day was getting late. This interest turned into something like full-blown obsession after Renee and I attended the National Earth Sciences outing held by the Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology earlier this fall. At the Lagomarsino/Long Valley stop, the instructors explained that the mountain is actually an old volcano, one that would have predated the rise of the Sierra and, when it was active, would have overseen a landscape similar to the Cascades.

Looking toward the first ridge from the Nature of Art in McCarran Ranch.

So on a recent Sunday, I decided to scale it again. The SummitPost directions for the peak give its hike starting point as the Lagomarsino trailhead, but I wanted to try the peak from the McCarran Ranch side. From McCarran Ranch’s eastern trailhead I walked west along the river, past the Nature of Art, which I always love to pass (although hated to see the damage wrought in a small wildfire there this summer), and then turned south and climbed up what is aptly called Giant’s Throne Canyon on my TopoMaps app and which climbs behind a spectacular rocky ridge that also, on the other side, serves as the backdrop for a brothel.

Giant’s Throne Canyon.

Following this canyon is beautiful but a bit rough, but eventually you climb up to a power line road and follow that across two more ridge saddles (which was great for NaNoWriMo write-walking) before hitting the highest saddle from which you leave the road and climb south-ish toward the actual peak. Which was frankly pretty treacherous stone fields.

On the power line road through the final canyon with the peak beyond.

Lunch spot in the last canyon before making the summit climb.

On the way down I took the first canyon I descended into, on TopoMaps called Chalk Bluffs Canyon, and for just summiting the mountain this would have been a much easier up-and-down route. It had a well-used horse trail that seemed likely to have been an old road although it wasn’t as scenic as the Giant’s Throne. Emerging from the canyon there is a lower power line road that takes you back to McCarran Ranch. For me this was a solid late fall day-long hike and rough. I would recommend to hike it with a friend in case you twist your ankle in the loose rock.

The final summit approach just a loose rock field.

I wanted to learn more about the mountain’s volcanism, but have been finding online sources pretty few and far between. In “Geology of the Virginia City Quadrange, Nevada,” I learned that the mountain is one of four vents of the Lousetown Formation. Here is the best description I found of the volcanism, although it doesn’t mention the mountain specifically it is talking about Lagomarsino/Long Valley when it says “here”:

Much of northwestern Nevada is covered by lava flows hundreds to thousands of feet thick that erupted throughout much of the Oligocene and Miocene epochs of geologic time (about 35 million to about 7 million years ago). These rocks comprise most of the Virginia Range south of here and the Pah Rah Range to the north. As you drive along the Truckee River canyon between Reno and Fernley, most of the rocks you see exposed in the canyon walls and slopes are this type of andesitic (medium silica content) volcanic material. The lavas and tuffs came from volcanic eruptions that occurred as a result of subduction of the Juan De Fuca tectonic plate to the west under the edge of the North American plate, causing the ancestral Cascade volcano chain to actively erupt over much of northwestern Nevada. (Nevada Bureau of Mines and Geology link here.)

Last light back in McCarran Ranch.

It was a great climb, and even better to climb so deep into this area’s past.