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.